The “end of a world” never is and never can be anything but the end of an illusion.
-- Rene Guenon
Come little ones,
You are worth no more than the foxes and yellow
wolfkins, yet I will give you wisdom.
O future children:
Trouble is coming; the world as of the present time
Sails on its rocks; but you will be born and live
Afterwards. Also a day will come when the earth
Will scratch herself and smile and rub off humanity:
But you will be born before that.
-- Robinson Jeffers
I shall lay my head upon the grass at the top of the hill and gaze up at the stars. A warm wind shall blow across my cheeks, bringing with it the smell of flowers. I shall not lift a finger in the service of human society. For the gods still dance in the moonlight.
Modernity begins with vertiginous motion, where before there was stillness. The ships of the Atlantic slave trade. The steam engines. The textile factories. The collieries. An atomized universe, an atomized humanity. The divine and sacred land split apart into resources for consumption. The human being sorted and administered, just another resource to be managed. Time becomes conceived as an arrow, rather than a circle. Cycles are disrupted. The seasons, life and death, growth and decay, all disregarded by the engine of progress. Four hundred years of limitless growth and expansion, all on borrowed time. It was never going to end any other way. The cycles will be restored, despite the best efforts and delusions of humanity. Climate change and the catastrophes it brings represents the return of the gods, the restoration of balance in the biosphere, the reestablishment of the reign of millennia of stillness.
To reestablish humanity’s relationship with the gods is also to reconnect with the land, for the land is the gods. The present crisis, which devastates humanity and the biosphere, is defined in both material and spiritual terms. The destruction we have wrought upon the earth and all forms of life stems from our turning from the gods, who are honored in the cycles of the seasons, in the rituals of the fields, in the coming and going of life. Properly worshiping the gods is to worship the land. And we need only look at our world to see how little honor is paid to the land.
We are always looking for the one mistake we have made as a species that’s led to all of our problems. This tendency itself is reflective of the modern consciousness, according to which the path of history is linear, rather than cyclical. Thus, surrounded by the detritus of so many failed reforms and revolutions, we look back to find the moment that it all went wrong. If only we could frame the problem just so, if only we could really put our finger on it, then we could work everything out and the future would become an endless string of glorious tomorrows.
Industrial modernity did not create our problems, they existed before. The problem, which ultimately is not really a problem at all, is in ourselves as human beings. One thing is abundantly clear, however, the period following the rise of industrial modernity has coincided with the most egregious examples of exploitation and dehumanization, as well as the collapse of the biosphere. Deforestation existed prior to the 17th and 18th centuries, of course. Extinctions due to hunting have been common, as well. Desertification, urban development, large scale wars, and soul crushing drudgery and alienation are not unique to the last three or four centuries. But, again, let’s be clear: pre-modern societies did not have the capacity to interfere with planetary functions. Pre-modern societies did not have the capacity to create a global mass extinction event. Agriculture was not humanity’s mistake: industrialism was.
The problem is not that humanity is capable of cruelty and selfishness. The problem is that we have adopted en masse a way of life that profoundly intensifies the worst of our instincts. It did not create these instincts, as we have said, and the existence of these instincts is not in and of itself a problem. We imagine that with we can make ourselves into perfect beings. This is the error. We are doomed to struggle, as all life is doomed to struggle. But let us never forget that the stars are born and die in fiery cataclysm. To reject the universality of struggle in human life and the fabric of the cosmos is to reject that which ties us to the totality of the non human world. Even more pernicious, it is to strive endlessly for a fantasy: light without darkness. And the pursuit of this delusion has, in an act of supreme irony, led to the most heinous and vile actions that humanity has been capable of committing.
The world today is characterized by a refusal to acknowledge that the world we have known for several hundred years is at an end. Even among the minuscule percentage that accepts the fact that human impact on the biosphere has brought about a catastrophe without precedent in human history, we see a number of deflections and pivot, which prevent a deeper understanding of this moment. First of all, there is the belief that some type of social revolution, the likes of which has never yet been seen in terms of scale, will establish a global socialist or communist state, which will, for some implicit and unstated reason, devote itself utterly to the cause of decarbonization. Secondly, there is some hope that the new technologies, driven forward by capitalism ruthless ambition, will emerge to save us, in the manner of a deus ex machina. Of course, as we have said, the dominant perspective is still that either nothing significant is changing in the biosphere, or that human activity has got nothing to do with it.
It is time to stop struggling against the inevitable. For hundreds of years, humanity has expanded its domain over the earth, at the enormous cost of non human life and human spiritual and physical well being. Every moment that this world continues to exist means suffering and extinction for non human life and soulless misery for humanity. We cannot stop what’s coming and it best that we do not try, for only in the death of this world is there hope for a new future to bloom.
This conclusion will be unsatisfactory to most. But aside from the predominant myth of human exceptionalism, why should it not be so? What else but the belief that humanity is so powerful and unique that it is capable of shaping the universe according to its will could lead us to think differently? Perhaps we believe that because we made such a mess of the world, we have the power to put it all back to order? Human history has made one thing all too plan: human individuals and societies are perhaps least able to understand and correct their own mistakes. To paraphrase G.W.F Hegel, there is nothing so consistently evident as the fact that societies do not learn from history. Even on the level of the individual, it is plain that the vast majority struggles to curb even the most harmful and self destructive behaviors and thought processes. One is likely to hear the objection that there is nothing humanity cannot achieve if it works together. Ironically, this manner of delusional thinking is itself the product of the very way of life that has brought the biosphere to the point of collapse.
This conclusion, that the fate of modern industrial society to collapse should be accepted and embraced, is neither a nihilistic nor suicidal one. The loss of human and non human life that will accompany this collapse is not to be celebrated. The point of clarification, however, is that this wyrd was written long ago. The suffering we face and the greater suffering that future generations will face, is a matter of chickens coming home to roost. And it will be those who deserve it the least that will suffer the most. But as Robinson Jeffers wrote in “The Answer,”
Know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history... for contemplation or in fact...
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man's pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.
Worse times than our species has ever known are coming. But in this lies our only hope to rediscover the sense of wholeness we once possessed. Ironically, it is only in this techno industrial society, which makes an enemy of all life, that we declare the value of human life to be absolute. To borrow the phrase from Jeffers above, modernity has loved man at the expense of the world. We shall not “drown in despair” as the human domination of the world comes to an end! And so we must accept and embrace the means by which this domination will be broken, for the gods move in the coming storms.
Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He lives with his family among mountains and rivers in Western New England. He walks with the moon.
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