How much time do we have left?

It is the very first question that pops to mind when a patient first finds out that they have a terminal disease. They simply want to know how much life they have left ahead of them, down to the number of days, if possible down to the number of minutes. Every single day has just gained new significance, new value, which it should have had anyway. But it’s too late for regrets. Any certainty on the time left at this point will help them wrap up their unfinished business, say their goodbyes to loved ones, contemplate, look back on their life, spend hours staring at the sea, find peace and say their own goodbye to a world that they will never see again. To their actual existence, as surreal as that may sound.

But the question becomes very problematic when we talk about the collapse of civilisation. “How long do we have left” becomes both a naive and selfish question to ask, and I hope that those of you who have been privately asking me this question won’t take offense. I understand how you feel, and where you’re coming from. But I need to tell you that your head is in the wrong place. We are not just leaving this world. The world is leaving us as well. Even if you had the choice to come back to it, it wouldn’t be there. It wouldn’t be how you remembered it. This is much much bigger. The patient, the doctor, and the hospital will all be gone.

To give you a very quick answer, there is zero time left. The collapse has already begun. 118,000 Americans and 467,000 humans globally are amongst the victims of climate change this year, which is what caused COVID-19. So one of these people could have been you, which means that your time was up already. As our world becomes increasingly unstable, each of us will be affected in very different ways, by a different type of disaster. How long “we” have left therefore makes absolutely no sense to ask as there is no “we”. Each person is different. And there are species on this planet for which collapse came 200 years ago, when we made them extinct. The climate change apocalypse will strike with such a diversity of manifestations, and with such unpredictability that, any attempt to try and prepare for every single eventuality is not only impossible, but also based on a series of wild guesses. For example, while many of us think of famine or heat stress as direct challenges emerging from a stressed climate and stressed economy, we seem to underestimate how unhealthy peoples’ minds will become during a crisis. Crime rates may rise so high that we may turn into a Mad Max society where no one is safe. Your own neighbour might get to you.

The other unpredictable element of course which most of us tend to not consider is the uncertainty in the speed of progression, and its gradual nature, whatever the speed. While “collapse” sounds sudden and clear-cut, again this is just a glamourised Hollywood version that is easy to visualise and digest. What is certain however is that collapse will happen at different points and speeds for different countries, and for two individuals living 5 meters from each other in the same building. For some it will be fast, for others slow. For many of you reading this essay, your mindset and mental health has already collapsed to some extent, as you have become aware of our predicament. Some of us are “fighters”, others will give up before collapse even arrives. But even more “objective” things like starvation are highly variable and most often not sudden. They are long and painful. 

So while you may be thinking about how much time you have left, a better question is what is the quality, not the quantity of the time you have left. How long before you can say your life quality has deteriorated enough for you to actually call it a “collapse?” It is a very arbitrary and highly personal threshold. Is it when you’re unemployed? hungry? When your mental health has pushed you to commit crimes? This is a pointless and semantical dilemma. I think we all know the answer: it will come too soon for us to come to terms with, and it will come, just like COVID-19, out of nowhere.

So my advice is please stop preparing. Stop hoarding stuff. Hoarding and prepping may be helpful, then again it may not. And given how unpredictable things are, you may become a target for attack if you are seen as privileged. While preparations may give you the illusion that you have achieved some level of peace of mind, in reality deep down you are never secure. The more you plan, the more you feel inadequate. The more you are panicking, the more you are forgetting to live your life fully, and meaningfully. 

But you are also selfishly isolating and insulating yourself, which is the root cause of humanity’s crisis: hoarding resources, thinking only of our own survival while we make other species extinct. I think there is a big ethical consideration for us here, possibly the last generation on the planet. Do we want, for the sake of redemption, to at least demonstrate the right types of behaviours in this ultimate moment, to at least say goodbye to the world knowing that we finally “got it”? That we finally understood what we did wrong? Or do we want to selfishly panic and hoard like there’s no tomorrow?

So my advice is: surrender to the collapse. Not by giving up on life, but by cherishing it, every single day, the way a cancer patient does. By appreciating your life as well as that of all the other life forms around you without resistance, isolation, separation. Because we are all going down together, as One Being, whether we want to accept that bitter truth or not.

(from the book Disposable Earth)

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10 thoughts on “How much time do we have left?

  1. I have a question. In regards to this paragraph: “So my advice is please stop preparing. Stop hoarding stuff. Hoarding and prepping may be helpful, then again it may not. And given how unpredictable things are, you may become a target for attack if you are seen as privileged. While preparations may give you the illusion that you have achieved some level of peace of mind, in reality deep down you are never secure. The more you plan, the more you feel inadequate.”
    By “please stop preparing” what do you mean that in regards to? Hoarding, in essence doomsday prepping/survivalists? Im not sure if im misinterpreting because ive always viewed “preparing” as taking action to build community resilience and support networks, and localizing resources while recognizing that these actions are not guarantees of survival. But they sure make life a lot more worth living and i dont see that type of action as being in opposition to surrendering to collapse.

    Thanks for the great and thought provoking article. 🙂

  2. Powerful, beautiful piece George. Both a slap but also some real consolation. Thank u for your work.

  3. Spot-on George! Thoughts to which I whole-heartedly concur. And I just love your writing prowess 😉

    With so many ‘vectors of doom’ now at play, to pose, let alone answer the question – ” how long have we got” is a futile endeavour.

    Being one who is ‘eye’s wide open’ and well up to speed on most, if not all forces ranged against the survival of species, including our own, I’m asked this question often… My reply is usually – ” How long is a piece of string? ”

    There are just too many variables to make any kind of accurate prediction.

    However, given the manifest, deleterious ‘vectors of doom’ and the upredictability of the planet’s biosphere now being in a state of flux, it is my belief that humans, along with most remaining species, will certainly not survive this century.

    Deep Time is our frame of reference and extinctions are a fact of life.

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