Hedonism, Survivalism, and the Burden of Knowledge
by James Magnus-Johnston
In my last post, I asked whether human beings are naturally predisposed to deny the precarious reality of our planet’s health, which 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.
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 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 the 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.
Thank you for providing these categories and the language to describe them. You help me sort through my own reactions and actions and label them. I also appreciate the links to further reading. Nice article!
Agreed; It really helps to have these descriptive categories, although I am not sure where I fit. As a biologist I think that both depression and denial are evolutionary dead-ends, it is just that depression was a dead-end in our early history and denial is our new dead-end. Paralysis is just acknowledging reality and denial is sticking one’s head in the sand in the face of overwhelming evidence. I prefer acknowledging reality based on evidence. For a really good article acknowledging reality by Dr. McPherson, Google “Nature Bats Last”.
Well, now you know how many vegans feel. A vegan human ecology is equally necessary to the steady state economy—in addition to other necessities such as social and economic justice. If we are able to link our multiple responses to the mortal crises we face, then perhaps we can reach the critical mass of humanity about what we must do. Unfortunately, most of us remain too busy advocating single approaches to the complexity that is behind the collapse of ecosystems everywhere. Complex problems require complex responses. It is not one human behavior that must change, but many and they have to happen simultaneously.
Relying on the limiting factor principle, we can agree that if we miss any of several behavior changes in humanity, the rest will fail. The only concept / field I know that is sufficiently comprehensive to accomplish this is human ecology. Long neglected as a watered down field of study—and now applied to diverse applications such as designing for interior spaces—it still can be used as the platform, not to study but to advocate, for an intentional human ecology. I’ve been arrogant enough to call it the new human ecology. It includes the Steady State Economy. We created the mess with our current human ecologies across cultures so that’s where we must go to cure it. OK, I’ll take a breath. But yea, we are in anguish and sometimes depression because of mass willed ignorance. Why not agree on a comprehensive platform that works empirically regardless of how it challenges us personally?
I just wanted to clarify that my criticism of McPherson’s claims really had nothing to do with “methodological uncertainty”. I pointed out some of the many instances where his factual claims about climate change are undeniably false— as in, he claims a study or report says x when it actually says something completely different. This is important because, while I wouldn’t feel a need to challenge Guy’s *opinions*, he sells himself as “simply passing along the science”. In reality many of those factual claims are badly muddled, which is why I encourage people to check his sources. Unfortunately, that’s not not an easy ask for most, given the technical, jargon-filled nature of scientific papers, and the fact that many are behind paywalls.
Boxing people into hedonist, survivalist, and denialist is presmised on McPherson or Lovelock being correct. Scott Johnson’s critique of Guy McPherson you linked to is devasting. McPherson cherry picks data from the science – as much so as the climate deniers – and relies on opinion pieces for his most significant claims of extinction. Lovelock is similiarly off the mark. Both claim that “climate it change will make us go extinct or collapse”, but neither have put forward a mechanism for how that happens. That’s a critical omission. I think a close reading of the science does show a lot of things that will cause significant harm, but nothing that is a viable candidate for total extinction, especially on the time scales suggested by Lovelock and McPherson.
The commonality between hedonist and survivalist is the retraction of responsibility to act to affect large-scale social outcomes. And it makes an insult of people that work on the problem as somehow denying something. “Denialism” is a statement that the arguments of others are motivated by a deep desire to not see “the truth”, and therefore any argument they present is flawed. It’s a sinister for of ad hominen, premised on some assumed truth, which in this case Scott Johnson dismantled entirely.
So why does this get so much attention? Well, I think a lot of us in the de-growth crowd see that the magnitude of climate change is enough to justify a re-structuring of the economic system, and worth the likely destabilization and chaos and resulting human suffering that will occur during the change-over. The uncertainty of the magnitude of the challenge can be taken further, and the claim of certain, soon collapse or extinction is a great way to resolve that existential uncertainty. I think it misses the point though. Most telling is that the immenent collapse view is nearly exclusively held by wealthy whites. For the majority of the world, collapse is the daily experience of poverty, land grabs, culutral annihilation, military occupations etc., that have made life quite a bit more difficult. That collapse isn’t existentially-crippling to the point that presumes mindsets of “survivalism”, “hedonism”, or “denialism”, though the implications are more severe. In the lack of nuance on climate catastrophism, those who will be hurt the most from climate change disappear.
Basically, I think we should be working hard on solutions for everybody, rather than falling easy prey to existential bad reasoning that attempts to free us from the responsbility of doing so.
the process running your circulatory system is the same process running the Sun.. you are not sitting here thinking ..i am running my body are you? no the process is just happening, and it is continuous with the Universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean … when this is realized all fear falls away for there is nothing left for you to get hung up on… for you realize you are the Universe becoming aware of itself. Only the ego fear death for it is grounded in fear, that’s its purpose , it’s the veil over sanctuary that has to be seen through…
this is the root of all our issues, the fundamental disconnection at the heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam… the model of the Universe these groups use is a powerful image but as we now know can not hold water in light of modern science…
but science has a blind spot as well… when we threw out the Law Maker, we kept the laws, the Laws of Nature.. this came from the religions and resulted in a different image but equally powerful and disconnecting from the Universe, that we are the result of blind luck, happen stance a probability…
if you don’t beleive in the stern white beared father or king of the universe you equally can’t believe the automatic blind luck theory of the Universe at the heart of science…
People are a symptom of this Earth like an apple is the symptom of an apple tree… a apple tree apples, this earth peoples’…the intelligence running our bodies is intrinsic in ALL things…
the idea of the interconnected nature of reality is a truly new and confronting idea… imagine how one must have felt when the belief that the Earth was the centre of the Universe was first challenged? Imagine the fear and dislocation this must have made people feel… this is similar to the idea of the interconnected nature of everything… it is a radically NEW idea and results in a whole new Universe opening up….
this crisis is either our end, or the pain required to wake up from our slumber and grow into the ideas that have been at the heart of Old cultures for thousands of years….
we must not fear now to stand and say this….we must unite now and put aside our petty squabbles for the ship is going to sink if we don’t…