Dear Guy McPherson, What the Heck?

I had hoped to get more of my peers reading about Garrett’s energy consumption constant and letting the math sink in, but I keep encountering motivated reasoning – all the ways our minds convince us not to know what we do not want to recognize. How do we address this “daunting moral question” (p. 77) in order to engage “the difficult and meaningful work associated with stewardship of the lands, waters, and communities that support us” (p. 64)?

I am reading your book, Walking Away from Empire.

Why is it categorized as fiction? Is that some legal thing you had to agree to in order to get it published?

Then, there’s your dedication:

For the remains of the living planet,

and the humans who will witness its comeback

That is not fiction. You are describing the shape of the future.

It seems you were more optimistic when you published this book (2011) than you are now – a mere year later. The decline of your hope is because society has made no tangible progress in regard to the full-scale dismantling of industrial civilization that is required. I had hoped to get more of my peers reading about Garrett’s energy consumption constant and letting the math sink in, but I keep encountering motivated reasoning – all the ways our minds convince us not to know what we do not want to recognize.

Time for Motivated Living

Between reading your book and talking with Greg Robie about “growing a collective will,”  I came upon this notion, motivated living, as a possible counter to motivated reasoning. Because it seems to me this is what you’ve been doing, since that first realization in 2002 when you “mourned for months, to the bewilderment of the three people who noticed” (p. 61). I have been in mourning for a long time but did not have clarity as to why. I bet there are hundreds of thousands like me, who have been in need of the hard boundary to clarify, the one that sets the ultimate limit on individual freedom and easy luxury. You are like James Balog: while he was chasing ice, you are chasing the most meaningful conversation humanity will ever have.

We, entering into the realization now, do not have spans of months to come to terms with the changes coming upon us. I watch myself hesitate to do as you have done, to “simultaneously offend my colleagues as well as the public” (p. 54). Even though I share your “commitment to relevancy” (p. 54), and have dabbled in dangerous education: the personal desire to belong and be cared about is strong. As you say, this new life is “tough on the mind” p. 55) and I confess I am not excited about life becoming “even tougher on the body” (p. 55). But this is going to happen, I now understand, and the sooner I can accept and adapt the better.

I drank what?  (p. 73)

You’ve been more successful with your students than I with mine. I haven’t (yet) been able to adequately frame what I have aimed to help them learn; largely because I was (and still am) trying to learn it too. It is internal and subjective, yet invoked by relationships with others. How do we together address this “daunting moral question” (p. 77) in order to engage “the difficult and meaningful work associated with stewardship of the lands, waters, and communities that support us” (p. 64)?

“Relationships are far more important than accomplishments” (p. 46)

You’re way ahead of the curve, although it seems you’ve brought a ton of folk along with you through your blog, Nature Bats Last, and your Facebook page. (Two tangents: I have a friend who works with bats, which caused a temporary glitch in comprehending the baseball metaphor in your blog title; and I did not realize Facebook has set a limit on Friends. Thank you for letting people subscribe to your public feed.)

Guy, you’ve been modeling a mix of humility and leadership for a long time. You confess to your “tiny role in this grand play” (p. 50) and that you “still struggle every day to find meaning in a universe without meaning” (p. 50). Sharing your personal journey is action and artifact of “the decisions we make in light of an ambiguous future” (p. 53). It seems to me you have laid out a good path. There are other teachers out there, many of them indigenous. Not to mention whatever ripple effects may yet accrue from everyone associated with your far-flung network, and those who haven’t yet found yours but have also been building their own.

Tuning in: “Will reality intervene in time to save the living planet, including our own species?” (p. 67)

You named some goals for gathering us together:

  • fully engage the collapse, and act as if you will survive it (p. 44)
  • generate our own hope, one person at a time (p. 52)
  • power down with the tranquility of Buddhist monks (p. 52)
  • get along with access to far fewer materials (p. 52)
  • occupy small communities in harmony with the Earth and our neighbors (p. 52)
  • face reality without showing fear (p. 11)
  • don’t rely on belief, instead – think (p. 42)
  • question the system, instead of raising minor questions within the system (p. 8)
There may be more guidelines for gathering motivated living communities in the rest of your book. You may even have coined a motto (p. 44); here I’ve revised it slightly:

Given its rarity and splendor, this life is enough.

21 thoughts on “Dear Guy McPherson, What the Heck?”

  1. Thanks, Steph, for your complimentary essay. The process of walking away, and then encouraging others to do the same, has been the most challenging and painful work of my life. And it would be difficult to call the experiment a success, considering the self-reinforcing feedback loops we’ve triggered on the climate front and the consequent potential for near-term human extinction.

    But there’s no unburning this bridge, and the journey is not without its many rewards. In addition, I could no longer live at the apex of empire, for many reasons.

    I look forward to continued interactions with you as you process relevant information and take action to engage a new and better world. Please let me know how I can help.

    The category as fiction was a mistake. I’ve tried to have the publisher fix the mistake. They promise and promise, and then don’t. As publishers routinely point out, it’s their book.

  2. Steph,

    I clicked through your post on NBL. From here I saw Tim Garrrett’s research for the first time. What an eye-opener! His paper is one of the first rigorous confirmations I’ve seen of something that many of us have only intuited until now: that GlobCiv 1.0 is in a “coffin corner” caused by the intersection of climate change and the economy, and the only way out is though a breakdown of the economy. Thank you!!

  3. Hi Paul,

    It is the weirdest thing, cheering for the economy to fail. Feels like working against my best interest, you know, that complaint liberals often make against the conservative electorate!

    There’s a frame of reference shift required, out of self-centered individualism to an inclusive greater good.

  4. I am inclined to agree with the premise that industrial civilization is irredeemable, given how difficult it is to convince people (even people who respect my intelligence and trust my judgment) to change their lifestyles. However, I have to say I’m afraid this fatalistic approach, advocating industrial civilization’s dismantling, is naive, impractical, unproductive. I think the terms in which the argument is couched (as well as, unfortunately, the nature of the argument) set it up to place anybody who makes that argument on the lunatic fringe. It’s too radical, too far-fetched.
    Consider the historical examples of the kind of collapse you’re talking about: I’m thinking of the Russian agrarian revolution, the collapse of Mayan civilization, the Dust Bowl. In all of these cases the economy collapsed first, along with the stability of the natural world, and only then did civilization change to accommodate it.
    The historical example I’ve been thinking most about lately is one which I don’t understand well enough to see why it doesn’t fit this pattern: the hole in the ozone layer. In that case, which took place in our lifetime, somehow our civilization managed to listen to, understand and accept the arguments of science, accept the proffered solution and implement it. Now, as far as I understand, the hole in the ozone layer has healed. How did we manage to avert that global man-made natural disaster so handily, and what’s the difference between that and the one we face now?

  5. Too radical? Yes, of course. The definition of radical: to get to the root.

    Civilization itself is irredeemable, and humans managed just fine in its absence for about two million years. Now, a few thousand years into the new-found notion of civilization, we think it’s necessary for our survival. In fact, it’s necessary for our extinction.

    The rate or increase in the size of the ozone “hole” began declining when we implemented an inexpensive and technically easy solution. But it continued to grow in size for nearly another three decades before it finally stopped.

    In contrast to the ozone issue, there are no politically viable responses to climate chaos. As Tim Garrett pointed out more than three years ago, only complete economic collapse prevents runaway greenhouse. Too few people will vote for a politician interested in saving our species at the expense of economic growth. The number of supporters wouldn’t include the likes of mjd, who believe a civilized solution will be found to this predicament resulting from civilization.

  6. Guy’s correct answer leaves out the ‘problem’ the solution to eliminating CFCs fed into: anthropogenic greenhouse gas production and the Anthropocene. Therefore is this “success story” also more of the story of this economic meme’s–and our species ‘failure’ to be vigilant in or freedom of choice; another example of how unsustainable civilizations collapse?

    Given our species capacity for motivated reasoning driven problem ‘solving,’ is “unsustainable civilization” a redundancy?

    Anyway, I feel that the concept of ‘civilized’ is dynamic, and that it is language that is relatively static. Consequently, a civil response to a problem, thanks to communication challenges, tends to feeds into a failing paradigm. Is this the ‘root’ problem: ours are dynamic civilizations that fail due to failing to consciously adapt to change within the evolutionary constraints of its socio-psychoimmunoneuroendocrinology? (And SPINE is a word I believe I’ve coined for a field of study that seems destined to be studied, experientially, and within the social dynamics of competing myth systems). If so, isn’t it ironic that due to that civilization’s perception of social success, this ‘root’ problem culturally ‘forgotten’; linguistically lost from sight? The ease with which the ‘glue’ of civilization can be lost–a discipline to mature; a valuing of maturation; a vigilance and responsibility defining freedom and wealth (and that seems to paradoxically define civilization as dynamic)–gives social value to myth: the means by which a civilization can tell itself it’s story; communicate; increase the velocity of by which it’s language keeps adapting to change.

  7. Dear Guy and Greg,

    Thanks for commenting – I will engage your points and, I want to ask you to join me in establishing a standard for interacting here at reflexivity. To begin with, let’s assume that other commenters are not ignorant assholes. (I’m exaggerating in order to make the point.)

    For instance, my friend mjd agrees with the proposition that “industrial civilisation is unredeemable” (emphasis added). The way I read his comment, he’s suggesting a ‘civil’ strategy instead of emphasizing doom and hopelessness. Such “a civilized solution” could involve a return to very old ways of interacting with the land and all of its inhabitants, and it may be that we can facilitate this miniscule possibility for a small percentage of the current overpopulation of human beings. Of course collapse is going to be forced on us whether we want it or not, and if we refuse to engage it then the ugliness factor will intensify and the atmosphere will not be capable of supporting life as we know it. I get that. I think mjd gets it, too.

    Meanwhile, he’s my Webmaster and I’d really appreciate if you don’t piss him off! He’s already frustrated with how many iterations and re-doings we’ve been through trying to get this Learning Lab for Resiliency idea off the ground.

    His proposition, to learn from the ozone hole scenario, may be a strategy for engaging the 29% of the population that are “cautious” in regard to climate change: they believe it is happening and are paying attention to it but not clear, yet, on its scope and ramifications and aren’t yet convinced that radical action is necessary. Writing them off as incapable of moving to the position of the 16% of us who are “alarmed” is not constructive engagement. Instead, I think it has the effect of entrenching them in their current stance and therefore, unintentionally, intensifying the challenge of bringing down industry.

    Greg, your comment is practically incomprehensible. I say this from a position of familiarity and self-recognition! You go through so many convolutions in your argument it requires the reader to do a lot of work to figure out what you mean. That said, I think you have a point about us lacking the language to talk new realities into being (and this may be part of the reason it’s hard to say what you want in straightforward fashion….?)

    I’m still learning the lay of the discourses involving the changing climate, but what I notice so far is the polarization of extremes: the doomers vs the deniers. It seems crucial to open up a space for everyone in-between these extremes to engage the material realities with a sense of purpose. Generating such a sense of purpose requires rhetorical language and communicative norms of social resilience that cross boundaries in unprecedented ways.

  8. Steph, you are not the first, nor will you be the last, to experience my writing as comprehendability-challenged–unless I smarten up and stop trying. 😉

    So, this time around, relying more on story than a ‘private’ language, and within the end-of-creation story, it is not G_d driving us out of Eden, but a religiously trusted averice-as-good that has done so. I think the knowledge of good and evil that eating that apple got us got lost along the way. Or maybe, like Peter Pan, we are having imaginary adventures in Neverland and are not growing up . . . and never going to do so.

    Consider, to the degree what we do makes both more noise and sence than what we say, the ‘discourse’ you reference is not between doomers and deniers, but between those living with a carbon footprint which, when multiplied by 7 billion produces a CO2e in the planet’s atmosphere of ~300 ppm, and those for which about seven earths are needed to make that equation work. And that is now. As the population increases the extreme end we habitate will become more extreme. With that as the continuum, doomers and deniers are variously encamped in the same place . . . and differently avoiding discourse-as-action. Perhaps the conversation you wish for requires adults, and such are like hens teeth at our end of the continuum.

    Guy is only one of numerous rational voices in the wilderness of rationalism. Because this wilderness is the logical consequence of what personal and social immaturity, in conjunction with a worship of CapitalismFail, has made of Eden (thanks to individualism and motivated reasoning) most have been that tree that falls in the woods which makes no sound for there is no one to hear it (on our end of the doing-as-talking continuum). It is at the other end that there remains an adult story; that yet retains an orientation toward adulthood that is the ear to hear it with.

    While it is never too late to grow up, it does require being motivated to leave Neverland with its pious addictions to its red/blue divide construct behind. Until that journey into sobriety and maturation is engaged in, the discourse I hear you wishing to pursue, is about as meaningful to the conversation of children as the “wha, wha, wha, wha” of the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons. Isn’t such the paradoxical truth of metanoia?

  9. If this last comment is easier to comprehend then the former, is it also, emotionally so? If I hear you correctly, you struggled to sort out the previous one because: 1. Participating in the relationship our interacting here on your blog represents requires this. 2. This is your blog and you feel responsible for it. 3. You are trying to process and recover from signing Guy’s presentation at Amherst. 4. You would like to feel heard. 5. you have something to share that you feel has social value. 6. ???. At what point in reading the second version did your mind fill with understanding that began to cloud the hearing of it?

    To the degree that is a pertinent question, this is another part of why I write as I do. And you are correct in your stated assessment as well, the language of the immature cannot be used to talk about mature things without shared stories that give value to maturation. The four part BBC production, “The Century of the Self”, explains, for me, why CapitalismFail is a meme without them. (And I do appreciate your effort to grasp what I was trying to communicate.)

    Another comment relates to the percentages and labels you have used. Given your field of study, and should Anthony Leiserowitz be the source, I tried the more direct communication choice in comments at BillMoyers.com regarding Bill’s interview with Tony. First one, and the all of my comments were deleated and I was blocked from commenting. Three efforts to seek an explanation (which, by the rules I am not owed) have elicited silence as a response. An attempt to try to critique that interview’s content as being biased toward the extreme liberal end of social psychology’s moral continuum and feeding into a trusted talking-not-walking piety that informs the labels and categories (i.e. little more than projections), failed. As an educator, what percentage of the 29% labeled “confused” are really not confused, but people who are challenged relative to Gardner’s linguistic and mathematical intilligences while excelling in his inter-personal and/or intra-personal intelligences? What percentage of the “confused” might also, and/or, be biased toward the conservative value balance of that end of humanity’s moral continuum? (FYI, an email to Tony requesting time to explore such a critique further remains unanswered.)

  10. from “Contemporary Translation Theories” by Edwin Gentzler (2001, p. 30):

    “The activity of translation, according to [Frederic] Will, somehow reveals to the translator that language is simultaneously stable and unstable, that texts are interwoven in reality and in a tradition of fiction, and that man, as a complex system, is both subjected by language or systems of discourse and is capable of creating language or new relations in the present. Language always refers to to something (other), be that reality or some metaphysical concept. At the same time, human language is necessarily always innovative, additive, and continually being relocated in different contexts, with different referents. That which makes translation possible for Will (universals/deep structures) also makes it impossible (the specific moment/surface structures). Thus language always refers backward and forward [in time], trapped in an intertextual network.”

    What I’m hoping to accomplish, Greg, is a story generated through language that enables a meaningful proportion of human beings to get through climate shift, and for the rest of us to die as nonviolently as possible.

  11. I guess one ‘private’/complex language construct type comment deserves another… 😉

    A fresh and slow read of this quote this AM, and with coffee, and I feel I get it: language is dynamic. The work that motivates you is the creating of a myth that can preserve life and facilitate the non-violent death of life. To the degree I’ve got it, such a Sisyphean task is not for the faint of heart.

    Do I recognize in this behavior another middle child?

    Anyway, and to the degree paradigm shifts are the prerequisite for creating ‘new’ stories–or is that recycling old ones–and language functions, systemically, as a “deep structure” enabling the power of the myth/SPINE of social memes, is not the challenge of the work that motivates your living that of effecting the social recovery from a broadly shared personal addiction to a trusted story that now functions, but for motivated reasoning, as ‘TheProblem’*? 

    If so, the Twelve Step Programs–as a successful repackaging of an old story/myth–seems like a trustworthy framework/story for transforming addictive behavior through the social conventions of communication and language:

    Hello, my name is Greg. I’m ____________.

    * & as a limerick:

    Meaning of Life/Life of Meaning

    Prosaically pursuing TheSolution
    ‘Tis a task that invokes destitution.
    It’s seeking to solve
    With the needed resolve
    What’s TheProblem and it’s constitution.

    CC 2013 Greg Robie

  12. If interested; you can find many scientists and government officials at MILINT Earth Day growing a large group of people with collective will to implement a serious plan for orderly de-industrialization asap.

    PS Don’t expect to find Guy McPherson or many of his fellow NTE friends supporting MILINT Earth Day solutions; to implement an an Ecology of Peace international jurisprudence social contract which requires all the worlds tribes to limit their procreation and consumption to carrying capacity limits; for they are not yet ready to inform their we hate da evil guvment fans of the MILINT Earth Day orderly de-industrialization solutions being worked on…

  13. MILINT, I haven’t received my invitation. Presumably it was lost in the mail. I’ve been calling for orderly dismantling of industrial civilization for many years. It’s about time you caught up with the idea.

  14. Hello MILINT. Interesting idea you have, I admit that I’m curious what you’re about and who you’re working with–which scientiits, and what actual strategies?

    I respect Guy quite a lot, however I do think it is unfortunate that he considers everyone who doesn’t totally agree with him as an enemy. There’s a level of petty bickering among the climate change believers (writ large) that is thoroughly discouraging. At the same time, Guy is open to alliances and even–at least to some extent–constructive critique. He did allow me to post an entry at his blog: The Selfish Surrender of Privileged People.

    IF reducing violence and suffering is a literal goal of climate change activism, then we need to get past the internal divides and begin to collaborate on an unprecedented scale. Are you willing to put down your hatred of Guy (or however you would characterize the dislike you evince) to engage him in a dialogue?

    Guy, would you consider laying down some of your cynicism and sarcasm to attempt some kind of strategic planning with representatives of “the enemy?”

  15. Steph:

    “I admit that I’m curious what you’re about and who you’re working with–which scientiits, and what actual strategies?”

    Full list of scientists and strategies details at MILINT Earth Day.

    “At the same time, Guy is open to alliances and even–at least to some extent–constructive critique.”

    Not from my experience. I respect and appreciate honourable constructive criticism; ain’t experienced any from Guy McPherson yet.

    “He did allow me to post an entry at his blog”

    He deleted my comments to his blog, so I stopped commenting.

    “IF reducing violence and suffering is a literal goal of climate change activism, then we need to get past the internal divides and begin to collaborate on an unprecedented scale.”

    Feel free to sign up if you honourably wish to reduce violence and collaborate.

    “Are you willing to put down your hatred of Guy (or however you would characterize the dislike you evince) to engage him in a dialogue?”

    How do you define hatred? In my culture honourable constructive criticism is love; whereas two faced deception avoidance — which Guy has been practicing — is hatred.

    “Guy, would you consider laying down some of your cynicism and sarcasm to attempt some kind of strategic planning with representatives of “the enemy?””

    Guy is welcome to sign up, as is anyone who is sincere, from far left to far right, white, black, muslim, christian, rich, poor, etc; to implementing a new world international jurisprudence order, founded upon ecology of peace (restricting procreation and consumption to carrying capacity limits) if he wishes.

  16. MILINT, I’m not surprised Guy banned you; if you’re not able to post respectfully I will ban you from here, too.

    You’ll notice I deleted one of your replies.

    Guy, my rules for actual dialogue apply to you, too.

  17. Guy, you couldn’t resist the slam, huh?

    I recognize there’s history between you, obviously unpleasant. This is a new/different forum; give a chance.

    At this point the count on insults between the two of you in this thread is dead even. This means the cycle can be changed with each of your next posts. Don’t jump threads, please, or any other tricks to continue getting in digs.

    From my cursory look at your site, MILINT, I don’t see evidence of collaboration or a group. It looks like your own private site. That said, the information seems consonant with things I read at NTL. It also appears that you are both in favor of “deindustrialization” (MILINT) also known as “the orderly dismantling of industrial society” (Guy). The question, then, is – what is the next move (in communicative terms) that each of you could make to shift the enmity toward cooperation?

    There might be a more direct, mediating question I could ask or another way to frame this communication but it hasn’t occurred to me yet so–the ball is in your court.

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