Thursday, April 17, 2014

Thoughts on Michael C. Ruppert

Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster; and if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you.
--Friedrich Nietzsche

I used to listen to Mike Ruppert's show now and again but hadn't listened to it in a long time and had mostly forgotten about it. The reason was simple - it was a lot of doomer porn and recitation about how the world was going to hell, and constantly replaying that narrative over and over again serves no purpose but to provide a validation for a world view that you've already settled on for various reasons that probably have little to do with peak oil and will probably never change, regardless of what the actual circumstances are. I wasn't learning anything new from the show, and things are bad enough without spending an hour wallowing in existential despair. That is not helpful, so I quit listening. Even when he had other guests on, he always seemed to be seeking validation for his bleak world view, one that a few guests, notably Guy MacPherson, were happy to provide.  In many ways it's a pity because Ruppert was an excellent radio host, talented and articulate, and able to speak to our problems off the cuff often with great eloquence on film and in person. He was also a talented writer and musician, and for all his faults, a man of unquestioned integrity who refused to sell out and always tried to do what he believed was the right thing, no matter the personal cost, a trait all too rare nowadays. For those reasons he should be admired and celebrated. He touched many lives, and by that metric alone he should be considered successful and even in some  ways lucky despite his tragic end. What joyful moments he did have in his life were probably that much more brilliant by the contrast.

Ruppert constantly wallowed in bad news, even celebrated it. It was a reflection of his own difficult and tragic personal history. Clearly the man had other issues as his numerous references to twelve-step programs alluded to. He walked a lonely road. I'm no psychologist and don't claim to be one, but anyone with  good gut instincts for people could tell from the  footage of him in movies like Collapse and his final appearance in that Vice documentary, not to mention his radio show, that there was a lot more going on that just a genuine concern about the dry geological facts of energy production or concerns over unsustainable environmental practices. He was quite intelligent, but also seemed to have paranoid tendencies, both traits he probably inherited from his parents who were both U.S. intelligence operatives. Ruppert probably had to confront some things early on in his career and make some choices that fortunately most of us will never have to make. These, along with other personal demons, set him on a path that would ultimately lead to his self destruction. But his integrity led to a lot of courageous reporting and truth telling that we all benefited from. It's tragic the price he had to pay to do that in our society.

Given that he seemed to wallow in gloom and doom 24-7 the end result is not surprising. Being cognizant of and understanding of the very real challenges humanity faces, and the fact that our present way of life is not sustainable does not by itself equal spending all your time seeking out bad news, but this is exactly what Ruppert apparently did. He seemed to make this his full-time job, and for that he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, a burden too heavy for any one man, let alone someone struggling with his personal issues, to bear. For someone with his tendencies, that is that last thing he should have been doing. Leave the negativity to the optimists, I say, they are the ones who can deal with it.  If you're doing this yourself, please stop it. Your worrying is not saving one life, and it's probably killing you. None of us knows what the future holds, and anyone who says otherwise is lying.

Ruppert felt the need to belong to something greater than himself; to be part of a larger movement, and to see the world as an apocalyptic battle between good and evil with himself on the side of the angels (his last song is telling in that regard). His constant repetition of all the people who were part of the "movement" and who "walked his path" testified to his desire for martyrdom and a need to save the world.

Michael Ruppert clearly believed in collapse. It was part of his business model. It was the name of his web site. It was the title of his movie. He spoke often of its imminent arrival. And when it failed to materialize, when it looked as though his beautiful new world was not going to come at the appointed time, like cult members when the UFO did not arrive, he could no longer go on. Collapse had become his entire world and without it he was nothing. If the world would not collapse he would bring it about in his own life. Some people cannot be content, and if they find contentment they will find a way to end it. Some people will find a way to be unhappy no matter what life offers them. They are secretly addicted to chaos and live for the shadow, even if they dare not admit it to themselves. They act in such a way to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy while telling themsleves it's just way the world works.

The problem is, this becomes such a part of your identity that it defines who you are. And then the dry geological facts of where we get our energy from no longer matter; you are committed to this world view and will defend it with all your might. Imagine the following scenario - suppose someone presented to you iron-clad scientific evidence that we found a way to supply the necessary energy to power our technological civilization for another ten thousand years, and even expand it, and do so without more damage to the climate. How would you react? Be honest. I suspect your first instinct would be to do everything in your power to disprove it. Stop and think for a minute on how crazy that is. Why would you do that? Why wouldn't you welcome that as good news? A collapse would bring misery and harm to possibly billions of people. Why would you want that? Are you some kind of monster?

Now I'm being deliberately provocative here, but I'm trying to make a point. Of course the above scenario is not realistic. We all know there are finite reserves of fossil fuels, that lower grade fuels are more expensive and harder to reach, and that these sources are environmentally destructive. But I believe this because the science tells me this. If it told me something else, I would have to believe that, even if I didn't want to. The hard part, and the thing almost nobody is capable of, is believing things we don't want to be true. But we must, lest we deceive ourselves, and I believe that confronting reality, however unpleasant, is always worthwhile.

I think for most of you  the reason you wouldn't see this as good news doesn't have anything to do with wanting to see people suffer and starve and die. No, you aren't monsters. I think the reason is, you know something is seriously wrong with our society as currently constructed and you want something to change it. And you hope that something is peak oil and our energy situation. That is why you would try to disprove it. You've invested so much of your identity in it that if it were proven to be not true, you would not be able to handle it. In this respect peak oil could be the same as any other belief system, whether in a cult, or the modern Republican Party.

You don't want collapse at all, what you really want is change. You want some external force to remake the world in the way you think it should be. The overwhelming inertia of our decaying society seemingly headed toward the shoals has made us feel so helpless and poweless that we want some outside force stronger than us to come along make that change for us. In the past, people often looked to God for this purpose. Peak oil serves that purpose for some people today. A lot of people think it will bring about the world they really want, or that it will fix society's problems. It won't. In fact it might even make them worse.

No, if you want change, you have to work for it. And be honest about your motivations. In the end, peak oil is just a collection of cold scientific facts. It is utterly devoid of value. Those are what we must supply and they are independent of whatever the geological science tells us. If you don't want to be a cog in a machine, don't be one. If you don't want to live in a police state, or if you don't want toxic chemicals in your food, then you need to fight for that result and not wallow in despair and doom. So if you're disgusted with certain elements of our society, be honest about that and change them. There are lots of other people who secretly feel the way you do, even people who've never heard of peak oil. This includes people who may be unknowingly fighting for the status quo even though they hate it because they don't know any better. It can be as simple as turning off your TV, planting a garden and smiling at people at the grocery store.

And this brings me to a larger point that I've made before. I think a lot of people hook on to the peak oil narrative for reasons other than the plain geological fact that oil reserves are finite and fields deplete at a known rate. They have other agendas, and they see peak oil as a validation of their world view. You could see this with Ruppert - he believed peak oil would transform the world and "awaken a new consciousness," one where the bad guys he crusaded against all his life would finally get their comeuppance, and where people like him would sit on their farm and watch the elites suffer and the cities burn and be able to say "we told you so" while reveling in the suffering of those who didn't listen. The fact that this kept not happening was too much to bear. This is how some people get their emotional validation and it's not healthy. If you have any tendencies in this direction, I think you need to be open and honest with yourself, admit it, and move on to something more healthy because that mindset leads to only one place, and it isn't good. I certainly hope no one is coming here for validation, because I am in no way interested in offering that to people. I like to question everything, including my own assumptions about the world.

I was touched when John Michael Greer offered a bit of autobiographical detail about his own difficult family situation growing up. I think a lot of us who make peak oil and collapse central to our identity have suffered some sort of personal collapse in our own lives, and thus the idea of societal collapse is not so hard to swallow. We've already been though it, and we want everyone to feel the pain we live with every day having lost the safety and security others take for granted. And yes, I definitely include myself in here. It a hard thing to admit, but it's important to admit it because that's a part of growth.

Perhaps that's the reason why we find the idea of decline and collapse so attractive that we spend our  time trying to prove it when all the rest of the world is trying desperately to deny or ignore it. We all have a tendency to see the world as we want it to be; to see the narrative of the world as a grand retelling of our own life story. But our lives are not passion plays for the world at large. The world is what it is, regardless of how we want it to be. But what we can do is recognize this tendency in ourselves, accept it for what it is, and ask ourselves whether it is really our own inner lives we are projecting onto a neutral outer world. Be honest with yourself. Are things not going well for you? Did your family fall apart? If so, I think you need to deal with that before you even start thinking about the problems we face collectively as a civilization.

As the Bible says, 'seek and ye shall find.' If you're spending all your time looking for proof that society is going downhill, and that the world is a miserable place and people are shit, than you will certainly find what you are looking for. For the world is full of shit and horror and cruelty and ugliness and unfairness and injustice. It has always been this way. This is a part of the human condition. But if this is all you look at you will give in to despair as Ruppert did. If your happiness is conditional on a world where humans behave like angels, than you are waiting for a utopia and you will be forever miserable.

At the same time, if you're looking for reasons that everything is going to be okay, that nothing is ever wrong and everything is just as it should be, and that the status quo is acceptable and will continue indefinitely, then you will find that too. In fact it's easier - there's a great tendency do this in our "brightsided" culture. This leads people to adhere to the just world fallacy, where everything is just as it should be as a defensive mechanism. This allows people to shrug off the ever increasing injustices that seem to get worse every day, and permits those in power to exploit and manipulate us ever more egregiously. It also causes people to ignore problems until they get too bad to ignore. Denial is not constructive either. The problems in our society are real, and the sooner we deal with them, the less suffering there will be for all of us down the road. The same is true for personal problems; they cannot even begin to be fixed until we acknowledge they are there. An ostrich mentality means you will be led around by the nose by the powerful and that doesn't lead anywhere good as millions of people on the debt/consume treadmill are finding out. You will need to confront your problems sooner or later, whether as an individual or as a society. Many people even now are no longer able to maintain their bubble of complacency, no matter how hard they try. All it takes is one job loss or personal crisis. Trying to make all your pain go away and never feel sad is equally as foolhardy.

Of course, despair is not confined to the "doomer" set - recently a number of bankers have committed suicide, as did Mick Jagger's girlfriend and (possibly) Peaches Geldof. There are people at the opposite end of the spectrum who seemingly have everything and yet it still wasn't enough. Clearly even people at the top of the social hierarchy are not living lives of permanent happiness and bliss. This, too should tell you something.  To blame suicide entirely on someones' knowledge of the ugliness of the world and our civilizational problems is not accurate either. Even people with no knowledge of those things are often just as unhappy and sometimes take their own lives too.

The difficult thing, the really really hard thing, is to look at the world unflinchingly, warts and all, in all it's shit and hopelessness and despair and violence and injustice, and face it squarely head on and deal with it and find a way to live in this world day by day and be happy in spite of it all. This is a  hard thing to do, and very few people manage to pull off this trick. It is at the core of all of our spiritual and philosophical traditions, and what greater aspiration could there be than to master this, the highest spiritual calling for a human being? For where there is despair, there must also be hope. Where there is ugliness there must also be beauty. Where there is cruelty there must also be kindness. How could it not be so? For nothing arises without its opposite. The numerous people who helped and cared for Michael despite all his difficulties is a living testament to the essential goodness of humanity.

So If there is any good to come from this death, I hope it is that for people who see Ruppert's tendencies in themselves - to wallow in despair, to see that dark side of everything, to be afraid and paranoid, to see life as a constant battle against the forces of evil, to have a messiah complex and to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, to see the danger in that approach to life and take this chance to change course. If any of this applies to you, I encourage you to do so. If you know people like this, please do what you can to help them. If I could give everyone an Easter message, this would be it. Rebirth is happening, but sometimes it's hard to see. Take heart. Seek that spiritual path of beauty in despair. As the Buddhists remind us, the seed germinates in the rotting fruit, and the lotus rises and flowers from the darkness and the muck.

Because even if you could save the world, saving yourself is always your first and most important task.

11 comments:

  1. Very good! I must say you've nailed exactly what I've been thinking about lately. In the end, we must live our lives with the deal we've been handed…

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  2. Couldn't sleep and turned to you. My goodness - that decision was meant to be as you voiced what I've been trying to do for the last five years since our own severe fall financially.

    We are slowly making our way back, off the grid, with our ups and downs - but with a fierce new determination to place hope and work at the top of our list.

    We also live in a world full of unbridled nature. The surrounding of animals and birds has had a profound effect on our brains. Our 4 pets provide us with feelings of joy and amusement -

    As humans - we have made a seriously flawed assumption that we "control" things. We couldn't be more wrong. My husband and I decided to just "go with the flow" and let it rip. It's not easy to make that transition - however, it has changed our brains and our happiness in definite slow steps into a much happier existence.

    We set small goals and take time to do absolutely nothing which isn't easy in this American jungle of "busy hovering". We are drilling down on our debt and living in the most efficient way we can with periodic twitching as necessary.

    We still have our bad days but one thing we have stopped doing which has helped is watching TV, especially the news. We have replaced that activity with physical stuff, namely creating a garden and working our buns off physically.

    I have been reading your thoughts for some time now. Thanks for being in my life.

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  3. Insightful and superbly written, but this bit - "The numerous people who helped and cared for Michael despite all his difficulties is a living testament to the essential goodness of humanity" does not match my experience.

    In my experience people are not essentially good. They do good sometimes - usually to their friends and then those same people who are very kind and loving towards their friends and would do anything for them, will mistreat someone because they are not part of their ingroup. My experience has been the lower someone's status is, the less human people consider them and feel that it is just fine for them to be mistreated.

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  4. "I was touched when John Michael Greer offered a bit of autobiographical detail about his own difficult family situation growing up. I think a lot of us who make peak oil and collapse central to our identity have suffered some sort of personal collapse in our own lives, and thus the idea of societal collapse is not so hard to swallow. We've already been though it, and we want everyone to feel the pain we live with every day having lost the safety and security others take for granted."

    I ignored that at the time when I posted the comments that became The Archdruid and I have a conversation about science fiction, but my friend and sometimes commenter here Nebris read it and said something to the effect of 'he revealed himself. He doesn't want to become his father, waiting out life in his beat up couch and little apartment, reading science fiction.' Nebs was on to something, but I think there's more to it than that. Read this paragraph.

    "That was the autumn of 1982, toward the end of my first unsuccessful pass through college, and right about the time it was becoming painfully clear that the great leap toward a sustainable future through appropriate technology, in which I planned on making my career, wasn’t going to happen after all. Those were the years when the Reagan administration’s gutting of grant money for every kind of green initiative was really starting to hit home, and attempts to mobilize any kind of support for those initiatives were slamming face first into the simple fact that most Americans wanted to cling to their cozy lifestyles even if that meant flushing their grandchildren’s future down the drain."

    Can you hear or feel the bitterness? Greer had the answer, but no one would listen. Well, now they'll all get their comeuppance from their bad choices. As someone who is motivated a lot by rejection, spite, and anger, Greer's wish for reality to give him his revenge comes right through to me.

    Also, a lot of Peak Oilers have done what Greer quoting Milton calls "Evil, be my good" with regard to the fossil fools. They agree with the defenders of carbon that oil is indispensible, but have made running out of it a good thing, something the "Drill, Baby, drill" crowd would see as an unmitigated disaster.

    As for an earlier question, "suppose someone presented to you iron-clad scientific evidence that we found a way to supply the necessary energy to power our technological civilization for another ten thousand years, and even expand it, and do so without more damage to the climate. How would you react? Be honest." My reaction would be Hot Damn! On to the stars we go! Then again, that's why I call myself a Crazy Eddie instead of Standing on Zanzibar.

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    1. I linked back to this entry at My thoughts on Michael Ruppert on my own blog. I also linked to you at Kunstler's blog. Now you know who to blame for the additional traffic, which I'm sure you're getting.

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  5. I know I quibble with your economic ideas from time to time, but most of the time I am applauding each and every post. This is one of those times, but I thought I'd say something about it. There is a heap ton of wisdom in this one for people who have ears to hear, and the intellectual honesty to listen. Well played.

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  6. Huh. You gotta lot to say about Ruppert, when you yourself gotta lot to say about collapse. Don't get me wrong. I like your work, as I did Ruppert's.

    See you around the bend.

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  7. An excellent essay and one that mirrors my own thinking. Yes, things are changing and consumer society can't continue. But nobody knows the future. I don't mean to be dismissive, but I see a consistent sameness across the peak-oil-doomer set: white, middle aged men demoralized by their cube jobs. That's an all right thing to be, but as you note, the way out is from within.

    I had a post on my own blog about this a while back, if anyone is interested:
    http://dex3703.wordpress.com/2012/10/25/peak-oil-forever/

    The future is not set. It will always be a surprise.

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  8. Wow... I wouldn't have expected such a touching, empathic ode to Ruppert. Let me put it more diplomatically: Ruppert was more monomaniacal and obsessed by collapse than you are. But you just wrote some wisdom into your kind words on Ruppert.
    I met him when the debut of Collapse came through town. He was a passionate champion of change, despite his battles with darkness.

    Your advice and warning to those of us who think about collapse, or simply civilizational decline or decadence or corruption is also great advice.

    I had independently come to similar conclusions, before Ruppert's suicide. My main motivation was my wife and child: I didn't want them to be sad or distressed by my distress.

    I also agree with the idea that one must not wait for utopia, but actively work for the changes one believes in, to the extent one can.

    In my case, I have come to slightly different conclusion: I must lead my family out of the USA. I no longer think it can be reformed, even by committed activists. I am sure I am wrong, but I believe that the adventure of life in a new culture, in a nation that is far more egalitarian, and with a miniscule divide between rich and poor, will be a better life.

    I think of it as divorce: I want to divorce my country. I think it's a valid choice, and I will work for sustainable, local economies and justice wherever I end up.
    And I'll keep reading your blog.

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    1. I have had many of the same thoughts..... just be aware that to leave the US and try to go somewhere else is getting very difficult..... because many countries which may have seemed attractive have "closed" their borders.....

      Examples: Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, Iceland, New Zealand. You may be able to get into some areas of South America.

      It's creeping up on us, isn't it.....

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  9. Addendum: I didn't mean "I am sure I am wrong." I think I meant, "I may be wrong." But I even retract that. I know that the adventure of life in a new country would, indeed, be wonderful. My wife and I have both lived abroad, and there is really nothing about life in the USA that is exceptional, except the difficulty, and the tenuous nature of most friendships and human relationships. E.g., when a good friend coworker was recently fired, nobody - literally nobody - talks about her. It's as though she never existed.

    Because I have grandparents who came from a particular country, and that country actually still has a policy of letting you apply for residency based on that, I am actively pursuing that. I have noticed something weird - two data points - the two lawyers I've contacted about this haven't responded. I don't think they believe an American really wants out for political and cultural reasons. I am going to find someone there who will help, though. Someone over there must realize that I'm not a flake, that I am serious about leaving.
    @Nadine: good luck. You can do it. If you are a good person, you won't be judged by everyone for being an Americant.

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