The Descenders are another group often found in permaculture and peak oil groups. They cite examples of past civilizations that collapsed due to resource depletion, especially soil, but their point is that collapse is not cataclysmic. Mayan civilization, for example, didn’t end overnight; in fact Mayan cities “took a century and a half to go under.”36This is the main point of John Michael Greer’s book The Long Descent. He writes, “Gradual disintegration, not sudden catastrophic collapse, is the way civilizations end.”37 Based on the decline of past civilizations, he predicts that the end of industrial society will be a series of miniature crises and respites as energy decline proceeds in a downward stairstep. The crises will not be fun, but they will also not be apocalyptic freefall.
The problem with this basic thesis is twofold. Industrial society is industrial; it’s based on vast quantities of fossil fuels. This condition does not match anything that has come before. The ancient Greeks, Mayans, and Chinese did not depend on fossil fuels for basic sustenance. Previous civilizations were at least human in scale, even if they were based on drawdown. Human-scale civilizations could end in human-scale collapse. But now, entire continents, and indeed six billion people, are dependent on fossil fuels for basic foodstuffs. What they don’t import—at distances only made possible by fossil fuels—they grow using fossil fuel as fertilizer. This is what the Green Revolution has wrought: a quadrupling of a human population that was already overshot. When oil production starts its inevitable slide down the dark side of Hubert’s curve, six billion people will have nothing to eat.
In previous collapses, there were intact biotic communities into which the civilized could fade. There were living forests, grasslands, rivers, and coastal areas inside of which people were able to subsist as they always had. That is over, over on a scale that no one seems willing to acknowledge, the emptiness as profound as the numbers are complete: fish, 90 percent gone; forests, 98 percent gone; prairies, 99 percent gone. No past civilization could even dream of this level of conquest, limited as they were by the distances that supply lines made of pack animals could travel. That protective boundary was broken by the steamship and the internal combustion engine. There is no verdant cushion of forest, no estuary dense with nourishing fish and fowl. We are living on oil which at a point not too distant will take more energy to extract than the energy it contains. This is a cliff, not a soft stair of descent.
The other chasm between the Descenders and reality is the collapse of ecosystems and basic life-support functions across the planet. Greer’s book talks about “collapse,” but his collapse only refers to human societies. Meanwhile, life is fraying at the seams from the surge of carbon, the clear-cut of species. Greer urges us away from the concept of apocalypse, claiming this is just a favored narrative of Abrahmic religions. But the murder of my planet is not a story: it’s an ongoing outrage that demands committed action, and now. As the temperatures and sea levels rise, as coastlines and countries begin to drown, as the soil bakes past what bacteria and fungi can endure, at what point am I allowed to say “apocalypse”? There may well come a day in my lifetime when the last polar bear, still in her ancestral white against a world melted to brown, dies. I would call that possibility an apocalypse. Its reality I will call hell. What words Greer and the Descenders might prefer, I can’t guess.
I am not attempting to create panic or survivalism. Neither will help. I am attempting to create a resistance movement with a strategy that can address the scale of the problem. The Descenders, like the Tilters, are attempting to create a way out of the horrible facts before us, but their way out is not to face and then attempt to alter those facts. The Descender’s way out is essentially emotional, a lulling story that it will all be okay: it’s happened before, and the world didn’t come to an end.
Except this time, the world is coming to an end. That last polar bear may be here already, a cub enfolded in the evolutionary warmth of her mother’s fur. Or perhaps she’s still an ovum inside a yearning intelligence of dividing cells, protected by an ancient, mammalian sea. When she emerges, the world that she finds will not be the one that her mother or her mother before her found. There will not be enough ice for her to stand on. There will not be enough seals to make fat, or fur, or babies. There will be hunger and cold, until she dies of one or the other, in a sea stripped to desert by a culture that no one was willing to stop.
This is the reality of mass extinction. It is happening not just species by species, but one creature at a time: bear by bear, bird by bird, the exhaustion of too many miles and no ice, no river, no shelter in sight. The desperate nestlings, all open mouths and the future entire. They are hungry, thirsty, cold, and they are dying. This is the slow hemorrhage of life from our planet: those creatures are dying one at a time. Reducing physical reality to a narrative is, of course, one of the core components of liberalism. To suggest switching narratives as a political plan is a dead end of insane proportions. The murder of my planet is not a bad movie I can turn off. It’s not a book I can take back to the library. It’s not a story. Those creatures—each one a miracle of cells coordinating feathers and flight, patience and roots, joy and pain—those creatures are dying. They are real. And they need real defenders in the real world.
The Narrators have gained a fair amount of purchase amongst the environmentally concerned. They claim that human domination is simply a story rooted in Genesis, and humans are not powerful enough to destroy the earth. But for domination to be a mere story means that its victims are only characters. I disagree, as do black terns and Arctic foxes. This reduction of reality to a narrative breeds an odd passivity in its adherents. Nature will take charge: we are wayward children not responsible for our actions, and, indeed, we will be stopped before real damage is done. And the concept of “saving the earth” is, they claim, simply the Western individualist hero in all his masculine glory. The Narrators ignore, of course, the narrative of masculine entitlement, where women, animals, and the earth are consumables barely noticed even as “resources,” on which the male ego is built. Maybe we could abandon that narrative instead?
Or maybe we could just abandon the narrative that the world is made of narratives. It’s not. It’s made of living creatures entwined in a vast complexity of giving and taking, a consanguinity of sunlight and carbon, a Great Communion. There is a prayer of participation in every animal breath, in every fragile, reaching radicle, every dividing cell. But our thanksgiving is collapsing to a plainsong, 200 species at a time.
The Tilters usually believe in political engagement. From Al Gore to Lester Brown to Bill McKibben, they encourage civic participation to force institutional change. There is often a fierceness to their urging that matches the seriousness of the situation. Even better is the underlying recognition that institutional change is primary, that personal change will never begin to address the situation. The problem with the Tilters is that they’re attempting to save industrial civilization. Reduced consumption levels are part of their plan, but capitalism and its perpetual growth is an unquestioned—indeed, unquestionable—part of the future. And as already shown, there is no combination of solar, wind, or biofuel energy that will equal the dense, easy energy of fossil fuels, and no Patronus of technological breakthroughs to save the day. This way of life is over and they are not facing that.
The Descenders, on the other hand, have an assessment of energy—and the low-energy society of the future—that is reality-based. Writes Greer, “As fossil fuel stops being cheap and abundant, standards of living throughout the industrial world will shrink toward the level of the nonindustrial world.”38 Absent from most of the Descenders is any awareness of the biotic emergencies the planet is facing or any clarion call to action. (Am I allowed to say they are caught in the “Resistance Is Futile” narrative?) Indeed, political action is actively discouraged and dismissed. Ted Trainer, for instance, insists that “there is no other possible way” to a sustainable future besides personal lifestyle choices.39 The claim is that our political institutions will never respond, and all we can do is prepare ourselves as individuals and maybe as local communities as the system collapses.
If our political institutions aren’t working, then we need new ones. But the actions the Descenders suggest are the usual personal-scale adjustments: get used to less energy, plant a garden, learn a nonindustrial trade. The only larger-scale solution Greer encourages is on the community level: “Since governments have by and large dropped the ball completely, it’s up to individuals, families, groups, and local communities to get ready for the future ahead of us.”40
This is the other main drawback of the Descenders. As critical as they are of survivalism—the ultimate individualism—they are equally as dismissive of political activism. On the occasions that political resistance comes up, it is firmly erased as an option. I don’t know if there has ever before been a movement that understands the problem is political yet unilaterally rejects political solutions, and I don’t understand why this rejection has taken hold of so many smart, engaged minds.
Daniel Quinn urges “walking away.”41 To where? And more importantly, why? Richard Heinberg writes that “efforts to try to bring industrialization to ruin prematurely seem to be pointless and wrongheaded: ruin will come soon enough on its own. Better to invest time and effort in personal and community preparedness.”42 Contrast these words with the courage of Henning von Tresckow, who said that even though the Nazi state was doomed, the efforts to bring down this evil regime must continue because it was daily murdering more innocent victims. The current victimization of both human and nonhuman creatures is an order of magnitude larger, which should imply that our moral responsibility is that much greater.
Pat Murphy, in Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change, a book that stands out for its political intelligence and keen moral outrage, writes, “In terms of corporate globalization, a good local action might be to avoid purchasing goods from international corporations as much as possible.”43 In a book that is willing to name technology worship as a religion, the automobile as a destructive parasite, and goes so far as to recommend withdrawal from the mass media, the best political action he offers is a generalized personal boycott that will have zero effect on power. He urges readers to “begin the personal process of changing our lifestyle. This is truly thinking globally: choosing a healthy planet and a sustainable lifestyle over the short-term pleasure of excessive consumption.”44 Indeed, he has a whole chapter called “Post Peak—Change Starts with Us.”45 He further urges us to “make the personal changes needed to live in a post peak world, providing authentic leadership for those who will follow.”46
Don Fitz calls this “exhortationism,” which he defines as “the belief that environmental Jesuits must convert individuals to piously consume less, a belief which ignores the economic, political and social realities which force us to consume more.”47 To flog a very dead liberal horse: personal change will never equal political change. We do need authentic leadership, but toward political actions that dismantle unjust, destructive institutional power. It would take massive numbers of people withdrawing from corporate-produced goods for this to have any effect, and if you’re going to organize people to do that, why not direct them toward an action capable of knocking a brick out of corporate power and industrial civilization? As Fitz points out, exhortationism is “a call to build a new society without building social movements.”48 And without those movements, nothing will change.
Murphy writes, “Changing personal habits should come first, at least go hand-in-hand with lobbying for government and institutional change. For it will only be with the experience that comes from personal change that people will develop the wisdom to make the proper societal changes.”49 With all due respect, this is not how a single liberation movement in history has worked, nor how a single human right has been won. Education and consciousness-raising are necessary to build the ranks of activists who will do the work, but the work they do is on an institutional level. Because of institutional change, hearts and minds change on a society-wide level. That is the progression.
It is our job as activists to supply the necessary force. That is always the job of activists: to make demands and back them up. Once again, that force can be totally nonviolent, but the strategic and tactical questions are secondary to the knowledge that power has to be confronted, and that it will not give up willingly.
The Tilters and the Descenders are both offering liberal solutions. Since the Tilters are not willing to name the hierarchical power structures of capitalism, industrialism, or, ultimately, civilization, their proposals cannot address the real problem. The Descenders are clearer on the problem, but their insistence on the efficacy of a switch in narratives is idealist. Again, idealism is the belief that reality is constituted by ideas, not material conditions. And the Descenders’ foreclosing of political solutions in favor of personal lifestyle choices is unalloyed individualism, the other core tenet of liberalism. Liberalism will always fail to produce radical change, and if there was ever a moment when that change was needed, it is now.