The Philosophy of Decline and Collapse
For those who think ahead; for those who are empathic; for those who work for justice or kindness, the world can be a horrible place.
We look around and we see the decline of nations. We see people dying, being tortured, being raped who need not die or suffer. We look to the environment and we see that species are being killed so fast we’re in the middle of a great die-off; or we look to the biosphere and the oxygen cycle and we worry that we could see a collapse of both.
We know that much of the suffering the world is needless: that there is more than enough food to feed everyone; that many wars are wars of choice which hurt many to enrich a very few; and we know that many who brutalize others are receiving no security or even money in return. We look at how prisoners are treated in jail; and we know that the primitive lust for vengeance is creating monsters for we understand the cycle of abuse: that those who are abused, become abusers.
We see the rise of a surveillance state that may eventually cause the Stasi to look like amateurs and which is already more sophisticated than anything Orwell imagined. We see that the masses of the people in the developed world are being impoverished; generation after generation. And worse, we see our own efforts at stopping all of this fail. We worry that our efforts are not even slowing the worst of it.
And for many of us it hits home closer. We or our loved ones are those suffering: losing their lives, homes, livelihoods or living lives of despair.
For years I lived in a state of rage. Not even anger, but rage. Rage at those like Bush and Blair who were mass murderers. Rage at those who did not stop him who could have. Rage at those who believed all the lies: whether about economics or war or crime.
I see many who come to my blog, a place where scenarios are explored which are both bleak, and often, very likely, giving into despair or rage themselves. The world is big, the powers that are leading it to ruin are overwhelming, and we look out on a future which seems to get worse and worse the further ahead of us it is. Even countries now on the rise, like China, will suffer massively in the decades to come.
It is perfectly natural to be angry. It is even useful to be angry. Anger or rage are adrenaline shots to the system. They push you to do what must be done; to tell the truth; to push ahead, to tackle the big enemies.
But they are toxic in the long run. Like adrenaline they are useful for shots of energy, but if you are angry all the time at anything, it will hurt your body and eventually your mind. You will burn out, and if you aren’t lucky you may burn out permanently or you may die.
Despair is also rational. I am aware of studies which show that depression is about 10X more frequent today than it was about a century ago, based on methodology I find reasonable. Life today sucks. We are almost all close to powerless in our daily lives: we work for wages, without those wages we will suffer greatly, and to get those wages we must do what our bosses say, no matter how noxious what they demand is. It takes two people to earn a living where it once took one, and wealth and income are collapsing in the first and most of the third world ex-China; while the Chinese are under the immense pressure that industrialization produces.
Anger gets us going, till we burn out. Despair enervates us. We turn often to drugs, whether pharmaceutical or more subtle opiates live television or computer games. Too often we do not change our circumstances: we see no way out, and en masse we aren’t necessarily wrong. Leave one job, and even if you find another it will be run by the same sort of people who run almost all of Western business outside of a few European countries.
All of this is understandable. In a certain sense it is even rational.
But a hot cup of chocolate on a frosty night is still sweet.
As bad as things are, so much of the world is as it always has been. The still contentment of sitting with one you love, saying nothing is still available. The sunset is still beautiful, and if there are fewer birds, their trills still delight.
The flowers are as beautiful, the russet and scarlet leaves of fall still adorn the trees, and a clean drink of water still refreshes. Children playing still bring a smile to my face, and I still enjoy pulling a comforter up and cracking open a new book. There are still beautiful women and handsome men, there is still kindness and charity in the world; there is still art to make and books to write and songs to sing.
In a myriad of ways there is still beauty and happiness to be found in the world. We are not the first culture to face decline. The Roman Empire went through multiple periods of decline and stoics and epicureans debated how to live the good life in an evil world. The Chinese practically had dealing with declining and corrupt imperial eras and warring states periods down to an art: when no good could be done in the world, back to one’s private life to write poetry, drink wine and care for those close to one while refusing as much as possible to be complicit in the evil of the times.
Others strove still to be of public service: to hold off the rush of night for a few more years, or even a generation, knowing that what came after would be worse.
But I say to you now this: endless anger or despair; or a mixture of both do you no good, soon do your enemies no harm (and yes, they are enemies); and serve not whatever cause you’re interested in unless you’re willing to risk permanent burn-out.
And besides, where’s the fun in being miserable? No matter how bad the times, there will always be good periods; moments and beauty and happiness to delight in. The wine is as sweet in evil times as good; love is perhaps even sweeter in times of despair; and beauty never dies and can always be found, if only, sometimes, in our own minds.
It’s banal to say we’re here for a short time, but it’s true. Fight the good fight, to be sure, but then delight in the sensual pleasures and love this world offers.
And give yourself permission to quit. There are 7 billion people in the world. It’s not on all on you. The graveyards are full of essential men: the world will continue without you, and it’s not all on you. Take the breaks you need, even quit if you must. Above all, don’t let the bastards see you sweat, and don’t let them take away your enjoyment of the real pleasures that life offers.
(Originally published October 27, 2014. Republished.)
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