We Have to Embrace Apocalypse If We’re Going to Get Serious About Sticking Around on This Planet
To think apocalyptically is not to give up on ourselves, but only to give up on the arrogant stories we modern humans have been telling about ourselves.
This is an excerpt from We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out , in print at Amazon.com and
on Kindle (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013):
Here’s my experience in speaking apocalyptically about the serious challenges humans face: No matter how carefully I craft a statement of concern about the future of humans, no matter how often I deny a claim to special gifts of prognostication, no matter now clearly I reject supernatural explanations or solutions, I can be certain that a significant component of any audience will refuse to take me seriously. Some of those people will make a joke about “Mr. Doom and Gloom.” Others will suggest that such talk is no different than conspiracy theorists’ ramblings about how international bankers, secret cells of communists, or crypto-fascists are using the United Nations to create a one- world government. Even the most measured and careful talk of the coming dramatic change in the place of humans on Earth leads to accusations that one is unnecessarily alarmist, probably paranoid, certainly irrelevant to serious discussion about social and ecological issues. In the United States, talk of the future is expected to be upbeat, predicting expansion and progress, or at least maintenance of our “way of life.”
Apocalyptic thinking allows us to let go of those fanciful visions of the future. As singer/ songwriter John Gorka puts it: “The old future’s gone/We can’t get to there from here.” The comfortable futures that we are comfortable imagining are no longer available to us because of the reckless way we’ve been rolling the dice; there is nothing to save us from ourselves. Our task is to deal with our future without delusions of deliverance, either divine or technological. This planet is not a way station in a journey to some better place [emphasis is mine, this is our history: Settle in use up the environment, move on]; it is our home, the only home we will know. We will make our peace with ourselves, each other, and the larger living world here.
The first step in thinking sensibly about the future, of course, is reviewing the past. The uncertainty of our future will be easier to accept and the strength to persevere will be easier to summon if we recognize:
–We are animals. For all our considerable rational capacities, we are driven by non- rational forces that cannot be fully understood or completely controlled. Even the most careful scientist is largely an emotional creature, just like everyone else.
–We are band/tribal animals. Whatever kind of political unit we live in today, our evolutionary history is in small groups; that’s how we are designed to live.
–We are band/tribal animals living in a global world. The consequences of the past 10,000 years of human history have left us dealing with human problems on a global scale, and with 7 billion people on the planet, there’s no point in fantasizing about a retreat to Eden.
With that history in mind, we should go easy on ourselves. As Wes Jackson said, we are a species out of context, facing the unique task of being the first animals who will have to self-consciously impose limits on ourselves if we are to survive, reckoning not just with what we do in our specific place on the planet but with what other people are doing around the world. This is no small task, and we are bound to fail often. We may never stop failing, and that is possibly the most daunting challenge we must face: Can we persevere in the quest for justice and sustainability even if we had good reasons to believe that both projects ultimately will fail? Can we live with that possibility? Can we ponder that and yet still commit ourselves to loving action toward others and the non- human world?
Said differently: What if our species is an evolutionary dead end? What if those adaptations that produced our incredible evolutionary success — our ability to understand certain aspects of how the world works and manipulate that world to our short-term advantage — are the very qualities that guarantee our human systems will degrade the life-sustaining systems of the world? What if that which has allowed us to dominate will be that which destroys us? What if humanity’s story is a dramatic tragedy in the classical sense, a tale in which the seeds of the hero’s destruction are to be found within, and history is the unfolding of the inevitable fall?
We love stories of individual heroes, and collectively we tend to think of ourselves as the heroic species. The question we might ask, uncomfortably, about those tales of heroism: Is Homo sapiens an epic hero or a tragic one? Literature scholars argue over the specific definitions of the terms “epic” and “tragedy,” but in common usage an epic celebrates the deeds of a hero who is favored by, and perhaps descended from, the gods. These heroes overcome adversity to do great things in the service of great causes. Epic heroes win.
A tragic hero loses, but typically not because of an external force. The essence of tragedy is what Aristotle called “hamartia,” an error in judgment made because of some character flaw, such as hubris. That excessive pride of protagonists becomes their downfall. Although some traditions talk about the sin of pride, most of us understand that taking some pride in ourselves is psychologically healthy. The problem is excessive pride, when we elevate ourselves and lose a sense of the equal value of others. When we fall into hubris individually, the consequences can be disastrous for us and those around us. When we fall into that hubris as a species — when we ignore the consequences of the exploitation on which our “lifestyle” is based — the consequences are more dramatic.
What if our task is to give up the dream of the human species as special? And what if the global forces set in motion during the high-energy/high-technology era are beyond the point of no return? Surrounded by the big majestic buildings and tiny sophisticated electronic gadgets created through human cleverness, it’s easy for us to believe we are smart enough to run a complex world. But cleverness is not wisdom, and the ability to create does not guarantee we can control the destruction we have unleashed. It may be that there is no way to rewrite this larger epic, that too much of the tragedy has already been played out.
But here’s the good news: While tragic heroes meet an unhappy fate, a community can learn from the protagonist’s fall. Even tragic heroes can, at the end, celebrate the dignity of the human spirit in their failure. That may be our task, to recognize that we can’t reverse course in time to prevent our ultimate failure, but that in the time remaining we can recognize our hamartia, name our hubris, and do what we can to undo the damage.
That may be the one chance for us to be truly heroic, by learning to leave center stage gracefully, to stop trying to run the world and to accept a place in the world. We have to take our lives seriously but take Life more seriously.
We certainly live in a dangerous time, if we take seriously the data that our vast intellectual enterprises have produced. Ironically, the majority of intellectuals who are part of those enterprises prefer to ignore the implications of that data. The reasons for that will of course vary, and there is no reason to pretend these issues are simple or that we can line up intellectuals in simple categories of good/bad, brave/cowardly, honest/ dishonest. Reasonable people can agree on the data and disagree on interpretation and analysis. Again, my argument is not that anyone who does not share my interpretation and analysis is obviously wrong or corrupt; many of the assertions I have made require more lengthy argument than available in this space.
But I hold to one point without equivocation: When the privileged intellectuals subsidized by the institutions of the dominant culture look away from the difficult issues that we face today, they are failing to meet their moral obligations. The more privileged the intellectual, the greater the responsibility to use our resources, status, and autonomy to face these issues. There is a lot riding on whether we have the courage and the strength to accept that danger, joyfully. This harsh assessment, and the grief that must accompany it, is not a rejection of joy. The two, grief and joy, are not mutually exclusive but, in fact, rely on each other, and define the human condition. As Wendell Berry puts it, we live on “the human estate of grief and joy.”
This inevitably leads to the question: where can we find hope? My short answer: Don’t ask someone else where to find it. Create it through your actions. Hope is not something we find, but is something we earn. No one has the right to be hopeful until they expend energy to make hope possible. Gorka’s song expresses this: “The old future’s dead and gone/Never to return/There’s a new way through the hills ahead/This one we’ll have to earn/This one we’ll have to earn.”
Berry speaks repeatedly of the importance of daily practice, of building a better world in a practical ways that nurture real bonds in real communities that know their place in the world. He applies this same idea to a discussion of hope: [Y]ou’re not under any obligation to construct a hope for the whole human race. What you are required to do is to be intelligent. And that means you’ve got to have an array of examples you want more or less to understand. Some are not perfect, and others are awful, and to be intelligent you’ve got to know why some are better than the others.
If people demand that intellectuals provide hope — or, worse, if intellectuals believe it is their job to give people hope — then offering platitudes about hope is just another way of avoiding the difficult questions. Clamoring for hope can be a dangerous diversion. But if the discussion of hope leads to action, even in the face of situations that may be hopeless, then we can hold onto what Albert Camus called a “stubborn hope”: Tomorrow the world may burst into fragments. In that threat hanging over our heads there is a lesson of truth. As we face such a future, hierarchies, titles, honors are reduced to what they are in reality: a passing puff of smoke. And the only certainty left to us is that of naked suffering, common to all, intermingling its roots with those of a stubborn hope.
I would call this a hope beyond hope, the willingness not only to embrace that danger but to find joy in it. The systems that structure our world have done more damage than we can understand, but no matter how dark the world grows, there is a light within. That is the message of the best of our theological and secular philosophical traditions, a recurring theme of the best of our art. Wendell Berry has been returning to this theme for decades in essays, fiction, and poetry, and it is the subject of one of his Sabbath poems:
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old, for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight. You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality of the future, which surely will surprise us, and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction any more than by wishing. But stop dithering. The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them? Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
This is what I say to myself: Whatever our chances of surviving, we define ourselves in the present moment by what we do. There are two basic tasks in front of us. First, we should commit some of our energy to movements that focus on the question of justice in this world, especially those of us with the privilege that is rooted in that injustice. As a middle-class American white man, I can see plenty of places to continue working, in movements dedicated to ending white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and U.S. wars of domination.
I also think there is important work to be done in experiments to prepare for what will come in this new future that we can’t yet describe in detail. Whatever the limits of our predictive capacity, we can be pretty sure we will need ways of organizing ourselves to help us live in a world with less energy and fewer material goods. We all have to develop the skills needed for that world (such as farming and gardening with fewer inputs, food preparation and storage, and basic tinkering), and we will need to recover a deep sense of community that has disappeared from many of our lives. This means abandoning a sense of ourselves as consumption machines, which the contemporary culture promotes, and deepening our notions of what it means to be humans in search of meaning. We have to learn to tell different stories about our sense of self, our connection to others, and our place in nature. The stories we tell will matter, as will the skills we learn.
Berry’s basis for hope begins with a recognition of where we are and who we are, at our best:
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet. Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground underfoot. Be lighted by the light that falls
freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
and the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you, which is the light of imagination. By it you see
the likeness of people in other places to yourself
in your place. It lights invariably the need for care toward other people, other creatures, in other places
as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.
In my own life, I continue to work on those questions of justice in existing movements, but I have shifted a considerable amount of time to helping build local networks that can create a place for those experiments. Different people will move toward different efforts depending on talents and temperaments; we should all follow our hearts and minds to apply ourselves where it makes sense, given who we are and where we live. After offering several warnings about arrogance, I’m not about to suggest I know best what work other people should do. If there is any reason for hope, it will be in direct proportion to our capacity for humility and seeing ourselves as part of, not on top of, the larger living world. Berry ends that Sabbath poem not with false optimism but a blunt reminder of how easy it is for us to fall out of right relation with ourselves, others, and the larger living world:
No place at last is better than the world. The world is no better than its places. Its places at last are no better than their people while their people continue in them. When the people make dark the light within them, the world darkens.
The argument I have made rests on an unsentimental assessment of the physical world and the life-threatening consequences of human activity over the past 10,000 years. We would be wise not to plan on supernatural forces or human inventions to save us from ourselves. It is unlikely that we will be delivered to a promised land by divine or technological intervention. Wishing the world were less harsh will not magically make it less harsh. We should not give into the temptation to believe in magic. As James Howard Kunstler puts it, we should stop “clamoring desperately for rescue remedies that would allow them to continue living exactly the way they were used to living, with all the accustomed comforts.”
But we should keep telling stories. Our stories do not change the physical world, but they have the potential to change us. In that sense, the poet Muriel Rukeyser was right when she said, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
Whatever particular work intellectuals do, they are also storytellers. Artists tell stories, but so do scientists and engineers, teachers and preachers. Our work is always both embedded in a story and advancing a story. Intellectual work matters not just for what it discovers about how the world works, but for what story it tells about those discoveries.
To think apocalyptically is not to give up on ourselves, but only to give up on the arrogant stories we modern humans have been telling about ourselves. Our hope for a decent future — indeed, any hope for even the idea of a future — depends on our ability to tell stories not of how humans have ruled the world but how we can live in the world. The royal must give way to the prophetic and the apocalyptic. The central story of power — that the domination/subordination dynamic is natural and inevitable — must give way to stories of dignity, solidarity, equality. We must resist not only the cruelty of repression but the seduction of comfort.
The songs we sing matter at least as much as the machines we build. Power always assumes it can control. Our task is to resist that control. Gorka offers that reminder, of the latent power of our stories, in the fancifully titled song “Flying Red Horse”:
They think they can tame you, name you and frame you, Aim you where you don’t belong.
They know where you’ve been but not where you’re going, And that is the source of the songs.