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Welcome the Darkness

Dark times. The global collapse of ecosystems, the sixth mass extinction, world food shortages leading to social collapse, the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. Dark indeed. But surely if it were that bad, if all this were true, if the world were actually dying people would really be doing something about it. Right?

Well, it turns out the interlinked global ecological crises we are faced with are not easy problems to fix. Climate change, for example, has been described by policy analysts as a ‘super wicked problem’. ‘Super wicked’ might sound like a 90s rave culture superlative, but it’s actually trying to describe problems that are complex, multi-causal, involve behaviour change, but are also urgent and have no central authority capable of dealing with them. However, what this really points to is that things need to change in a big way. Climate change is not a policy problem. Tinkering, TED talks and technofixes just won’t cut the mustard. It demands radical systemic change.

System change can sound a bit vague, so lets be a bit more specific. We have to end capitalism, the dominant economic system on the planet. To survive in a capitalist system, economies need to continually grow, and despite what the billionaire egomaniac space fantasists say, that inevitably means more resource consumption, more carbon emissions, more destruction of habitats. De-coupling is the idea that economic growth can be separated, ‘decoupled’, from resource consumption and environmental harm. But it’s like having your cake and eating it. Time and again it’s been shown to be a false hope, propagated by those that from profit from keeping the current system going (and they don’t just want their cake, they want yours too!). In reality capitalism just isn’t compatible with preserving the planet’s life support systems

But capitalism is a tired, cruel excuse for an economic system anyway, exploiting the many to benefit the few and founded on bizarre outdated myths. ‘Psychological egoism’, for example, is the idea that all human activity is compelled by selfish motives, that the only reason you would help anyone or do anything at all is if it ultimately benefited you. In some ways it’s a simple solution to the complex, intriguing problem of what drives human behaviour. But it’s just not true. Altruism and cooperation don’t just exist in human relations, they are actually fundamental to the evolutionary theories that have been abused to justify selfish individualism. ‘Rational utility maximisation’ takes these ideas of ultimate selfish motivation and uses them as the basis for economics. It says that each of us acts in a rational way, always seeking to maximise our wealth. But again, it has been demonstrated many times that this isn’t what people actually do. If you want to know more about these ideas and how they have been debunked, look them up on your favourite non-evil-world-dominance-obsessed search engine.

What these concepts really represent is the idea that humans are fundamentally selfish bastards. Their advocates say that the only way we can prevent society from collapsing into a Lord of the Flies type scenario and regressing to the stone age is by harnessing our selfish drives for the collective good. If the logic of that doesn’t sound quite right, that’s because it’s totally batshit! But spreading and sustaining these dark myths allow the rich and powerful to stay at the top. To be fair they’ve done a pretty good job. By convincing us of misanthropy, the idea that humans are inherently bad, they prevent us from believing in the possibility of change.

Ok so capitalism has got to go, but ‘what’s the alternative?’ I hear you ask. There is no alternative! Or at least that’s the response usually thrown back at you. As if capitalism were the ultimate, optimal way of organising society, the so called ‘end of history’. It’s true that capitalism has a powerful hold over our collective imaginations, a world beyond it sometimes seems like the stuff of fantasy. This is summed up neatly by the term ‘capitalist realism’, the idea that capitalism prevents us from conceiving of any alternative. But capitalism itself is a fairy tale, albeit a particularly grim(m), dark and somewhat depressing one. To jump to another metaphorical genre, it seems like we are entrenched in a kind of zombie capitalism: No one really believes in it, it’s no longer really alive, but still it stumbles on, refusing to die.

As hard as it might be to imagine, things can change, and in the past enormous apparently inconceivable change has happened. To borrow from the wisdom of Ursula Le Guinne:

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

But if that wasn’t enough, it’s not just capitalism that needs to go. We need to fundamentally change the way we relate to and interact with the rest of nature. And by ‘we’ I don’t just mean me and you, the person writing and the person reading this. I mean humans, homo-sapiens, the whole species (or at least enough of us, imagining, striving and acting together). I know what you’re are thinking: humans haven’t exactly got the best track record of getting their collective shit together. Have humans ever even really acted together, collectively, intentionally as a species? Who knows?.. But maybe it’s about time we do. And what an exquisite, enticing thought: that together we can decide our direction, consider and reflect on our beliefs and desires and shape the future accordingly.

It’s true we’ve never been here before, we’re in uncharted territory. If we don’t know what lies in the darkness ahead, how will we find our way? “If only you knew the power of the Dark Side…” as someone once said a long time ago somewhere far far away. We shouldn’t be afraid of the dark, we should embrace it. In darkness lies mystery, possibility and the beauty of the unknown. Of course we need to learn from history and not make the same mistakes, but the future is unknown, unknowable even. Perhaps the only thing we do know with any degree of certainty about the world future generations will inherit is that, one way or another, things are going to change and the change is going to be enormous, unprecedented. Doom mongers’ disaster fantasy, ultrarich posthuman metaverse of bullshit, or maybe something else, something wonderful. It’s up to us.

The world we, the dreamers, seek isn’t perfect, there’s no such thing. Utopias can be visions to inspire us, but never realities. However, we can maybe say a few things about what we desire and what we don’t. We don’t want billionaires. We want health care, housing, education and food for everyone. We don’t want factory farms. We want humans living in harmonious relationships with their environments. We don’t want mega-yachts, mega-mansions or megalomaniacs. We want music, dancing, play and adventure. We don’t want mining derivative futures traders. We want freedom to breathe, wonder and collectively explore ourselves and the world around us.

As the earth’s life systems become destabilised, it seems the human social world too is entering a new phase, marked by dramatic global events, ruptures, new formations appearing as old structures dissolve. Instead of succumbing to misanthropic myths and self fulfilling prophecies of doom, we need to believe in our potential as a species, to have the courage to step into the darkness.

“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.”

― Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

human, anarchist

Image: Guy Smallman

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