How Do You Fight the Despair?
In my article The Spiritual Effects of Comprehending the Global Crisis I hint at the very real risk that those who embark on this journey of discovery will fall into a state of despair. At every turn we are confronted with fresh evidence that the problems humanity is facing are bigger than expected, developing faster than expected, and reinforce each other in ways we did not foresee. To make matters worse, the proposed solutions, whether technical or social, seem to be utterly unequal to the task. As a final blow, it appears that even obvious solutions that might help a bit are not being acted on, and that we seem determined to carry on with business as usual until, well, until we can't anymore.
This maelstrom of comprehension can leave you with the feeling that nothing whatever can be done, that further struggle is hopeless because there is no chance of preventing the jaws of the trap from snapping shut. That sense of helplessness easily turns into a toxic brew of depression and despair.
There is a good reason despair has always been regarded as particularly dangerous to the human spirit. Despair is a paralyzing force. It can not only keep us from addressing long-range problems, it can keep us from dealing with immediate decisions and can even prevent us from enjoying the simple things that give our lives meaning. The pleasures of family, friends, lovers, crisp winter or warm summer days, music, poetry or even an innocent walk in the woods can be buried under a suffocating blanket of all-consuming dread.
When someone on this terrifying quest for awareness gets to this point, they usually look around for a bit of help. All too often, what they find is that the other people who are on the same voyage are now just as frightened as they are. Since this journey is still very new to most of us, we find we're all at pretty much the same point. While there is some comfort in knowing that others see the same dangers you do, sharing fear is not the same as overcoming it.
I get emails with questions about how I cope with this awareness. Often they are filled with anguish, like the one excerpted here:
Paul, I have one personal problem with the information. It is hopelessly depressing. HOW DO YOU LIVE WITH IT IF THERE IS NO HOPE? The spiritual solution offered in the DVD [What A Way To Go: Life at the End of Empire] is vague and will not stop the consequences of what man has done.
I myself love life, enjoy the miracle of all of nature daily, consciously, cherish it; I am sort of a Buddhist in belief if not in ritual. I thought I accepted death. But I am struggling now with the weight of the knowledge of the unavoidable great dying.
Would you please share with me how you deal with it?
Or the question may sound like this:
I have kids, but if I knew seven years ago what I know now, I would not have any. I'm terrified for their future. I think everything is about to blow up. We talk about all the separate problems -- e.g. overpopulation, peak oil, global warming, pollution, deforestation, loss of topsoil and freshwater, loss of biodiversity, etc. -- but they are all just symptoms of one disease. I think we have reached our Malthusian limits, and we're about to plunge into an era of chaos and scarcity.
Is there anyone here who is optimistic? Does anyone think we can live and prosper as a global society?
It has taken me a long time to come up with a satisfactory response. It needed to be one that offered hope, but did not deny the obvious seriousness of the problem, or try to present unrealistic "solutions" to problems that may not be soluble.
What follows is the best I've come up with so far. I'm publishing it because I know it will help some people. I know this because it has helped me, and I've had a case of existential angst I wouldn't wish on George W. Bush. If you're reading this, there's a good chance you're feeling some of this despair yourself. If you are, I hope these words help.
I am in full sympathy with your sense of despair. As I say in one of the my essays I shared it for a long time. In fact I spent two years in what verged on a clinical depression brought on by my perception of humanity's existential crisis.
Four new understandings brought me back from the brink and made me realize there is hope of some sort.
The first was to take a larger perspective on the problem. Humanity has gone through bottlenecks before, and the species (and perhaps even some aspects of our civilization) will survive. There is a reason so many Eastern philosophies center around the idea that life is cyclical -- that belief expresses a fundamental truth found in all of nature. While the human organization that will arise after the coming changes is bound to be very different, it will still express the values that have traditionally made it possible for us to survive in hard times: compassion, altruism, cooperation and nurturing.
The values that are antithetical to those -- competition, exploitation and selfishness -- are possible on a planetary scale only in times of artificial abundance, such as we have created though our use of fossil fuels. Those inhumane values are supported and reinforced by our social institutions: our economic and political systems, our schools and media. There is no doubt in my mind that the coming changes will sweep away many of those institutions, because they are built to exploit conditions that will no longer exist. If many of them crumble, that will leave major opportunities for new and more humane institutions to take their place.
The second hopeful thing was the realization that the seeds for those new humane values are already in place. If you read my essay "Red Herrings and Hope" you will find at the end the section where I discuss the worldwide movement consisting of two million local, independent environmental and social justice groups. I call these groups "Gaia's antibodies". As I read about them, I realized that not only are they working right now to improve local conditions around the world, they are perfectly positioned to act as a resilient, survivable seed stock for the values that will be needed to build a more humane, sustainable civilization in the next cycle.
The third thing that gave me hope was realizing that the collapse is not going to be one vast, amorphous, simultaneous die-off. Different parts of the world will experience different effects. When I did an analysis of energy decline that took these regional differences into account, I found that the West is quite well positioned relative to, say, Africa and South Asia. Those places may well experience a Malthusian collapse, but we in the West have such a vast amount of discretionary consumption and capital that we will have much more opportunity to respond to the crisis. Whether we respond well or poorly when the shit hits the fan is an open question, but we do have some maneuvering room. The fact that we can still influence events, even if those influences will be very localized, means that there is still a purpose to action.
The fourth thing that gave me hope was what amounted to a spiritual breakthrough that I describe in the essay I mentioned first. While I no longer identify my new world-view as pantheism, the perceptions it gave me are still the same. I now realize it was a spontaneous discovery of the principles of Deep Ecology, which are very similar to pantheism, though focussed explicitly on the natural world. The breakthrough realization is very simple. Humanity is but one part of the web of life that embraces this planet. We are not above it, in the center of it or separate from it in any way. We have just the same inherent value as any other part of that web, no more and no less. We do have a responsibility to govern our actions because we can reason, but we are still subject to the same influences as any other species on Earth. Coming to see humanity in that way allowed me to let go of much of the disappointment I felt over our myriad failures as a civilization and a species.
I hope you can see the resonance of Buddhist philosophy though all these points. If you are familiar with Buddhist teachings, you have an opportunity to use them to help overcome your despair. What you are feeling is the purest expression of the problem of attachment. The ego fears its own demise, and sees in these vast changes a great probability that will happen. All the things to which we are attached are about to undergo a profound transformation, and our egos are terrified of that prospect. You need to reach out past that attachment to the understanding that change is the only constant in all of existence. It doesn't matter what level of existence you look at -- individual, family, community, national, global, even out to the entire universe -- change is the nature of this reality.
There will be many, many opportunities for you to use and even shape the changes that are coming. I hope you can use some of the ideas here to help you look forward with courage.