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The Philosophy of Decline and Collapse

2016 September 18
by Ian Welsh
By Zhang Bo

By Zhang Bo

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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41 Responses
  1. Formerly T-Bear permalink
    October 27, 2014

    Spot on.

    The happiest, the most alive, the richest people are most often those with the least. They are the ones who will inherit the earth (or so it’s said).

  2. October 27, 2014

    Thanks, great post, I needed that.

  3. sanctimonious purist permalink
    October 27, 2014

    I was trying to say something like this to the spousal unit just yesterday. Per usual, you said it much better.

  4. Dan H permalink
    October 27, 2014

    Wheres the like button?! 8)

  5. Connor permalink
    October 27, 2014

    Thank you Ian, I really needed that today. Probably will be a good post to come back to in days to come also.

  6. maurice permalink
    October 27, 2014

    That was beautiful!

  7. Brian Reed permalink
    October 27, 2014

    I like. Not only that, but it’s disempowering and futile to try to force the ‘elites’, or those in charge, to do what you want. Either make definite plans, or just enjoy your time. The earth has suffered much worse catastrophes then what is happening now – such as the comet impacts.

  8. Eugene Graziano permalink
    October 27, 2014

    You are whistling in the dark. Yes, there absolutely is a God, and he/it is a Sadomasochist. Also the world will never be better than it is or ever was because every generation starts at point zero, and brings the same old human nature along with it. We are created very flawed. It all means absolutely nothing, “Much ado about nothing,” and NOTHINGNESS is always where we are and what we are….. and actually, that is the up side to it all: when you can BE nothing at all, you will be happy.

  9. October 27, 2014


  10. Jeff Wegerson permalink
    October 27, 2014

    Very nicely put.

    I used to hitch-hike a lot. I was reminded Saturday night while talking with another old hitch-hiker of the importance of presenting one’s happy demeanor because who wants to pick up a sad-sack. If one of our goals is to increase happiness, then it helps to be able to enjoy life as you remind at least some of the time. Being happy makes those around us happy in that moment as well.

    Of course, try not to get depressed if you can’t be happy.

  11. abynormal permalink
    October 27, 2014

    a comment from someone at nakedcaptialism to a young person grieving about their future:

    Comfort is overrated – it leads to dulling of the mind and body, which in itself leads to decline in family and society, which then leads us to where we are now in the west. I remember thinking back in the 90′s that the “success” of America at that point was nearly the worst that could happen to us, and look where we are now…. This could not happen to a people who were not collectively dull in mind and weak in spirit, not to mention short on critical thinking skills (also caused by not needing to think about much in a life of ease)

    struggle brings good people closer together and crises focus the mind, so you can look forward to that. You are still quite young and life rewards strength of mind and body in ways that are not immediately obvious – so all I can say is enjoy good moments when they come, which they will no matter what else is going on. There will be pain that comes with transitioning from a weaker to a stronger condition, but this is a worthy pain that will result in a good feeling once you have passed through and stand on a higher plateau.

    Good luck, you have the chance to be a hero. Somebody invariably will be – not everyone has to be cannon fodder.

    (i’ve pasted it onto small pieces of paper and leave it around or hand it off…amazing the deep breaths it brings)

  12. Linda J permalink
    October 27, 2014

    “The graveyards are full of essential men.” That is probably from some ancient tome and passed on to us, but I still must quibble. Or should I rejoice. Being a woman and all. Perhaps we are not folly to the same delusions–that we are essential.

  13. October 28, 2014

    Very uplifting post. Thank you. Hatred is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.

    Reminds me of Robert Lion’s letter called ‘doing better with less’ which ends with.

    “Let’s stop claiming to dominate nature and the world; let’s stop making possession a superior end. Let’s put our cherished deviancies, such as the manufacture of desire and its bulimic satisfaction, back in their place.

    Today’s progress must be situated on the side of being rather than of having.

    Moreover, tending toward equitably-distributed wellbeing compatible with our planet’s capacities at home and toward helping the most destitute to live better supports rational growth. The measure of this new growth must be taken according to scales integrating the human and ecological impacts.

    Let us dream: A politician takes the side of talking to us about the world as it is, as it risks becoming; he or she forecasts not sweat and tears, but difficult tomorrows; she or he proposes that we talk about it, as responsible citizens, and allows us to perceive robust paths along which to advance, with a smile, towards the era of less … A less that will consequently take on the character of better.”

    Mr Putin seems to be only world leader talking this way, see:

  14. October 28, 2014

    We have the penchant to think we can fix all that breaks and when we can’t it drives some to anger, rage even madness. Not that we shouldn’t try but always with the understanding that some things do not always need to be fixed. A better mouse trap has never stopped the mice population from growing. The answer of course lies in better hygiene but how much easier it is to believe we can market, profit from and consume our way out of everything.

    A thoughtful piece Ian. Well done.

  15. Celsius 233 permalink
    October 28, 2014

    …exhales long and deeply, yes…

  16. Christopher Dobbie permalink
    October 28, 2014

    Loved the post, a kind reminder to enjoy the beauty that there is.

    I’ve passed this way some myself somewhat and it reminds me to recall that which I’ve distilled; Left is that which nurtures, Right is to exploit and even though I am a heterotroph and I must destroy to live I do prefer the Left, to see what emerges from love is a blessed thing.

  17. markfromireland permalink
    October 28, 2014

    Ian thank you for this.

    There are things you can fix and things you can’t, an individual is unlikely to be able to change “the system” alone. BUT if you want to make a huge difference to someone and leave a lot of happiness behind you then please take a child or children who need it under your wing.

    You can adopt.

    Or you can foster.

    Or you can be a mentor.

    Or you can sponsor a child.

    There are huge numbers of children who desperately need an adult who will care about them The level of what you can do is up to you but believe me you’ll get back so much for what you put in.

    To encourage you further:

    Most of my children are adopted and in fact my grown children to my wonder and delight have followed me in this and now have more adopted children than kids they made themselves. This is a family tradition one can take great satisfaction in.

    I was recently approached about adopting two further children and did so. (Which means that I now have grandchildren who are older than some of my children. This is a wonderful way of confusing the hell out of people and provides a lot of amusement to the children involved).

    I don’t have any words to describe the love and joy that is a huge part of my life now that those children are in it. You get to think of and love them as your own very very quickly. And there’s no feeling on earth like hearing your son correcting his teacher’s description of you as “your dad” to “no, he’s my forever dad”.

    As I say it doesn’t have to be adopting it can be as little as committing to meet a teenager for a cup of coffee and a walk in the park once a week. The level of care and commitment is up to you, you won’t change the world for the better for everyone but I guarantee you you’ll change it drastically for the better for the kid you care for.


  18. J. Random Hacker permalink
    October 28, 2014

    Damn. That was inspiring to fight the long fight. To recognize that even in chaos and despair, there are small treats to savor and appreciate.

  19. Ian Welsh permalink
    October 28, 2014

    Yes, Mark, I think that’s good advice.

    As for myself, I’m a lot calmer these days.

    I have arrived

  20. S Brennan permalink
    October 28, 2014

    Beautiful Ian…nothing to add, thanks.

    S Brennan

  21. Tom Robinson permalink
    October 29, 2014

    A kind, thoughtful, and heartfelt reminder to us all, Ian. Thank you.

  22. markfromireland permalink
    October 29, 2014

    @ Ian.

    I’m sure you know this one already:

    Look round our world; behold the chain of love
    Combining all below and all above.
    See plastic nature working to this end,
    The single atoms each to other tend,
    Attract, attracted to, the next in place
    Form’d and impell’d its neighbour to embrace.
    See matter next, with various life endu’d,
    Press to one centre still, the gen’ral good.
    See dying vegetables life sustain,
    See life dissolving vegetate again:
    All forms that perish other forms supply,
    (By turns we catch the vital breath, and die),
    Like bubbles on the sea of matter born,
    They rise, they break, and to that sea return.
    Nothing is foreign; parts relate to whole;
    One all-extending, all-preserving soul
    Connects each being, greatest with the least;
    Made beast in aid of man, and man of beast;
    All serv’d, all serving: nothing stands alone;
    The chain holds on, and where it ends, unknown.

    For those not familiar with it the whole thing can be read here:

    280. An Essay on Man. Epistle III-Of the Nature and State of Man with Respect to Society. Alexander Pope. 1909-14. English Poetry I: From Chaucer to Gray. The Harvard Classics

    The punch line, if I can call it that, is unbeatable:

    So two consistent motions act the soul;
    And one regards itself, and one the whole.
    Thus God and nature link’d the gen’ral frame,
    And bade self-love and social be the same.


  23. Lisa FOS permalink
    October 29, 2014

    There are in this world things that are true and things that are false; there are ways that are right and ways that are wrong; there are good men and bad men. And on one side or anther we must make our stand; one or the other we must serve…We can only secure a better world, and abolish war, by having better men and women; there is no other way and no short cut..

    Field Marshall Montgomery (Monty)

  24. Ian Welsh permalink
    October 29, 2014


    I hadn’t read that particular lovely passage before, but I know what it speaks of is true.

  25. Lisa FOS permalink
    October 29, 2014

    People can (and do) pontificate to others about ‘good’ and ethical behaviour all they want, it is your personal actions on a day to day level that counts. The extreme example of that is the preacher who goes on and on about ‘being good’ …who then rapes little boys….regularly. Another is the ‘liberal’ (in the US sense) that goes on about poor people…then votes to cut benefits for them….

    My transitioning has really opened my eyes to a heck of a lot of people, some in a good way, some in a bad way, some in a horrible way. Some, who would claim to be ‘good’ are by their actions really quite horrible.

    I’ll give a personal example (since they are always the best). One thing I have been amazed at (and been very hurt by) is the anger at me by some people that used to be very close friends by my transitioning. As though I stole something from them. One accused me of being very selfish in doing it, which is true to an extent, but so is the reverse in that they were also being very selfish in wanting me to remain as miserable (even suicidal at times) as I was to make them feel comfortable, but that is impossible for them to accept. I suspect some of them would have preferred for me to die, rather than make them uncomfortable, or maybe that is too black a thought, or maybe it is true.

    I now realise I was a ‘shade’ to them, someone that did a role that they liked, rather than being a real person, with real feelings. As soon as I broke that ‘model’ then their reaction was anger and rejection, even strong feelings that I have betrayed them or taken something from them.

    I think that one measure of a person is that if you cannot suppress your negative feelings about an aspect (harmless of course, not them being an axe murderer) of another person, so that they can have some happiness by a small, cost free action of yours…then you are yourself are a bad person. Because your selfishness is paramount to you..

    I’ll give you another simple personal example of that.

    My closest friend of 35 years has totally rejected me. When I was at my lowest ebb (pre transitioning and his rejection) his lovely little dog changed my life, he gave me a reason to live and at that time I had none whatsoever. Now that little dog is dying and I’d love to see him again and say goodbye. I have told his partner that (he wont communicate directly with me). But he and his partner won’t let it happen (she might, but is too scared to cross him).

    It is such a trivial thing to him but so important to me and he knows it too and it could easily be organised without him actually having to see me. And I know if the positions were reversed I would do it, how could you deny that, a simple human action.

    But his selfishness, or anger, means he cannot do it. Maybe he is just paying me out, I stole something from him so he taking something from me? Whatever the reason 35 years of friendship, through thick and thin, means nothing compared to his own internal feelings.

    And that is a bad person and in many ways is the very definition of a bad person.

    If you can’t do good things at the simple personal level to people that are, or once were, close to you, what hope can you have when trying to do them at the larger ones to total strangers?

    None whatsoever because, in the end, your selfishness will drive you to do what makes you personally feel good, not what makes others feel good.

  26. Ian Welsh permalink
    October 29, 2014

    I’m sorry to hear that Lisa. Terrible behavior from one you thought you could trust.

  27. Sandman permalink
    October 30, 2014

    Apropos of nothing:

    (Talking Heads – “Nothing but Flowers”)

  28. October 31, 2014

    Rage is a dubious luxury. Very nice piece, Ian.

  29. Brian permalink
    November 1, 2014

    I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered
    But you can’t stay here with every single hope you had shattered

    I’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert
    But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime

    In a big country, dreams stay with you
    Like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside
    Stay alive

    ~ Big Country

  30. Jerome Armstrong permalink
    November 1, 2014

    Watched this movie tonight. One I thought I’d seen before, but on watching it I couldn’t remember even seeing it, or that I was confusing it with another movie… Beck – Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime

    I haven’t read it yet, but I’d like too soon, Smiley’s book on MLK’s last days… supposedly he was obsessed about death, talking about it with everyone. I’ll probably be disappointed by Smiley, but I have low expectations. Tomorrow, we are going to walk memorials, and I’ll linger the most at MLK’s, that defiance chiseled out of stone looking across the pond.

  31. realitychecker permalink
    September 19, 2016

    Great post, great message. Whatever you do, don’t ever be so unevolved as to even imagine a world where somebody might simply have killed the killers.

    P.S. Staying home and masturbating is also something they will never be able to take away from us. That’s enough for most of us.

  32. September 19, 2016

    Right on partner…, write on.

  33. Gaianne permalink
    September 19, 2016


    Thank you, Ian.


  34. September 19, 2016

    Thanks Ian – needed this today. Long time reader, first time commenter.

  35. mike permalink
    September 19, 2016

    Hi. I think your worldview is unnecessarily negative and pessimistic. Nihilism basically. The world isn’t in anywhere the kind of shape you think it is. For instance, in the US we are witnessing, after so many tragic years and so much needless suffering, the end of the Bush and Clinton dynasties. A great thing and something to celebrate if you ask me. There are plenty of good things happening and lots of progress being made. You just choose to ignore them.

  36. V. Arnold permalink
    September 19, 2016

    September 19, 2016

    Whatever you’re smoking, drinking or eating; I want some…

  37. Ian Welsh permalink
    September 19, 2016

    Sadly, my trendline predictions have been right far more often than wrong.

    But perhaps the world will turn up daisies and we’ll avoid the worst of what I believe is coming down the pike.

    In any case, this post is for those who do think as I do, a large cohort. If you think the world’s a great place getting better then this medicine is not for you.

  38. Duder permalink
    September 20, 2016

    I think what Ian Welsh is writing for here is the exact opposite of nihilism. This is an essay for life, against the nihilism and death driven logic of modern politics.

  39. markfromireland permalink
    September 20, 2016

    @ mike September 19, 2016

    Nihilism basically.

    Why don’t you go away and find a dictionary and look up what the word “nihilism” means. While you’re at it, check out “nihilist” and “nihilistic”.

    Once you’ve done that you could try looking up those words in a thesaurus. Had you done so before making that remark you could have saved yourself the embarassment of making it perfectly clear that you were using the word without actually having any idea of what it meant.

  40. Anthony S. Burkett permalink
    September 21, 2016

    A wonderful article… and I agree wholeheartedly with what you’ve said and in the spirit in which you’ve said it… but one thing you said… just a small quip really, but one that stood out to me nonetheless… really bothers me… “Rage at those like Bush and Blair who were mass murderers.”… Please! Do not single out two murderous lying thieves while leaving all of the rest of the murderous lying thieves unaccountable… Name them all! Obama included… or better yet, for brevity, indict an entire system of murderous lying thieving bastards… because they all are part and parcel to a murderous lying thieving system that holds the world’s population in slavery and ignorance… that’s all… Happy International Peace day…

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