When “doomer” Guy McPherson stayed at my home during his sojourn to Bloomington, I told him that I didn’t think even HE could know if we are “doomed” or not, because no matter how much “science” (or ANY perspective for that matter, for example metaphysical, mystical) we apply to any situation, we are still attempting to fully and precisely model something much more mysterious and complex than any of our models of it. That we simply CAN’T know all the “variables” and how they interact, and that therefore, we CAN’T know the future. Period.
Here’s Ran Prieur, whose attitude is, I discover, similar to mine.
My new theory on the Guy McPherson crowd: Why would anyone go out of their way to believe in something (near-term human extinction) that’s both depressing and unsupported by the evidence? It’s because these are people who are already depressed and despairing for a variety of reasons, and by telling a story about the whole world, they can all be depressed for the same reason, and feel a sense of community.
I was a doomer optimist. My position was: society sucks, there’s nothing I can do about it, but this coming unstoppable event will destroy the big systems and make room for a better world. Now, whether it would really be a better world is an even harder question than how to define “collapse” in the first place. But the worse your present position, the more you’re willing to gamble on change (which is why governments will try hard to keep everyone fed). And now that I’m in a better position, I don’t have an incentive to cheer for a particular future. My biggest fears, being in debt and having to look for a job again, are unlikely in any scenario. There’s a Spanish saying, “I don’t have a dead guy at this funeral.”
I’m still fascinated by the future of humanity, and my motive is curiosity. But this is still a kind of bias, because challenges caused by failure, like energy decline and climate change, are less interesting than challenges caused by success, like artificial worlds that are better than reality, or the lifelessness of too much comfort, or the unintended consequences of using biotech to make ourselves better.
The reason I’m no longer a doomer is simply that I got tired of being wrong. And I started to feel contempt for other doomers who shamelessly made the same wrong predictions year after year. And you have to make precise predictions because otherwise what does “collapse” even mean? Do you think we’re still going to have internet? Container ships? Large scale grain farming? Banks? Taxes? Electrical grids? Hospitals? Stock markets? Elections? These are all different subjects that require different specialized knowledge. Even something like “manufacturing” could have vastly different answers for different products. And for each thing that’s going to go away, how long will it take, and by what chain of events?
Everyone wants to be right, but people who persist in being doomers want to be right in a different way than I do. I want to say what’s going to happen, and then it actually happens. Some people want to feel like they understand the mechanism for how things happen. But the real world is much too complex for any one person to understand, so we make simplifications. In the context of collapse, the simplest idea is business as usual plus sci-fi extrapolation. The next simplest idea is total collapse: every one of the above things goes away, because they’re all part of the same One Big Thing, and some of the conditions that made the One Big Thing possible are disappearing.
Everyone is stupid, but smart people know how they’re stupid. I know that modern civilization is only One Big Thing inside my head, and out in the world it’s billions of people I don’t know, their knowledge and habits and intentions, plus trillions of physical objects and all the connections between everything. I know that you can’t have perpetual economic growth on a finite planet, that renewable energy is not coming online fast enough for a smooth transition out of fossil fuels, and that presently fertile regions will become deserts; but it would be arrogant to think that large complex high-tech society cannot adapt to these conditions, just because I can’t personally imagine how it can adapt.