I’ve just finished reading The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age by John Michael Greer. It’s an erudite, well-written and sobering look at the imminent and inevitable collapse of our systemically unsustainable western way of life. The best we can hope for is to soften the landing by reducing our dependence on the shrinking post-peak reserves of fossil fuels. The irony, as Greer points out, is that although the steps we need to take are pretty obvious (and have been since the 1970s) most of us are desperately clinging on to the idea of progress embedded in the myth of the industrial growth society.
To illustrate this phenomenon, Greer uses the metaphor of the monkey-trap: in parts of India where people still catch monkeys to eat, they put a morsel of food inside a hollowed-out gourd which is staked to the ground. There is a small hole in the gourd, just large enough for the monkey to reach through and grab the bait inside. The monkey clenches its fist round the food and, overcome by greed, cannot remove its hand. If it refuses to release its prize, the monkey is caught, captured and eaten.
It’s easy enough to see how others are caught in this way: how, for example, the U.S (with 5 % of the world’s population) uses 25% of it’s energy resources to support a “take-make-waste” consumerist economy. The U.K. and most of Europe is not so far behind in terms of energy consumption (and is equally fixated on growth-based economic policies) with China and India doing their best to catch up.
But we can hardly blame our politicians who are simply exploiting (and are equally trapped by) our unwillingness to bear the short term consequences of facing long term issues. So, I have been asking myself about my own monkey traps: what outdated, dysfunctional or unnecessary ideas, stories, and possessions am I clinging on to that stop me living a freer, more choiceful and fulfilled life? I’m not so naive as to believe that simply naming them will enable me to let go but I think it’s a necessary first step. Here are a few practical ones for starters:
- a collection of papers and books (most unreferred to for years) so large that I have to rent an office to contain them
- a mid-life crisis sports car so impractical that is rarely driven and spends most of the year under wraps in the garage
- a sea-side flat that provides beautiful living space but which is expensively and inconveniently remote from family and work
- an attachment to the imagined status of overseas and “high-level” corporate work that eats into my time and creative energy
There are many other monkey traps of course, some less tangible but no less significant, to do with self-image and a privileged sense of entitlement; perhaps also to do with avoiding the sense of guilt that comes from admitting the harm I have caused (both by commission and omission) by the way I have lived and the sense of shame that comes from acknowledging how much of my life energy I have wasted pursuing and propping up a “lifestyle” – life energy that I could have used in simpler, more generative and creative ways.
None of these things are easy to relinquish. Indeed, the very thought of letting some of them go brings on feelings akin to a panic attack, so strong is my emotional investment in them. It’s hard to be certain which are monkey traps and which are genuinely worth hanging onto. So my New Year’s resolution for 2013 is not to dump them lock, stock, and barrel but to sift and sort my way through them carefully, separating out what has real value from what is illusory.
At 63 it’s time to be a bit bolder. I don’t feel like throwing my whole life up into the air but I am committed to finding and honouring what genuinely nourishes and supports me in living a more soulful, loving, sustainable and creative life.