Paul Chefurka interview, Adrastia
22 April 2015
Paul Chefurka is a Canadian sustainability activist.
Paul, for many members of Comité Adrastia, you are the author of Approaching the Limits to Growth, a long standing reference blog about global collapse. Since a half dozen of years, your articles displayed sharp analysis, cutting through the general deny and exposing bare trends and determinisms that lead us where no one wants to go. We will not ask you here to redo the clear demonstrations done into these articles, but currently and more and more you talk about a personal spiritual journey you have taken to face such understanding. Because we care about people in the same situation, we would like you to explain us your own experience.
Where do your interest for the world generally and the nature in particular comes from? What’s your opinion on its current state and the direction taken?
I grew up on a small farm in southern Canada. My parents were both scientists – my father was a research biochemist working on insect cell-membrane characteristics, and my mother was a physicist. My first exposure to environmental issues was reading Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring”, and then later “Limits to Growth”. However I didn’t become fully aware of what is happening in the world until I began to investigate Peak Oil in 2004. That exposure led to my interest in climate change, because the two issues are linked through fossil fuel consumption. That in turn led me to wonder why it is so difficult for the people of the world to accept what’s happening and change our behavior to avoid such an obvious looming crisis. The search for answers to that question caused me to begin a deep investigation of the roots of human behavior and decision-making. I’m still engaged in that inquiry today, though it has already revealed many hints about our immediate future.
I am deeply pessimistic about the current state of the planet and our global civilization. I don’t see any actions being taken that will get the world out of its mess, which is getting worse on a daily basis. I don’t believe that humanity acting as a collective group has evolved the psychological abilities that would make a reversal of our course possible. In short, I think the era of global industrial civilization (and possibly even the human species) is drawing to a close, and I can’t see anything we can do to change that final outcome. I’m sorry to sound so fatalistic, but that’s the conclusion I’ve reached after a decade of virtually full-time investigation.
Can you quote us which works, events or characters pushed you toward awareness?
Essential books on my journey have included “Collapse” by Jared Diamond, Daniel Quinn’s novels “Ishmael” and “The Story of B”, “The Collapse of Complex Societies” by Joseph Tainter, and “The Ascent of Humanity” by Charles Eisenstein. More than any other, I was deeply moved, both intellectually and emotionally, by William Catton’s magnificent little book, “Overshoot”.
I’ve also been influenced by the American thinker Jay Hanson, who maintains the web site http://dieoff.org/. He first got me thinking about the roles of evolutionary psychology and non-equilibrium thermodynamics with regard to human behavior, as well as the true nature of political activity.
Many among us remember the very exact moment when they realized that it wasn’t going right at all and especially that they won’t have a future as expected. Can you tell us what was this moment for you?
It happened early in 2004. I was a high-technology climate change denier at the time, but my girlfriend was a committed left-wing activist. She challenged me to direct my scientific skills towards climate change, to actually look at the data instead of just relying on my beliefs. When I did that, it took me only a few days to realize that climate change was real, that it was happening already, and that fossil fuels were the cause. That led me to examine the question of oil use, and I immediately discovered the idea of Peak Oil.
When I put the two ideas of Climate Change and Peak Oil together, I realized almost instantly that unless the whole world changed the way it behaved with regard to energy, changed radically and rapidly, the game of civilization was not going to continue for much longer.
That was a profoundly disturbing realization. I felt like I was falling, and didn’t know where to look for answers.
What happened next? What was your reaction? How did you live then?
I fell into a deep depression, a pit of despair. For the next three years I frantically tried to find some way that mankind might to escape what I gradually came to see as an inescapable trap. Every possibility I examined came up short, either for technical or political reasons. I found absolutely no hope – I became convinced, both intellectually and emotionally, that there was no possibility that our civilization, and possibly even our species, would survive for another hundred years. Due to my despair and misery I lost two relationships. I contemplated suicide. It was the most miserable portion of my life so far.
In early 2007 I realized that I had to find some equanimity, or I was going to collapse completely. I knew that such peace of mind wasn’t available in the places I’d been looking, so I began to search in directions other than science. I got the idea that what was missing from my life was a sense of the sacred, so I began looking hard at the spiritual traditions of the world. Since I had never been religious I felt most at home with shamanism and the non-dual traditions, such as Buddhism, Taoism and Advaita Vedanta. I threw myself into the search, and have found enormous value in those ancient streams of wisdom. I will speak about that below.
Where are you now with the question? What’s the philosophy supporting your life?
Throughout the destruction and rebuilding of my worldview, I have never lost sight of the scientific realities of our situation:
- CO2 levels are now rising over 400 ppm;
- The oceans continue to become more acidic;
- The Arctic ice cap is within a decade of disappearing;
- The polar jet stream is broken;
- The world’s weather is being disrupted, with all that implies for North American agriculture;
- Fresh water and fertile land are disappearing;
- Non-renewable resources are being depleted;
- Deforestation continues to get worse;
- Species are going extinct ever more quickly;
- The world’s financial systems are becoming more unstable;
- The world’s population continues to rise by 80 million people each year; and…
- There are no significant plans in any nation to address any of it.
My study of self-organizing complex systems, non-equilibrium thermodynamics, cybernetics, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience have convinced me that a large number of factors will keep the system of global civilization locked into its current trajectory for the foreseeable future. I give the eventual disruption and decline of global techno-industrial civilization a very high probability, though when and how that might happen is unknowable.
The philosophy that supports my life today is based on the wisdom streams I mentioned previously.
In shamanism I have found the deep emotional connection to Life that nurtures all beings, and the sense of the sacred I had been missing.
Buddhism taught me the Four Noble Truths, which talk about suffering coming from attachment, and how to end suffering by releasing attachment.
From Taoism I learned the equanimity of wu wei, or effortless action. By stepping back and letting life unfold on its own, I learned to hold the reins of control lightly.
The ancient Greek philosophy of Pyrrhonian skepticism taught me to hold all my beliefs as lightly as possible, and always to question them.
Advaita has become in many ways the core of my new worldview. Through these teachings I was first able to realize that I am not my stories. This understanding let me set aside the stories of my life, that I had previously held so close, as being interesting but irrelevant.
When the stories were set aside, it was a short step to seeing through the illusion of the Self altogether.
Realizing that the Self is an idea-construct rather than a concrete thing inevitably changed my perception of the universe. It went from being a place of collapse and fear to a place full of possibilities that unfold moment by moment. The collapse-tales we tell each other and the streams of anger, fear, outrage and blame that flow through the veins of our society like poison, seem to be little but stories as well, though stories that are grounded in the consensus reality represented by modern science and human nature. Seeing them as stories allows room for other stories to come in and balance them – for me those are mostly stories of deep personal meaning, experiences that happen in the moment, and of course stories of caring, nurturing and love.
Should we despair or have somehow reasons to live well if not to hope?
There is no way to predict what the future holds for us as individuals, communities or nations. There are simply too many complex factors in play. However, despair is not a viable answer. It may be a valid response to the discovery that the things we have been taught to hope for may not come to pass, but if it becomes permanent, despair will poison one’s life like no other emotion. For our own mental health we should make every effort we can to move through the stage of despair as quickly as possible.
However, I have found it is impossible to leave behind the knowledge of what is happening to the world. If we are to find our way through despair it will have to be done while we still carry the burden of this awareness. There are many techniques being developed now for doing this. Grief work as taught by Carolyn Baker, ‘”The Work That Reconnects” by Joanna Macy, and of course the more traditional Eastern schools of thought that I investigated are all strong candidates for helping one survive and grow through this kind of suffering.
What future, reasonably plausible, do you wish for the humanity?
- That more people would come to understand what’s happening, and why.
- That we might learn as individuals to set aside our differences.
- That we might come to see our place as a part of the web of life, rather than the crown of creation. That we might come to understand the word “enough”.
That’s not what I think will happen, but those are my wishes for the future. Individually many of us may be able to adopt these views, and benefit enormously from them. Collectively, I feel that it is quite unlikely that we will move in that direction.
What advice would you give to anybody who might read this interview?
Here is my advice:
- Stay awake to what’s happening around us.
- Don’t get hung up by other people’s “shoulds and shouldn’ts”.
- Occasionally re-examine your personal values. If they aren’t in alignment with what you think the world needs, change them.
- Stop blaming people. Others are as much victims of the times as we are – even the CEOs and politicians.
- Blame, anger and outrage are pointless. They waste precious energy that we will need for more useful work.
- Laugh a lot, at everything – including ourselves.
- Hold all of the world’s various beliefs lightly, including your own.
- Forgive others and yourself for everything, including the failures that come from simply being human.
- Love everything, just as deeply as you can.
I also tell people who see the unfolding crisis and want to make changes in their lives simply to follow their hearts and their personal values. I’m not exactly advising them to “Eat, drink and be merry,” though. I think of it more as, “Eat, drink and be mindful.”
Best wishes on your journey,
Bodhi Paul Chefurka