Adapting to Our Global Predicament

Tom Ellis
4 min readMay 30, 2023

“We all sit here stranded, though we’re all doing out best to deny it.” –Bob Dylan

A predicament differs fundamentally from a problem or a crisis. A problem can, in theory, be solved, but there is no specific urgency. A crisis (which derives from the noun form of the Greek verb krino, to judge, or make a decision) is a point at which hard decisions can no longer be postponed, but must be made as soon as possible. But a predicament has no solution; it can only be managed, since it consists of multiple interacting crises, such that attempting to resolve one can exacerbate the others.

So it is inaccurate, today, to refer simply to “climate change” (since climate always changes — a stupidly self-evident fact that Republicans and other fossil fuel propagandists love to cite, completely ignoring the crucial distinction between geological and human time scales), or even the “climate crisis.” Our huge population and our money-based global market economy (“Glomart”) still depend entirely on the cheap net energy available only from fossil fuels, yet since the industrial revolution, atmospheric levels of CO2 and methane emissions from these fuels have spiked at a rate vastly exceeding, by several orders of magnitude, the historical rate going back over 800,000 years, as measured in Antarctic ice cores. There is no guarantee that our current biological support system — our topsoil, forests, fauna, fisheries, insects, and plants — will be able to withstand this accelerating rise in global mean temperatures, accompanied by erratic swings in local weather — heat waves, floods, droughts, wildfires, and periodic “polar vortex” freezes — without collapsing into a mass extinction of all higher forms of life, ourselves included. So we face a predicament, not a crisis. We are stranded, with no place to run (though climate refugees are already running everywhere).

So how do we manage a predicament? Thus far, our reactions tend to fall into four broad categories, only one of which is adaptive: denial, delusion, despair, or determination. Most of us, of course, are in denial, which is a perfectly normal, but useless response to encroaching horrors we can do nothing about. By delusion, I refer to the (often highly intelligent and accomplished) scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, and visionaries who still dream of quick fixes that will allow us to maintain the status quo of endless growth and affluence — whether through electrification of everything, going vegan, launching space shields, or building domed cities or carbon-sucking machines. These folks conveniently overlook the fact that creating a whole new energy infrastructure would require a vast investment of cheap and abundant net energy for the extraction of resources, manufacture, distribution, and installation of all these new solar panels, windmills, modular nuclear plants, rockets and satellites, along with global cooperation on an unprecedented level. And there is only one available source of all this primary net energy: fossil fuels.

Despair is, of course, the road to nowhere. If you assume nothing can be done, nothing will be done; such despair will lead only to murderous rage, or to suicide.

So that leaves determination. To do what? To survive the collapse, if possible, and usher in the next phase of our evolution by creating the seeds of a new Gaian culture, a new humanity, with a symbiotic, rather than parasitic, relationship to Gaia, our biological support system. Is this delusion as well? Perhaps, but it is a delusion worth living for.

How might it work? It will be different, of course, for each person, but a few common themes might be worth consideration. The meme — the slogan and agenda — I have coined for this goes as follows:

Grow Gardens, Grow Community, Grow Awareness, by Learning, Teaching, Healing, and Creating.

To unpack this slogan a bit, the first three injunctions refer to the end, or purpose; the latter four refer to the means to accomplish this end. All these injunctions mutually reinforce one another.

We start with growing gardens — while we still can. Anyone with a small plot of land available, or even with planters on an apartment balcony, can grow gardens. But growing gardens is not easy; it takes knowledge and experience to do it well, so in the process of growing gardens, we also need to grow community — to chat with our neighbors, to create community gardens, to work with our existing faith communities on this. And through this we all grow awareness, not only of the rapidly evolving collapse of all the larger infrastructures we have relied upon (financial, political, agricultural, energetic, electronic, et al.) but also of innovative efforts by others, both locally and globally, to adapt skillfully to this incremental collapse. When times are tough, it helps to have a lot of friends — especially nearby friends — whom we have worked with before.

And then come the means: to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to learning new and useful knowledge and skills from each other; teaching what we have learned to our friends and neighbors and to young people whenever and wherever we can; healing our topsoil, our local biodiversity, our bodies, each other, and our communities; and through all of these, creating a Gaian future for our children or grandchildren. And even if it is all for naught, if our past greed, ignorance, hatreds, denial, and despair have doomed us to global extinction, we will, until we perish, have happier, more fulfilling lives as mutually supportive Gaians than we ever would have as lonely, frustrated, and angry Glomart addicts. May it be!

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Tom Ellis

I am a retired English professor now living in Oregon, and a life-long environmental activist, Buddhist, and holistic philosopher.