by Janet Kent
Voices of cynicism under the guise of “reason” inundate us early in life. By cynicism I mean not only the assumption that individuals are acting out of self-interest, but also the belittling of the impact of individual and collective action. When we are children, mostly well-meaning adults advise us not to get our hopes up, undermining our youthful enthusiastic ideas and plans. These voices come from a place of painful experience; though the speakers may seek to prevent our disappointment, the underlying message is that we are small and powerless. While I am sure these voices shaped me early on, it is the voice of an old friend, years ago in a late night talk that haunts me. After hours of catching up and talking about the struggles we as individuals and as a society face, from everyday oppression to the wholesale destruction of life on Earth, I began talking about the work that feeds me, the organizing and teaching and sharing that keeps the great grief at bay, that eases my sense of powerlessness and overwhelm. Abruptly, the mood shifted as he narrowed his eyes and said, “you don’t actually think anything you can do matters, do you?” with a sneering tone conveying both mockery and disgust.
This is the voice I hear when I am feeling low, overworked and hopeless. The voice that says that it is naïve, foolish and egotistical to think anything I do has an impact. Why do I hear this voice among all the others? Because it bears a striking similarity to my own. This cruel and mocking voice could have sprung from my own head, so perfectly it sums up my own fears and self-criticism. Cynicism is a mode of thought I’m intimately familiar with. Like a well-trod path, my thoughts easily fall into that groove. When I am cynical, like most cynics, I call my outlook “realistic.” In fact, I am assuming the worst from those around me, as well as from society as a whole, despite any and all evidence that undermines this assumption. When we assume the worst, we have the meager pleasure of congratulating ourselves when our low expectations are met. We take great pride in being wise and worldly, of not being taken in, of seeing the harsh reality that our non-cynical peers just aren’t tough enough to face. We feel superior in our brutal assessments. What we cynics rarely admit is that we fear disappointment. We hide the fact that we are greatly wounded when we dare to hope and have our hopes dashed. Cynicism is an elaborate defense strategy that protects us from further harm. Most cynics have an idealist or dreamer buried deep within that armor of “realism.” That idealist learns early on to embrace the protective stance of the fault-finding, undermining critic to avoid feeling foolish or duped. Better to mock than be mocked. Better to expect the worst than to feel the crushing weight of disappointment.
Believing change is impossible, that individual actions are meaningless, has another perk. It is a lot less work. If one believes that what each of us does makes a difference, that the cumulative effects of the actions of those working for change over time has an impact, then one becomes responsible to act. Being response-able means working with others, being uncomfortable, exerting energy and accepting uncertainty. Working for change can feel like a game of chance with terrible odds, with so few wins against so many losses. However, the odds do not improve when we assume change is impossible, for how do we measure losses when we exist in a state of defeat? Already defeated is exactly how the dominant system wants us. If we assume the game is lost, if we spend all of our energy on survival, using any surplus on consumption of products we don’t need or on numbing our pain and awareness, we become manageable citizens, unlikely to stand up when we see state or corporate violence inflicted on other humans or on the rest of the web of life.
While there have always been cynics, the current era provides new arguments for those who say nothing we do matters. Now, anyone who reads up on ecology and climate change understands that we are past the tipping point for climate catastrophe. Even with a drastic reduction in fossil fuel use, cataclysmic shifts will continue to occur. Likewise, the mass extinction event caused by Empire will continue, long into the future. Considering the likelihood of ecological collapse, it is easier than ever to say, “It’s too late. We can’t make a difference. The die is cast.”
One prediction based on this awareness is the imminent extinction of our species. And sure, all species go extinct eventually, but it may be aeons before we meet that fate. For many, there is a grim pleasure in the idea that Homo sapiens, the planet destroyer, is on a suicide mission, which will come to an end relatively quickly with the rest of life on Earth rebounding without us. This is a viewpoint expressed most often by people of European descent, frequently guilty of conflating “humans” with “humans living under the economic system which is devastating the world and its inhabitants.” Remember that an end to humanity means an end to Indigenous people and descendants of captured enslaved Africans around the globe who never consented to live under this system of delusional limitless growth and conspicuous consumption. (Though how many of us did consent to this?) When we relish a future without our species, we wrongly classify the current economic system as an inevitable manifestation of our kind, rather than one among countless ways of relating to the rest of Life. We render invisible all those who have lived and continue to live in less extractive ways, who see themselves within the web of life rather than having dominion over it. We must not confuse the end of a mode of existence with the end of our species. The question is, what comes next?
While cynics like to lay claim to having the most realistic world view, those who find solace in the idea of the extinction of our species are actually quite naïve. Humans are incredibly adaptive, like rats and cockroaches. There is a great likelihood that we will persist under worse and worse circumstances, like the inhabitants of Easter Island. Dystopian sci-fi writers have foreseen myriad possible futures, all grim and ever more plausible. For a recent example, consider the film Blade Runner 2049, the grub farm future, a world in which almost nothing lives except humans and replicants who subsist on farmed grubs and synthetic food. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Things are going to get unimaginably worse.” It’s difficult to argue that point. Vonnegut went on to say, “and are never going to get any better.” After all, he was a cynic. “Unimaginably worse” could describe an endless array of futures. The question is how much worse will things get and in which ways? If we choose to think less cynically, can they get worse but then get better? That’s the part that depends on us.
If we continue to live in a hierarchical, white supremacist society built on the illusion of limitless growth, the degradation of life will accelerate, for us as individuals, for our species and for planetary life in general. If the fossil fuel industry is allowed to extract all they can from the dwindling oil and coal deposits, in more remote places and in increasingly difficult to process forms, we will see an acceleration of climate chaos and ecological devastation. Likewise, the continuing explosion of infrastructure projects worldwide means further ecosystem fragmentation, linked to both increased extinction rates and global warming. Resource scarcity is already affecting local communities as well as planetary politics as we see climate change refugees make dangerous journeys towards literally greener pastures only to face death at sea or eternal limbo in internment camps. As the Neo-liberal economy crashes worldwide, scarcity becomes widespread in more affluent regions as well. Chaos is the norm. In uncertain times, people tend to seek leaders who project strength and certainty. Fascist leaders are eager and ready to exploit the fears of the multitudes in a rapidly changing world. We are already seeing the rise of widespread state violence, militarization of borders and environmental destruction that are the hallmark of these authoritarian regimes. When you consider a future emerging within these constraints, it becomes easy to hope for the extinction of our species. We aren’t going to get off that easy.
Sounds like I am making a case for the impossibility of change. I’m not. Quite the opposite. I want to persuade you that the outcome of all of this is still up in the air. Cynics who think the most realistic prediction is the extinction of our species are being willfully naïve. If we sit back assuring ourselves that nothing we do matters, waiting eagerly for our species to receive our just punishment, we make way for those who are seizing this moment to determine what the next world will be. By not acting, we give power to those who see the ongoing crisis as an opportunity for profit and further accumulation of power. We let xenophobia and hate gain strength, with all the violence that entails. All the while, one by one, the plant and animal species who make up what’s left of the impossibly rich and intricate web of life on Earth disappear. Who will act for them? Each of them matters. Each of you matters. This is no time for the self-congratulatory, defensive stance of cynicism. No time for cold, disengaged assessments. It is time to connect, to become entangled, to join with others, to have faith in the cumulative effects of our networks. It is not egotistical to think your actions matter, it is revolutionary, for you are one among a multitude and each action contributes to the groundswell of change. Remember, as Ursula K. LeGuin reminded us, “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.” In this apocalyptic age, what world do you want to see emerge from the ruins? What will you do to make it happen? Remember that the most drastic upheavals in human history were born of desperation. This is such a time. Everything matters.
*** In the next few weeks, I’ll post practices and herbs for dealing with the cynic within. For now check out these older posts: Herbs for Resistance, Earthwork Part One: Staying Grounded in Tumultuous Times, and Earthwork Part Two: Herbs for Grounding.