on not saving the world

On a warm day in early April I headed down Salter’s Hill, as I do every week, to walk the beautiful Frank (pictured). I often listen to a podcast as I go, which on this occasion was Emerge with Daniel Thorson, interviewing the sustainability scientist Dr. Jem Bendell, on “The Meaning and Joy of Inevitable Social Collapse”. The title begs the question: how could one possibly find meaning and joy in (inevitable) social collapse?


In their conversation, Daniel and Jem discuss the latter’s Deep Adaptation paper, a move to reframe discussions on climate change from corporate sustainability towards ‘resilience, relinquishment and restoration’. I can only recommend the podcast and/or paper for those in a reasonably stable frame of mind. However, I can say that for my part, the discussions in this podcast have not plunged me into depression, but have begun to resonate productively with much else that I’ve encountered in the last few months.

From seeing the Extinction Rebellion protests to reading Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble, I’ve been developing a general sense that Global Weirding is coming home to roost, both climactically and culturally. There may be an element of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon to this, but at least in the UK it seems that Greta Thunberg, the school walkouts and the Extinction Rebellion protests have pushed ‘climate crisis’ to the top of everyone’s minds.

There are many threads to pull on here; it’s easy to get caught up in the drama of eschatological thinking, becoming either a zealot for some kind of solution, or instead falling into hopelessness and despair. I think these are reasonable responses. But following Jem Bendell, might there be another way through the mire? Similarly to Haraway, he speaks of mourning the loss of certain things, species and ways of life, but also cultivating new modes of kinship and meaning-making.

Part of the work of living on a damaged planet is to recognise that it’s not about you. As Venkatesh Rao put it in this Twitter thread, there is a common misapprehension that the world’s problems rest on you personally, and furthermore that they can be coalesced into one enormous problem. Instead, ‘The world is not yours to save. You have an obligation to NOT try to save it.’ This is not to dismiss the work of climate activists and others striving to make things better – merely a suggestion that on a personal level, one should find a small piece of problem, and join some like-minded folk in working on that problem.

Counter-intuitively, a calling to ‘not save the world’ could be enfolded into the Bodhisattva ideal, with its vow to liberate all sentient beings. On one level of course, the Bodhisattva vow is about saving the world, but it places an emphasis on positive action in the right place at the right time. To borrow from David Chapman, this is not a calling to be special, or ordinary (since neither are really possible), but instead to cultivate nobility:

Mere goodness is not nobility. Often we use goodness as a way of trying to be ordinary or special. Being “morally correct” in an ordinary, unimaginative, conformist way may be an excuse for avoiding the scary possibility of extraordinary goodness, or greatness. Doing good in a showy way can be a strategy for convincing ourselves, or others, that we are special.

Nobility is the aspiration to manifest glory for the benefit of others. Nobility is using whatever abilities we have in service of others. Nobility is seeking to fulfill our in-born human potential, and to develop all our in-born human qualities.

One organisation that seems to embody this ideal for me is The Monastic Academy for the Preservation of Life on Earth, which I also heard about through the Emerge podcast. Although I’m only looking from afar, it seems to be both grounded in reality and aspirational, with an intention to help cultivate the conditions for human flourishing. The explicit incorporation of skills from education and business is a particularly interesting component, as detailed in the fascinating blog of Tasshin, a full-time monastic at the Academy.

I’m not sure if I’m qualified to bring this to any sort of conclusion. In the face of everything, I know so little. For now, I’ll just affirm that it is possible to de-escalate the drama of the end times, and cultivate some meaning and joy (and sing baby shark!) along the way.

Recent reading has taken a turn for the weird, including Robert Anton Wilson’s fabulous, baroque, and inexplicable Illuminatus trilogy and the first volume of his Cosmic Trigger. I’m currently reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which touches on many of the themes discussed here and has a gripping story to boot.

Recent listening: Rin’dzin Pamo (aka Charlie El Awbery on Twitter) on the Deconstructing Yourself podcast, eloquently discussing Vajrayana meditation with Michael Taft.

ICYMI: I wrote a kind of short story to accompany a mix/playlist (or the other way round), Tunes To Terraform To.

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