The chart above is an attempt to offer some structure for understanding the positions of various collapseniks, doomers, post-doomers, etc. More-or-less mainstream folks like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein could be placed on this chart, as well as more radical folks like Derrick Jensen and Ted Kaczynski.
The two spectrums are (1) optimism versus pessimism and (2) cultural transformation versus material resistance.The chart assumes that you take some form of societal collapse as a given, whether it is a sudden collapse, a slow decline, or a staggered combination of both. If you are techno-optimist (believe that new technologies will save us) or a progressive (believe that the political reforms will save us), then you don’t belong anywhere on this chart.
Optimism versus Pessimism
At the bottom end of the vertical spectrum are those who believe that the collapse will be final and will result in likely human extinction. I put Guy McPherson (Nature Bats Last, coined the term “near term human extinction”) as representative of the pessimistic view.
At the top end of the spectrum, are those who believe (or at least hope) that the collapse will lead to a societal transformation handsome form of ecological utopia. I put Starhawk ( The Spiral Dance, The Fifth Sacred Thing) as representative of the optimistic view. Note, I don’t know how optimistic or pessimistic Starhawk actually is, but her writing at least encourages hope in the possibility of ecotopia.
Cultural Transformation versus Material Resistance
The horizontal spectrum represents cultural transformation versus material resistance. On the left side are those who feel our primary work is should be cultural/psychological/ideological transformation, etc. This side does not ignore material resistance, but is concerned that if we don’t change ourselves (individually and collectively) first, we will end up reproducing the structures of domination that we want to tear down.
I put Joanna Macy ( The Work that Reconnects) as representative of this group. Note, this is not to say that Macy doesn’t believe in the importance of material resistance. It just means that her work starts with the cultural/psychological, in the expectation that it will lead to material change. In fact, Macy has written critically of those who focus too much on “being the change”:
“When we posit a fundamental separation between liberation of self and transformation of society, we tend to view the personal and the political in a sequential fashion. ‘I’ll get enlightened first, and then I’ll engage in social action,’ we say. ‘I’ll get my head straight first, I’ll get psychoanalyzed, I’ll overcome my inhibitions or neuroses or my hang-ups and then I’ll wade into the fray.’ Presupposing that world and self are essentially separate, we imagine we can heal one before healing the other. … It is my experience that the world itself has a role to play in our liberation. Its very pressures, pains, and risks can wake us up―release us from the bonds of ego and guide us home to our vast, true nature.”
― Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self
On the right side of the spectrum are those who feel our primary work should be material resistance. They feel that any cultural transformation is just self-indulgent without actual change in the material world. I put Derrick Jensen ( Deep Green Resistance) as representative of this category.
Again, I put Jensen on the far right, because that’s where his work is focused. But even Jensen understands the necessity of cultural transformation. On the one hand, he writes that of the generations that come will after us, “They’re not going to care if we became the change we wished to see.” On the other hand, he acknowledges that decolonizing ourselves-breaking our identity and loyalty to this culture- “is internal work that doesn’t accomplish anything in the real world, but it makes all further steps more likely, more feasible”. He sees resistance and working for cultural change as “deeply complementary”:
“Yes, there absolutely needs to be the creation of a new culture with new values (or, really, tens of thousands of cultures, each emerging from its own landbase, including the re-emergence of extant indigenous cultures). But the people involved in that cultural creation must see themselves as part of a resistance movement that supports and encourages action against the forces that are dismembering our planet, or, at least, that doesn’t actively discourage organized resistance whenever the subject is raised. Otherwise that nice, new culture is simply a fantasy, unhooked from anything in the real, physical world, incapable of ever being effective, and, ultimately, a position of privilege.”
― Derrick Jensen, “Resistance Resisters”
I’ve written here quite a bit (here, here, here, here) about my journey from being a progressive activist and techno-optimist to accepting collapse and coming to believe in “inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction” (Jem Bendell). In fact, I think we’re already experiencing collapse and the signs of it are all around us. I think the chance of reversing course are slim to nil. I’m holding out a small possibility for an ecotopia to arise from the ashes of global industrial civilization, but I’m not optimistic — so I’m putting myself pretty far down the vertical spectrum.
What I haven’t written much about before is the tension between cultural transformation and material resistance in this context. This is a frequent subject of debate in activist and organizing circles. My Marxist friends fall on the material side of things. But I tend to see this more as a both-and, rather than an either-or problem.
For much of my life, I have been an idealist, in the philosophical sense of the term, meaning I believed that ideas (often unconscious) made the world go round. But over time I came to see how our ideas are shaped by our material reality, by our economic circumstances, even by our bodies. I also saw (in myself and others) how too much focus on the cultural/psychological/ideological (what Marxists call the “superstructure”) can be just a way of avoiding the actual work of changing things, and in that way end up being a counter-revolutionary (what Marxists call “reactionary”). I also saw how just doing the work can actually change how we think and feel. So, again, I think it’s both-and-so I’ve put myself in the middle of the spectrum on that issue.
So I’ve put myself at about 6 o’clock on the chart (though, so far, my work would put me at about 7 o’clock.) On side of cultural transformation, I want to continue to work with the Deep Adaptation community to help transform how we think and talk about our relationship with the more-than-human world. My writing, the grief group, and creative use of ritual as a way of fostering this transformation, are all a part of this.
On the side of material resistance, I want pursue what’s been called “permaculture activism”, which I mean creating parallel/alternative economies at the household to small community levels, in order to (1) increase resilience in face of collapse, (2) as a kind of boycott of the dominant system to possibly accelerate that collapse (which, as David Holmgren explains, could be a good thing), and (3) ultimately to help shape what follows collapse in an ecologically positive way.
Where do you fall on the chart and why?