On the passage of a very large number of people through a brief bottleneck in time
Even before COVID I had been re-contemplating one of the books that most formed me, during my early twenties, Camus’s The Plague; and I find myself agreeing once more with his protagonist, Dr. Rieux, facing the plague in Oran. I like that Rieux refuses to proffer the word “hope.” He stays lower to the ground, to the hard bone of reality. “It’s an absurd situation, but we’re all involved in it, and we’ve got to accept it as it is,” he tells Lambert, who is trying to escape the city. To Lambert’s objection that he’s merely talking in abstractions, he answers that he doesn’t know if that is true; later, acknowledging that “an element of abstraction, of a divorce from reality, entered into such calamities,” he concludes: “Still, when abstraction sets to killing you, you’ve got to get busy with it.” Another character who has joined Rieux and the fight, Tarrou, dies of the plague at the very end, absurdly, just as it is subsiding. He says, “I don’t want to die, and I shall put up a fight. But if I lose the match, I want to make a good end of it.” That, and Rieux’s idea “to be an honest witness,” is something. So, we proceed. We act.
I agree with Naomi Klein and other activists that people can build communities, perhaps Beloved Communities, learn to sort out their problems in those contexts. Perhaps given how and where we have all come to live, there is no solution other than a mass reorganization of space hardly anyone can presently imagine [think of: bioregionalism].
(this article by David Watson appeared in Green Horizon Issue 41, Fall 2020)
Recently I was invited to comment on “collapsology.” It was the first I had heard the term. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that mass society’s tendency to baroque proliferation, and capitalism’s tendency to turn everything into commerce, would leverage widespread anxieties about social collapse and even potential human extinction into fodder for an academic discipline, literary fashion, YouTube jeremiads, experiential retreats, and consulting businesses. “Seems / everybody’s having them dreams,” Dylan once put it. And since anyone who takes up the subject of the current peril could be called a collapsologue, I must be one, too.
Yes, a specter now haunts industrial capitalism, and with it our species and the entire life web in which we evolved. What is commonly called the “end of the world as we know it” is no longer a matter for the future tense: invisibly, and also very visibly, the specter is already turning its grim wheel. A sense of ecological dread, depression, even panic (now categorized by psychologists as “climate grief”) has become a topic hard to avoid for anyone stopping to consider human prospects and the prospects of so much that is precious to us. It’s a daunting subject. Activists, bless them, continue to advocate and organize against complacency and distraction. But already by 2018, that inveterate optimist of the will, Bill McKibben, was writing that if the present situation continues to unfold as it has, “we will have drawn a line in the sand and then watched a rising tide erase it.”
My own position in what has been aptly called the climate caste system is an undeniably privileged one. But climate or environmental grief, and “climate-disruption-related mental health issues,” concern not only privileged worriers in the Global North. A cascade of ecological catastrophes — floods, fires, heat, drought, and so on — is synergizing social breakdown, violence, forced migration, and other problems, and generating profound suffering everywhere, in the North and the South. Trauma is particularly acute among “frontline” communities in low-lying slums along the coasts, arid regions of the African and Asian interior, and in indigenous communities. But climate and environmental disasters also plague the developed world (witness Australia and California most recently). And anxieties about scarcity and conflict are now common, especially in the places where migrants seek refuge and have become fodder for fascist reaction.
BACK TO THE GARDEN
Decades ago, my friends and I in Detroit were vaguely, and perhaps too confidently, proposing a critique of the “principles” of collapse. For us this collapse referred not only to resource depletion, the purported end of oil, and an increasingly top-heavy, ineffectual bureaucracy, but the cultural constellation of scientific-technological hubris, bureaucratic capitalist social relations, the atomization and breakdown of communities, and the emergence of an entropic petrochemical-driven mass society. In September 1977, we published an issue of the Fifth Estate newspaper with a photo of the downtown skyline on the cover with the headline: “Soon To Be Picturesque Ruins!”
Detroit seemed a suitable site for such activities. Parts of the city were in ruins after an industrial Boom throughout the first half of the twentieth century, a protracted decline starting soon after the Second World War, and a Bust and breakdown after the radical turmoil of the 1960s. Several thousand buildings had been looted and damaged and hundreds burned, accelerating the closing of factories and businesses due to suburbanization, globalization, and the economic aftershocks of the Vietnam War. Continued decline, population flight, and the drug wars of the 1970s and 1980s made Detroit a kind of laboratory of post-industrial entropy. From there it evolved — or devolved, you pick — into an icon of what some have called the post-industrial sublime, and that others (especially around here) dismiss as ruin porn. Detroit became famous — or infamous, you decide — for its haunting images of waste and decay; of abandoned and burned-out stores, houses, and factories. In what had become broad swathes of open prairie, one could see wildflowers and once-planted tulips and other perennials coming up every spring around the foundations and in the gardens of houses long demolished; and the ailanthus trees we called ghetto palms, and mulberry and honeysuckle, growing along the rusted perimeters or out of the roofs of desolate factories, like the vegetation on semi-buried Mayan temples.
Lately there’s been a lot of planting and gardening in the neighborhoods, and some feckless talk about those gardens and small urban farms “bringing the city back.” But people are in fact eking a modest, dignified living, creating small and commendable communities among the ruins. And that is something. The ruins are starting to recede. The meadows are starting to fill in, sometimes with new development, more concrete and steel — and in some places with small peasant holdings. Tourists and new residents are flocking in — some looking for a “renaissance” that, among young artists, “bioneers,” and radicals means social activism, a vibrant art community, and urban agriculture; but that for others has meant the tech start-up, restaurant row, shopping mall, casino, or stadium: the same urban conspicuous consumption zone and amusement park, reserved for those who have the money, that is overtaking cities everywhere. For now.
WELCOME TO THE ANTHROPOCENE
Stratigraphers have started to call our recent geological moment the Anthropocene. We now get almost weekly updates that the scientists’ previous warnings were too optimistic, and increasingly fevered talk about looming thresholds, precipices, tipping points, feedbacks, and domino effects. According to an almost total consensus of scientists, Earth life systems (and consequently human systems) are slipping into a “death spiral,” spinning out of control at a far greater scale and faster pace, and with more likelihood of irreversibility than previously calculated.
In our Great Lakes bioregion, at nearby Flint, the cupidity of Big Business and the blithe indifference of politicians, from local to national, led to a mass lead contamination of local residents, including thousands of children. Other chemical contaminants continue to plague the region and the country. In many places, decaying urban infrastructure, metal and chemical contamination, and the production system itself (the ubiquitous presence of fire retardants, plastics, medical products, fertilizers and biocides used in farming, etc.) have caused a constellation of health crises — industrial plagues. And in a region that makes up one fifth of the planet’s surface fresh water, we are now seeing massive, deadly algal blooms in the lakes, groundwater contamination, and struggles over the privatization of clean water.
Around the time I started thinking about this essay, that marvelous little Viking, the stern, brave young Greta Thunberg, arrived by sailboat in New York to participate in the youth-led climate strike and to address the United Nations. She and her impressive cohort haunt my thoughts. They speak with dignity, good sense, and deep feeling for their own future and for every generation present and future, human, animal, vegetal, delivering to us that old message of our terrible destructiveness, a warning that dates back at least to the conquest of this continent and the enclosures and empires of the Old World.
In Detroit last fall I went downtown to participate in this children’s crusade to protest and survive. Upwards of a thousand of us marched from a park down to the river. We were a handful; there should have been a hundred thousand, a million. Gathering again in chilly December, as the city went about its anthropocentric business around us, we were at best a hundred. We marched to the local power company downtown, where the young organizers spoke, demanding an end to home heating shut-offs, a Green New Deal, and other reforms. As the western sky streaked pink with one of our memorable, industrially-enhanced winter sunsets, they announced their die-in on the damp grass in front of DTE Energy, and as we lay there, playing sedimentary fossils, I guess, I was gratified if not exactly happy to be there with them. A young woman’s poetic visualization of a new social-ecological dispensation and renewed Earth by 2030 was touching and also disheartening. I spent most of my life teaching, mentoring, and learning from adolescents, and their indignation and hope sounded to me like life itself, in a wail of woe for now and for the future, probably too late, telling us that we have eaten our seed corn and are now eating our children, and that we shall see the apocalypse unfold.
BLOCKADIA AND BEYOND
“This changes everything,” Naomi Klein has famously insisted. She points to the capitalist system itself as the greatest impediment to survival — a perspective more and more openly considered even in mainstream media. Her reporting on the network of communities fighting the extractivist behemoth, and starting to call themselves “Blockadia,” is vivid and hopeful. Their witness, resistance, and ground-level, utopian problem-solving are inspiring. Alas, her own documentation of capitalist resistance to change, the dramatic acceleration of destruction, and the acceleration of natural feedbacks, draws a dark lining across her siren call. Though the crisis presents an opportunity to change ecological habits, establish justice and a sustainable society, we are “locked in,” she worries, not only to extractivist infrastructures, but to deeper cultural mindsets of possessive individualism and a quasi-religious belief that technology will save us. And she is calling for more profound, and more rapid, structural and even cultural transformations than anyone other than a radical fringe seems ready to contemplate.
In the midst of my reading, marching, and pretend-dying, I learned that during our Thanksgiving holiday last November thirty-one million Americans flew somewhere to celebrate. Many of those millions must have seen the writing on the wall, and surely worry about the future, and yet they were not ready to abandon old habits. It occurred to me that, whatever they profess to hold most precious, most of all a humane, livable future for their children, they (we) continue to live and participate in structures — physical, environmental, psychological — that Anthropocene capital has built. They are locked in, indeed strapped in to their seats. And, as with addiction, they are not likely to renounce this shadow life, continuing to eat the seed corn, until they face great, earth-shaking shocks.
A section of the population in many countries is now willing to nurture the social solidarity we require to deal humanely with climate-generated and other interrelated problems. More and more comprehend that we can’t solve the ecological crisis without resolving our social contradictions. But bringing people together, creating social coherence, remains a complex and formidable challenge.
THE PLAGUE, THE LEAP
So, should we retire, like Boccaccio’s handsome lads and lasses to a sylvan refuge, entertain ourselves contemplating the Human Comedy while the world burns? How could I turn away, when I have Greta and her comrades as my models, striking out on their own and crossing seas with courage, pragmatism, inclusivity, simple wisdom, and calm defiance? I admire the resilience, bravery, strategic intelligence, and creative solidarity of Blockadia and all communities that come together to face our gravest problems, especially (though not exclusively) the inspirited indigenous and village peoples, frequently led by women, who have some generational memory and appreciation of what it is we have all lost and are continuing to lose. They are learning, and proving, that one of the best ways to deal with climate trauma is to become engaged, active, and to embrace their connection to the Earth. They are trying to save what can be saved from this burning, drifting, sinking ship; and perhaps because of them some of us, some record of our cultural triumphs, and some remnant of the green world that birthed and nurtured us, too, will survive passage through this bottleneck we are entering. I also respect the pragmatism of those, like Klein and McKibben, who argue that all-or-nothing demands for immediate total change would be “reckless” (her word), given how dire prospects are — it’s one reason I marched with the young people.
I am drawn to Klein’s idea of a movement to establish social justice and renewal in this “climate moment.” When she and others created The Leap in 2015 in Canada (TheLeap.org) she declared: “Small steps won’t get us there. We have to move on multiple fronts at once. My crisis isn’t bigger than your crisis. They’re interconnected, they’re overlapping, and we can come up with solutions that solve multiple problems at once.” This suggests a social movement built like a wheel, a dharma wheel if you like, with a yin-yang sphere — the yang of ecological emergency joined to our yin of calm, our loyalty to life — as the hub; and our diverse communities as the spokes, which we intuitively and collectively must trust to become the radial supports of an authentic good life.
I also agree with Klein and other activists that people can build communities, perhaps Beloved Communities, learn to sort out their problems in those contexts, and have little option but to try. I sympathize with the people protesting all over the globe these days, from Hong Kong to Iraq to Chile. Perhaps given how and where we have all come to live, there is no solution other than a mass reorganization of space no one can presently imagine.
Our uncertainty — not only about what exactly is happening around us and what to do practically, but also how to act ethically, to live meaningfully — does not give us permission to give up. Even before COVID I had been re-contemplating one of the books that most formed me, during my early twenties, Camus’s The Plague; and I find myself agreeing once more with his protagonist, Dr. Rieux, facing the plague in Oran. I like that Rieux refuses to proffer the word “hope.” He stays lower to the ground, to the hard bone of reality. “It’s an absurd situation, but we’re all involved in it, and we’ve got to accept it as it is,” he tells Lambert, who is trying to escape the city. To Lambert’s objection that he’s merely talking in abstractions, he answers that he doesn’t know if that is true; later, acknowledging that “an element of abstraction, of a divorce from reality, entered into such calamities,” he concludes: “Still, when abstraction sets to killing you, you’ve got to get busy with it.” (In Klein’s work, this is called, simply, “starting anyway.”)
If “how soon and how badly” collapse arrives are still operational questions, we’re left where we always were, at a civilizational level as much as at the personal. Another character in The Plague who has joined Rieux and the fight, Tarrou, dies of the plague at the very end, absurdly, just as it is subsiding. He says, “I don’t want to die, and I shall put up a fight. But if I lose the match, I want to make a good end of it.” That, and Rieux’s idea “to be an honest witness,” is something. So, we proceed. We act. Perhaps: we leap!
Hic Rhodus! This is Rhodes, the place to dance. That is what my friend Fredy Perlman wrote in a book that had a notable effect on anarchist practitioners of the collapse koan, his eccentric saga of primordial rupture, leviathanic civilization, empire, inevitable catastrophe, and the uncertainty of next steps. This is the place for engagement, for defiance! The place to practice solidarity with all life forms and life webs. This is the place for dismantling the megamachine, for regeneration.
Reader, this is perhaps the time to find your way to Blockadia, before Collapse finds its way to you. Like Rieux’s Oran, the whole world is now running a temperature. Well, hic salta! This is the place to leap! That is what my personal collapsology would recommend as things fall apart, while reminding my brothers and sisters, and the children (who are all our children), that we have not yet hit bottom. But if there has ever been a moment when we might begin to heal the planet, our broken societies, and families, and broken selves, this moment, approaching rock bottom on this wobbly stair, is the time and place to begin.