The Challenge: Can we learn how to embrace collapse?

I’m always heartened when I hear of young couples getting pregnant, assuming the best of the future, gearing for family life and all that entails. I’m heartened, because I feel these stabs at “normalcy” — whether conscious or unconscious — act like nutritious mycellium, the invisible threaded underground fungal capillary system that fuels plant life above. By deciding to act as if there really is a viable future, these young people actually do help slow down the ongoing collapse of this civilization, where money is debt, war fuels growth, the few trample the many, and Earth is under siege. Perhaps the new lives they carve out can slow collapse down enough so that we can undergo a soft landing rather than a hard one.

Meanwhile, I’ve decided to drop my long-time subscription to the clever, cosmopolitan, once in a great while profound, New Yorker magazine, in favor of a new magazine, Into the Ruins. Because I’m pretty sure that’s where we’re heading, all of us together. Can we do so in a way that is both conscious of limits and also nourishes well-being, individually, socially, and globally? That remains to be seen. Here’s the philosophy behind the new magazine.

Via Albert Bates.



Sometimes you glimpse an unexpected future taking shape around you. It arrives as an unseen vision, the result of unseen consequences, and it demands an attention you don’t want to pay. It shocks you to a reality you had been looking past and demands you to look anew at the world. If the option is there, it’s easy to look away in that moment. But if you obey, a new world opens in front of you, complete with fresh possibilities and limitations, and truths you may not have known moments before.

In late August, I awoke one Saturday to a pleasant morning. Slipping downstairs, I put the tea kettle on and made my customary thermos of coffee with my customary anticipation of those first, calming sips. Outside, a hazy fog crept heavy across the land, obscuring the not-too-distant hills. My overgrown garden swayed and jerked raggedly in a surprisingly strong wind. I made a small mental note but paid it minimal mind. Morning fog brought in by an offshore wind is not uncommon on and near the North Oregon Coast, where I currently live.

I settled in for a bout of morning reading and a slow drinking of my coffee, passing an hour or so before I grew hungry enough to turn my attention toward breakfast. A simple veggie scramble in mind, I stepped outside to harvest a bit of kale and squash from the garden and was slapped in the face by hot wind and the heavy, acrid smell of smoke. The fog was not fog. Early in the morning, an unusual east wind had kicked up and brought smoke to the coast from large and destructive fires burning in the Willamette Valley and eastern Oregon. I had stepped outside expecting a misty, drifting fog and cool breeze; instead, it felt as though I were skirting the edge of Hell, taking a small taste of a deeper and crueler inferno waiting for me.

Disoriented, I continued to the garden and harvested my meal. Yet every gust of wind scalded and disquieted me. The outside experience stood in such stark contrast to my assumptions from the house. A window tight enough to keep out the smell of smoke and a well-known story were all it took for me to completely misjudge the world–to not see something terrible right in front of me.

The story I knew was simple: an offshore breeze, a fog bank, the hundredth time of stepping outside into cool and misty conditions, a typical morning respite from summertime heat. Because I knew the story, I knew the world in front of me. Yet I didn’t. The reality that had taken shape around me while I slept turned out to be dramatically different than what I thought I knew.

In this as elsewhere, our stories guide us. Again and again, they tell us the shape of the world. They bring order to the chaotic events around us and allow us a framework in which to approach each day. We need stories and narratives; as humans, this is how we understand the world. And yet our narratives are just as capable of misleading us. Our stories threaten our ability to understand the world, especially when it’s changing all around us. Especially when the on-the-ground reality doesn’t match the supposed facts of our stories.

Our cultural stories today are failing us in as dramatic a way as my simple story of wind and fog failed me one Saturday morning. On the one hand, they tell us tales of unending progress, of ever-increasing riches, of more energy and more resources and the easy salve that new technology will fix any and all problems–even the ones created by new technology. They weave narratives of the sustainability of impossibly rich lifestyles and the ability of human ingenuity and creativity to cure all our ills and transcend all limits.

On the other hand, they shout of imminent collapse and extinction. They tell us of runaway global warming and runaway technological enslavement, of dystopian futures riven by impossible levels of cruelty and inequality, of overbearing world governments that crush our freedoms, and an endless cascade of calamities caused by our own hubris. Science fiction and other forms of speculative fiction have too often fallen into utopian and dystopian ruts, failing to see the futures that exist between those two extremes–or outside them completely.

The mistake of these stories is their disbelief in limits. They choose a trend and extrapolate, believing that the future can only bring us more of the present. They make wild assumptions and discount negative feedback loops. They believe in human omnipotence, even as every passing year makes us look decidedly more impotent. They fail to understand human response and adaptation, flattening the incredible complexity (and irrationality) of human behavior into tired tropes that serve as little more than a means to buttress simplified world views and proffer scapegoats. In the period of dramatic change and upheaval that we now find ourselves in, these stories are dangerously misleading. They tell us of a future that will not arrive and does not exist. They convince us that fatal stupidity is wisdom.

We need new stories. We need stories that recognize the harsh limits making themselves more clear by the day, but that also see the creativity afforded by those limits. We need stories that understand the future will be hard, sometimes cruel, lacking in the abundant energy and resources we were promised, and reeling from the consequences of reckless usage of fossil fuels and the rampant destruction of unimpeded and thoughtless industrialism. However, we also need stories that see the joy as well as the sorrow in that future, and all the ways that human beings will survive and thrive in the face of natural limits and harsh consequences. Human ingenuity will not solve all our problems, but it will undoubtedly create brilliant, surprising, and at times even delightful responses to the years, decades, and centuries of decline that face industrial society.

Into the Ruins intends to be a venue for those stories that are able to see a future different from the official narratives. It will be an outlet for visions of a future of decline, collapse, and rebirth. Here we will acknowledge natural limits and imagine how we’ll live with them. Here we will look at the long, ragged decline of industrial civilization spread out before us and we’ll find a thousand different stories, a million details, a parade of humans laughing and weeping and surviving and carrying on amongst the wreckage. We will look into the corners, turn over the rocks, traverse the forests, peer into the towns and villages, survey the cities, and find all the fascinating tales of humans dealing with the unfolding crises of resource and energy depletion, climate change, economic and political dysfunction, war and strife, poverty and illness, hunger, migration, changing cultural mores and religious beliefs, and societal upheaval. With this as a backdrop, we’ll explore the daily lives of humans (and non-humans, for that matter) set against the same sort of troubles that have beset so much of human history. And we’ll find the beauty, the creativity, the joy, the pain, the inspiration, and the wonder that it is to be alive on this planet.

Even when the stories we know don’t turn out to be the lives we get.

Into the Ruins will not shy away from the darkness of what’s to come, nor will it lose sight of the beauty that is sure to accompany it. We will feature a wide variety of visions. But as our name suggests, all of them will be a plunge into the wreckage. These are stories that take it as fact that industrial civilization is in decline and that the levels of energy and resources we use today are not what we will have available in the future. Into the Ruins believes in limits and consequences, and we will publish stories that believe the same. This is not the place to come for techno-utopian fantasies. Nor is it the place to come for apocalypse porn. There’s plenty of both of those available in the world today. Instead, we plan to feature realistic portrayals of a future of decline, as well as stories of what comes afterward. We’ll feature stories set in the immediate future, a few decades from now, a few centuries from now, and even a few millennia from now. Most importantly, we want new stories, new ways of looking at the world–and we want a lot of them. This is not the time to be boxed in. This is a time of change, sure to be dramatic and traumatic, and the more stories we have to sift through, the more likely we are to discover valuable adaptations and creative responses.

So let’s begin. The ruins await. It’s time we explored them.


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