See No Evil: The Morality of Collapse

By Dave Pollard

As we wade into discussions about the consequences of collapse, and the most effective ways to become resilient in face of it, most of us avoid discussions about morals (personal standards of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’) and ethics (collective standards of ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ behaviours). As an example, it doesn’t matter whether climate change is human-caused, we assert, we need to focus on how to deal with it, not who to blame for it.

Alas, it is not so easy to avoid the issue, because our worldviews are inevitably rooted in our beliefs, including our moral and ethical ones. So when it comes to preparing for collapse, the different groups, who accept that the near-term collapse of industrial civilization is inevitable (or at least requiring immediate and drastic action to avert), possess worldviews that are rooted in different, and I would argue, almost irreconcilable moral and ethical standards. This makes collaboration, or even agreement on what to do, fraught with difficulty, if not impossible.

Collapsnik tribes

In the chart below, I’ve identified several groups which have come to accept that our civilization either may not or will not be ‘saved’ from collapse. The five groups (groups H through L) – I call them ‘collapsniks’ – no longer harbour serious doubts that industrial collapse is either imminent or already underway, and that this collapse is unstoppable. They do differ though, in how they believe we should be preparing for the fall.

new-political-map-2014 - graphic for Dave Pollard article - the end of politics

They are distinct from the many ‘old-style’ political groups, and from some new age groups, that I call (without meaning to be disparaging) ‘salvationists’ (groups A through E). They believe, for a variety of different reasons, that civilization can and will be ‘saved’ from collapse.

Both ‘salvationists’ and ‘collapsniks’ fall along a spectrum that indicates how strongly they believe in humanity’s capacity to change (higher in the chart, stronger the belief in that capacity). See the value judgements creeping in here already?

In addition, there are three groups that straddle the salvationist/collapsnik divide – they aren’t sure (groups F & G) or don’t care (group M) whether collapse is inevitable or not.

Few of us ‘fit’ neatly into any of these groups – we migrate among them as our learning and context evolves and shifts, much as many old-school politicos have come to embrace social liberalism and economic conservatism, and then may flip to the opposite as they get older, more fearful and more dependent.

I argue that we ‘collapsniks’, and the Humanists and Transition/Resilience movement fence-sitters – everyone, in other words, who shares some of the worldviews of groups F, G, H, I, J, K, and L – needs to work together if we are to have any hope of being at least somewhat prepared for the collapse to come. Over the past year I have been, at various points, in fundamental agreement with each of these seven groups, and I am constantly inspired by articulate speakers (notably at the moment Charles Eisenstein, Rob Hopkins, Derrick Jensen, Ran Prieur, Paul Kingsnorth, John Gray and Guy McPherson respectively) who espouse these seven diverse worldviews.

Worldviews & interpretations

The different moralities and ethical beliefs underlying these seven worldviews surface pretty quickly, and have driven wedges between us, making us, to some extent, our own worst enemies. Consider these questions:

  • Is it acceptable to use violence when pacifism seems inadequate to confront the most devastating aspects of industrial civilization?
  • Are large public protests a means of raising awareness and political pressure, or are they a useless distraction from preparing for economic and political collapse?
  • Are social justice and equality essential preconditions for collectively addressing issues such as climate change, or would that be just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic?
  • Would it be a great service or a great disservice to deliberately provoke a collapse of markets and the economy in order to reduce consumption and energy use?
  • Is giving up on environmentalism and large-scale attempts in response to climate change, and instead focusing on local initiatives and personal and community preparedness, a realistic and pragmatic strategy, or dangerous, irresponsible defeatism?

On all these questions, and more, there is strong disagreement among collapsniks. This stems in part from different interpretations of what we know about what is happening in the world and what is technically possible, but it stems, I think, principally from different worldviews informed by different moral and ethical beliefs on what is humanly possible.

Humanists, for example, tend to have a worldview that suggests humans are essentially good. Hence by sheer force of numbers (say, 99%?) we can accomplish anything we put our collective minds to – even at this late date. Reform the systems by popular demand, and save the world. Others argue that the 1% don’t have nearly the power that is commonly presumed, and that their conversion or demise will not prevent the juggernaut of industrial civilization from accelerating off the collapse cliff. Still others argue that the so-called 1% are doing their best, like the rest of us, and that the enemy is all of us (leading to a wide variety of prescriptions on what that realization might lead us to do, if anything). And others argue that the 1% are psychopaths, and that the only option is to smash the systems that they lead (hoping, perhaps improbably, that whatever fills the resultant vacuum will be significantly better).

Layers of moral complexity

There is no ‘right’ perspective on these issues, no answers that are certain or even highly probable. There are too many variables, too little appreciation of the sheer unknowingness of massively complex systems, such as produced by industrial civilization, and the reinforcing feedback loops that have evolved to perpetuate them. Hence the impossibility of knowing how, or even if, we can intervene in these systems effectively.

If that weren’t enough, the two ‘newest’ groups on the collapsnik spectrum, the Voluntary Human Extinctionists (group K on the chart) and the Near Term Extinctionists (group L) add a whole new layer of moral complexity for collapsniks to deal with. The Voluntary Human Extinctionists would have us believe (see if you can detect any moral judgement here) that the human species is inherently violent, aggressive and destructive, and the world will be much better off if and when we vanish from the planet. The Near Term Extinctionists would have us believe that climate change is accelerating at such a pace that the human species, along with most complex life forms on the planet, will be extinct by as soon as mid-century.

If the world would be better off without us, does that mean we should do nothing, or should we try to accelerate our demise (perhaps by working on some new viruses)?  And if the human species is doomed within our lifetimes, why should we not party like it’s 1999 (or perhaps 2049)?

Every time my worldview shifts along the spectrum of groups F-to-L, I find myself asking these questions, and apologizing to the true believers with their  irreconcilable worldviews and action (or inaction) plans – and apologizing to myself for my earlier, and recurring, foolishness. I’m living in a philosophical, epistomological, ontological and moral minefield, navigating it as my viewpoint constantly shifts.

Guy McPherson’s ‘Near Term Extinctionist’ advice is to act to make a better world even though people are not going to be part of it, for the sake of those species that might survive. He has also said that we should act as if the Earth is in hospice, and treat it with commensurate respect, and honour its decline by living full, joyful, responsible and meaningful lives. How many people do you know who could handle doing that?

Doomed by determinism?

John Gray’s book Straw Dogs is my favourite treatise on the current state of the world and the actions available to us as we face collapse.  He says unequivocally that we have not changed and cannot change what we are, what we do, how we behave or what we value, and that we are doomed by the coding in our DNA to continue along our inexorable path of self-destruction, and to inflict large-scale but ultimately transitory damage on our planet in the process. He writes:

A human population of approaching 8 billion can be maintained only by desolating the Earth… [Quoting Reg Morrison, The Spirit in the Gene] If the human plague is really as normal as it looks, then the collapse curve should mirror the growth curve. This means the bulk of the collapse will not take much longer than 100 years, and by 2150 the biosphere should be safely back to its pre-plague population of Homo Sapiens — somewhere between a half and one billion…

Climate change may be a mechanism through which the planet eases its human burden…[or] new patterns of disease could trim the human population…War could have a major impact…weapons of mass destruction — notably biological and (soon) genetic weapons, more fearsome than before…It is not the number of states that makes this technology ungovernable. It is technology itself. The ability to design new viruses for use in genocidal weapons does not require enormous resources of money, plant or equipment… By ceding so much control over new technology to the marketplace, [governments] have colluded in their own powerlessness…

The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction… What could be more hopeless than placing the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter…

Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.

I found John’s book liberating and exhilarating, though most of my collapsnik friends found it negative, unconvincing and depressing.

But recently, reading his more recent works, I’ve begun to wonder whether John’s brilliant intellect was being steered by an unstated worldview, a profound misanthropy that might be rooted in part in some trauma he has suffered through, some indignity in his past that has coloured his thinking. Is he really a Voluntary Human Extinctionist, or is he rather a wounded and disillusioned Humanist or Existentialist?

This month, in the Guardian, John builds further on this pessimistic view of the human species. He writes:

It’s not that [western leaders] are obsessed with evil. Rather, they don’t really believe in evil as an enduring reality in human life. If their feverish rhetoric means anything, it is that evil can be vanquished. In believing this, those who govern us at the present time reject a central insight of western religion, which is found also in Greek tragic drama and the work of the Roman historians: destructive human conflict is rooted in flaws within human beings themselves. In this old-fashioned understanding, evil is a propensity to destructive and self-destructive behaviour that is humanly universal. The restraints of morality exist to curb this innate human frailty; but morality is a fragile artifice that regularly breaks down. Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.

No view of things could be more alien at the present time. Whatever their position on the political spectrum, almost all of those who govern us hold to some version of the melioristic liberalism that is the west’s default creed, which teaches that human civilisation is advancing – however falteringly – to a point at which the worst forms of human destructiveness can be left behind. According to this view, evil, if any such thing exists, is not an inbuilt human flaw, but a product of defective social institutions, which can over time be permanently improved.

Paradoxically, this belief in the evanescence of evil is what underlies the hysterical invocation of evil that has lately become so prominent. There are many bad and lamentable forces in the world today, but it is those that undermine the belief in human improvement that are demonised as “evil”.

To err is human, but what about evil?

As radical as my beliefs may be, I can’t quite accept that “evil” is a propensity that is humanly universal. I think what is missing from Gray’s argument is that, yes, we are an inherently destructive and aggressive species, but only when we are suffering from chronic and severe stress. I believe that, like the bonobos, when we are free from stress the traits of destructiveness and aggressiveness are recessive, unneeded and therefore unexercised.

John would probably laugh this criticism off, and provide forceful arguments for this being naive and faith-based thinking. But I would also argue that civilization (likely itself evolved in response to some great natural stresses like climate change) has been an incessantly stressful experiment, and because we have no credible data, we can’t know what we are like in the absence of great stress.

Robert Sapolsky has studied baboons in the wild for twenty years and admits he doesn’t like them much – they’re violent, arbitrarily cruel and self-traumatizing creatures. But he tells the story about one baboon troop whose alpha males all died from eating tuberculosis-tainted meat from a garbage dump. The survivors quickly evolved into a peaceful, gentle, egalitarian matriarchy, and remained so for generations later.

Gabor Mate has similarly argued that almost all human violent behaviour and stress is rooted in childhood trauma, suggesting that a human ‘reboot’ (perhaps after a collapse), allowing children to grow up trauma-free, might produce a human society so gentle, healthy and egalitarian we might hardly recognize it.

So, unlike John, I continue to use the word ‘evil’ very cautiously, either to describe the inherent nature of individuals or the propensity of groups and our entire species. When we are ill, I think, we are not our true selves. And our species has been ill, and getting more so, for 30,000 years (if we consider the human invention of the arrowhead and spear as the start of both the Sixth Great Extinction and our consequent illness). We don’t know or remember who we were when we were well. And though it may be wishful thinking or faith, rather than profound instinct, I believe that we were once well and that, after the dust of collapse has settled, humans again will be good to each other and to the world.

I’d like to believe that’s a pragmatic and rational perspective, a healthy one. But I may be deluding myself. Those who believe the Earth will be better off without humans may well be right. Those who believe the Earth will be without humans within a short few decades, centuries or millennia (an instant in the planet’s long history) may well also be right.

But I don’t believe they are. I can’t believe they are. My worldview can’t accommodate such beliefs. And therein lies our quandary, fellow collapsniks. We need to open our minds and hearts to a much broader range of possibilities, including those that we may in our quiet moments think are ‘impossible’, if we are going to be able to prepare, together, for anything.


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