The End: Walking Away from Apocalypse with Guy McPherson
by Adam Engel / May 3rd, 2013
“Now it’s dark.”
– Frank, the villain (played by Dennis Hopper) of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, 1986
“I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna get my kicks before this whole shit-house goes up in flames.”
– Jim Morrison (played by Val Kilmar) in Oliver Stone’s The Doors, 1991
“Submitted for your approval…”
– Rod Serling (played yourself), Where-ever You Are, Now
The evidence for human extinction by 2030 is overwhelming.1
“Every bit of news about the industrial economy — shockingly to neoclassical economists — is dire and growing worse,” writes Guy McPherson, in Walking Away From Empire.2 “The Greatest Depression is proceeding apace, and even the mainstream media have begun to notice the rapidity with which things are falling apart between never-ending worship of their heroes in the fields of athletics and cinema, occasionally mixed with a story about somebody shooting somebody else on an overshot planet. Our immorality has insulted the living planet nearly to the point of complete environmental collapse.”
McPherson, University of Arizona Professor emeritus – very emeritus – in ecological biology, goes on to remark that he “wouldn’t be surprised at chaos in the streets of every industrial nation within a matter of months as the economy implodes, and there is no doubt we will continue to foul the air, dirty the waters, and generally destroy every aspect of our planetary life-support system.”
Conventional crude oil peaked in 2005 (though oil shale and tar sands commonly are considered crude, too, thereby extending the peak somewhat), according to McPherson.
True, that’s just his opinion, but it’s an “opinion” formed by analysis of incontestable facts drawn from “Hard” Science, and shared by most scientists not on some corporate, government or university payroll, the world over. Many seem to share McPherson’s point-of-view, some are more pessimistic, others, though their numbers are dwindling, a bit more optimistic.
One such “optimist” is James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climate scientists, who sounded the alarm as early as 1981, in an article he and colleagues published in Science magazine. In a February, 2013 Technology, Engineering and Design (TED) talk,3 Hanson explained that he and his peers predicted that “Earth would likely warm in the 1980′s, and warming would exceed the noise level of random weather by the end of the century. We also said that the 21st century would see shifting climate zones, creation of drought-prone regions in North America and Asia, erosion of ice sheets, rising sea levels and opening of the fabled Northwest Passage. All of these impacts have since either happened or are now well under way.”
Hansen’s belief is that it’s almost too late to save life on planet earth, but it’s still a possibility. He said that “the tragedy about climate change is that we can solve it with a simple, honest approach of a gradually rising carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies and distributed 100 percent electronically every month to all legal residents on a per capita basis, with the government not keeping one dime. Most people would get more in the monthly dividend than they’d pay in increased prices. This fee and dividend would stimulate the economy and innovations, creating millions of jobs. It is the principal requirement for moving us rapidly to a clean energy future.” 4
However, governments of the world, lead by The Government of The Empire, are subsidizing fossil fuel extraction to the tune of $400-500 billion dollars a year worldwide, “thus encouraging extraction of every fossil fuel — mountaintop removal, longwall mining, fracking, tar sands, tar shale, deep ocean Arctic drilling. This path, if continued, guarantees that we will pass tipping points leading to ice sheet disintegration that will accelerate out of control of future generations.”
Hansen likens our current situation to facing a giant asteroid on a direct collision course with Earth.
“That is the equivalent of what we face now. Yet, we dither, taking no action to divert the asteroid, even though the longer we wait, the more difficult and expensive it becomes. ” said Hansen, and he’s the optimist, that is, he believes it’s still possible to stop it before it reaches a “tipping point” and takes on a life of its own, fail-safe, beyond human control.
Nevertheless, Hansen considers it his duty, as a scientist, grand-father and human being, to make as much noise as he can in the hope that “the world’s governments” (i.e. the corporate-government-military apparatus of The Empire) will do something before it’s too late. It’s a noble attempt by a good man to do what he can, as an acknowledged expert, former research scientist for NASA, to prevent a catastrophe of unimaginable horror. But honestly, if Godzilla himself were to attack The Homeland, stomping major metropolitan areas while drunk on Grape-flavored, highly caffeinated malt-liquor-energy-drinks, what would “our leaders” do, besides call in the obligatory drone-squadron to fell the monster (depending on who he’s actually working for)? Raid the tax-payer kitty to replace the too-big-to-fall skyscrapers owned by their corporate sponsors? Send Godzilla to mandatory counseling and 12-step meetings?
Thus far, our fearless leaders and their media mouth-pieces haven’t said a word about what really ails us, despite severe droughts, major hurricanes, and the reduction of four seasons, in temperate regions, down to two: it is November from late-October until early-June; then it is August from early-June till late October. True, our “elected officials” never say anything about anything, but they are particularly silent on this issue, or suspiciously focused on the impossibility of cataclysmic climate change being anything but yet another lunatic “conspiracy theory” (conspiracy of whom? vanished frogs, bees and other “deceptively extinct” species, perhaps on the pay-roll of some un-American weather-climate-atmospheric complex?). Why on earth would you be stupid enough to believe your own senses? They’ve hustled you before, haven’t they?
McPherson’s solution, delineated in Walking Away from Empire, is a bit more practical, albeit as he himself will admit, perhaps equally as futile. Stop The Machine of Industry, immediately if not sooner, before it stops us. “Us” being homo sapiens, along with most other life forms. Derrick Jensen, John Zerzan, and others as far back as Lewis Mumford, in his 1967-1971 classic, The Myth of the Machine, have been urging this for years.
But, since the Western Civilization we all know and love is already punch-drunk and needs only one or two blows to send it to the canvas, bringing its vassals and the rest of the — to one degree or another — oppressed serf-nations with
it, McPherson and like-minded others are determined to cut the ropes, dismantle the ring and set up a new game once the “Champ’s” unconscious, muscle-bound — but also sagging flab and pocked with cellulite — body out of the arena.
Hence, McPherson also argues that if you can’t stop the civilization you live in from dying, you can at least stop yourself and loved ones from dying with the civilization by not living in it, literally walking away from Empire.
McPherson left his tenured professorship at the University of Arizona, moved to a small, rural community 200 miles from the nearest city, and began to prepare for a sustainable, post-carbon life, accompanied by his wife and their dog. And chickens, ducks, goats, vegetables and legumes and whatever else people might need if they’re too far from Whole Foods or even the tentacles of Amazon to order-in. In addition to cultivating gardens, the McPhersons are making friends and neighbors in a small community of like-minded “doomers” who grow their own food, build or re-build their own shelters, dig wells for water, etc. The kinds of relationships that might prove significantly more lasting and valuable than a thousand Facebook “friends.”
Walking Away from Empire is McPherson’s account, first and foremost of the omnicidal (“omnicide” is a term coined by Jensen) lunacy of Civilization, it’s impending collapse, and his attempt do deal with the situation at hand. The situation common to us all, whether we choose to learn about it now, or after the lights go out and Dominoes takes a hell of a lot longer than 30 minutes to deliver its tepid simulacrum of pizza.
Money will be useless once the system crashes due to oil-depletion and climate change. The longer industrial civilization chugs along — and it won’t be all that long — the lower the chances of survival for all humans and all species. There’s really no choice in terms of getting splattered when the shit hits the fan.
McPherson’s is not an option for everyone though, as he states in the interview below, if a fifty-year-old urban scholar like himself, who’d spent most of his adult years in academia, can do it, others can too. But as he relates in the book, it is not easy.
Nevertheless, as Mumford urged as far back as the late 1960s, we can all do our bit to toss a monkey-wrench into the works. Considering what’s been going on with bank bail-outs, “austerity,” drones over our skies, and mass-murder across the global Empire, we might have to just sit down one day and refuse to get up for a while. Mass refusal to be serfs, slaves, suicides, simpletons and suckers.
Good heavens, what would that do to the DOW?!
Interview questions in italics.
One of the reasons tribal cultures succeeded (until Western Civilization attained boats and gun-powder), and all civilizations failed and fell according to writers such as Lewis Mumford, Derrick Jensen, John Zerzan and many Native American thinkers such as Leonard Crow Dog, Mary Crow Dog and John “Fire” Lame Deer, is because they had no real empathy with or understanding of life and nature, as anything but things and ideas, which civilized scientists, mathematicians and corporations excel in. Civilizations have “religion” but no sense of the “sacred.”
I agree: civilizations have religion without a sense of sacred. We worship money and prestige and we fear dropping lower in the hierarchy. We value other’s perception of us more than we value life, especially non-human life.
Nietzsche and Schopenhauer were fans of Hinduism. Neither was a fan of unthinking societal “progress” at the expense of personal growth. I suspect they would be aghast at the robotic actions of industrial humans, most of whom are pursuing fiat currency instead of reflecting on a whole life.
Even though Nietzsche largely gave up on the notion of the Superman late in his career, he knew we were capable of thinking deeply and living fully. Both he and Schopenhauer knew individuals were capable of overcoming the dark side of culture in which they were embedded. They knew we are more than is indicated by our material possessions. I shudder to think what they would think about manifest destiny.
Even when one mentions the obvious reality that there is no more “weather” as it was once known, except for the awful extremes of hurricanes and other nightmares, that is, the ultimate and only reality of Nature, the usual response is a shrug and a nod, or if you don’t accept that conversation-closer and refuse to shut the hell up, raised eye-brows and subtle intimations that you are an “elitist” or “a fringe element” etc.
My initial response, as in most cases, is a simple fact: Earth has not experienced a month of below-average temperature since February 1985. We would expect the monthly average temperature to be slightly below average about every second month. Yet we’ve “missed” those expected months 337 times in a row. I’m no statistician, but I think the pattern is noteworthy.
The weirding of the weather has become common, but there’s no mention on the nightly weather forecast. There’s little mention of climate change from politicians or heads of corporations, either. And, as nearly as I can distinguish, non-profit organizations are pursuing the money in similar manner to businesses and politicians. It’s small wonder the majority of people in this country are concerned about celebrities and sporting events to a greater extent than they are concerned about environmental issues, including runaway climate change.
The few people who write and talk about the issues I consider primary are relegated to the back of the proverbial bus. Our two-party, one-ideology system of government worships economic growth as our only god. Voices of reason are drowned out by the cries for cash. Without money, we’d all be rich. But with money, a few individuals possess and exert extraordinary power.
As John Steinbeck pointed out while speaking of the failure of socialism to take root in America, “the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Poor and middle-class Americans believe they are one step from the one percent, so they join the one percent in cheering for a system that destroys the living planet in exchange for fiat currency. The results are wholly expected.
The ruling elites must know how much oil is left, and one can only assume if any rationing is to be done, it will be to the military. There can be no military without fuel, but wouldn’t Power make sure there’s enough to fuel a “hostile takeover” of whatever arable land, water and transportation facilities they themselves would need while the rest of the population dies out? If anyone can become self-sustaining, it’s the owner of huge tacts of land with irrigation etc. and a security force to keep it safe. Hell, I’d rather see a nuclear war than that…
I’m certain people with money and power know what we know, and a lot more. But that’s no insurance against collapse of civilization. As Van Jones said in a speech more than five years ago, long before he attained and then lost his job as Obama’s “green” jobs czar (http://hopedance.org/component/content/article/53-soul/337):
“I have been to Davos, and I’ve sat with Bill Clinton and I’ve sat with Bill Gates and I’ve sat with Tony Blair and I’ve sat with Nancy Pelosi. I’ve sat with all these people who we think are in charge, and they don’t know what to do. Take that in: they don’t know what to do! You think you’re scared? You think you’re terrified? They have the Pentagon’s intelligence, they have every major corporation’s input; Shell Oil that has done this survey and study around the peak oil problem. You think we’ve got to get on the Internet and say, “Peak oil!” because the system doesn’t know about it? They know, and they don’t know what to do. And they are terrified that if they do anything they’ll lose their positions. So they keep juggling chickens and chainsaws and hope it works out just like most of us everyday at work.”
I think Jones was employing honesty. The so-called “powers that be” have become the “powers that were.” They are no longer in charge. Nature has taken the reins.
Perhaps my trademark optimism is clouding my judgment. I’m not interested in a neo-feudal future in which the same types of people as today wind up ruining every aspect of the living planet to make themselves comfortable. There are some futures I’d rather not survive.
Tribal cultures developed over thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years of accumulated experience and wisdom passed own through art, song, oral tradition, sometimes writing (i.e. Druids). Post-Civilization “tribes” will inherit the attic of nightmares that is Western Consciousness. Won’t it be more like “Road Warrior” than Sioux, Navajo and other cultures might have been before European/Americans destroyed them?
We’re certainly in for a long, rough ride regardless of future events. Industrial civilization is destroying every aspect of the living planet in exchange for lives of comfort for a few people. Nearly everybody I know is loving it, and is ecstatic about the trade.
The primary strength of pre-civilization societies is their durability. Tribal living works. It worked for a few million years before civilization arose, and it continues to work in certain locales and situations. In contrast, civilization is an utter disaster. It does not work, except to the extreme benefit of a few in the short term.
Unfortunately, evolution by natural selection pushes us toward the short term. We’re “flight or fight” organisms, like other animals. If we survive to reproductive maturity, natural selection pushes us toward reproduction. Culture piles on. While we’re surviving and procreating as if there is no tomorrow, natural selection encourages us to acquire material possessions. These three outcomes of natural selection — short-term focus on survival, procreation, and accumulation of possessions — are disastrous for the common good. Not surprisingly, civilization encourages each of these behaviors.
A few societies experienced civilization, collapsed, and returned to tribal living. The relatively few survivors from survivors from the Olmec, Chaco, and Mimbres cultures demonstrate that we are cognitively and behaviorally capable of this radical shift after the experiment fails. I suspect that, because of runaway climate change, it’s too late for the survivors of industrial civilization to live tribally for an extended period when industrial civilization completes its ongoing collapse. But we can dream.
While it would be great if the wild returned, and wild life, so there could be animals and plants for tribes to hunt and gather, I read in 1491, by Charles C. Mann, that the majority of the eastern seaboard — prior to the arrival John Smith, Miles Standish and other ne’er do-wells, who wiped out 90 percent of the population with measles, small-pox and similar “exotic” viruses — lived off multi-crop, cultivated gardens of regional plant-foods such as starchy, calorie-and-vitamin-rich yams, squash and maize
I agree, absolutely, about multi-crop gardening (cf. farming). This approach, in association with wildcrafting and small communities, worked for millennia.
Wildcrafting is the contemporary version of hunting and gathering, but it extends beyond food to include harvesting plants for medicinal purposes, mats, and simple shelter.
Civilization is defined by the existence of cities, aka people concentrated into an area that cannot support those people. So they strip the nearby land-base for food, water, and building materials, thereby going further into human-population overshoot while reducing the carrying capacity for humans. Grains are particularly problematic, including maize, because they allow people to be fed through the “tough” times, further exacerbating overshoot while facilitating the control of people.
I strongly promoted agrarian anarchy, which I practice here, until I realized we are headed for human extinction in the relatively near future. I will continue to practice and promote agrarian anarchy in this place, knowing it will be among the first places on Earth to lose habitat for humans. At this point, I suspect my own death will be triggered by climate chaos, not collapse. I’d love to live long enough to see industrial civilization’s final demise, and therefore the living planet’s great comeback.
Why wouldn’t you promote agrarian anarchy, especially since you practice it in your community and especially since the writing on the TelePrompTers already spells “Tilt?”
Until last year, I believed humans would persist a long time on this planet. I no longer believe that, so I am less adamant about collapse and living outside the mainstream.
In 2002, as I was working on a book about climate change, I concluded we were headed for human extinction by 2030 or so. I mourned for several months, to the bemused curiosity of the three people who noticed. Shortly thereafter, while working on another book, I discovered the notion of global peak oil and, consequently, the demise of industrial civilization. I thought it was the hail-Mary pass for human existence.
Since then, we’ve triggered our own demise, as assured by 10 self-reinforcing feedback loops. We’re done, and a lot sooner than most people are willing to admit. So I’m much less judgmental than I used to be.
How much more time do you think we have?
How much time? That’s the big question. How much time for industrial civilization? Months, I’d guess. Not years. But I’ve been wrong about that before.
How much time for humans on Earth? A few decades, I’d say. Ten or fifteen years longer in the southern hemisphere than in the northern hemisphere, suggesting we have until 2020 or so up here. Where I live, in the southwestern interior of North America, I doubt we have three years, and certainly not five.
I’ve had a good run. I’m more than 50 years old, and I’ve known birth is lethal for a long time. Nobody gets out alive, so I invoke Nietzsche: “Live as though the day were here.” I have an addendum: Protect what you love, until you can’t. I love the living planet. I doubt my actions will save any part of it. But I’ll not give up.
People will willingly fight and risk their lives to protect their environment. But if their environment is urban, no matter what they hear about or even believe they value in “the environment” as trees, rivers and the noble Indian weeping over litter at the side of the road, what they really value is the environment they actually know.
There’s little question we are in dire straits because most of us have come to depend upon industrial civilization for our very lives. According to the 2010 census, 84% of Americans live in cities. That’s a lot of people who have come to depend upon just-in-time delivery of food at the grocery stores, fossil fuels for heating and cooling, and water pouring from the municipal taps.
As Derrick Jensen points out in his book Endgame, when we believe our water comes from the tap we will defend to the death the system that keeps water coming out the tap. When we realize water comes from ecosystems beyond cities, we will defend to the death the (eco)system that provides our water.
The transformation from rural to city was gradual, and it coincided with globalization. When globalization and the world’s most lethal killing force allowed the United States to colonize other countries, often via soft power such as possession of the world’s reserve currency, we no longer had to extract coal, oil, or timber from our own country. In addition, we could outsource menial jobs to other countries in exchange for a system of fiat currency we controlled. Reversing that process, hence returning to a re-localized set of living arrangements, is not possible at the scale of this country. In addition, I doubt 10% of the people in this country think it would be a good idea.
And that’s merely the idea of scaling back to a simpler life with less consumption. Never mind tribalism and living without the hierarchy of civilization: Returning to a set of living arrangements based on production and distribution of food is conceptually beyond the realm of possibility for most Americans. We’ve come to view the process of chasing electrons around our computer screens as hard work.
On the other hand, my own example indicates almost anybody can take a path similar to mine. A lifelong academic, I could barely distinguish between and screwdriver and a zucchini when I began this project. I have relevant skills only because I beat my fingers with a hammer for several years. Although I grew up in a small town, and was therefore acquainted with small-town life, it’s a long road from the ivory tower to building structures, growing gardens, and animal husbandry.
We’re not really talking about “saving Americans” so much as life itself, in particular, the species homo sapiens. What about the rest of the planet, particularly the least developed “third world” countries whose U.S.-multinational corporate/military imposed poverty might be an ultimate advantage?
I think the (global) south will rise again. When American Empire falls, and by extension the global empire headed by the United States, the oppression we exert is lifted. About half the people in the world will notice only because the slaughter stops. That is, they’ll notice only the absence of impacts (for example, no drones breaking up the family wedding).
Many of these communities live without the luxuries we take for granted. They grow their own food and obtain water from a common well. They do not rely on fossil fuels, and yet they thrive. They will thrive even more when industrial civilization comes to its overdue close.
Of course, the reprieve will be temporary. Already, many of these so-called “third world” countries are on the leading edge of climate change. Climate change accounts for the early death of about 400,000 people, primarily in “lesser-developed” countries. In light of the ongoing acceleration of climate change, that lethal number will undoubtedly increase.
But if many communities in these countries do not rely on fossil fuels and the machinery of artificial light, heat, air-conditioning, tap-water, sewage systems, etc., why would the reprieve be temporary?
The reprieve will be temporary because of climate chaos, environmental decay, and ionizing radiation as the world’s 400+ nuclear power plants melt down catastrophically. Climate change increases the spread of many diseases (e.g., by increasing temperature, hence biological activity). Collapse, however, will reduce the spread of many diseases (via reduced ability to make contact with people far away).
The military might be as obedient to the plutocracy as the politicians, but once money ceases to matter, merely force, I would think, based on their history of absolutely insane, murderous, and reckless behavior, that they would attempt to “seize the day” by any means necessary. Or go out with a very very big bang, rather than a whimper?
I strongly suspect our military is stretched to the breaking point specifically because we’re reaching for the last drops of oil on the planet. We kill everybody that gets in the way of “our” oil (Carter Doctrine). Will we continue, as long as we can? I’ve no doubt about it.
Will it lead to nuclear war, hence nuclear winter? Could be, but I have no control over that outcome, so I try not to dwell on it.
I suspect we’re in a race between collapse and the military prowess necessary to maintain this set of living arrangements through brutal lethality. If collapse carries the day, the U.S. dollar will be worthless and, as a result, we need not worry about soldiers carrying out their orders to continue killing for oil. If the most lethal force in the history of the world continues to “win”, then we all lose.
Some proposed solutions involve a Marxist model that puts workers in charge of production so that all 7 billion people cramming every inch of the planet can be fed, housed, and medically attended so they can produce more food, clothing and other essentials — as well as reproduce more workers. Isn’t this almost as destructive, regardless of intent, as the insanity of endless growth Capitalism?
Human-population overshoot is the elephant in the room. It’s among the last taboos in the civilized world. There is no politically viable approach to deal with overshoot — seeking volunteers for suicide isn’t politically viable — just as there is no politically viable solution to deal with climate change, cancer clusters, or economic decline driven by peak oil. There is no political leadership on any of these issues, and there never will be. Many truths will remain unspoken, except by those who value truth as much as life itself.
In this case, the “radicals” are not radical. They are not getting to the root of the issue.
Couldn’t the example of leaving “civilized life” to create small, sustainable communities in remote, rural areas be compared to the “bomb shelter craze” that erupted in the late 50s, that is, “The hell with it. I’d rather not survive to live in a wasted world.” Couldn’t the same be said for the situation we’re facing now (which might include nuclear war anyway)?
I can imagine a few scenarios not worth living through. Nuclear Armageddon is one. Slavery in any form, including additional increases in the inverted totalitarian, surveillance, fascist, police state in which we’re now immersed is another. My primary motivation for surviving through completion of the ongoing economic collapse is to see the living planet make a comeback, however brief.
3. http://www.ted.com/talks james_hansen_why_i_must_speak_out_about_climate_change.html
Guy McPherson was born and raised in the heart of the Aryan Nation, small-town northern Idaho. He first experienced the hair-raising incident of a rifle pointed at the base of his neck when he was ten years old. The person behind the trigger was thirteen. This episode was so ordinary he didn’t bother to tell his parents for two decades. It simply never came up.
The escape from the benighted village came in the form of education, in large part because McPherson’s parents were lifelong educators. To pay for his undergraduate education, which led to a degree in forestry, McPherson spent summers working on a helitack crew. Staring down a large wildfire at the age of nineteen, he realized some forces of nature are beyond the human ability to manage.
More than ten years into a career in the academic ivory tower, McPherson began focusing his efforts on social criticism, with topics ranging from education and evolution to the twin sides of the fossil-fuel coin: (1) global climate change and (2) energy decline and the attendant economic consequences. His public appearances stress these two predicaments because each of them informs and impacts every aspect of life on Earth.
McPherson’s latest chapter includes abandoning his tenured position as full professor at a major research university for ethical reasons. His story is described in his memoir, “Walking Away from Empire.” You can read about that book and his many others at his website: http://guymcpherson.com/my-books/
Adam Engel lived for your sins — and he lived well! — in Fear-and-Trembling, Brooklyn, one of the last gangrenous toes of NYC not yet severed and replaced with a prosthetic gentrification device. Read other articles by Adam, or visit Adam’s website.