Long ago I used to believe in eternal human progress. I believed in the singularity. I believed that the future would eventually look something like Startrek. When I was 24 that got turned upside down. I’m not going to repeat all the arguments for the triad of overpopulation, climate change, and resource depletion here. Others have done a better job at that than I can. Suffice to say, having your world view turned over in a “doomfull” way is stressful. Furthermore, it is typically something you have to carry alone. Most people would rather stay in denial, put their fingers in their ears and go “lalalala”.

However, eventually this feeling of hopelessness always seems to be replaced with another form of hope. It’s really just a transition from A to B.

Imagine that you grew up believing you were going to live forever. Now at some point you find out that some day, you are going to die. If you read this you are probably aware of your own mortality, yes? Do you remember when you became aware of it—I mean really aware of it as something that was definitely going to happen to you at some point and not just some abstract concept that happens to others. I don’t really remember it. I think it happened around when I was 19, but it wasn’t a singular outstanding event.

Many people take comfort in that their offspring will carry on their legacy. Truth to be told, your DNA may live on, but your DNA isn’t really you. If you’ve done really well talking to your grand children, your legacy may last 3-4 generations. Beyond that you’re gone. I never got a chance to talk to my great grand parents—consequently, I don’t carry their legacy.

Now imagine that the entire civilization may die in the same sense. How does that make you feel? Some don’t care about that nearly as much as who’s going to win the World Series [in baseball]. I cared a lot. I believed in eternal progress [despite the fact that our civilization has only really believed in that for a couple of hundred years… as mentioned above, how quickly we forget]. Now, I believe in a more cyclical nature of civilization. It is sobering to realize that the Roman Imperial standard of civilization (as measured by city size and running water) was lost and not regained until well into the 19th century. Many believe that our civilization is somehow unique and immune to its eventually fall and decline unlike ALL the civilizations that went before it. I don’t. Some day our cultural icons are going to be gone from human memory. Moon launches may become legend—we don’t carry records written in stone but rather in a very perishable form.

It is important to realize that civilization is a fairly abstract concept. Civilization is an emergent behavior of our combined actions. Like human tissue civilization gets continuously destroyed and rebuilt. As far as I remember, the turnover of all the atoms in a human is on the order of 15 years. All the molecules, which make you you, were somewhere else 15 years ago. This also means that nothing is going to happen to our civilization tomorrow. Change is rather slow. Impacts on individual humans may not be.

It is perfectly possible to live your life while being perfectly oblivious to any kind of collapse. Some of it is too slow for most people to notice. You don’t notice the increased population density (there are now 50% more people than when I was born … when I visited the place I grew up last year much of the nearby farm land had been paved over with subdivisions). You don’t notice that the air gets less clean decade by decade. Some of it is due to the wrong focus. Many think that the political battle is between left vs right when it’s really between consumers and investors.

You can remain oblivious. You can declare that you don’t really care. You can fight for it. Or you can stand aside. Those are your four choices.

Fighting is good, but to remain happy it is best to realize that there’s little a single individual can do and set your expectations accordingly. Work from a baseline of zero: That you can’t do anything about the big problems. Then appreciate anything you get beyond that. Conversely, don’t fall into the trap that there’s nothing you can do personally about your situation. Concern yourself with things you can control. Learn to live with what you can’t.

Incidentally, that’s a pretty useful life philosophy overall. Much unhappiness derive from unmet expectations.

From an individual perspective, everything you do should start with yourself. Work on local change. All superstructures are based on several people thinking along the same lines. All responsibility is ultimately personal; that’s what makes you an adult…if you seek to blame others, you’re just a child—it’s too bad that our culture has devolved into having a substantial fraction of immature and childish people. Consequently, it is useless to rebuild the superstructure without establishing the foundation first. This is why I’m no longer active in the peak oil community—it lacks a foundation. You can’t build a sustainable world as long as people believe in easy technological fixes to their problems.

At least that’s how I see things. You can’t save others before you can save yourself. You shouldn’t blame others until you are free of blame yourself. Philosophy is not something you talk about, it’s what you do.

That’s a lot of moralizing, but it is in my opinion a good way to life. In particular, it is quite possible to live a full life even if civilization was to reach a tipping point and turn over in your lifetime—they tend to decline fully within a span of about a century and it seems to be a bumpy ride down. And if no such tipping is forthcoming or it’s postponed beyond your “expiration date”, I think it is still a good way to live.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to say something a little wiser 50 years from now, but for now, this will have to do.

PS: I don’t really love the end of the world. I just couldn’t resist the title which is of course paraphrased from Dr. Strangelove. I imagine that those who lived through the cold war had a similar attitude towards thermonuclear holocaust as I do towards ecological overshoot.

Originally posted 2010-10-28 23:19:43.