False materialistic culture and agriculture begin and end by “doing.” But the way of [the] true man begins and ends by “doing nothing.”
Throughout our wonderings over the past year, we have taken up, at least tangentially, a rather thorny issue: what to do as we approach the collapse of industrial civilization. Should we continue to live comfortably ensconced within the current culture or do we attempt to extricate ourselves from it and simplify our lives? Alternatively, do we actively work to hasten its demise?
It is generally thought that there is nothing more splendid than human intelligence, that human beings are creatures of special value, and that their creations and accomplishments as mirrored in culture and history are wondrous to behold. That is the common belief, anyway. (Fukuoka, One-Straw Revolution, 42)
Yet, it seems certain this civilization erected upon the interlocking foundation stones of modern reason and hierarchy – where natural scientific and social law reigns supreme (a.k.a. the Curriculum of the West) – that this “wondrous” world is already in burnout and on a trajectory for total system failure in the not-to-distant future. We also know that our “creations and accomplishments,” built upon fossil fuels, fiat currency, and wage-slavery, have led to much death and destruction on the planet – of other cultures, and other species. We, the civilized ones, have robbed, enslaved, exterminated, abused, and squandered peoples as well as the earth and its diverse riches. At least a few recognize that we have already done too much, and that continuing on the current trajectory will only lead to more overreaching, until the world our distant forebears once knew intimately no longer exists, even in the remotest regions of our globe.
So, the question is on the table: what do we do with our knowledge of collapse. Do we aggressively attack the Curriculum and its institutions, or do we just walk away as some have suggested? Alternatively, do we keep one foot in both worlds, hedging our bets, so to speak? Javacat expressed her own reservations and frustrations in this respect earlier last week with the following confession.
Most of us, myself included, are still snug within the system… Do we need to completely extract ourselves from the system to see it clearly? Or does even that extraction – the need to set ourselves apart – mean we’re still within its power? I sometimes lose heart not knowing what the next step is. My reaction is to try to affect some small good whenever I can.
These are not unreasonable questions, nor can I find fault with her conclusion. But, it raises a critical issue for consideration. Is there a moral imperative lurking somewhere here; are we required to do something specific, to act decisively upon such knowledge? In reply, Brutus offered the following keyboard confession as well.
…there exists a moral dimension to how we behave in response to the knowledge we’ve gained, and my own lack of response (no extrication yet) has me wracked by guilt at my powerlessness and lack of resolve.
Is this a fair self-assessment — chastising oneself for a failure to do something with his knowledge? Do we have a constant compulsion to act? And, what is this guilt of which he speaks? What powerlessness is he referring to; and, what resolve is he hoping to find? This brings us to my central question today – the despair of just doing nothing.
Despair – “desperation,” “to be without hope” – has been a topic of much literature, both fiction and non-fiction. It was even the subtext of a recent presidential campaign, the audacity of hope offering an antidote to our collective sense of despair, our communal hopelessness, our creeping ennui; verbal salve in a time of global desperation.
Some have spoken of despair as a condition of the soul, the self’s relationship to itself. Desperation may result from a very simple recognition of lack, a lacuna or gap, between our expectations and the reality facing us. Yet, at root it is a profound unease caused by divisiveness within the self (1), grounded perhaps in one’s own sense of estrangement – a consequence of the objectification of both self and world, pitted, one against the other. The Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard called it “the sickness unto death.” I would argue that such despair is a visceral, organic reaction to the vacuum left by forcibly tearing the individual out of her vital connectedness, her primal inherence in the world-as-given. It rests upon the muted recollection of a more fulfilling state of being, where a diffuse but vitalizing power naturally sustains our ability to move and to act, inter-animating the lived-body-world. Moreover, such despair haunts our every thought, our every action because of its intimate connection to the doubt that infects our historical attachment to the future. Let me call this existential despair. Allow me to further suggest that all despair is ultimately existential. In Kierkegaard’s own words:
An individual in despair despairs over something. So it seems for a moment, but only for a moment; in the same moment the true despair or despair in its true form shows itself. In despairing over something, he really despaired over himself, and now he wants to be rid of himself.
Let’s return then to the question of guilt, above. From whence does this sense of obligation, the necessity to act, arise? The despair we feel over our inability to act upon the knowledge of collapse may appear as a guilty conscience simply because we have no other way of understanding its etiology, other than as moral deficiency. Yet, we mistakenly believe that if we do something different, change our behavior, make a decision, take appropriate action, the guilt will be vanquished. It may; but the underlying despair will linger. Does my clear conscience really help with the ongoing destruction of the environment that the system will continue to inflict? Certainly, you can make yourself feel better, but the problem and the despair still remains.
Certainly, one can make the case that continuing to participate in this culture only supports the abuse and destruction that the system readily engenders; and, that by refusing to participate any longer we will thereby assuage our sense of complicity and guilt. But, that is just soothing to your ego. Of course, one could still maintain that humanity has a moral obligation to try to stop this thing, since we put the damn thing into motion. Based upon the logical structure of our moral reasoning, we – the culprits – stand liable. But, does not the kind of intervention called for by such reflection presume exercising the same type of logic and “stewardship” that got us into this mess in the first place? And what kind of obligation does it impose upon you or me personally?
More specifically, how would one effectively act upon the moral requirement here, and to what end? If our moral code ultimately derives from the Curriculum, does not acting upon its prescriptions possibly thrust us deeper into the heart of a dilemma, enmeshing us further in the belly of the beast – perhaps energizing the culture to produce yet more novel solutions? Whatever actions we may take can be commodified, as has been done in the past and will so continue in the future. In short, it is the Curriculum itself that drives our guilt as well, while the dominant culture hurtles itself and the planet toward destruction like a runaway train. Can it be stopped? Should we even try? And, why?
If you stop and think about it, every time someone says “this is useful,” “that has value,” or “one ought to do such-and-such,” it is because man has created the preconditions that give this whatever-it-it value. We create situations in which, without something we never needed in the first place, we are lost. And to get ourselves out of such a predicament, we make what appear to be new discoveries, which we then herald as progress. (Natural Way, 14)
Does the earth and its diverse populations really need our help? How has that worked out for us in the past, where virtually every new solution we have proposed or implemented leads to further, unforeseen consequences requiring yet further, more advanced and invariably harmful interventions? And this vicious progression seems to continue on, ad infinitum.
The reason that man’s improved techniques seem to be necessary is that the natural balance has been so badly upset beforehand by those same techniques that the land has become dependent on them. (One Straw, 53)
Flood a field with water, stir it up with a plow, and the ground will set as hard as plaster. If the soil dies and hardens, then it must be plowed each year to soften it. All we are doing is creating the conditions that make a plow useful, then rejoicing at the utility of our tool. (The Natural Way of Farming, Fukuoka, 14)
As I have suggested, our current despair is not grounded in some moral imperative, strictly speaking, but rather in a more muted instinct, an amoral, visceral intuition of balance or harmony that we now sense has been terribly upset. So, do we continue to apply our skills and techniques in an attempt to redress the imbalance, creating the potential for additional ruptures? Or, do we allow nature to takes its course, and simply get out of its way?
Since, above all else, we are great planners, we certainly will not be able to stop ourselves from planning for collapse; but maybe, just maybe, we should learn to do nothing. After all, what are we seeking to achieve? What is all the “doing” aimed at accomplishing? Maybe doing nothing is the best course of action, allowing Gaia to take her own course.
Until the day that people understand what is meant by “doing nothing”… they will not relinquish their faith in the omnipotence of science. (The Natural Way of Farming, 15)
ClusterfuckNation, ClubOrlov, CollapseNet, ArchDruid Report, Leaving Babylon, Nature Bats Last, Orion, and there are countless others as well, all tell us what we must do to prepare for collapse and how to survive it. I am not one of them. I have no answers. I have no magic formula. And, I certainly have no moral authority. I am one of you. I too am trying to make some sense of this despair.
Tao abides in non-action, Yet nothing is left undone. If kings and lords observed this, The ten thousand things would develop naturally. If they still desired to act, They would return to the simplicity of formless substance. Without form there is no desire. Without desire there is tranquility. And in this way all things would be at peace. (Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 37)
There is alot of doing going on today. There are insurrections, civil wars, imperial aggressions, protest movements, transition towns, green technologies, regime changes, elections, and new political players all over the globe. I ask you again; what is the goal? What will it change? There is not enough will power in the entire world to reverse the course of this machine. So why the guilt? Live the despair, forget the guilt. In the meantime, perhaps we should try to “understand what is meant by ‘doing nothing’.” After all, nature gets to bat last! Wei wu wei.