There is a dark story that I have bottled up for many years. It is one that took place over the span of many months, and one that has been slowly eating away at me for much longer. I wanted to write this many times before, but I also wanted it to be read. Now that my blog is (slightly) more visible, perhaps I can affect some change in whatever minuscule way.
I fell prey to a hard green ideology, one that brought me uncomfortably close to signing off on some very morally dubious actions. I was lucky to get out, but I also want to explain why I was attracted to it in the first place.
The story began when I decided to follow my dream of becoming an animator. I had heard about the Art Institute schools through discussions with my friends at church (I was Christian at the time). I figured it would be a good opportunity to become an animator.
At the time, there wasn’t a lot of information available about Art Institute’s shady side. Had I known, I would have chosen differently. As I went through the curriculum, though, things took a downhill turn.
My grades were all over the place, my social life plummeted, and I was left without connections to the industry I wanted to join. The one that impacted me the most, however, was the break up with my ex-girlfriend.
I had filled the void in my heart with trips to the local mall, where I would purchase a movie on a weekly basis, possibly more. I also felt a strong sense of loathing towards my peers, which I mistakenly applied to my generation as a whole. I was disaffected, calloused by my predominately negative experience.
I kept thinking how awful Millenials must be. How they were cruel, vicious people. I had bought into the narrative constructed by Baby Boomers about the narcissistic, spoiled, and entitled youth.
Indeed, it had affected my mind so much that I created an elaborate hypothesis in my mind that believed that our society was catering to the adolescent mind. Adults were being pushed back towards adolescent thinking, children were being pushed forward towards adolescent thinking, and adolescents were being milked on a constant basis.
There’s some logic to it. After all, marketers love adolescents because that’s when they’re old enough to start carrying their own wallets and money. But they aren’t old enough to have formed the higher cognitive aspects that an adult brain carries. Advertising is pervasive, with the American Academy of Pediatrics reporting that a youth is exposed to over 40,000 advertisements per year through TV alone.
The PG-13 rating is so popular because it allows for the widest possible audience since a G rating is likely to scare off audiences (Disney can do this, however). PG isn’t as bad for audiences but clearly, PG-13 is the sweet spot for movies.
It occupied an enormous space in my mind. I fixated over this theory, thinking that maybe I ought to turn it into a book. That book never came to fruition, though perhaps that’s for the better.
Dumping It Out on the Lawn
I returned home from York, Pennsylvania with a useless Associate’s Degree that was unaccredited. I also carried with me a portfolio that was so uncompetitive that I felt obligated to destroy it.
I did learn that I loved to write while I was up there, but it was not a lesson I would take heed of until years later. Nor would I say that it justified the financial, social, and emotional costs that I faced. On balance, my experience was awful and not one that I would wish on anyone.
However, when I got home I quickly noticed the obscene amount of stuff I had collected. Most of it was to be disposed of, never seen again. But it came at a very real cost: I had racked up enormous payments that I was unaware of during that time.
I vowed to change my ways. I wasn’t going to be like that anymore. What I didn’t address, however, was the loathing of my peers and the cynicism I held towards the world.
Scaling Hubbert’s Peak
At some point throughout my paradigm shift, I had decided to play the controversial game “Super Columbine Massacre RPG”, produced by Danny LeDonne. The game remains available to this day. I had done so, in part, because the Virginia Tech shooting occurred and I felt it would shine a light on a recurring pattern of school shootings that I had begun to understand.
The game itself is a confused mess. It doesn’t know if it wants to be a serious reconstruction or a parody of itself and the events it portrays. While it does feature a lot of real elements from the incident, the entire third act of the game is purely speculative. That act has both the shooters sent to Hell.
The game has been negatively received, with some defending it as an art game, but most decrying it as a trivialization of the subject matter.
But it was not the game itself that caught my eye. It was the artist’s statement. In particular, this line:
The lingering question—that grand burning query so many have tried to answer—is one I believe this game allows us to at least access in a more honest way. Beyond the simple platitudes and panaceas of gun control, media ratings/censorship, bully prevention programs, and parental supervision remains a glaring possibility: that the society we have created is deeply moribund. This game asks more of its audience than rudimentary button-pushing and map navigation; it implores introspection. This is why the game’s forum was equally important to the SCMRPG project. Through it, people from six continents and all walks of life discussed the game itself and the incident it is based on. Some of them confessed childhood pain or share personal feelings on the shooting. Some of them sustained vulgar diatribes or accused the creator of wrongdoing. Some of them discussed the game’s social implications in a broader context. At the end of the day, the understanding of the Columbine school shooting is deepened and redefined. That is the real object of the game.
LeDonne’s focus, however, is on film. Of his work, I have seen only one film. That film is his adaptation of Ted Kaczynski’s “Ship of Fools”.
Yes, that Ted Kaczynski. The Unabomber.
LeDonne may have changed like I have. The game’s website and his filmography may be old marks of shame, but I do not know. However, at the time I agreed with his bleak outlook.
So I decided to reach out to him. I sent him an email that expressed support for his thesis that the world we were in was dying. I asked what I could do, how I could keep myself going.
His response began as a reiteration of his artist’s statement. He believed that all of the events that were occurring were happening within the framework of a dying world.
Then things got paranoid. He mentioned “peak oil”, which I had never heard of before. He spoke of immense government expansion. My solutions were to invest in basic tools, buy precious metals like gold and silver, and other assorted tips commonly associated with “prepper” culture. Then he linked me to the 2009 movie, “Collapse”.
I wish I had kept that email, but it likely got thrown out in housekeeping. Or, perhaps it got lost in my email account that had found itself infested by spammers.
Regardless, I obliged him. I bought a copy of the film off of iTunes. At the time, it was 2010 I believe. So the film had been recently released.
“Collapse” is a long interview with Michael Ruppert, a former police officer turned investigative journalist. It is mainly a discussion about how he believes industrial society is falling apart.
I interpret the film differently today than I did back then. While today I view it as an examination into Ruppert’s psyche, back then I uncritically absorbed what he had said. Ruppert’s thesis hinges on peak oil, which is the point in oil production reaches its maximum output. After that point, oil becomes harder to get out. The economic consequence is expensive oil.
Out of Gas
There’s more to it than that, but the rest is speculation. We know that it’s going to happen, but we don’t know when because the numbers are subject to manipulation. The current estimates are between now and 2030. Any time after that is considered implausible.
However, peak oil has become an apocalyptic narrative for the environmentally conscious, more so than the worst case scenario of climate change. Apocalyptic threads were, and still often are, associated with conservatives. But it seems that liberals are just susceptible, the only difference is the name of the force involved.
There was a line in “Collapse” that moved me to act. Ruppert claimed, “You will fail as a rugged individual, you will survive as a member of a tribe or a family.” It moved me to act. I needed to get involved.
Throughout my search, I found the Transition Town movement. The underlying concept was that we could transition away from fossil fuels and prepare for energy descent in the ways prescribed by the manual.
There was no Initiative for Baltimore. Finding allies was challenging, but not impossible. I began rubbing elbows with other green groups downtown. I briefly involved myself with Baltimore Green Currency, an organization that prints the BNote, a local currency that continues to this day. They were supportive, and I thought my future would be bright.
Then I began looking at Ruppert’s site that he founded after the movie proved successful. That site,Collapsenet, was replete with dire depictions of doom. There was some free content, but most of it was cordoned off by a paywall. That set off some red flags right there, especially since lifetime membership cost $1000. It was an odd choice if money was going to collapse and people would revert to trading gold. Ruppert was a true believer, though. I have no doubt that he actually believed the things he was saying, even if he was capitalizing on it.
Things didn’t go well for Ruppert after the movie, either. According to the Verge, he couch-surfed from place to place after his eviction. He was able to subsist on the goodwill of friends. The money he made after the movie eventually petered out, only adding a couple hundred dollars to his Social Security checks. After Jack Martin offered him a trailer to stay in, he committed suicide on April 13th, 2014. He was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Most of this was going on outside of my awareness, though. I had gone beyond Ruppert, and hoped to find solace in the Transition Town movement. But when I began to get more serious about setting stuff up, I went digging around in the required reading and watching for the Transition Town movement.
Death in the Earth’s Name is Still Death
Red flags began popping up for me, I was reading Richard Heinberg’s book on the subject, “The Party’s Over”. I’ve heard it described as “comfortless”, and that description is apt. No hope is presented, no happy endings to speak of.
I emailed Heinberg and asked him if we were doomed. He clarified that the world wasn’t going to end, but that “some serious shit” was going to happen. It didn’t exactly help.
At that point, I came back from my meetings with other activists feeling emotionally exhausted. I was faking my interest and hiding my dissent. I began questioning whether or not the BNote had utility beyond its appeal to collectors and perhaps the most diehard of Baltimore businesses. After all, at some point, you’re going to have to trade with someone outside the city. That BNote’s going to have to be converted back into a dollar somewhere along the line. While the intent was to keep the money in the local economy, we don’t live on an island.
While the Transition Movement is not strictly a “hard green” movement, it does borrow many of its core tenets from it. It presents itself as cheerful and optimistic but, below the surface, there’s clearly some disturbing thoughts. One of the films in required watching was “What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire”.
This was where I was introduced to anarcho-primitivism. Anarcho-primitivism is built on the idea that civilization, as produced by humans devising agriculture, is inherently unsustainable. The film ties the issues of peak oil, climate change, species extinction, and population overshoot together as evidence for this assertion.
Much like “The Party’s Over”, it was a film totally devoid of hope. It offers the viewer nowhere to go, the documentarian despises happy chapters. While this is framed as an invitation to devise one’s own solutions, it instead left me alone with nowhere else to go.
What I saw didn’t rub me the right way either. Many of the interviewees harbored a desire for an economic meltdown, they wanted to see civilization as we know it wiped off the Earth. They would never overtly say this, but it was always implied. They posited that civilization would end itself, and they were not interested in preventing that. They saw it as a good thing, a chance to come back to adulthood.
All we had to do is go back to our hunter-gatherer ways before agriculture and everything would be solved.
How many people would have to die for that to happen, though?
I speak with no exaggeration. Even Kaczynski understood this. He knew that turning back the clock was going to mean that a lot of people would have to die. Anarcho-primitivists believe that they are saving people. But that was not what I saw. I saw the Eco-Rapture, a desire for the world around them to collapse so they could be vindicated and start applying their pet political system.
The last thing I did was show off a documentary I had produced prior, called “World Half Empty”. I remember when showing it, I had my head down and I absolutely hated every minute of it.I even spoke critically of it, “You probably like it more than I did.”
To this day, I never fully understood why I did that. Maybe it was my way of saying goodbye to it, leaving it behind for a different life.
I announced to my activist friends that I wanted to work on my film career, which was partly true. At the time, I did want to focus on that field. But, like an iceberg, there were larger reasons below the surface. I felt that what I was doing was wrong and ineffective. I was not solving any problems that I saw.
They have missed my presence, and I managed to leave on good terms. But I do not desire to return to that life and my profession as journalist forbids it.
As far as I’m concerned, peak oil and climate are very real issues. In my lifetime, I would like to see a few things. One of those things is the phasing out of fossil fuels. Even after all of this, I recognize that we only have one planet available to us at the moment. I don’t think the Transition Town movement is equipped to deal with a problem of this scale, it will require a lot of political will and cooperation. Some European countries have led the charge, but we have yet to catch up.
No doubt that this will be of particular ire to oil and gas corporations who benefit from the large amounts of energy we consume. We know that they have influenced public policy to a significant degree. However, I do see signs of change. With Elon Musk’s SolarCity being more widely promoted and new forms of energy capture and storage being developed, I do see baby steps towards a better future.
But I don’t want my desire for a better world to come at the expense of large swathes of innocent people.
There is a long road between the time I ended my activist days and the time I am at now. Someday, I will describe my travels along that road. But what has definitely happened is that the conditions that made me vulnerable to the ideas in questions have been dealt with. There is hope in my life, love for my peers, and a positive outlook for my future.
The only remnant of that life is the fact that I watch “Collapse” every night, because I discovered that the film’s low-key soundtrack and frequent stretches of silence with only mild microphone hiss can actually help me sleep. To me, that sounds a lot better than being mired in dystopic thinking.