Thursday, July 4, 2019

In Praise of Themis

"Few people have the imagination for reality."
~ von Goethe

"Never underestimate the human capacity for denial."
~ moi

1. Consciousness and Denial
In tandem with consciousness, humanity developed a deeply embedded penchant for denial. It's a terrific survival strategy that evolved to help blind us to the pain of animals we hunt and eat, the terror of the victims of wars we wage on our neighbors, the monstrosity of slavery, the injustice of male chauvinism, the senselessness of death, and ultimately the fearsome gaping maw of meaninglessness in the vast unfeeling universe.

Our denial, entrenched in our genes, also enables - even requires - us to believe fantasies, to embrace spirits, to shun truth, to subscribe to the illusion of free will, to follow charlatans, and to pretend our hopes and prayers can shape reality.

Take a recent example. The CNN headline reads: "633 divers collect over 1,500 pounds of trash at a Florida beach -- and set a world record" while further along we learn that "Divers came from as far away as Europe and South America to participate in the event". You have to be through the looking glass to see this as a net win for the environment and yet this, and the current obsession with plastic straws, is the typical myopic depth of understanding of our colossal planetary overshoot.

I thank Alan Cree, who shared this painting, with its implicit allusion to the quote from Democritus “Of truth we know nothing, for truth is in a well”.  The "laughing philosopher" often expressed ridicule for the follies of humans, which he regarded as mostly an unthinking atomic collection. 

Truth Coming out of her Well to Shame Mankind (1896)
~ Jean-Léon Gérôme


Fact: there exists no natural mechanism that will slow the acceleration of anthropogenic global heating in any timeframe useful to life on earth. It is only reasonable to expect that it's going to get hotter and hotter, faster and faster, for at least hundreds of years. Even if anthropogenic emissions cease today or in a decade, heating will still increase at an accelerating rate. Amplifying feedbacks such as albedo and forest die off and methane release from melting permafrost combined with the longevity of CO2 already released assure an uninhabitable climate in the fairly near future.

Once you understand that greenhouse gases will continue to trap energy from the sun as long as they persist, everything else - climate sensitivity and latent ocean warming and inertia in the system - is so much hoohah. The idea that technology yet to be invented will remove CO2 is no better than a religious tenet, and it will never be deployed at a scale that matters given the vast quantities that have already been released (and continue to be released).


Innumerable articles, studies, and books have been published detailing how humanity has run out of time, and again and again the deadline is farcically pushed ahead so we still have decades, or at least, now, a few years, to turn the tide. In one article from 1989, "A senior U.N. environmental official says entire nations could be wiped off the face of the Earth by rising sea levels if the global warming trend is not reversed by the year 2000...He said governments have a 10-year window of opportunity to solve the greenhouse effect before it goes beyond human control."
In an interview in March this year, meteorologist Nick Humphrey put it succinctly:
"I do not think it is possible to transition to a net-zero carbon emission civilization within a decade. The idea itself is simply absurd because it would require basically returning to a pre-industrial society with none of the benefits which came from building the society provided by fossil fuels. There are some economists and environmentalists who believe you can have “green growth” but such growth leads to further environmental destruction as population and energy demands continue to grow exponentially...there is already much damage in the pipeline."
     "At 500 parts per million of equivalent carbon dioxide concentration, enough greenhouse gases are currently in the atmosphere to ultimately warm the planet 4-5 degrees C/7-9 F above 1700s temperatures, raise the sea level by 220 feet/67 meters (assuming 1 ppm CO2 equivalent = 1 ft sea level rise, based on past longer-term paleoclimate change response), remove significant amounts of soil moisture, leading to the destruction of agriculture. And this is without any other carbon releases or feedbacks. Building more in an attempt to maintain civilized society with high energy consumption makes this all worse."

3. Humans are incapable of change

As convincing as the physical effects documented by science are, it's also and crucially ever more irrefutable that humans are simply not equipped to behave any other way than to grow without voluntary restraint, until we deplete the resources we need to survive, and overwhelm the environment with pollution until it is so toxic that it is poisonous to virtually all forms of life. We are basically an invasive species with no more self restraint than yeast.

This is where even the most dire voices about climate change often err.  It's not libertarianism, or capitalism, or western civilization that has led us to this predicament - rather it is humanity's exponential growth, in numbers and complexity, in technological capability, medical advances, and consumption.  The imperative to grow and consume is primordial and we cannot eliminate that biological trait despite our desire to believe in free will.

Over a year ago Harvard professor James Anderson was quoted in Forbes as saying we have five years to save ourselves. Of obstructionists he said, "I don't understand how these people sit down to dinner with their kids...because they're not stupid people." And this is why chemists and physicists and geologists who study climate shouldn't ignore evolutionary biology and ecology.

Doomers know that more and more precise information will not inspire "action" on the part of politicians or influence public sentiment to vote for politicians who endorse "action".  It's well established that people don't base their actions on intellectual arguments. They base their intellectual arguments on emotions, and emotions are based on the inchoate but overwhelming urge to grow. So even people who are "not stupid" will not be swayed by rationality.  

Most people may never be able to acknowledge this perfectly obvious trend, which has been in existence since we first went into overshoot in our warm cozy niche in the tropics and were forced to migrate outward, and to colonize inhospitable terrain - driving dozens of species of unprepared megafauna to extinction as we expanded, while deforesting swathes of territory with stone axes and fire. We've been destroying ecosystems since we climbed out of trees and first found rocks so useful to throw and smash.

I don't expect the sentimental majority will ever be able to acknowledge this dystopian view of human "progress". Even most self-proclaimed doomers leaven the horror with some form of Woo, generally with spurious references to mythical utopic, egalitarian indigenous hunter-gatherers.

3. Who are the doomers?

Doomers (doomours, doomists) come in various stripes, some devoid of any hope, some clinging to one or another path towards survival or a least a cosmically moral salvation.  A few years ago there was a conversation among some subset of the online array of climate/ecological pessimists/realists about how to label ourselves, and no satisfactory unifying word was found.  Catastrophists, Cassandras, collapsniks, alarmists, ecopocalypsists and other monikers were considered and rejected. Lacking a better designation, I made the DoomForDummies site five years ago, which I discussed on a Collapse Chronicles interview in December.

Of course since then the evidence of imminent disasters on many fronts - the sixth mass extinction, habitat destruction, pollution of myriad types, peak water, ocean acidification and coral bleaching, extreme weather infinitum - has vastly increased, making the trend towards collapse of civilization (at the very least) an outcome more difficult to ignore, and more challenging to pretend that humanity will rectify the damage even assuming that's still possible.  The tragedy is playing out on television and computer screens, which has catapulted the small but growing cadre of doomers from our private corners of the internet into the public light like never before.

4. Apocaloptimists attacking doomers - as worse than deniers 

Overwhelming evidence - that impacts are faster and sooner than predicted, that tipping points have been irrevocably crossed, that amplifying feedbacks are beyond human influence, that global warming is run amuk with no natural mechanisms or magic technology to ameliorate inexorable heating - is leading more people to conclude that civilization (if not our species and most others) is doomed. Right now, there is an increasingly vocal contingent who are vigorously attacking the nebulous doomer community.

Much of the sniping and scapegoating begins with the hostile accusation that doomers, merely by existing, are encouraging inaction. This is patently absurd, since inaction has been and remains the default position ever since humans first noticed that burning fuel has consequences. No contribution by doomers towards defeatism accounts for the ever-increasing Keeling curve that measures CO2 concentrations, or the refusal of governments to meet climate treaty goals.

Still, this parochial view has engendered a more virulent and frequent backlash against those who have borne witness to the inevitability of collapse, and even very prominent Celebrity Climate Scientists and Activists have joined the rampage to bash doomers with numerous epithets and accusations ranging from Nihilism to hedonism to cruelty, bolstered by distortions and lies.

Take one opening salvo from a 2014 blogpost by Michael Tobis, who went to inordinate lengths to disparage an academic refugee who is relatively obscure although well known to the doomosphere, Prof. Emeritus Guy McPherson.

A commenter there noted with pithy acumen:
Apneaman says:
March 14, 2014 Since you first wrote about McPherson, I have been trying to figure out why? Why burn up energy on someone with such a small following? At first I thought it was jealousy or anger at losing followers to him. That's not it. No I think it's frustration. You have spent your entire adult life studying climate change and trying to warn the powers that be and the general population and no one really listened. In fact things have only gotten worse. The world just keeps burning everything it can to make stuff we don't need. De-forestation, soil loss, peak everything, etc, etc, you know it all. Nothings changed and no one listened, nor will they ever. Maybe McPherson and his gang of "dangerous" doomers are a fight you can win. Hell there must be at least 20,000 people listening to him. If you can just stop his message, somehow that will stop the insanity of the other 7 billion mass consumers. Good luck with your new dragon.
A typical attack is an essay by Wen Stephenson, reviewing Volmann's book Carbon Ideologies, in which he sanctimoniously decries the conclusion that it's too late to avert catastrophe and lists all the wonderful accomplishments of climate activism. What he fails to include is that emissions continue to rise, population continues to grow, consumption levels continue to increase...and physics doesn't care how many people turned out for a pipeline protest. He ends with this pusillanimous snark:
"Unfortunately, many of the sort of educated, literate folks Vollmann is writing for don’t seem to understand all this. Or maybe they don’t want to understand. Perhaps they prefer to look away. It’s so much easier to tell oneself the game is up, that nothing can be done, that nothing ever could have been done, so why bother? It’s perversely comforting to wallow in tragic-ironic guilt over one’s carbon complicity, using it as a pathetic excuse."
In The Nation he writes of Bill McKibbon's latest book, " affirms him as among a very few of our most compelling truth-tellers about the climate catastrophe and the ideological forces driving it—most notably, in his account, the hyper-individualist, Ayn Randian libertarianism of the Kochs and free-market true believers."

This blame game is rampant and represents a form of desperate bargaining - if we can point fingers at corporations, or capitalism, or modern consumerism, then maybe there is some solution. But they never get close to advocating substantive action, because they know perfectly well that people would never support the kinds of revolutionary policies that would be required - such as, no flying, ever, for anyone; no long distance shipping; no military; a world population reduction plan; rationing, etc.  This is articulated in "The Empty Radicalism of the Climate Apocalypse", a satiric but ironically and unintentionally accurate spoof by Ted Nordhaus:
" has become fashionable to call for a World War II style mobilization to fight climate change. But virtually no one will actually call for any of the sorts of activities that the United States undertook during the war mobilization—rationing food and fuels, seizing property, nationalizing factories or industries, or suspending democratic liberties." 
"The vagueness and modesty of the Green New Deal is not proof that progressives and environmentalists are closet socialists. It is, rather, evidence that most climate advocates, though no doubt alarmed, don’t actually see climate change as the immediate and existential threat they suggest it is."
...Or, maybe it's because they know damn well the public will never acquiesce to the extreme sacrifices that would be necessary - and they worship the dogma of technological miracles. Miracles, by definition, don't happen in the real world.

Faith in technology and an endless supply of limited resources underlies hope and is exemplified in the following passage from a NYTimes article titled "Maybe We're Not Doomed After All" based the absurd premise that the abomination of geoengineering will save us, because *it will have to*.
"In the past few years, some commentators have warned that modern society’s faith in technology has led to a mistaken belief that it will save the world. They embrace solutions that encourage widespread behavioral changes, like consuming less, traveling infrequently and adopting a plant-based diet. We’re likely to need both technological and personal transformations. But in the end, it’s technology that will save us, not only because it can but also because it will have to."
5. No fun

Unlike well-funded professional deniers, never mind legions of the willfully ignorant and uninformed, genuine doomers are vanishingly rare creatures.

As pointed out in the Guardian by Dana Nuccitelli, it's rather pointless to revile doomers for the failure of climate policy when we are such a tiny proportion of those who take the threat of climate change seriously, and have virtually no influence anywhere - especially compared to professional deniers funded by multinational corporations.  Most doomers are acutely cognizant of their personal impact on the earth and exercise great efforts to be conscientious, far more so than the average person. It's ludicrous to suggest that doomers are in even the remotest way responsible for political inaction on climate issues, since much of the electorate is voting for fascist exploitative governments quite happily, of their own volition.

An especially pernicious assertion by this "shoot the messenger" crowd is the common claim that doomers are secretly desirous of a catastrophic end for humanity. I doubt there is a single doomer who finds any comfort whatsoever in either the inevitability of extinction or their own individual role in it. Every doomer I've ever interacted with, and there have been many, has agonized and mourned - and some have even gone crazy with grief and guilt and committed suicide. It's not fun being a doomer, which is why there are so few of us.

Many doomers began as former devoted progressives, who fought long and hard before awakening with enormous ambivalence to the sad verity that humanity is not going to change. I personally learned about the tenacity of denial the hard way, first from trying to alert the world to the death of trees (a massacre that seemed perfectly obvious to me over a decade ago but invited unending ridicule) and second, from encountering so many "light" doomers - who will forever remain convinced, no matter how much archeological evidence refutes it, that the noble primitive and peaceful and sustainable indigenous savage was ever really a thing.

This is me, back in the days when I thought there was a chance homo eradicatus would wake up to self-inflicted ecopocalypse and do something to prevent it.

2010, NASA-Zombie Alliance Climate Change Apocalypse Rally
with James Hansen in Washington DC

September, 2011 - Occupy Wall Street

Grist Magazine: Behind the scenes at a big mountaintop-mining protest August 2012

6. The taboo - violating hope

A fundamental reason for the mountains of scorn being heaped upon doomers is the sanctity of hope in human culture. Hope is often sacred even to secularists, who put their faith not in god(s) but just as fervently in technology and human ingenuity. The hopeless doomer is an affront to their beliefs and is usually received with anger, resentment, and insults.  I have been asked with tedious regularity why I don't just kill myself, since I have no hope. When I respond - if I had a diagnosis of terminal cancer, would you expect me to kill myself right away? - that is generally when the conversation ends.

Doomers usually have gone through prolonged periods of political activism, personal carbon foot-print reducing exercises, and then become pariahs, often losing friends and family who decide we are at best deluded and at worst insane or evil.

All such designations seem fodder for mainstream activists and scientists to castigate our loosely coordinated ranks as little better than "death cults".  Unfortunately and inevitably, there IS a contingent of conspiracy theorists who are best ignored.  But it is utterly inaccurate to assail every person who has concluded, following extensive study, observation, and searching, that human civilization is nearing its expiration date as being desirous in some perverse way for a global catastrophe, or of being misanthropic.

~ George Frederic Watts, 1886

from The Paucity of Hope - Wit's End July 2014

The painting at the top of this essay, Hope, was the subject of a lecture where it was described as a "study in contradictions".  That academic talk was attended by the pastor Jeremiah Wright, who in turn used the painting as the focal point for a sermon in 1990, which was attended by a young Illinois State Senator, Barack Obama.  Aspiring to the presidency, he took the title of the sermon as inspiration for a book and the campaign slogan that turned out to be so hollow, "The Audacity of Hope". In his sermon, Wright concluded that "...hope is what saves us." I would submit that Hope, while once a useful trait, is what has condemned us, because we literally cannot see the cliff as we dance off it.  Instead of celebrating the failed audacity of hope, it might be prudent to contemplate, in the time we have left, the paucity of hope - because the most we can realistically hope for, trapped by forgone conclusions, is to vanquish fear...and find the grace of acceptance.

7. Who is Themis

And that brings me to the title of this post, In Praise of Themis. The term "doomer" and its relatives has a pejorative connotation, but until a friend (Malcolm Waugh, thank you!) brought the Greek goddess Themis to my attention, I had never found a better substitute.

Every culture has traditional cautionary tales but the Greeks are particularly splendid, perhaps because their deities embody the same flaws that characterize the humans who invented them. They can be shortsighted, vain, greedy, foolish, venal, lustful, narcissistic, and cruel.

Particularly relevant at this time of fossil fueled overshoot is the account of Prometheus, who enraged Zeus by giving humanity the gift of fire.  Another especially resonant account is that of Pandora's Box from which escaped the peculiarly double-edged sword, that of hope - the promise; the curse. When hope enables denial, it becomes dangerous.

Pandora's Box
Walter Crane

Like any complex legend shrouded in ancient time, the attributes of Themis are myriad and sometimes contradictory, with multiple interpretations of her role.  For my purpose, which is to embrace her prescience, her courage and her wisdom, I rely on these interpretations listed in wiki:

Themis is "...the personification of divine order, fairness, law, natural law, and custom. Her symbols are the Scales of Justice, tools used to remain balanced and pragmatic."

"The ability of the goddess Themis to foresee the future enabled her to become one of the Oracles of Delphi, which in turn led to her establishment as the goddess of divine justice." 

"Some classical representations of Themis showed her holding a sword, believed to represent her ability to cut fact from fiction; to her there was no middle ground."
"In the play Prometheus Bound, traditionally attributed to Aeschylus, Themis is the mother of Prometheus, and gave him foreknowledge of what was to come." [of course!]
And also this passage, From Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion  ~ Jane Ellen Harrison (1912).
'The Greek word Themis and the English word Doom are, philology tells us, one and the same; and it is curious to note that their development moves on exactly parallel lines. Doom is the thing set, fixed, settled; it begins in convention, the stress of public opinion; it ends in statutory judgment. Your private doom is your private opinion, but that is weak and ineffective. It is the collective doom, public opinion, that, for man's common convenience, crystallizes into Law. Themis like Doom begins on earth and ends in heaven. On earth we have our Doomsday, which, projected into high heaven, becomes the Crack of Doom, the Last Judgment' (483)."
So I will no longer refer to myself as a doomer, but rather as a Themist - which to me, means struggling for the capacity to endure the unbearable lightness of being, that great paradox of being human, to have the knowledge that we are hurtling towards the Endocene but can do nothing to slow the see our death looming and to realize it cannot be face the soul crushing tragedy of the horrendous truth that our fate is sealed - and like Democritus, still be able to laugh.

Hope in a Prison of Despair
~ Evelyn de Morgan

As the essence of gallows humor, I will end with a special version of I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues by Elton John (lyrics below) as shared by fellow doomer-now-Themist Andrew Beck:

To celebrate Mike Mann's elevation from Chief Climate Whiner to Chief Climate Fucktard, I have composed a ditty in his honour. 
And I guess that's why they call us doomours - El Ton John

don't wish us away
don't look at us like we're forever

Between you and me

I can honestly say

that things can only get doomier

So quit being a troll

dust out the denial inside

And it won't be long before you and me run
up that hockey stick we've denied
And I guess that's why they call it the blues
Time on my hands - I'm on twitter with you
dealing with children
why do we bother?
responding to blunders
but we're not your Mothers
And I guess that's why they call us doomours
Just debunk deniers
And stick to the science
silly Mann,
live for each second, without any bargaining
And throw all your toys out the pram
Learn some respect!
Cry in the night if it helps
But more than ever
learn to simply love Gaia
more than you love tweeting yourself
And I guess that's why they call us doomours
Guy's out of our hands
We spend time outside doom
loving like children
dooming like lovers
the end is yonder,
you've lost your cover -
And I guess that's why they call us doomours


  1. Terrific essay, Gail. A new branch of Philosophy is born: “Themistotilian”! ��

    1. That is good - i'll go with that. Not that anyone will know what it means if I say so. But then they didn't know what a pantheist was either.

  2. Was waiting for this. Love ya. _()_

  3. Thank you Gail, poignantly accurate as always.

  4. Wonderful writing Gail! I think acceptence is where I am now. WASF.

  5. Regarding #2: Yes, we're fucked; collapse is underway and neither the climate nor civilization will ever return to what we assumed to be normal and eternal. But we can still influence just how bad things get and how much remains of ecological communities after collapse. We can still leave a legacy for hundreds of thousands of years through our action (or inaction.)

    As pointed out in #3, strategies based on humans acting contrary to their nature are doomed to fail. We can't expect mass voluntary transformation to a sustainable way of living. Not until the flows of fossil fuels are physically shut off will people stop using them.

    Our strategy must have a realistic chance of success with a small number of people. Civil disobedience may be useful in some situations. Militancy may be necessary in some, as in the Niger Delta. Our most feasible tactics are probably those of ecosabotage, where a handful of people can disproportionately impact the industrial system with small interventions involving critical infrastructure.

    If you're curious what this might look like, read through Stop Fossil Fuels, where we write about potentially effective tactics for stopping the flows.

    Being a Doomer (or Themist) needn't mean giving up on action. It just means being smart about it, taking into account what we know about how the world really works.

    1. I cannot agree with your assumption, at all: "Life will be better in a post carbon world." The web of life is unraveling, the ecosphere is depauperate. Trophic cascades have been initiated by pollution, deforestation, overfishing, deep sea dredging, overhunting, and the climate disruptions have barely begun but will intensify rapidly. In a post carbon world, any remaining humans will burn every last stick for fuel to cook and heat. There will be nothing left, just as we nearly clearcut forests and decimated the whales before we found coal and oil and gas. Plus, fires will rage uncontrolled by modern equipment, decimating wilderness, towns and cities. Lack of fresh water and sea level rise will instigate mass refugee movement and this will lead to armed conflict. Life in a post carbon world will NOT be better, to a large extent, eventually, it won't exist. See the first quote of this post.

    2. And then there are the 400-odd nuclear power plants, which will be abandoned...

      Yours in doom,

    3. yes, that - and all sorts of wells and drills and pipelines and industrial facilities that will begin spewing toxins, and epidemics of disease, not to mention all the folks with chronic illness that need constant maintenance of drugs or other medical procedures, and countless other disasters will unfold unchecked...

    4. Regarding quality of life in a post-carbon world: yeah, the transition will be wrenching for many. (Though the sooner we begin the necessary transition, the less human populations will have undermined and overshot carrying capacity. The sooner collapse begins, the better.) In the medium- to long-term though, life will be much better for the remaining humans and non-humans.

      If there's a fast crash, yes, humans in some areas will burn every last stick they can get their hands on, but their reach will be greatly decreased; they won't be destroying vast areas of wilderness as do the modern industrial machines. Wildfire control using industrial equipment is insignificant compared to the fires and deforestation deliberately set and carried out to feed global industrial capitalism. Soon the remaining humans and non-humans will have intact forests to once again support them.

      It's a myth that whale populations were worse off prior to industrialization. Similarly, deforestation increased greatly with industrialization. With pretty much every negative human impact on the planet, the use of fossil fuels accelerated exploitation. Without fossil fuels, during the initial transition, humans may increase degradation of local areas they can access on foot. But overall, without fossil fuels, destruction will decline, mirroring the initial increase after their discovery.

      Most drugs and medical procedures are only necessary because of diseases brought on by civilization. Again, yes, a difficult transition while those sickened by this way of life can no longer rely on it to ameliorate their ailments. But a long-term gain.

      Life in post-meltdown Chernobyl now abounds. Business as usual is worse than a nuclear disaster. Even those of us who intellectually understand the damage inflicted by this way of life have an irrational fear of collapse, thinking it will somehow make things worse. But all evidence points to the planet having amazing powers of resiliency and recovery when the daily onslaught of industrialism is lifted. That will set the stage for a much healthier life for everyone.

      Of course we all have a responsibility to minimize the short-term anguish of the transition, but we can look forward to medium- and long-term life in recovery, and humans living again the way we evolved.

  6. I guess I should have read to the bottom of this fine essay before making it today's Chronicle of the Collapse with my usual blunders. Hope you see the humor in it. Hey, I am up in your neck of the woods all summer. We need to get together!

  7. Seeing into darkness is clarity,
    Knowing how to yield is strength.
    Use your own light
    and return to the source of light.
    This is called practicing eternity.
    Lao Tzu

    1. I alternate between thinking of the planet as home — dear and familiar stone hearth and garden — and as a hard land of exile in which we are all sojourners. Today I favor the latter view. The word “sojourner” occurs often in the English Old Testament. It invokes a nomadic people’s sense of vagrancy, a praying people’s knowledge of estrangement, a thinking people’s intuition of sharp loss: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.

      Annie Dillard

  8. I know it is trite, but my husband and I just enjoy each day as they come. It could be the last. We are boomers as well as doomer. We never had children, lived without a car for 20 years in Dallas, Texas, and have grown organic vegetables for years. Everyone wants to blame our generation, but I know we are just humans and even if we had known the future I am not so sure anything would be different now. In my mind, it is all down to shear numbers. Too many people overrunning this beautiful earth. It's so sad but I am still grateful that I was so privileged to be here.

    1. Some days it seems we are at the pinnacle of human existence and it is a very amazing place to be; until one considers the cost. It breaks my heart to live by the ocean and see hardly any life - very few birds. There aren't even any boats (which would annoy me with their engine noise) because there's nothing left to fish. But yes I am very grateful for the privilege. Thank you for your comment!

  9. Gail, this is an excellent essay; thank you! You have a gift for saying things clearly and passionately. Six months ago I read, and agree with, your (dare I say?) ‘prophetic’ assessment of the declining health of trees.

    There is really only one major thing I would take issue with on evidential grounds in this “Themism” piece: Secular scholarship on the evolutionary and ecological significance of religious/mythic consciousness and speech is fairly united, at least around this point: The fundamental role of secular language is for describing and understanding reality. The fundamental role of mythic language is for RELATING to reality (i.e, the ecosphere) in healthy, non-self-terminating-and-nature-destroying ways. Both are needed.

    Even Paul S. Martin, a dear friend and my wife’s most significant mentor (originator of the Overkill hypothesis; now widely accepted as factual), understood and accepted as obvious evidence that the vast majority of human cultures over the last half-million years or so typically lived in ways that were ecocentric, rather than anthropocentric. In other words, their technology, their settlements, their ways of exchanging goods and services, their education, their community, etc were (more or less) in accord with the needs of the biosphere. Edward (Teddy) Goldsmith repeatedly and forcefully made these points in both his seminal book, “The Way: An Ecological Worldview” and his earlier volume, “The Stable Society”. Both were based on 450 years of anthropological evidence about the difference between cultures that foul their own nest and those who don’t.

    I highly recommend both of these Goldsmith books for your consideration, as well as the following four books: (1) “The Social Conquest of Earth” by Edward O. Wilson, (2) “Darwin’s Cathedral” by David Sloan Wilson, (3) “Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion” by Stuart Guthrie (published by Oxford University Press in 1992 and now a classic foundational text of two overlapping research disciplines: ‘Evolutionary Religious Studies’ and ‘The Religious Studies Project’, and (4) “Supernatural as Natural: A Biocultural Approach to Religion” by Michael Winkelman and John Baker.

    In any event, keep up the great ‘prophetic’ writing!

    Celebrating both doom and post-doom,

    ~ Michael
    P.S. Background on my wife, Connie Barlow and her "Assisted Migration" of trees work:
    Her “Climate, Trees, and Legacy” video blog:
    Paul S. Martin tribute page created by Connie:
    Background on me (mostly prior to joining the doomesphere): and

    1. Thanks Michael but I'm not buying it, sorry. Humans aren't special, and to me any religion or "spirituality" is mumbo-jumbo woowoo that people make up to fend off reality. We are no different than any other biological creature and what we ALL do, is grow our numbers until we hit some sort of limit. The limit might be using up all the resources we can reach, or some catastrophic natural event, or invasion and loss of territory. Then our population crashes by one of several mechanisms usually involving starvation and violence. If humans had been sustainable, we wouldn't have migrated all over the earth including exceptionally inhospitable locations, and our entire history, as archaeology attests, wouldn't be characterized by raiding and warfare and slavery. Every human culture fouls its own nest, we produce waste and dump it in the most convenient spot. You are certainly not alone in preaching the gospel that humans can be or at least once upon a time were sustainable, but everything I see, aside from wishful thinking, shows me that is a fantasy.

    2. Did I say humans are any more special than any other species. No! They're not. Of course all religions are mumbo-jumbo woo-woo in cultures that violate carrying capacity. As Goldsmith makes clear in both the books I referenced, religion is the control mechanism in stable societies. But it degrades to merely the coping mechanism in unsustainable ones.

      I actually spent quite a bit of time this morning pondering how really bright and generally not-denial-prone folk like you and Rob Miercarski can possibly hold such silly and erroneous beliefs such as there have been “zero sustainable cultures” (his claim) or when you write, “the noble primitive and peaceful and sustainable indigenous savage was ever really a thing.” I think the problem may be how the word “sustainable” is being interpreted. If you think of “sustainable” (in the way many liberals today do) as peaceful and living in perfect harmony with all of life, then, No, of course zero cultures haven been sustainable. If you realize “sustainable” means “living within the carrying capacity of the habitat,” then it becomes obvious how human beings succeeded in living some 20,000 generations more or less sustainably.

      Perhaps you and Rob have been persuaded by David Deming and his fellow denialists?

      For the most evidential-based approach of which I am aware I recommend reading Edward Goldsmith (two books referenced above) and *especially* EVERYTHING that my friend and colleague Richard Adrian Reese has written on the subject, especially his work-in-process, “Wild, Happy, and Free” and 200+ reviews of the best scholarship on the whole subject. Begin here: (he now has 18 samples)

      Rick’s “Sustainability Primer” is also priceless!

      Finally, as I’ve mentioned to Rob on several occasions, William Catton’s classic book, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (which Connie and I both consider the single most important book we’ve ever read) is a "MUST READ" those hoping to understand ECOLOGICAL REALITY. See here:
      My recording of Catton has migrated here:

    3. Hi Michael Dowd, I think part of the issue may be that humans have never before graced the planet in such numbers. Thus, truly dire global impacts have begun to manifest themselves only in recent decades if not centuries. If the "solution to pollution is dilution".. pre-industrial humans were a pretty dilute enzyme, doing their enzymatic thing on a small scale. On an earth not yet full, there was always somewhere fairly unspoiled to go, up until the last couple hundred years at least. I think that makes it easier to say "the before time" was better.

      I think Gail is right. My feeling is that there's currently a good deal of social payback in doing work that pushes the "wild, happy, and free" narrative over the "nasty, brutish, and short" narrative. This mirrors most human religions, in that an edenic Pre-Lapsarian State is required in order to exhort a changing of people's ways.

      "Did I say humans are any more special than any other species. No! They're not."
      Yet it seems your assumptions are that humans have the capacity to control their behavior and its impacts. No other species is capable of this or believes this about itself, so I think that does make us "special", even if only specially deluded. Not having the capacity for self-delusion, non-human animals (down to the very microbes which are both the foundation for higher life forms as well as their occasional curse) are free to consume and reproduce without guilt.

    4. P.S. to Michael: re. language "The fundamental role of secular language is for describing and understanding reality. The fundamental role of mythic language is for RELATING to reality..."

      I don't understand this arbitrary division between secular and mythic. IMO, it's all mythic. Take the secular example of math problems proposing infinity, or perfect circles. Those can exist within the mythic math system, but may well not exist in reality. A perfect circle, at least, cannot exist in the real world, just as a coastline cannot be measured.

      All words are really lies, or at best misrepresentations. Animals do have vocalizations, and do have the capacity for subterfuge, but humans are probably special in having evolved these capacities to a very high level, in order to arrogate more resources to their species. Very telling that "In the beginning was the Word."

      Words make people do things they wouldn't think to do otherwise, is my perception of the situation. Not being able to manipulate words leaves a being in a far more rudimentary state, not at all capable of supporting complexity and the corrosive (in energy terms) application of abstract thinking.

      The capacity for language is (again, imo) a singular contributor to our current predicament, as it serves not only to greatly facilitate our conversion of matter and energy to our own reproductive ends—at which we have been wildly successful to the extent that we have applied this "technology"—but to help us ex-post-facto rationalize and shield us from most of the possible negative emotional impacts that a realization of our impotent subjection to processes not under our control could incur.


      Easy to look at the 99.9% of the graph to the left and conclude that people must have been somehow different (more virtuous! more responsible! more spiritually aware!) than in the .1% of the graph to the right. Instead, the only real difference is their access to surplus energy (sugar in the yeast vat).

    6. That is the graph of the exponential function. It looks flat for most of the increase and surges at the very end.

  10. Attaway to stay truthful to the end, Gail - and thanks for this latest post! Good to know you're still around. Looks like Guy had it right all along - more and more "mainstream" people/climate scientists are leaning toward his extinction scenario (loss of habitat).

    We're seeing crop losses all over the globe this year, so those food shortages i talked about a long time ago on NBL are unfortunately coming to pass (if not this year HERE, soon enough). This year will be the inflection point on the hockey stick, imho, with each year becoming MUCH worse than the last from here on in. Thanks for being around, writing your cogent essays, and turning me on to your great work regarding trees, which was prescient when you wrote it, and is now completely evident the world over.

    Keep up as long as you can and stay true to your spirit.

    p.s. Michele from Canada still around?

    1. lol I missed your comment somehow and only noticed because Michele replied. Great to know you are still around, too! It's been YEARS hahaha.

  11. Fantastic essay Gail.
    Couldn't agree with you more.
    Hopelessly happy to be here for the finish.
    Staying kind as we unwind.
    All my best.

  12. Thanks for so many threads, links, quotes, images, and cogent ideas. Much of it is familiar to me from my own investigative and blogging efforts; your gathering so much (with a longitudinal view, no less) into one long post is admirable. The immensity of the complex of ideas, evidence, and behaviors surrounding doom took me a good long time to come to grips with. In that respect, it’s like other large bodies of thought requiring protracted effort to digest and finally admit (e.g., atheism, human frailty and corruptibility). Your clear vision is especially appreciated with respect to commentary and argument that would reframe and, well, deny foreseeable outcomes or draw focus too narrowly.

    It’s really difficult to account for others’ motivations once the subject of doom is broached. Lots of variety. For me (as with you, I believe), motivation is mostly about witnessing, describing, and embodying some tiny bit of acceptance and grace at the truly awful prospects we engendered and now face. Accordingly, no need to denounce or argue too strenuously. However, I’ve yet to let go of my misanthropy over what we’ve accomplished, namely, the likely death of the planet (irradiation being the final insult after we’ve all succumbed). Though it’s perhaps true that our trajectory may have always been inalterable (e.g., the illusion of free will, identical biological imperatives with yeast), we are at least clever enough as a species to know deep down our own culpability. It’s not the quite the same thing as the underlying nature of other top predators such as bears, lions, or crocodiles. Throughout the food web, life eats life. However, we’re unusually adept as enslaving others to our needs and desires and rationalizing it ex post facto, and for this, a special place in hell may await.

    Last minor bit: I’m always on the lookout for new coin but ironically slow to adopt new jargon. You survey a variety of “doomer” terms and offer a new one drawn inscrutably from Greek mythology. All that’s fine by me, but I can’t quite bring myself to the hip, kewl posture of promotion. From available terms to self-describe, I settled on “doomer,” which has the advantage of immediate recognition, though others inevitably apply all manner of bogus associations.

    1. Thanks Brutus - I didn't really have much hope Themist would catch on but you never know. Plus, like Lady Justice, she's a she! And I don't like doomer even though I've been self-described as such for years. It seems so reductive, as though that's ALL I am. Like, I'm also an atheist but doubt anyone thinks that defines me completely. It's possible to believe WASF, and further that it's our own fault, but not have that be my only characteristic. Anyway...I think I'm as prepared as I can be for that special place in hell.

    2. Hi Brutus, I agree! Didn't read through the comments before posting mine, above, so I don't want you to think I ripped off your "ex post facto" idea. Rob M.'s blog links to the MORT theory make a lot of sense to me.

      Re. misanthropy. I used to feel pretty darn misanthropic.. but that's not really a rational position for a determinist to hold. The last decade or so of "doom" study has convinced me of a deterministic universe (previously I hadn't given it much thought). If people only behave the way their genetic programming and their position in time and space allow them to behave, blame and anger are non sequiturs and don't really help us going forward (imo).

      An acquaintance who is very active in "social justice" circles... Standing Rock, etc. .. told me of her plans to fly to Germany to visit her son. She wanted to also go on a river cruise but she said her "sense of social justice" would not "allow" her to do so. I pointed out that she was already flying, so what's the diff? She said, without irony, that she needed to "FEEL RIGHTEOUS". So it's all about the feels. She flies to Germany. She flies to Standing Rock. "The Planet" can't tell the difference between that and flying to a dental convention. People really do not have the perspective to view their own actions, in the main.

      "... we are at least clever enough as a species to know deep down our own culpability."
      Is a termite culpable for displacing worms and ants when it builds a nest? Culpability is a uniquely human concept (and even certain human groups seem to be more attuned to it than others). It clearly has a role in enforcing societal norms, but is a double-edged sword. Certain demographic groups are being encouraged to be ashamed of their own existence. Other groups are less susceptible to this idea, and in a "bottleneck" scenario a less-self-hating cohort may very well have a leg up. It's certainly going to be interesting!

  13. Enter your comment... what is there to say that gail did not say? I am still here. I know I will die, I do not have to take care of that. Concentrating on living, not traveling, not eating too much, not flying, not having a cell phone, but binging daily on internet, from morning to night. I have never known and will never know a more potent addiction. I does not cost money. "We" do not feel the smell and the heat of the coal burning to make this activity work, writing this message. And it satisfies my longing for contact. Falsely makes me feel eternal.

    thank you tom for asking about me!!! and yes, food is going away fast all over the planet

    still a weekly activity (since 10 years, 52 weeks/year) (so death will soon disrobe us all of what we here possess) will continue to sing sacred harp as long as I can. every tuesday in montreal if you ever pass by.

    dear, dear Gail, I so love your themist answers to hopefull commenters


    1. I have missed hearing from you Michele, so happy to see you are still making your wonderful music. Much love to you!!!

  14. OMG. Thank you Gail. Astounding commentary. Humans have to invest heavily in hope - but only as a future condition. This robs value from the present - and so poisons the future, since we cannot live properly now, and so cannot possibly step into the future. The present time must be worthy and ready. Trapped we our species goes crazy.

    Thanks and keep writing.

    1. I think we are entering the bonkers period...

  15. I think what you are saying us that, in a nutshell, there are simply too my homo (non) sapiens on the planet. 500,000 of is and Gaia could more.or less cope. 5,000,000,000 and no chance.

    I feel desperately sorry for young people and very, very happy that I made the choice not to have children, vecayse even 45 years ago it looked like it would all end in tears.

    In the meantime, I rejoice in the beauty that's left, enjoy my friends and hope I die before it all gets too appalling.

    1. Well, not exactly. Arithmetic numbers do matter - but it's the exponential growth that determines the outcome. Though you are no question far more clever than most, including remorseful lustful breeders such as myself, Gaia does not distinguish between specific members of a species and a species as a whole. The simple overwhelming ballooning of our species is in and of itself
      not the source of the problem, it is the RESULT of our programming. It’s the essence of each and every one us that enables us to be a 7+ billion scourge, whether that is to reproduce or imagine our permaculture garden is "natural" rather than exploitative. So I’m sorry to say that nutshell includes you. Enjoy the beauty, where you can find it. I find it increasingly rare.

    2. Indeed. I was a big permaculture fan for a while. I'm still keen on my orchard and what-not, but after my initial infatuation it dawned on me that if we have to work to do "permie" things like importing mycelium (unstated: that used to just exist in quantity) or hand-raising insects (unstated: that used to just exist in quantity), then we are really at the end of our rope. Siamo alla frutta.

      And, yes, it is really all about ways to glean/convert that little bit extra to maintain human existence.

      Not that there's anything *wrong* with that... ;-)

  16. Apneaman here. I take it as high praise to be quoted in one of your essays Gail.

    Just in case anyone needs peer reviewed research to make it official.

    Research Confirms: When Receiving Bad News, We Shoot the Messenger

    1. What an excellent link, thanks Apneaman! This is a great part - "A key part of generating an explanation for an event is assignment of blame." - because from what I've read of primitive tribal warfare a huge amount of it is based on blaming someone from the next village over for witchcraft when someone dies. lol. I have no f's left to give so rather than prefacing my bad news with something more palatable I'll think about delegating. But to whom????

  17. update icymi - Sam Mitchell reads this post to hilarious effect.

  18. Great stuff Ozone Girl! When our brains became powerful enough to contemplate our own deaths, denial formed as a necessary survival mechanism for intelligence. It's hard to contemplate your navel when hungry.

  19. That's why denial is for smart, educated people, thank god I never got past grade 12.

    1. I tend to think non-deniers (who can be both smart and stupid, educated and not) are just some sort of rare genetic mutant.

  20. The latest from Ray Kurzweil.

    1. I don't know who Ray Kurzweil is, and I suspect this is why: "As I’ll explain in my upcoming book titled The Singularity Is Nearer, the world is moving in the right direction on all of the issues that affect human well-being."

    2. He's the king of techno utopians. In 2011 he said he was not worried about climate change, now he's saying "things aren't perfect."


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