The Death Of A Civilization

A cemetery in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. Photo by me

Infinite growth on a finite planet is cancer, and this cancer is terminal now. Has been for a while. I hate to be the one to tell ‘ya. Climate change is just a symptom of the all consuming rot. All the ‘renewable’ cures just move the cancerous growth to different organs. The time to cut this thing out was 10,000, 500, maybe 50 years ago, but it’s too late now. The cancer has simply grown too much (GDP doubling every 30 years now) and spread too far (globalization). As you can see, we still measure growth as a positive and not as what it is, planetary cancer. It’s not even that the treatment isn’t going well. We’re smoking more than ever.

People say that this news is ‘doomerism’, that it’s ‘demotivating’. As if fate gives a fuck about our feelings. Sometimes you just get bad news in your life and you have to take it. You must know this from your own experience. All of us know loss, and in the end we lose it all. It’s a bit unusual for death to be coming to millions of species at once, but we should get the general concept. It happens to every single person on a personal level. We all get old, we all get sick, and we all die. This truth motivated the Buddha well enough. Life is dukkha.

Dukkha doesn’t translate well, but you could (literally) say it’s like a bad wheel that doesn’t fit the axle and eventually falls off. This happens to every vehicle on its own, but sometimes there’s a disaster that sweeps everyone off the road. Pretending you can keep going in an electric vehicle is just sedating yourself with lithium. Every creature must die and, every now and then, they all die at once. As the Buddha said, “‘We do here perish’: this the others do not understand. But if they do understand, the quarrels are thereby appeased.”

I have no quarrel with people saying we need to do something about this. The important question is do what? Right action is very different from mindless action. Dealing with death is very different from pretending it’s not happening. Mindless action in the wrong direction is actually harmful, and a lot of what passes for climate action is mere marketing. Like the cigarette ads that claimed ‘less tar’. OK, what about the other stuff? This is like the myopic focus on carbon, ignoring the million other ways we’re destroying the Earth. An electric bulldozer is still a bulldozer.

Infinite growth on a finite planet is cancer, whatever the energy source. We’ve got planetary cancer and it’s terminal. We’ve honestly had the cancer since agriculture and it just accelerated when we started doing fossil fuels. Now it’s terminal and there’s nothing ‘we’ can do to stop it. At some point, it’s wrong to give a patient hope and this is one of those times. This is Stage IV cancer. It’s actually unethical to tell someone they can beat cancer if they can’t, and it’s even worse if you use that hope to sell them fake cures. That’s not right action, it’s just wrong.

If you’re dying — as this civilization is dying — then very different actions are called for. Getting your affairs in order. Writing a will. Spending time with your loved ones, and not pissing away their inheritance. That’s what we should be talking about. Not how we can ‘grow’ our way out of it, by buying this car or that technology.

If you acknowledge the fact that you’re dying, this is not necessarily ‘giving up’. I don’t even know what ‘giving up’ means. If you take it literally — as in giving ‘up’ to the gods — then I’m all for it. One of the things on your bucket list should definitely being right with God, whatever that means to you. If we had some dim sense of a higher power it would give us a clue as to what to do. It’s not like we haven’t been told. Here are some things we could do. I’ll use the term ‘we’ liberally, even though we A) don’t exist in any coherent sense and B) don’t wanna.

Giving Things Away

If ‘we’ knew we were dying, we might give things away, as all gods have told us to. If elders understood their own age, they might give to the young, the poor, and give some thought to their legacy (and eternal damnation). This is of course precisely the opposite of what’s happening in the hedonistic now. Today, elders are hoarding power in politics and wealth locked up in their homes, as if they’re going to live forever. It’s all generational theft, and it’s all predicated on a misdiagnosis. It’s all predicated on false hope. We keep telling people they can live forever with some new technology (AI! EVs!) and they keep acting like it. It might be different if you told people we’re actually dying. Then they might give up, and give out.

Writing A Will

If we acknowledged that we were dying we might also write a will. This is a touchy subject in any context. In a civilizational context that would mean preserving what is important, like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. Unlike Asimov, I shudder to say preserve our knowledge, because it is precisely knowledge that led us awry (re: Genesis). I shudder even more to say science, because it was ‘following the science’ that led to oil wells in the first place.

The physicist Richard Feynman said, if we could only leave one sentence, we should say “things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.” But what did we do with that information? We built bombs and dropped them on each other. That may still be what ends the world, in a blaze of ignominy. Leaving atomic physics to the future is like leaving your kids the gun you shot yourself with. Very American.

What we call knowledge may in fact be the germ of the cancer killing us, so it’s perhaps the worst thing to pass on. Since a will divides up resources, we should really leave note saying ‘none of this stuff is yours’. We should wrap it around some nuclear waste, so even if they can’t read their hair will fall out and they’ll know something was evil and wrong. Anything to get the point across, don’t be willful like us. Not a will, really. A warning.

Spending Time With Loved Ones

If we knew we were dying, we might also focus on what’s important. Spending time with our families. Maybe we’d stop to smell the flowers before the bees stop pollinating them. Everybody’s still spending time away from their families to grow the economy which is ultimately what’s killing us. We’re literally working ourselves to death. Does anyone sit on their deathbed, wishing they’d worked more? I understand providing for your family, but there are more sensible ways to do that, without all the waste heat from this misery machine we call an economy. If we knew we were on our deathbed, maybe we’d act differently. Maybe we’d focus on what’s important. Like each other.

Hope For The Hopeless

As you can see, I’m as prone to hope as anybody else. Here I am giving advice to a non-existent ‘we’, implying that an aggregate of non-existent selves can have coherent thoughts and act on them. We can’t and we won’t, but we can imagine.

My point here is merely that understanding that this civilization is dying does not necessarily lead to ‘demotivation’. It is simply true and can lead us to taking the right actions, given the predicament we’re actually in. We’re not going to get right action from wrong information and the fact is that all things die. In this case, it’s happening all at once, but that’s not even unusual. We’re living through just another mass extinction. This is unusual for an individual to experience, but geologically it’s quite regular. Might as well make your peace with it rather than flailing about with magical solutions. These solutions are just more problem.

Infinite growth on a finite planet is cancer. It’s important to understand that isn’t even the first time that life forms completely fucked up the thermostat. 2.5 billion years ago, cyanobacteria (literal pond scum) discovered solar power and got so high on their own supply that their emissions (oxygen) froze the Earth. We’re not special snowflakes. We’re just kids that found their dad’s gun and thought we were so cool. We blithely dug up the tombs of these great powers and ran their apocalypse in reverse. They really should’ve left us a warning.

As the African-American spiritual goes,

God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water, the fire next time

That’s where we are. The fire next time. We should be talking arks and torching yachts, but that’s not what we’re doing, is it? The rich are saying “smoke ’em while you’ve got ’em” while the poor struggle to cook their last meals with gas. We are all part of the same hypocrisy, albeit going to different levels of hell, inshallah. This is why I say the patient (this civilization) is terminal. The cancer of growth has gone to the brain, and it’s simply out of control. The doomers have always been right in the long run, and the long run is now.

So let us cast aside the lies, at long last. Let us lie on our deathbed with some dignity, not flail around town in a Tesla, drugged to the gills with lithium, pissing the kids' inheritance away on mere baubles and fake cures. We’re not doing ourselves any favors by pretending anymore. This isn’t doomerism, and it’s not demotivating, this is just happening and you can either deal with it or not. And I don’t mean ‘deal’ as in ‘fix’ it. I mean ‘deal’ as in pick out a burial plot and relieve your children of as much burden as possible. We are in fact lucky to get this terminal diagnosis. It gives us precious time to do what’s important. To get our affairs in order.