On bargaining

However healthy you think you are, remember that vegetarians die too.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss

It is not a coincidence that I begin this week’s post with a quotation from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Her work on dying and on the grieving process is of the highest importance in this historical moment, when we must all, each us, say goodbye to much that we had and to more that we were promised.

Many people, it seems to me, are currently at the stage of the grieving process that Kübler-Ross identified as bargaining: the stage at which one tries to stave off the inevitable by offers of sacrifice of one sort or another. Perhaps if I give up drinking, it won’t happen. Or if I go back to my husband. Or if I avoid stepping on the cracks in the pavement.

We’re all familiar with this kind of thinking, and mostly we discard it as childish. After all, it generally doesn’t work. Sacrificing a chicken probably won’t speed up my broadband, although it may sometimes be tempting to give it a shot. I won’t win the lottery just because I was wearing my lucky pants when I bought the ticket.

But now that the excrement is getting dangerously close to the rotating ventilation device, bargaining is undergoing something of a renaissance. A couple of examples spring to mind.

Veganism is one of them. Now, I have no problem if you want to be vegan. I am not going to tell anyone what they should eat. I spent enough of my childhood arguing about that. For many years I was a vegetarian, and I would still fall into the category of “fussy eater” in the opinion of many. But even when I was a vegetarian – and for some years I also abstained from eggs – it never occurred to me that I was “saving the planet.”

Frankly, saving the planet is not something human beings can ever aspire to. The planet is absolutely fine. Life on this planet is also absolutely fine, in the long run, even if we throw all of our toys out of the pram in some nuclear extravaganza. The fact is that Mother Nature is a tough old broad, and it will take a lot more than we could possibly do to end life on Earth. We don’t have that kind of agency, however much it may flatter us to suppose that we do. Earth has been through a lot worse than us.

But what I am arguing against here is the idea that veganism will save the world. Leaving aside the question of which world exactly is being saved here, it is vanishingly unlikely that everyone in the world would ever adopt a vegan diet – even assuming that everyone in the world would thrive on it. There are plants, there are animals that eat plants, and there are other animals that eat those animals, and we are omnivores who can eat both. This puts us in the same bracket as pigs and chickens and ducks and many other creatures. It’s not a shameful thing, but it’s the case. Yes, industrial farming is a terrible thing. That includes the industrial farming of lettuce and carrots and even parsley. Veganism won’t fix any of that.

Another bargaining chip is anti-natalism, or to spell it out, the idea that nobody should have children. I will put my cards on the table: I have no children myself, and at my age it is unlikely that I ever will. But it strikes me as obvious folly to assert that nobody ever should. Admittedly my species is not exactly covering itself with glory in its industrial incarnation, but human beings have managed to live on this planet for quite a few millennia without completely screwing up. Is all of that completely without value? Really?

We have seen this one before. Monasticism has been a feature of multiple religions, Christianity and Buddhism being the most conspicuous examples. It has had some profoundly beneficial effects – we would know very little of classical Greek and Latin literature without the efforts of monastic copyists, for example – but if nobody was prepared to procreate, our species would be extinct in a generation. Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I don’t think that’s a great outcome.

Ultimately, there is no bargaining with the future. There are no guarantees. You can be the world’s most deserving farmer; you can observe all of the permaculture principles religiously; and you can still be wiped out by drought or floods or an earthquake. Benjamin Franklin famously said that nothing is certain except death and taxes, and Vodafone laughs at his shadow, but even Elon Musk will meet the Reaper someday, and perhaps not when he expects it.

We live in a world heavy with contracts. You work under a contract, you buy your necessities under another contract, you sleep at night under a roof governed by yet another contract, even your most intimate relationships are encumbered by one contract or another. But none of these chains can give you certainty. There are no hard bargains any more.

These guys failed to avert the Black Death. Full marks for trying, though.

The future we face is uncertain, make no mistake about it. That is a frightening prospect. But we cannot improve it by offering some sort of deal. There is no deal to be done. We are coping here with forces beyond our control, and the best we can do is to adjust, if we can. Be flexible. It’s going to be a wild ride down from here.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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