Essay On Apocalyptic Thinking
To Divine Hermes I give thanks, and to Him I offer these words. Speak through me Oh God, for thy glory and the profit of those who will hear.
This essay began with a comment that I posted a few weeks back on John Michael Greer’s Ecosophia blog. The subject was Fantasies of the Apocalypse, a recurring theme at that site. I commented that I had, for many years, believed very sincerely in the imminent collapse of civilization. From roughly the year 2000 onward through Barack Obama’s second term I was a committed anti-civilization anarchist. I was certain that civilization was about to collapse, either all on its own or through the concerted effort of dedicated partisans.
Well, the reader will already have noticed that it’s two decades later, and civilization is still with us-- nor did the heroic partisans ever get around to emerging. And you won’t be surprised to hear that my belief-- or what I thought was my belief-- in the approaching apocalypse kept me from making any provisions for living in the actual world of my experience.
This is an essay about what happens when the apocalypse fails to show up, and you have to go on living anyway.
Do you remember the anti-civilization movement of the early 2000s? How about names like Derrick Jensen, Daniel Quinn, or John Zerzan?
If not, you can be forgiven. It’s apparently a commonplace of human life that everything new and exciting becomes old and boring, and then is forgotten. (For some reason, nobody tells you this. You discover it on your own when you turn 30.) It seems likely enough that readers of this blog will know what I’m talking about, but if not, here is a basic primer.
The movement went by various names-- anti-civilization, green anarchist, anarcho-primitivist, or simply primitivist.
The premise was this:
All of humanity can be divided into two groups. One group is called Civilization, and the other is called the Primitive. (Sometimes Indigenous, Tribal, or “Leavers,” in Daniel Quinn’s formulation, with Civilization being the “Takers.”)
Civilization began in a great catastrophe, the invention of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago. It has since spread from its roots in the Middle East to take over the entire planet.
And Civilization is Bad. Completely, utterly, irredeemably bad. In some versions, every trope of Marxist and contemporary Social Justice ideology gets tacked onto this, so that Civilization is also Hierarchy, Capitalism, Christianity, White People, Men, White Men, Heterosexuals, and the Bourgeoisie. Anti-Civilization is Equality, Socialism, Paganism, People of Color, Women, Women of Color, LGBTQIEtc, and the working class.
One of these groups is Bad-- Utterly, Irredeemably Bad.
The other group is Good-- Pure, Innocent, Good.
And that’s the situation we find ourselves in. Ten thousand years ago Evil entered the world with the invention of agriculture in the first gardens in the Middle East, and it’s all been down hill from there. (Readers who come out of a fundamentalist Christian background may find this story somewhat familiar.)
Fortunately, there is hope. You see, Civilization cannot go on much longer. In fact, it can’t even be expected to outlast the present generation. It’s exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet; it’s exploited natural resources well past their limits. And so now, we’re at the end of things. Civilization is about to fall.
Here, two schools of thought diverge from one another. In one version, Civilization is coming down all on its own, under the weight of its own internal contradictions. All you and I have to do is get together with a bunch of our friends, learn primitive skills like hunting and hide-tanning, and in 10 or 15 years-- 30 at the most-- we’ll be living as wild hunter-gatherers, hunting elk past the ruins of skyscrapers.
Another version is a bit darker. In this version, Civilization won’t come down on its own. It needs to be taken down. Yes, such an event will result in billions of deaths. But what choice do we have? The biosphere itself is at stake. If we don’t act, all of life will be destroyed. What we need to do is to create a resistance movement, to support bands of guerrilla fighters and peoples’ militias who will take the fight to civilization, take out the infrastructure of industrial society and empty out the cities once and for all. (Readers who are familiar with the Khmer Rouge may find this story somewhat familiar.)
Whichever version one accepted, the end result was the same. Ten, twenty, or at most thirty years from now, the world as we knew it would be gone. No jobs, no bank accounts, no mortgages, no 401(k.) No elections, no money, and no capitalism. In their places would be-- What? A blank void, onto which one could project any utopian fantasy one wanted.
Here was my fantasy. It’s twenty years from now-- or, to say it another way, since this started when I was 18, it’s sometime late next January. Civilization has fallen. I live in a village with maybe fifty or 100 others. We make our living by gardening and hunting and raising animals, and by small-scale, communal industries. We live close to nature. We are a deeply spiritual people, and our religion revolves around the the powers of Nature and the cycle of the seasons.
And our people take care of one another. There are no land lords, demanding thousands of dollars every month simply for the privilege of living under a roof. There are no doctors forcing people into bankruptcy over minor illnesses.
And me? I am some kind of shaman or medicine man. I commune with spirits; I know the secrets of magic; I carry the stories of my people. I can fight and hunt, too, of course, and I tend my garden and my animals. But my path is, above all, a spiritual one.
There is a concept found in psychology called Provisional Living. John Michael Greer talks about this often, citing Philip Carr-Gomm.
It goes like this:
Once X happens, then I can finally Y.
What is X?
It can be anything. And so can Y.
Once I break up with my girlfriend, I can finally start my writing career.
Once I move to Portland, then I can finally learn organic gardening.
Once I lose this weight, then I can finally find a husband.
The trick to it is that X never happens. It’s always on the horizon. X never comes, and so you never get to Y.
Once Civilization comes down, then I can finally live the life I want to live.
For fifty years, it’s been a common experience that every hippie eventually turns 30.
And what you find, if you’ve gotten really deep into the more militant end of the counter-culture, is that you have two choices.
Half of your friends, while they still talk about revolution and guerrilla warfare, have in fact become full time criminals. They sell drugs; they steal; they’re in and out of jail.
The other half have become college professors.
This was the situation that I found myself in in 2013. I was at the end of my rope, living in a tent in a back yard, uncertain of what to do with my life or my future. I had no career or even a savings account.
It’s moments like these, when continuing in the same direction becomes impossible, that it becomes possible to try something new. I knew that I needed something different, but I didn’t know what. So I thought-- Seriously thought, for the first time in many years-- about what I actually wanted to have in my life. Not tomorrow, not after the revolution or the apocalypse, but now.
The first thing I did was to buy a book on magic.
Okay, that’s a lie. I had no money, like I said, and I was a devout believer in anti-capitalist theories that said I shouldn’t have to pay anybody for anything. So the first thing I did was to jump on the internet and steal a book on magic.
Please do not do this.
Either way, the book presented a detailed, 12 lesson curriculum in the tradition of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, one of the most famous and historically important schools in the Western magical tradition.
On a particular day in January I went to the beach with some roommates. One had made a kite, and wanted to see if it would fly. I felt compelled by some force I did not know to start running. I ran and ran, up and down the dunes, while the sun went down and the full moon rose. I ran until I exhausted myself. Then I went home, and I worked through the first lesson the book of magic.
It was very simple. Lie down, visualize a golden light flowing through your body, relaxing your muscles, one at a time. When you finish, draw one card from the Major Arcana of the tarot.
I went into my bedroom, closed the door and lit a candle, and spent twenty minutes following the instructions. Very simple. And yet I now divide my life into two parts-- before I went into that room, and after.
Anyone familiar with traditional, ceremonial magic will know that the rituals gradually become more complex-- much more so, incorporating circles and pentagrams, archangels and divine names and so on. And you will also know that, for the first year, the focus was entirely on personal spiritual development, and not at all on practical magic, casting spells, and the like. I kept practicing, every single day.
And I kept running. As my ritual work grew more complicated, my runs became longer and longer, until a two hour run followed by an hour of magic became normal. Eventually I started learning other practices. I got into qigong, and fell in love with it. I found a tai chi instructor, and practiced for hours every day-- until my tai chi instructor left town. Then I started training in karate, and various other martial arts (too many, probably; these days, I’m great at over doing things.)
And-- wonder of wonders, I got a job.
This was supposed to be the worst part. Go back and watch movies from the late 90s, when I was a teenager. The Matrix, Fight Club, American Beauty-- they’re all about how awful and stultifying a 9-5 job is. It’s the end of everything, man; the end of youth and hope and dreams. I had been trained by a thousand punk rock anthems to know that there was nothing worse than selling out and working for the man.
Well, it turned out that that was as much a bunch of nonsense as anything else. Getting a nine to five job provided me with money and stability. The result was-- prepare to be shocked-- I could pay for the things that I actually wanted to do.
At one point, my personal schedule looked like this.
I’d wake up around 7. I’d spend a half hour or so practicing the guitar, and then a half hour practicing Chinese characters. Then I’d go to work. At noon on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I’d bicycle over to the dojo and spend my lunch break training. I’d work until five, and then bike over to the local school of bodywork, where I was learning massage therapy from both Western and Eastern perspectives. I’d get home around ten, and spend a half hour practicing magic and meditation. I’d go to bed, and do it all again the next day.
It was a far cry from living in a village of hunter-gatherers in the ruins of civilization. And yet, my personal way of life was everything that I had hoped for.
Take The First Step
I’ve gone on at some length, and said a very great deal about myself. I hope the reader will forgive me, and understand that I’m trying to use my own experience as a way of illustrating a set of possibilities that are available to anyone.
Everything old becomes new again. The anti-civilization movement might be passe, but there are other apocalyptic and revolutionary movements, of both the Left and the Right, currently filling the same role. And even for those who aren’t caught up in fantasies of apocalypse and utopia, there is still ordinary, everyday provisional living.
And so, to conclude, I’d like to suggest a set of steps for anyone caught up in provisional living, whether apocalyptic or otherwise.
Step 1. Dive In. Take a moment to calm your body and your nervous system. Seriously, do this. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply for a minute or two. And then, call the fantasy of the apocalypse to your mind. Or the fantasy of moving to Portland. Whatever it is. What do you see yourself doing? How do you see yourself living? What is your day to day life like? Your world? Your friends?
Explore the fantasy in detail, and see what jumps out at you. Make a list of the most important images.
My list would have looked like this:
Embodiment-- Less computer screens and technology
Step 2. Pick one thing from the list. Seriously, just one to start, or at most two, but certainly no more than that. What is one way that you could put it into practice today? For me, as much as I did this consciously, it seems that magic and physical embodiment were the most important things. I put them into practice by beginning a daily practice of running and ritual magic.
Step 3. Act!
This step seems the most obvious, but there is something we need to add to it.
When you pick your one, or at most two, things to work on, find something very, very simple that you can do.
Let’s say, for example, that you want to become a gardener. But you can’t, because you live in an apartment, and you’ve been telling yourself for years that you’ll finally become a gardener when you can move to a house with a yard.
And so you read this, and you say, “By Ceres, Steve’s right! I can start gardening today!”
And so you run out and buy five huge bags of potting soil, a half dozen books on gardening, twenty seed packets, and start looking into plots at the community garden downtown.
Or, say you want to become a runner. So, having no experience at all, you spend $100 on running clothes and force yourself to go out for an hour in the heat of the day. You end up exhausted and dehydrated with pain in every joint of your legs.
Do I need to say it?
This is not the way to do it. Starting with too much just guarantees that you will overwhelm yourself. You need to find something that you can do today, tomorrow, the next day, and the next day. At first, it should be something that doesn’t take more than 20 minutes-- and if you want to go over time, don’t let yourself. Over time, a larger practice will develop. And then you can start looking at other things on your list.
But to start, pick something small, so that every day, when you go to bed at night, you can look back on that one thing and say “No matter what else happened today, I did this.” If it’s running, start with 20 minutes. And don’t go out and buy $100 dollars of running clothes. When I started running I was wearing an old pair of Carhartt’s workpants and a pair of Van’s sneakers. If it’s gardening, get three plants and put them in your window. The same goes for spirituality. Twenty minutes, or ten, or even just five minutes of meditation to start will challenge you, but you’ll probably come back tomorrow; an hour will guarantee that you’re not coming back, ever.
So to reiterate, the process goes:
Step 1: Make a list.
Step 2: Pick one item.
Step 3: Get started!
You may have noticed that I wrote much of my personal experience in the past tense. There is a reason for this. My life these days looks very different from how it did a few years ago. I no longer work a nine to five job. I’m a licensed massage therapist, and I see clients at various times throughout the day. I make as much money in a few hours as I used to make in a full workday, and the flexible schedule gives me a great deal of free time to work on whatever projects I like. A lot of my life, though, is less focused on myself, as I have a wife, an 8-year old step-son, and three cats.
My magical practice, meanwhile, has shifted quite a bit. You see, it’s unwise and potentially dangerous to practice ceremonial magic in a house with a pregnant woman or a nursing infant, and we’re expecting a baby in January. Today, things look more like this: I wake up around 8. I bring coffee to my very pregnant lady-love, and then we sit outside and read our tarot cards together. We use the beautiful Wildwood Tarot, by Mark Ryan and John Matthews, and if you’ve never seen this deck, I really recommend it. One or two of our cats comes to visit. Nearby is my herb garden, where you can find basil (an herb of Mars, used to strengthen the vitality), rosemary (a solar herb, for mental clarity and spiritual protection), lemon balm (under Jupiter, good for the vital forces and the nervous system), and many others.
Throughout the day I see various clients at local spas or in home. On this particular day, after reading the cards, I sat down at my desk. I lit an orange candle and some incense, sang the Orphic hymn to Hermes, and got to work finishing the essay you’ve just read. I hope that you’ll find it helpful!