"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Narccisism’

Humanity in Flux: Would a Species that Recognizes Its Own Worth Be Actively Destroying Itself

In Uncategorized on January 6, 2014 at 11:09 pm

Oldspeak: ” The root of our sense of worthlessness (and the ruling elite’s ability to convince us of it) is perhaps our separation from the natural world and the cycle of life. Humans see themselves as standing above nature as opposed to being a part of it. Because of our self-appointed supremacy, we have isolated ourselves from the natural world and reign supreme over all life showing little respect by constantly violating, trashing, extracting, destroying, killing, and exploiting every aspect of the environment. We have no reverence for nature and only turn to it to extract more fuel to power our unsustainable lifestyle or to objectify its beauty when it serves us. Rarely do we stand in awe and respect of the incredible complex and intricate network of life that weaves together animals, plants, and countless other life forms into a sophisticated and mysterious existence – an existence that has been evolving for billions of years, while humanity’s short presence on Earth is threatening to destabilize the ecosystem, which, in turn, will undoubtedly lead to our demise… The fatal mistake of humanity is its arrogance rooted in the illogical and insanely narcissistic belief that humans are more powerful than nature. A rational species would realize the obvious: that human beings are dependent on nature for their survival. However, it is the pompous mindset of supremacy that blinds one from recognizing the interrelationship between oneself and the outside world, which eventually brings the dominators’ unconscious reign to a disastrous halt. It is precisely this separation from nature and all life that has led to an identity crisis – a confusion about our place in the world that compels us to seek meaning and worth through domination, suppression, and conquest of the outside world and each other…. Undoubtedly, we are sowing the seeds of our own annihilation. It is perhaps humanity’s unconscious desire to destroy the worthless within, because what is devoid of value is insignificant, meaningless, useless and it deserves no attention or love – and above all – it does not deserve to exist… In order to stop our unconscious march towards collective suicide, we must undertake the painstaking process of self-discovery and transform the personal belief structures that betray our own sense of worthlessness.[6] There is no higher power, no God, no Messiah that will magically come down and save us from ourselves: it is up to each one of us to expand our awareness and channel the higher ideals of cooperation, unity, justice, and compassion here on Earth. -Kali Ma

Within each one of us there is some piece of humanness that knows we are not being served by the machine which orchestrates crisis after crisis and is grinding all our futures into dust.” ―Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Behold! The bitter and poisonous fruits of globalized capitalist patriarchy! Competition, aggression, dehumanization, injustice, inequality, violence, avarice, objectification, domination, exploitation, fear, exclusion… The systems around which we’ve organized our civilization are an incalculable failure. Our silence will not help us. We need to dismantle the repetitive crisis generating disimagination machine and find a more humane way to face our demise.” -OSJ

By Kali Ma @ The Hampton Institute:

It is common sense that what we value, we wish to take care of, preserve, and treat with respect. Often times, this care is expressed towards material objects such as cars, jewelry, and luxury items; or more abstractly, towards traditions such as religious holidays or family and cultural customs. But what is the value we assign to the life of a human being?

When we take a look at how we treat each other as people, it is safe to say that we do not seem to value human beings very much. In a system based on materialism and the pursuit of “success,” money and power have come to define a human being’s value. Consequently, nothing has inherent worth – everything is just a means to obtaining a desired end and satisfying our seemingly obsessive need for recognition and power. In the pursuit of these goals, the environment is being destroyed with a fanatical vigor one expects of an adolescent consciousness whose shortsighted impulse for instant gratification leaves it dangerously indifferent to the consequences of its actions; at the same time, countless human lives are sacrificed in wars over resources while financial tyranny waged against the working class in the form of austerity is plunging millions of people into poverty across the globe. Nothing is off limits in corporate capitalism’s suicidal quest for profits. But, when everything has a price, nothing has inherent value.

One of the most important and sacred ­­­processes any human being undergoes is the development of his or her own personhood. It is the highly personal choice of who we wish to be in the world and how we wish to express our own individuality and uniqueness as part of the human community. Central to this development of the Self is education. But instead of serving as a building block for individual and collective development, education today is merely a means for getting a “good job” and “moving up” in the world. It has no intrinsic value: the joy and curiosity that accompany learning and discovery about ourselves and the world have been completely commodified and turned into what Dr. Cornel West often refers to as “cheap schooling.” [1] In this “cheap schooling,” the curricula is defined by what is profitable in the “marketplace,” not what is valuable for individual growth and humanity as a whole. Social studies, the humanities, arts, and anything that presents an alternative to the sterile and lifeless corporate culture that has permeated all corners of our existence is degraded, ridiculed, and deemed unworthy by the “marketplace,” which only seeks to employ mindless, obedient drones who will do as they are told.

Critical thinking and a person’s unique perspective are highly undesirable in a system of hierarchical ownership and top-down management of resources and institutions. The right to cultivate our personhood is sacrificed at the altar of corporate capitalism, which provides us with a cheap substitute for individuality and self-expression through a false sense of belonging, empty personal achievements far below our true potential, and, of course, the formation of a “unique” crowd identity through fashionable consumer products manufactured by wage slaves in foreign countries whose working conditions regularly cause mass deaths and drive others to suicide.[2] As a result, the system effectively robs humanity of citizens whose genuine development of individuality, identity, and a true sense of Self would result in a more conscious society that values life, diversity of expression, and that views each living being as an invaluable part of the whole.

But how can we expect people to appreciate anything for its innate value when most of us do not even recognize the inherent worth of a human being? We discriminate against one another because we deem others unacceptable and, thus, not worthy enough of our respect; we kill and maim other humans on mass scales through wars and conflicts in the name of profit, all the while masked as heroic undertakings for “worthy” causes in “defense” of one’s “superior” tribe; on a more social level, we assign worth and value to human beings based on their socio-economic status and whether they are “productive” members of society. This is why “failure” can be so devastating to a person’s mental well-being and self-image: because our worth, value, and sense of purpose are defined by external achievements which, if removed, decimate our sense of self-worth and make us invisible casualties of corporate capitalism’s disposable culture. What these few examples show us is that just being a human is not enough. One has to do something or be a particular way in order to be considered valuable or worthy. This mentality – the belief in the inherent worthlessness of a human being – lies at the core of the hatred and condemnation we direct towards one another. The message is clear: unless you meet society’s standards of what it means to be “valuable,” you are worthless.

The owners of the system – the corporate oligarchs – have, through mass propaganda and cultural conditioning over time, taught us that worth is about how much money a person has, the type of job they hold, the amount of property they own, and how “successful” they are (i.e. how well they reflect the values of the dominant culture).[3] In this type of society, materialism and the trivial become our Gods to which we pledge allegiance in an economy that constantly profits from our desperation to be accepted and seen as worthy. The meaning of life is reduced to achieving “success” and recognition while the deep-seated desires of one’s soul for truth and connection are willfully sacrificed for superficial achievements whose promises of “happiness” and “worth” never seem to materialize. In the end, life itself becomes meaningless.

When money, recognition, and materialism determine a human’s worth, only the few are seen as valuable. As Chris Hedges explains in“Let’s Get This Class War Started,” [4] the rest of us are deemed worthless, “disposable human beings” in service of corporate oligarchs who view the lower classes as “uncouth parasites, annoyances that have to be endured, at times placated and always controlled in the quest to amass more power and money.”

Our oligarchic rulers have successfully convinced us that their values are ours – most of us seem to believe that humans are inherently worthless and only serve as means to achieving one’s personal objectives. In this kind of culture, everything and everyone – including friends and family – become disposable commodities to be used, exploited, and worn out for self-interest and shortsighted ego-desires. Unsurprisingly, in such a society, friendship is a foreign concept and practiced in superficial settings and contrived “meet ups” that mask an inner sense of isolation and loneliness, a natural by-product of an egocentric culture. We are disconnected from one another because we do not value anything for its essence – the inherent worth of cooperation, friendship, and genuine togetherness is considered a bore and a waste of time. There always seems to be some ulterior interest inherent in our relationships that satisfies our fleeting appetite for company – rarely do people get together out of a genuine desire to connect and honestly share themselves with each other.

Our devaluation of people and life itself is simply a reflection of our own personal, deep-seated sense of worthlessness as human beings. It is what psychiatrist Carl Jung referred to as projection – the act of prescribing one’s unconscious inner quality onto an object that lies outside of oneself – which “change[s] the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face.”[5] What we are reflecting on the outside is a belief that we are nothing more than worthless biological creatures here to consume, amass, hoard, and “succeed” (read: dominate) over those around us and for much of humanity, a vile creation whose sole purpose is to repent and make up for its existence to a wrathful, authoritarian God-figure. No wonder we have no respect for life and each other.

The root of our sense of worthlessness (and the ruling elite’s ability to convince us of it) is perhaps our separation from the natural world and the cycle of life. Humans see themselves as standing above nature as opposed to being a part of it. Because of our self-appointed supremacy, we have isolated ourselves from the natural world and reign supreme over all life showing little respect by constantly violating, trashing, extracting, destroying, killing, and exploiting every aspect of the environment. We have no reverence for nature and only turn to it to extract more fuel to power our unsustainable lifestyle or to objectify its beauty when it serves us. Rarely do we stand in awe and respect of the incredible complex and intricate network of life that weaves together animals, plants, and countless other life forms into a sophisticated and mysterious existence – an existence that has been evolving for billions of years, while humanity’s short presence on Earth is threatening to destabilize the ecosystem, which, in turn, will undoubtedly lead to our demise.

The fatal mistake of humanity is its arrogance rooted in the illogical and insanely narcissistic belief that humans are more powerful than nature. A rational species would realize the obvious: that human beings are dependent on nature for their survival. However, it is the pompous mindset of supremacy that blinds one from recognizing the interrelationship between oneself and the outside world, which eventually brings the dominators’ unconscious reign to a disastrous halt. It is precisely this separation from nature and all life that has led to an identity crisis – a confusion about our place in the world that compels us to seek meaning and worth through domination, suppression, and conquest of the outside world and each other.

Undoubtedly, we are sowing the seeds of our own annihilation. It is perhaps humanity’s unconscious desire to destroy the worthless within, because what is devoid of value is insignificant, meaningless, useless and it deserves no attention or love – and above all – it does not deserve to exist.

In order to stop our unconscious march towards collective suicide, we must undertake the painstaking process of self-discovery and transform the personal belief structures that betray our own sense of worthlessness.[6] There is no higher power, no God, no Messiah that will magically come down and save us from ourselves: it is up to each one of us to expand our awareness and channel the higher ideals of cooperation, unity, justice, and compassion here on Earth. We can only do so once we recognize our own inherent worth and decide to act on our potential as unique creations of an ever-evolving consciousness whose existence is worth saving. Viewed from this perspective, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Will we heed the call?

Notes

[1] “Cheap schooling” is different from “deep education,” which Dr. West refers to as the “formation of attention” . . . the “shift from the superficial to the substantial, from the frivolous to the serious, from the ‘bling bling, to wrestling with life, death, sorrow, sadness, [and] joy[.]” Dr. Cornel West, Speech at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Transcript, last accessed December 3, 2013,http://www.hws.edu/about/presidentsforum/west_speech.aspx; see also Sonoma State Star, “Activist Cornel West meets students, gives lecture,” April 16, 2013, http://www.sonomastatestar.com/news/activist-cornel-west-meets-students-gives-lecture-1.3028957?pagereq=1 (reference to “cheap schooling”); Smiley and West, The Conversation: Julian Assange (Remastered), published August 2, 2013, https://soundcloud.com/smileyandwestshow/august-2-2013-julian-assange (reference to “cheap schooling”).

[2] Jason Burke, “Bangladeshi factory collapse leaves trail of shattered lives,” The Guardian, June 6, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/06/bangladesh-factory-building-collapse-community ; Aditya Chakrabortty, “The woman who nearly died making your iPad,” The Guardian, August 5, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/05/woman-nearly-died-making-ipad

[3] Being “successful” in society’s eyes most often includes having a family, a “respectable” job or career, owning property, and generally living one’s life in accordance with cultural and social expectations.

[4] Chris Hedges, “Let’s Get This Class War Started,” TruthDig.com, October 20, 2013, https://www.truthdig.com/report/item/lets_get_this_class_war_started_20131020/

[5] C.G. Jung, Aion: Researches Into the Phenomenology of the Self, Vol.9, Pt. II (Bollingen Series XX/Princeton University Press 1959) pp. 8-9

[6] For starters, ask yourself some basic questions: What does value and worth mean to me? What makes me valuable . . . the simple fact that I am human or is that not enough? Do I believe that human beings are inherently worthy or do I place conditions on the value of human life? Do I view nature as a means to an end, something to be conquered and dominated or do I see humanity as an intricate part of nature whose existence depends on the cooperation with the environment? Our thoughts about ourselves and our relationship to nature reveal a great deal about our current state of awareness. Because much of our existence rests upon unquestioning obedience to authority and cultural dogmas, we rarely ask ourselves these fundamental questions and thus remain largely unconscious of our participation in humanity’s self-destruction.

Environmental Collapse: The Sixth Stage Of Collapse

In Uncategorized on October 26, 2013 at 8:57 pm

http://sillymickelsapocalypticwakeupcall.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/559624_4730113134571_700653948_n.jpgOldspeak: Dmitri Orlov is back with a brilliant addendum to his eerily prescient 2008 “The Five Stages Of Collapse“. Writing about  the all important stage of collapse he’d neglected to mention then.  Indeed, it is the only problem left worth preparing for. At the end of this stage Environmental Collapse, there is no other problem to be concerned with. The jig is up, there’s no home. The irony is we’re systematically eradicating the last remnants of people who know how we need to live to start reversing the damage we’ve done to our Mother. Relentlessly and increasingly exhausting at a non-renewable rate our essential ‘ecosystem services” for contrived reality driven “profit”. “Extend and pretend” can only go on for so much longer.” -OSJ

We don’t want to change who we are in order to live in harmony with nature; we want nature to live in harmony with us while we remain who we are. In the meantime, we are continuing to wage war on the sorry remnants of the tribes that had once lived in balance with nature, offering them “education,” “economic development” and a chance to play a minor role in our ruinous, negative-sum economic games. Given such options, their oft-observed propensity to do nothing and stay drunk seems like a perfectly rational choice. It minimizes the damage. But the damage may already have been done…

It seems like letting global industrial civilization collapse and all the nuclear power plants cook off is not such a good option, because it will seal our fate. But the alternative is to “extend and pretend” and “kick the can down the road” while resorting to a variety of environmentally destructive, increasingly desperate means to keep industry running: hydraulic fracturing, mining tar sands, drilling in the Arctic and so on. And this isn’t such a good option either because it will seal our fate in other ways…

Because, you see, there is also the sixth stage which I have previously neglected to mention—environmental collapse—at the end of which we are left without a home, having rendered Earth (our home planet) uninhabitable.

This tragic outcome may not be unavoidable. And if it is not unavoidable, then that’s about the only problem left that’s worth solving. The solution can be almost arbitrarily expensive in both life and treasure. I would humbly suggest that it’s worth all the money in the world, plus a few billion lives, because if a solution isn’t found, then that treasure and those lives are forfeit anyway.”
Dmitri Orlov
Related Story:
By Dmitri Orlov @ Club Orlov:
I admit it: in my last book, The Five Stages of Collapse, I viewed collapse through rose-colored glasses. But I feel that I should be forgiven for this; it is human nature to try to be optimistic no matter what. Also, as an engineer, I am always looking for solutions to problems. And so I almost subconsciously crafted a scenario where industrial civilization fades away quickly enough to save what’s left of the natural realm, allowing some remnant of humanity to make a fresh start.
Ideally, it would start of with a global financial collapse triggered by a catastrophic loss of confidence in the tools of globalized finance. That would swiftly morph into commercial collapse, caused by global supply chain disruption and cross-contagion. As business activity grinds to a halt and tax revenues dwindle to zero, political collapse wipes most large-scale political entities off the map, allowing small groups of people to revert to various forms of anarchic, autonomous self-governance. Those groups that have sufficient social cohesion, direct access to natural resources, and enough cultural wealth (in the form of face-to-face relationships and oral traditions) would survive while the rest swiftly perish.
Of course, there are problems even with this scenario. Take, for instance, the problem of Global Dimming. The phenomenon is well understood: sunlight reflected back into space by the atmospheric aerosols and particulates generated by burning fossil fuels reduces the average global temperature by well over a degree Celsius. (The cessation of all air traffic over the continental US in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has allowed climate scientists to measure this effect.) If industrial activity were to suddenly cease, average global temperatures would be jolted upward toward the two degree Celsius mark which is widely considered to be very, very bad indeed. Secondly, even if all industrial activity were to cease tomorrow, global warming, 95% of which is attributed to human activity in the latest (rather conservative and cautious) IPCC report, would continue apace for the better part of the next millennium, eventually putting the Earth’s climate in a mode unprecedented during all of human existence as a species.
On such a planet, where the equatorial ocean is hotter than a hot tub and alligators thrive in the high Arctic, our survival as a species is far from assured. Still, let’s look at things optimistically. We are an adaptable lot. Yes, the seas will rise and inundate the coastal areas which over half of us currently inhabit. Yes, farmland further inland will become parched and blow away, or be washed away by the periodic torrential rains. Yes, the tropics, followed by the temperate latitudes, become so hot that everyone living there will succumb of heat stroke. But if this process takes a few centuries, then some of the surviving bands and tribes might find a way to migrate further north and learn to survive there by eking out some sort of existence in balance with what remains of the ecosystem.
We can catch glimpses of what such survival might look like by reading history. When Captain James Cook landed on the shore of Western Australia, he was the first white man to encounter aboriginal Australians, who had up to that point persisted in perfect isolation for something like 40.000 years. (They arrived in Australia at about the same time as the Cromagnons displaced the Neanderthals in Europe.) They spoke a myriad different languages and dialects, having no opportunity and no use for any sort of unity. They wore no clothes and used tiny makeshift huts for shelter. They had few tools beyond a digging stick for finding edible roots and a gig for catching fish. They had no hoards or stockpiles, and did not keep even the most basic supplies from one day to the next. They had little regard for material objects of any sort, were not interested in trade, and while they accepted clothes and other items they were given as presents, they threw them away as soon as Cook and his crew were out of sight.
They were, Cook noted in his journal, entirely inoffensive. But a few actions of Cook’s men did enrage them. They were scandalized by the sight of birds being caught and placed in cages, and demanded their immediate release. Imprisoning anyone, animal or person, was to them taboo. They were even more incensed when they saw Cook’s men catch not just one, but several turtles. Turtles are slow-breeding, and it is easy to wipe out their local population by indiscriminate poaching, which is why they only allowed the turtles to be taken one at a time, and only by a specially designated person who bore responsibility for the turtles’ welfare.
Cook thought them primitive, but he was ignorant of their situation. Knowing what we know, they seem quite advanced. Living on a huge but arid and mostly barren island with few native agriculturally useful plants and no domesticable animals, they understood that their survival was strictly by the grace of the surrounding natural realm. To them, the birds and the turtles were more important than they were, because these animals could survive without them, but they could not survive without these animals.
Speaking of being primitive, here is an example of cultural primitivism writ large. At the Age of Limits conference earlier this year, at one point the discussion turned to the question of why the natural realm is worth preserving even at the cost of human life. (For instance, is it OK to go around shooting poachers in national parks even if it means that their families starve to death?) One fellow, who rather self-importantly reclined in a chaise lounge directly in front of the podium, stated his opinion roughly as follows: “It is worth sacrificing every single animal out there in order to save even a single human life!” It took my breath away. This thought is so primitive that my brain spontaneously shut down every time I tried to formulate a response to it. After struggling with it for a bit, here is what I came up with.
Is it worth destroying the whole car for the sake of saving the steering wheel? What use is a steering wheel without a car? Well, I suppose, if you are particularly daft or juvenile, you can use it to pretend that you still have a car, running around with it and making “vroom-vroom!” noises… Let’s look at this question from an economic perspective, which is skewed by the fact that economists tend view the natural realm in terms of its economic value. This is similar to you looking at your own body in terms of its nutritional content, and whether it would make good eating. Even when viewed from this rather bizarre perspective that treats our one and only living planet as a storehouse of commodities to be plundered, it turns out that most of our economic “wealth” is made possible by “ecosystem services” which are provided free of charge.
These include water clean enough to drink, air clean enough to breathe, a temperature-controlled environment that is neither too cold nor too hot for human survival across much of the planet, forests that purify and humidify the air and moderate surface temperatures, ocean currents that moderate climate extremes making it possible to practice agriculture, oceans (formerly) full of fish, predators that keep pest populations from exploding and so on. If we were forced to provide these same services on a commercial basis, we’d be instantly bankrupt, and then, in short order, extinct. The big problem with us living on other planets is not that it’s physically impossible—though it may be—it’s that there is no way we could afford it. If we take natural wealth into account when looking at economic activity, it turns out that we consistently destroy much more wealth than we create: the economy is mostly a negative-sum game. Next, it turns out that we don’t really understand how these “ecosystem services” are maintained, beyond realizing that it’s all very complicated and highly interconnected in surprising and unexpected ways. Thus, the good fellow at the conference who was willing to sacrifice all other species for the sake of his own could never be quite sure that the species he is willing to sacrifice doesn’t include his own.
In addition, it bears remembering that we are, in fact, sacrificing our species, and have been for centuries, for the sake of something we call “progress.” Aforementioned Captain Cook sailed around the Pacific “discovering” islands that the Polynesians had discovered many centuries earlier, his randy, drunken, greedy sailors spreading venereal disease, alcoholism and corruption, and leaving ruin in their wake wherever they went. After the plague of sailors came the plague of missionaries, who made topless Tahitian women wear “Mother Hubbards” and tried to outlaw fornication. The Tahitians, being a sexually advanced culture, had a few dozen different terms for fornication, relating to a variety of sex acts. Thus the missionaries had a problem: banning any one sex act wouldn’t have made much of a dent, while a ban that enumerated them all would read like the Kama Sutra. Instead the missionaries chose to promote their own brand of sex: the “missionary position,” which is best analyzed as two positions—top and bottom. The bottom position can enhance the experience by taking a cold shower, applying blue lipstick and not breathing. I doubt that it caught on much on Tahiti.
The Tahitians seem to have persevered, but many other tribes and cultures simply perished, or continue to exist in greatly diminished numbers, so depressed by their circumstances that they are not interested in doing much beyond drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and watching television. And which group is doing the best? That’s the one that’s been causing the most damage. Thus, the rhetoric about “saving our species from extinction” seems rather misplaced: we have been doing everything we can to drive it to extinction as efficiently as possible for a few centuries now, and we aren’t about to stop because that would be uncivilized.
Because, you see, that’s who we are: we are educated, literate, civilized persons. The readers of this blog especially are economically and environmentally enlightened types, their progressivism resting on the three pillars of pointing out financial Ponzi schemes, averting environmental devastation and eating delicious, organic, locally grown food. We do wish to survive collapse, provided the survival strategy includes such items as gender equality, multiculturalism, LGBT-friendiness and nonviolence. We do not wish to take off all of our clothes and wander the outback with a digging stick looking for edible tubers. We’d rather sit around discussing green technology over a glass of craft-brewed beer (local, of course) perhaps digressing once in a while to consider the obscure yet erudite opinions of one Pederasmus of Ülm on the endless, glorious ebb and flow of human history.
We don’t want to change who we are in order to live in harmony with nature; we want nature to live in harmony with us while we remain who we are. In the meantime, we are continuing to wage war on the sorry remnants of the tribes that had once lived in balance with nature, offering them “education,” “economic development” and a chance to play a minor role in our ruinous, negative-sum economic games. Given such options, their oft-observed propensity to do nothing and stay drunk seems like a perfectly rational choice. It minimizes the damage. But the damage may already have been done. I will present just two examples of it, but if you don’t like them, there are plenty of others.
For the first, you can do your own research. Buy yourself an airline ticket to a tropical paradise of your choice and check into an oceanside resort. Wake up early in the morning and go look at the beach. You will see lots of dark-skinned people with wheelbarrows, buckets, shovels and rakes scraping up the debris that the surf deposited during the night, to make the beach look clean, safe and presentable for the tourists. Now walk along the beach and beyond the cluster of resorts and hotels, where it isn’t being continuously raked clean. You will find that it is so smothered with debris as to make it nearly impassable. There will be some material of natural origin—driftwood and seaweed—but the majority of the debris will be composed of plastic. If you try to sort through it, you will find that a lot of it is composed of polypropylene and nylon mesh and rope and styrofoam floats from the fishing industry. Another large category will consist of single-use containers: suntan lotion and shampoo bottles, detergent bottles, water bottles, fast food containers and so on. Typhoons and hurricanes have an interesting organizing effect on plastic debris, and you will find piles of motor oil jugs next to piles of plastic utensils next to piles of water bottles, as if someone actually bothered to sort them. On a beach near Tulum in México I once found an entire collection of plastic baby sandals, all of different colors, styles and vintages.
Left on the beach, the plastic trash photo-degrades over time, becoming discolored and brittle, and breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. The final result of this process is a microscopic plastic scum, which can persist in the environment for centuries. It plays havoc with the ecosystem, because a wide variety of animals mistake the plastic particles for food and swallow them. They then clog their digestive tracts, causing them to starve. This devastation will persist for many centuries, but it has started already: the ocean is dying. Over large areas of it, plastic particles outnumber plankton, which forms the basis of the oceanic food chain.
The ravages of the plastics plague also affect land. Scraped together by sanitation crews, plastic debris is usually burned, because recycling it would be far too expensive. Plastic can be incinerated relatively safely and cleanly, but this requires extremely high temperatures, and can only be done at specialized facilities. Power plants can burn plastic as fuel, but plastic trash is a diffuse energy source, takes up a lot of space and the energy and labor costs of transporting it to power plants may render it energy-negative. And so a lot of plastic trash is burned in open pits, at low temperatures, releasing into the atmosphere a wide assortment of toxic chemicals, including ones that affect the hormonal systems of animals. Effects include genital abnormalities, sterility and obesity. Obesity has now reached epidemic proportions in many parts of the world, affecting not just the humans but other species as well. Here, then, is our future: chemical plants continue to churn out synthetic materials, most of these find their way into the environment and slowly break down, releasing their payload of toxins. As this happens, people and animals alike turn into obese, sexless blobs. First they find that they are unable to give birth to fertile male offspring. This is already happening: human sperm counts are dropping throughout the developed world. Next, they will be unable to give birth to normal male babies—ones without genital abnormalities. Next, they will be unable to produce male offspring at all, as has already happened to a number of marine species. Then they go extinct.
Note that no disaster or accident is required in order for this scenario to unfold, just more business as usual. Every time you buy a bottle of shampoo or a bottle of water, or a sandwich that comes wrapped in plastic or sealed in a vinyl box, you help it unfold a little bit further. All it takes is for the petrochemical industry (which provides the feedstocks—oil and natural gas, mostly) and the chemical plants that process them into plastics, to continue functioning normally. We don’t know whether the amount of plastics, and associated toxins, now present in the environment, is already sufficient to bring about our eventual extinction.
But we certainly don’t want to give up on synthetic chemistry and go back to a pre-1950s materials science, because that, you see, would be bad for business. Now, you probably don’t want to go extinct, but if you decided that you will anyway, you would probably want to remain comfortable and civilized down to the very end. And life without modern synthetics would be uncomfortable. We want those plastic-lined diapers, for the young and the old!
This leaves those of us who are survival-minded, on an abstract, impersonal level, wishing for the global financial, commercial and political collapse to occur sooner rather than later. Our best case scenario would go something like this: a massive loss of confidence and panic in the financial markets grips the planet over the course of a single day, pancaking all the debt pyramids and halting credit creation. Commerce stops abruptly because cargos cannot be financed. In a matter of weeks, global supply chains break down. In a matter of months, commercial activity grinds to a halt and tax revenues dwindle to zero, rendering governments everywhere irrelevant. In a matter of years, the remaining few survivors become as Captain Cook saw the aboriginal Australians: almost entirely inoffensive.
One of the first victims of collapse would be the energy companies, which are among some of the most capital-intensive enterprises. Next in line are the chemical companies that manufacture plastics and other synthetic organic chemicals and materials: as their petrochemical feedstocks become unavailable, they are forced to halt production. If we are lucky, the amount of plastic that is in the environment already turns out to be insufficient to drive us all to extinction. Human population can dwindle to as few as a dozen breeding females (the number that survived one of the ice ages, as suggested by the analysis of mitochondrial DNA) but in a dozen or so millennia the climate will probably stabilize, the Earth’s ecology recover, and with it will the human population. We may never again achieve a complex technological civilization, but at least we’ll be able to sing and dance, have children and, if we are lucky, even grow old in peace.
So far so good, but our next example makes the desirability of a swift and thorough collapse questionable. Prime exhibit is the melted-down nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. Contrary to what the Japanese government would want everyone to believe, the situation there is not under any kind of control. Nobody knows what happened to the nuclear fuel from the reactors that melted down. Did they go to China, à la China Syndrome? Then there is the spent nuclear fuel pool, which is full, and leaking. If the water in that pool boils away, the fuel rods burst into flames and melt down and/or explode and then, according to some nuclear experts, it would be time to evacuate the entire northern hemisphere. The site at Fukushima is so radioactive that workers cannot go anywhere near it for any length of time, making it rather fanciful to think that they’ll be able to get the situation there under control, now or ever. But we can be sure that eventually the already badly damaged building housing the spent nuclear fuel will topple, spilling its load and initiating phase two of the disaster. After that there will be no point in anyone going to Fukushima, except to die of radiation sickness.
You might think that Fukushima is an especially bad case, but plants just like Fukushima dot the landscape throughout much of the developed world. Typically, they are built near a source of water, which they use as coolant and to run the steam turbines. Many of the ones built on rivers run the risk of the rivers drying up. Many of the ones built on the ocean are at risk of inundation from rising ocean levels, storm surges and tsunamis. Typically, they have spent fuel pools that are full of hot nuclear waste, because nobody has figured out a way to dispose of it. All of them have to be supplied with energy for many decades, or they all melt just like Fukushima. If enough of them melt and blow up, then it’s curtains for animals such as ourselves, because most of us will die of cancer before reaching sexual maturity, and the ones that do will be unable to produce healthy offspring.
I once flew through the airport in Minsk, where I crossed paths with a large group of “Chernobyl children” who were on their way to Germany for medical treatment. I took a good look at them, and that picture has stayed with me forever. What shocked me was the sheer variety of developmental abnormalities that were on display.
It seems like letting global industrial civilization collapse and all the nuclear power plants cook off is not such a good option, because it will seal our fate. But the alternative is to “extend and pretend” and “kick the can down the road” while resorting to a variety of environmentally destructive, increasingly desperate means to keep industry running: hydraulic fracturing, mining tar sands, drilling in the Arctic and so on. And this isn’t such a good option either because it will seal our fate in other ways.
And so it seems that there may not be a happy end to my story of The Five Stages of Collapse, the first three of which (financial, commercial, political) are inevitable, while the last two (social, cultural) are entirely optional but have, alas, already run their course in many parts of the world. Because, you see, there is also the sixth stage which I have previously neglected to mention—environmental collapse—at the end of which we are left without a home, having rendered Earth (our home planet) uninhabitable.
This tragic outcome may not be unavoidable. And if it is not unavoidable, then that’s about the only problem left that’s worth solving. The solution can be almost arbitrarily expensive in both life and treasure. I would humbly suggest that it’s worth all the money in the world, plus a few billion lives, because if a solution isn’t found, then that treasure and those lives are forfeit anyway.

A solution for avoiding the sixth stage must be found, but I don’t know what that solution would look like. I do find it unsafe to blithely assume that collapse will simply take care of the problem for us. Some people may find this subject matter so depressing that it makes them want to lie down (in a comfortable position, on something warm and soft) and die. But there may be others, who still have some fight left in them, and who do wish to leave a survivable planet to their children and grandchildren. Let’s not expect them to use conventional, orthodox methods, to work and play well with others, or to be polite and reasonable in dealing with the rest of us. Let’s just hope that they have a plan, and that they get on with it.