Hedonism, Survivalism, and the Burden of Knowledge by James Magnus-Johnston


A Black Friday commentary event in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Michael Holdne.

A Black Friday commentary event in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Michael Holdne.

If human beings are naturally predisposed to deny the precarious reality of our planet’s health, that would help explain the undeserved endurance of the growth narrative. Self-imposed ignorance, in other words, is bliss. It absolves us from the responsibility of action.

What about the rest of us? For those of us that have ‘quit denial,’ so to speak, can conscious awareness be channeled to motivate positive action? Or is hope futile in the face of an enormous task?

A recent article by Madeline Thomas in Grist featured the headline, “Climate depression is for real. Just ask a scientist.” Scientists’ intimate understanding of climate change has led to depression, substance abuse, suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Camillie Parmesan, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as a lead author of the Third IPCC Assessment Report, became “profoundly depressed” at the seeming futility of her work. She had been screaming from the scientific rooftops, yet the best we could offer in response was little more than a call for more carbon-intensive growth.

Evolutionary psychologists Ajit Varki and Danny Brower believe that some of the earliest humans fell into depression due to their awareness of mortality, while others were able to carry on without becoming crippled by this realization. Mind-over-reality became humanity’s defining characteristic, enabling us to maintain sanity in the face of danger. On a society-wide basis, anxiety and depression could cause an avoidance of procreation, which would be an evolutionary dead-end.

We’re now confronting not only our individual mortality, but perhaps even the mortality of our species, according to a few controversial voices. Ecologist Guy McPherson is among those who have suggested that near-term human extinction is inevitable. James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis, believes that climate catastrophe is inevitable within 20 years. With an awareness of the rate of species loss and climate change, among other symptoms of breakdown, it isn’t hard to fall into paralysis and despair.

But others seem able to carry on without being crippled by this realization. Proponents of the steady state economy are among those who remain optimistic in the face of long odds, and generally, I think we fall into one of three camps: survivalists, hedonists, and denialists.

The Survivalists among us are easiest to spot. We all know the survivalists among us. They’re the lot that want to voluntarily extricate themselves from known civilization before the imagined ‘$h!t’ hits the fan in some kind of imagined catastrophic event. They dream of a semi-pastoral existence in the agrarian hinterlands, far from the commercialized zombies who wouldn’t know how to take care of themselves without the convenience of a department store. They’re hard workers who romantically hope to re-kindle the low-carbon self-sufficiency of generations past.

Then there are the Hedonists, and I’d be willing to wager that a great many well-educated millennials fall into this category, sometimes by accident. Hedonists might accept the ecological challenges we face and withdraw from the growth-obsessed formal economy. But rather than heading for the hills, they do what they love. I think these are many of the artists, dumpster-divers, and coffee-enthusiasts among us. You can’t measure their contribution to change in terms of GDP. Both McPherson and Lovelock seem to prescribe hedonism, with Lovelock calling for us to “enjoy life while we can” because “in 20 years, global warming will hit the fan.” McPherson, for his part, calls upon us to “passionately pursue a life of excellence,” and practice the radical generosity associated with hospice care. For the hedonist, “carpe diem” is the modus operandi. They’re always asking themselves: what must we do, knowing that we only have a little bit of time left?

And finally, the Denialist. A little bit of overconfidence and denial can come in pretty handy from an evolutionary perspective, because it keeps us from obsessing about the abysmal end. In this case, I’m not referring to outright denial of climate change–the “climate deniers.” I’m referring to those of us who accept planetary life support breakdown, but hope that maybe—just maybe—human civilization has enough wiggle room to squeak by. Just enough methodological uncertainty to restore this blue dot to health. After all, careful skepticism is the essence of good science. Hydrogeologist Scott Johnson, for instance, has written a long rebuttal to the claims of Guy McPherson. Denialists would be more inclined to lean on the kind of methodological uncertainty emphasized by Mr. Johnson, and reject the kind of claims offered by McPherson and Lovelock.

I fall into each of these camps from time to time. As a survivalist, I hope to learn how to garden a little bit every summer and support the DIY economy. As a hedonist, I will do what I love and passionately engage in conversations about catalyzing the steady state economy, because I believe it sets a new standard of excellence for the 21st century. In fact, all things considered, I believe the steady state economy represents a balanced “middle way” between ignorance and paralysis. And with a healthy dose of denial, I will continue to hope that somehow, the margin of error is just wide enough to turn Spaceship Earth around.

Source: The Daly News, Posted: 27 Nov 2014, from CASSE <http://steadystate.org/&gt;

One response to “Hedonism, Survivalism, and the Burden of Knowledge by James Magnus-Johnston

  1. I appreciate this. I consider myself a “defiant optimist”…defiant because the Doom seems inevitable and the passive ignorance of the population insurmountable…. I think pessimism and cynicism (though natural responses to the situation) are just as toxic as the pollution and env. degradation we’re imposing on the world — Supposedly we’re the first generation to be more pessimistic than optimistic about the future in a long time. “Doom and Gloom” bludgeon the already overwhelmed population into further hopelessness and inaction. Pessimism HELPS the bad stuff come forth. Pessimists are PART of the problem (yeah radical, whatever).

    Despite the crummy situation we’re in, it seems quite obvious from 10 years of personal research that the solutions remain simple and obvious… Desertification, toxic algal blooms, water acidification and other destructive biproducts of industry can be dramatically reversed in a mere handful of years through Bioremediation projects: The most profound example I think is shown in the documentary “Green Gold” with John D. Liu — Mr. Liu uses strategic plantings and social involvement to utterly reverse desertified and degraded landscapes. Please check it out if you feel hopeless. There’s gotta be a way we can crowdfund and create similar stuff all over the world.

    I have been unable to find footage of a similar project in some southeast asian canal project that completely reversed a polluted waterway system (toxic sludge, water you couldn’t see a foot deep) with bioremediation in the form of floating hydroponic rafts growing ornamental plants (the plants absorb the bad stuff and trap it within their tissues).

    Bioremediation is something that if large media promoted and large industry adopted widely, I believe it would reverse things almost “overnight”.

    I believe I fall into all 3 of your categories but find the survivalists branch the one to avoid the most: There will be no carving out a small pastoral niche if the entire globe collapses. Ever seen the film adaptation (or read) “The Road” by Cormac MacArthy…F*** that. Cannibal zombie culture is already being promoted in our popular entertainment.

    I’m doing my best to radically change my life so that I might have the resources and reputation to create these kind of projects on a regional scale. I think “Bioregionalism” is a philosophy that falls under the Steady-State umbrella and applying the “permaculture flower” (starts with the individual in the center and radiates out to communities and regions) to the bioregional model gives us a way that we can empower ourselves to hopefully change our communities and make an example for others to follow. This mess of industrialization is actually quite young historically and the efforts to reverse it are younger by comparison.

    Despite writing all this, if asked: I still don’t know really what the hell is going to happen in the coming decades. It looks real bad and I have gone through many phases of depression and genuine Misanthropy. I believe I have emerged from this as a “denialist” + “hedonist” hybrid with optimism being my weapon. Being active and creating are the only antidotes I have found for myself.

    I’d like to think we’ll keep feeling the squeeze until there is no more denying it and will jump into action: Joe Rogan put it like this, “Do you think humanity is cramming for a test? Rather than preparing well in advance, this explosion of information is like a race against time to see if we can cram it all in before the next day and hopefully emerge victorious over our previous ignorance”…that’s not verbatim but close enough.

    Thanks for the article. Resonating voices are one of the few healing things the conscious ones have left.
    I linked my youtube channel to my name. As of this writing its only a couple weeks old and mostly has “art” based content but I have been editing a “wild child project” that will be a series of philosophy and activity to cultivate a deeper connection to the natural world in ourselves and others. Starting with our own consciousness is all that can be done. You can’t share what you don’t have.

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