We are at war with Modernity and must look to our defence.
In his seminal 2018 paper “Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy” Prof. Jem Bendell warned that climate change was certain, societal collapse probable, and near-term human extinction possible.
Five years on, he and his research team conclude that in 2018 he was mistaken about societal collapse. It was not probable. It had already started.
In his new book Breaking Together: A freedom-loving response to collapse he ponders what to do as the society we were raised in – the society in which the future was always going to be better – slowly crumbles around us.
This not a dream, not even a bad one. The roads are already pot-holed, the NHS close to breakdown, young adults can’t afford homes, there are food banks in every city, and the sea and rivers are foul with sewage. As I write, a thousand wildfires burn in Canada and tens of thousands of evacuees are the first Canadian climate refugees; the Ottawa government has lost control of vast areas of its territory.
Canada — hard as it might be to believe — can be said to be on the verge of becoming a failed state.
— Prof. Michael Klare in Resilience
It’s like watching a train wreck in extreme slo-mo.
The future is not going to be better in any of the ways we had thought it would be. Not more foreign travel. Not more luxurious holidays. Not bigger and better cars. In fact, it’s hard now even to imagine all that. We’d be happy enough to get things back to how they were ten or twenty years ago.
In fact, we’d be delighted.
Peak consumption is well in the past. And it’s time, as the Russians used to say in the 1990s, to put the future behind us.
That future, anyway.
Of course, it wasn’t great for everyone then. It was great for the top part of society in the global North. A civilisation pumps wealth from its periphery to its centre to build the infrastructure that makes cities fun. The maintenance bill for the infrastructure rises steadily. It’s paid for by ‘surplus’ productivity: what workers can survive losing. (Like honey from bees.) For our ‘thermo-industrial’ society the colossal surplus productivity of the last century is based on oil. We didn’t have to run out of it for the party to end; that happened as a the yield from an increasingly expensive oil supply fails to meet the steadily rising bill for maintaining infrastructure.
† See John Michael Greer, Dark Age America for a more detailed account.
Which is where we are.†
Our society is addicted to oil. Not a metaphorical addiction, as in a metaphorical addiction, but an actual addiction, as in something you do that harms you but you keep on doing it even though you know it harms you. That sort of addiction. The sort you can’t break by an act of will.
Why we are incapable of the necessary collective action has to do with capture of the state by elites who profit from the addiction. That’s been explored elsewhere; we won’t explore it here.
Bendell says our loan-based monetary system – which we think of as neutral and just ‘there’ – commits us to unlimited economic expansion. I’m not sure he’s right about that. (Does the argument hold for the renmimbi?) But he’s right that the commitment to growth entails an assault on our well-being. We must work as hard as we can, achieve as much as we can, be the best we can be, revere talent, applaud wealth, take on debt and repay it, die rich. In such a world it is natural to wonder whether we are good enough to live in it, to worry and compete, to lie awake at night thinking about the mortgage.
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
It is a world in which we are never at home, only tenants on the verge of default.
It is a world of unprecedented material wealth – from which the travel adverts offer us escape! Escape from our storied cities to a quiet beach – on the periphery. A break from our world’s demands, a brief time in which it is for once, as it once was in childhood, enough simply to be.
The escape is no more than temporary relief, a worker’s spell in sick bay to recover. Reculer pour mieux sauter! The grindstone crouches at the end of the fortnight.
The chain of ours that modern life continually yanks on is the sympathetic nervous system. You’d think one nervous system could be enough for us, but we have two. Like a car with automatic transmission, a pedal to speed up, the other to slow down. The sympathetic nervous system speeds us up. It mobilises our resources for freeze, fight or flight. It’s our emergency response, diverting blood to muscles, pumping adrenaline, and suppressing cognition.
Wait. Suppressing cognition? Yes. The brain is a hungry organ and an emergency is not a time to reflect. You’ll be relying on Daniel Kahneman’s ‘fast thinking’ – pattern-matching with stereotypes. You’ll make mistakes. But this is time to Move Fast and Break Things. It’s why the military trains hard.
Under stress, you are your habits. Predictable.
The attention economy is an approach to handling and disseminating information that treats human attention as a commodity.
With sympathetic nervous systems frazzled by debt and media, and our reflective capacity on mute, we are easy prey for the algorithms. Spend, produce, achieve; save for the occasional spike of turbo-consumption called ‘travel’ for a brief respite – an escape from the intolerable paradise of Modernity.
It doesn’t have to be like this. You can find refuge from Modernity without going anywhere near an airport. Buddhists know about this. We can tap their centuries of experience.
Our parasympathetic nervous system slows us down. It calms us. It helps us to think. We need to nurture it, give it more play.
Buddhists are into that.
Your me-time begins with quiet. The opposite of an open-plan office. Actual quiet, the absence of sound, is best; but especially avoid engaging sounds such as conversation or music. Loud surf or birdsong – even traffic – won’t catch at your mind in anything like the same way. A park if you can find a lonely spot. And if you flat out cannot find any quiet place in your environment, take a walk. Plug in your noise-cancelling earphones if you have them. Me time.
Now sit, if you can; walk if you can’t. (In Japan, Rinzai Zen practitioners call walking meditation kin hin. I tell you this in case you think you can’t walk and meditate.) If you are sitting, settle yourself in a stable position. Flexible sitters like the stability of full- and half-lotus and Burmese positions. If those don’t work for you, kneeling astride a fat cushion might, or a seiza bench to protect your knees from strain. Failing those, seat yourself firmly in a chair. Imagine a balloon on a string tied to the back and top of your head, and let your imagined balloon guide your neck to where it is straight, your chin tucked slightly in.
Lean forward very slightly to distribute the weight of your upper body across your ‘platform’ – whether this is your folded legs, or your thighs as you sit in a chair. (If you’re walking, lean very slightly forward but not much: walking tends to put you in this posture naturally.)
Relax your jaw and tuck your tongue behind your top teeth. Half-close your eyes. You‘re on holiday already!
Can you feel your heart beat? Normally we do not. We filter it out of awareness the better to hear what changes around us. But now pay attention to the beat of your heart. You are alive and your heart is beating. Your heart started beating long before you were born, and it will stop when your life ends. If you live a good, long life your heart may beat about two billion times.
Be grateful to your heart! It is keeping you alive. Because your heart beats you can do everything you do; you can feel everything you feel. (You can find a longer version of these reflections in Thich Nhat Hanh’s You Are Here.)
Your heart is beating. Now pay attention to your breath. Breathe in through your nose; out through your mouth. How long can you hold your breath? That’s how long you can stay alive without air. Be grateful for the air that keeps you alive, even the polluted air of our cities.
— What in Zen is worth keeping?
— The breathing and the posture.
(Rinzai Zen Q&A)
Draw your breath down to your belly. Let your belly swell out to draw it in. This is abdominal breathing, the ‘long breath’. If you are used to breathing mainly with your chest, give your chest a rest. Attend to the inbreath and the outbreath. “Now I am breathing in. Now I am breathing out.” Try counting your breaths, from one to ten, then start over.
Ah-ha! Your attention slid off elsewhere. A simple enough task, count your breaths, but Something Came Up. Some other thought.
For this is the thing. Thoughts arise. All the time. It’s like sharing a room with a television set you can’t switch off. And your thoughts are not you. Rather, they hook you. There you were, quietly counting your breaths, and Bang – you realised you’ve just been ‘watching television’ for the last few seconds. Or minutes.
Never mind. You didn’t fail. This is what learning to meditate is about. That stream of thoughts isn’t you, and it isn’t going to stop. You’re beginning the process of learning to live with it rather than in it. Start counting again. Patiently! You are training an animal – your mind – with repetition. There is no sudden breakthrough here; just firm, gentle repetition.
This is also training in self-compassion. Of that, more another time.
All of which raises the wonderful question: If I am not the thoughts in my mind – who is it, here, watching? It is a wonderful question. It is exactly where we shall leave this for now.
Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
— Audre Lorde
The last inner freedom cannot be lost.
— Viktor Frankl
The inner self that is watching is never damaged. Our connection to it is never broken. But it can be attenuated to where it’s almost undetectable.
Protecting and nurturing that connection is more than the hippie strategy of Turn on, tune in, and drop out. Compassion roots in our inner selves; it gives us community, and the strength to resist the algorithms of Modernity – capitalist or totalitarian – not just personally but also politically.
Rick Hanson of the Global Compassion Coalition likes to speak of fierce compassion. It is beautifully illustrated in the figure of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of transcendent wisdom, traditionally shown bearing the sword that cuts through ignorance and duality.
Modern civilisation – what Bendell calls Imperial Modernism – in its extractive fury is a sustained and ultimately suicidal assault on the wellbeing of the entire planet’s biosphere. Including us.
We are at war with Modernity. Begin by defending your connection to your inner self.
I’ll write further on practice, on self-compassion, on digital detox – and on what I am coming to understand as the dawning of our post-secular age.