A few months back John Michael Greer, over at the Archdruid Report, wrote an essay about how we might begin to tackle the huge mental and emotional burden of dealing with collapse. It was noted that, for the most part, the majority of people simply don't want to think about or discuss the way in which we humans are accelerating towards an ecological brick wall and would instead prefer to either lose themselves in fantasy worlds of their own or others' making. Thus, many people like to lose themselves in video games, TV series and dreams of cornucopian splendour where we will all shortly be living the good life, just as British PM David Cameron announced yesterday (if we vote for him). Surrounding yourself with people who think just like you do and only exposing yourself to information sources that bolster your hoped-for belief that 'things are going okay' and 'the experts are in charge' adds some comforting texture to this fantasy.
Since I stopped playing Dungeons and Dragons when I was about 13 I've not been particularly interested in fantasy worlds. For me, reality is where it's at. But reality sometimes hurts, and so when reality does actually bite, there are two ways of dealing with it. The first is to anaesthetise yourself so that it doesn't hurt as much - either by way of the above-mentioned mental escape avenues, or by literally anaesthetising your brain and nervous system with alcohol and drugs. Unfortunately for society as a whole, most people end up choosing the latter option, and we see spiralling problems of addiction, domestic violence, depression and many other ills as a result.
There is, however, another way of dealing with the unpleasant feeling that things are getting worse, and this involves engaging with the problem at root. It's the least popular approach, and you won't make many friends in doing so, but at least it is an honest attempt at grappling with the mighty mess we have got ourselves into. Let's remind ourselves of some dimensions of that mess:
- A peak in conventional oil production that's now about nine years in the rearview mirror and retreating fast
- Growing climate instability that threatens to wipe out our coastal cities, kill off all vertebrate life, or somewhere between these two poles depending on who you believe
- Rampant corporatism and consumerism threatening to undermine whole societies and render the concept of being human as outdated
- A steadily loudening drumbeat for war being banged out by senile elites who need the ensuing chaos to earn their money and keep their power, and a ventriloquist's dummy of a press which simply parrots whatever propaganda is put on its lips
- Half of all vertebrate wildlife wiped out by humans in the last four decades
- Ecological catastrophe wherever you look, including oceans filled with plastic, rainforest destruction, fisheries collapse, ocean acidification, genetic pollution, mass die offs, mega droughts etc.
So, simply trying to ignore these problems and hoping they go away isn't going to achieve much. But then there's also a danger of NOT ignoring these problems - of focusing on them too much. The advent of social media has meant that everyone gets to see a stream of information that interests them the most, creating positive feedback loops. Thus, for some people it's amusing videos of kittens and gold/blue dresses that fill their screens and heads (with the distinction between the two becoming ever more blurred) while for others it's an endless stream of news about catastrophes, corruption, abuse, violence and despair. I'm guessing that most people reading this would identify themselves somewhat with the latter category - myself included. This kind of focus can eventually lead to a kind of soul rot. "Everything's ruined!" you might say. "So why bother?" might be your next statement.
This is a paradox, because if we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by gloomy feelings and thoughts then our ability to react in a meaningful way is impaired, thus reinforcing the problems that are depressing us. How are we to think and act? It's all very well for preppers and others contemplating collapse - be it sudden or slow - to fill their cupboards with canned food, live in a bunker in the woods and learn how to garrotte intruders with their shoelaces - but what effect does this have on the mind and soul? You might live to be 100, but if the last 50 years of your life are spent living in a state of perpetual fear and anguish then what's the point?
At the other end of the scale I've heard anecdotes and seen some evidence that those people who find themselves sliding out of the rear end of the industrial system and ending up permanently unemployed are generally not, as it might be hoped, planting up gardens and getting backyard chickens in an effort to better their lot. Instead they are buying increasingly large television screens to sit in front of as they slowly drink themselves into oblivion each day with the aid of a ready supply of Carlsberg's Special Brew and/or crystal meth made in their friends' garden shed.
To me at least, neither of the above options seems like a decent way to end ones days.
And so that's why last summer I set off on a journey in an attempt to find out some kind of answer to this conundrum. I myself was feeling tired and low from contemplating too much and not really having any way of addressing the innate despair that can sometimes feel like Chinese water torture. I was lucky in that a relative paid for me to fly over to Scandinavia on an errand, giving me a couple of weeks on my own to conduct my experiment.
The rules were simple:
1. I would set off from a point of 'civilisation' (in this case Copenhagen) and head towards a point of 'uncivilisation' in the non-human world.
2. I would live the life of a hobo as much as possible, sleeping in ditches and forests and on pieces of 'waste land'
3. I would not expose myself to any media from the human world in the form of iPhones, music, television, newspapers etc. All I allowed myself were two books, written by wise people
4. I would open up all of my senses to whatever I could perceive, even if it was uncomfortable or frightening
At the forefront of my mind during this experiment was Einstein's meaningful quote:
"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."
That, to me, seems like the real challenge of our age, and I'm not even sure we have the ability to change our thinking. Are we really to be trusted with coming up with new ways of thinking? Past evidence would seem to suggest that we are all too easily corrupted, although in this case our lives depend on it. What if we were offered new ways of thinking by something other than humans? I wanted to find out.
Also in my mind was the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi's observation that nothing will ever change for the better unless we throw away our reputations and seek the truth (whatever that might be). To be fair, I've already thrown away what little respectable reputation I might once have possessed during my former careers working in the energy industry and being a newspaper editor. Nevertheless, I vowed to:
“Run from what's comfortable. Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious. I have tried prudent planning long enough. From now on I'll be mad.”
And perhaps I was going mad. That's certainly what it felt like at times on my journey. For a start I got into trouble with the authorities in Denmark. I was thrown out of a shopping mall for looking like a non-conformist and I was accosted by a park ranger for camping illegally (who, bizarrely, insisted I needed to download a smartphone app to camp in the forest). When I made it over to Sweden I walked mile after mile in torrential rain as my journey coincided with some of the wettest weather in living memory, with areas f Sweden being hit by flooding, and ended up camping in a national park.
The first of the two books I brought with me was Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. This Roman emperor had little time for pomp and circumstance and instead spent his days pondering what it meant to be alive. His musings, written down, are considered to be one of the core texts of the philosophical school of Stoicism (albeit a later one). I thought that he might have something to teach we who are alive today about how to deal with decline and death. I wasn't wrong. Because being a Stoic doesn't mean gritting your teeth and hanging on for dear life, it means dealing constructively with the certainty that we will all one day die - and living a full and meaningful life because of it.
The second of my 'guides' on this journey was the American author Bill Plotkin (still very much alive). I brought along a copy of his book Soulcraft, which had been recommended to me by a reader of this blog (hat tip to you - sorry, I forgot who it was). I more or less threw this book in my backpack as an afterthought, and yet it was Bill Plotkin's book that furnished most of the experiential aspects of my journey. With all his talk of initiations, vision quests and delving into the darkness I was able to experience a number of profound happenings.
Odd things began to happen to me. And when I say odd, I mean very odd. A series of startling coincidences had me thinking that fate was directing my journey. After a while it seemed as if everything was conspiring to pull me in the direction of a certain lake - known locally as Odin's Lake - in the forest, where it is said that magical things could happen. Let's not forget that the norse god Odin was seen as the god of wisdom, and he sacrificed one of his eyes to attain this.
I should, right here, say that I'm not a religious person. Not in the sense of going to church or believing in God or things like that. But the deeper I got into my journey the more it felt like I was being pulled into a vortex of strange and other-wordly forces that seemed to want to communicate with me. And communicate with me they did. I ended up doing some things which can't even be talked about in polite society (call the nurse!). Which is why I wrote it all down and made it into the book which you can see on the right side bar of this page.
As for answers to our predicament, well, nothing came to me in a blinding flash of light. Sorry. But that's beside the point. The point is that the universe is a stunningly complex thing, and we are part of it. None of us created it - it created us and we are a part of it - and we shouldn't feel responsible for it. To waste our allotted time wringing our hands and thinking we can 'fix' things is, in one sense, a waste of time. We can certainly alter what is around us in our immediate sphere of influence, and we can be relaxed in knowing that we are doing what we can with what is available. We can 'upload' ourselves to this greater project, and rejoin nature as a prodigal species, if we so choose. We can keep loving ourselves and one-another, acting with compassion and being of service to all of our fellow organisms, or we can isolate ourselves and become bitter and drown in a lake of despair. The choice is ours at an individual level.
No, that doesn't mean climate change isn't going to stop, that the biosphere will miraculously heal itself or that we'll be able to carry on living as consumers forever. It just means we have a choice of how we dance our dance as the phenomena that dictate our physical existences unfold.
Those, more or less, were the insights I had from my experience. There is no neat intellectual closure here and, of course, it's one thing to know this in an information sense, and quite another to know it in a deep way. That's why I would recommend undertaking a similar journey to anyone who wants some deeper meaning to the pulsating and flashing craziness around us which we call 'reality'. We are, after all, on the same path together, and the more of us who grapple with reality rather than isolating themselves ever more deeply in escapism and fantasy, the better our chances are of making it through this mess with some semblance of sanity intact.