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Is There Any Point in Fighting to Stave off Industrial Apocalypse?

The collapse of civilization will bring us a saner world, argues Paul Kingsnorth. No, writes George Monbiot -- we can't let billions perish.

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This is why, despite everything, I fight on. I am not fighting to sustain economic growth. I am fighting to prevent both initial collapse and the repeated catastrophe that follows. However faint the hopes of engineering a soft landing – an ordered and structured downsizing of the global economy – might be, we must keep this possibility alive. Perhaps we are both in denial: I, because I think the fight is still worth having; you, because you think it isn't.

With my best wishes, George

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Dear George

You say that you detect in my writing a yearning for apocalypse. I detect in yours a paralysing fear.

You have convinced yourself that there are only two possible futures available to humanity. One we might call Liberal Capitalist Democracy 2.0. Clearly your preferred option, this is much like the world we live in now, only with fossil fuels replaced by solar panels; governments and corporations held to account by active citizens; and growth somehow cast aside in favour of a "steady state economy".

The other we might call McCarthy world, from Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road – which is set in an impossibly hideous post-apocalyptic world, where everything is dead but humans, who are reduced to eating children. Not long ago you suggested in a column that such a future could await us if we didn't continue "the fight".

Your letter continues mining this Hobbesian vein. We have to "fight on" because without modern industrial civilisation the psychopaths will take over, and there will be "mass starvation and war". Leaving aside the fact that psychopaths seem to be running the show already, and millions are suffering today from starvation and war, I think this is a false choice. We both come from a western, Christian culture with a deep apocalyptic tradition. You seem to find it hard to see beyond it. But I am not "yearning" for some archetypal End of Days, because that's not what we face.

We face what John Michael Greer, in his book of the same name, calls a "long descent": a series of ongoing crises brought about by the factors I talked of in my first letter that will bring an end to the all-consuming culture we have imposed upon the Earth. I'm sure "some good will come" from this, for that culture is a weapon of planetary mass destruction.

Our civilisation will not survive in anything like its present form, but we can at least aim for a managed retreat to a saner world. Your alternative – to hold on to nurse for fear of finding something worse – is in any case a century too late. When empires begin to fall, they build their own momentum. But what comes next doesn't have to be McCarthyworld. Fear is a poor guide to the future.

All the best, Paul

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Dear Paul

If I have understood you correctly, you are proposing to do nothing to prevent the likely collapse of industrial civilisation. You believe that instead of trying to replace fossil fuels with other energy sources, we should let the system slide. You go on to say that we should not fear this outcome.

How many people do you believe the world could support without either fossil fuels or an equivalent investment in alternative energy? How many would survive without modern industrial civilisation? Two billion? One billion? Under your vision several billion perish. And you tell me we have nothing to fear.

I find it hard to understand how you could be unaffected by this prospect. I accused you of denial before; this looks more like disavowal. I hear a perverse echo in your writing of the philosophies that most offend you: your macho assertion that we have nothing to fear from collapse mirrors the macho assertion that we have nothing to fear from endless growth. Both positions betray a refusal to engage with physical reality.

 
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