11 min read

The Profound Loneliness of Being Collapse Aware

Knowing that the world is ending can be incredibly lonely. Here's what it's like to be collapse aware among those who are oblivious.
Lonely During Climate Breakdown

“Is something wrong?” James asked.

I blinked at him. “What?”

“I dunno, you just seem quiet today.”

“No, I’m fine.” It’s just that we’re all going to die a miserable death in the near future, but other than that I’m fine.

Of course, I didn’t say those words out loud. What would be the point?

James and I had been friends for over a decade, but a few years back, I ended up living in a town about an hour away from him. Still, we met up once a month to eat lunch and play disc golf.

We had just reached the 18th basket. “Your turn,” he said.

“Oh, right.” I threw my disc. It was a terrible throw — straight into the bushes.

“Man, you’re having an off day.”

“More like an off year,” I said with a chuckle. It was November of 2020, and everybody was thinking about COVID-19 and wondering when things would get back to normal.

But not me. I knew things would never get back to normal, that the world I grew up in was gone, and that it was all downhill from here.

2020 was the year I became “collapse aware.”

If you’ve never heard that term, it’s when someone has learned enough about climate change, fossil fuels, pollution, biodiversity, and resource depletion to realize that modern civilization is unsustainable and will eventually collapse into chaos.

There are some collapse-aware people who think our civilization has several decades left, and there are some who think it will all coming crashing down in the next year or two. At the time, I believed we had several decades, but I was still terrified.

After searching the bushes for a few minutes, I found my disc and threw it again. We soon finished our game and headed to a Mexican restaurant where we ordered lunch.

“Have you seen how bad the wildfires in California have gotten?” I asked as we waited for our food.

“I know!” he said. “It’s crazy. This drought just keeps getting worse and worse.”

I nodded. “California grows a lot of food. What happens when there’s not enough water for the crops?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess they’ll have to grow food somewhere else.”

“Yea, but what if there is nowhere else?” I said. “There are droughts happening all over the world. What happens when we can’t grow enough food for everybody?”

“They’ll figure something out,” he said. “They could desalinate ocean water, and they could build indoor hydroponic farms. There’s always going to be demand for food, so they’ll find a way to grow it.”

I wasn’t reassured. “Yea, but those things take a lot of energy. What happens when the world starts running out of oil?”

“They’ll just build more solar panels and windmills,” he said.

“But what if I they can’t?” I asked. “We need oil to build those, but we’re already drilling for oil as fast as possible. And what if there aren’t enough rare-earth metals to build the renewables we need? How are we supposed to replace our entire energy infrastructure with renewables and grow enough food for everybody? How are we going to…”

I realized my voice had grown frantic, so I stopped talking.

James stared at me like I had just told him I was planning a trip to Mars.

Our waiter broke the awkward silence by arriving with our food. “Thanks,” I said, looking down at a plate full of beans, rice, and chimichangas. Although I had arrived there feeling ravenous, now my appetite was gone.

Once the waiter had left, James said, “You’re right, it’s bad. Really bad. But people will find a way. They always do.”

I nodded.

“Hey, did you hear what Trump said the other day?”

He obviously wanted to change the subject, so I let him. Although James was smart enough to realize our civilization was doomed, he simply couldn’t admit it to himself. He had too many plans: wife, kids, travelling…

So, I tried to forget about the end of the world and focus on enjoying our lunch. We had a nice time, but I left feeling frustrated. And alone.

I didn’t become collapse-aware all at once. It was a process that began back in 2017. Donald Trump had just become president, and he kept calling climate change a hoax. Then in the fall, Hurricane Harvey came along and dumped more rain than any storm in U.S. history.

For the next few years, I watched as climate disasters got worse and worse. Record-breaking storms, record-breaking droughts, record-breaking heatwaves… It was so obvious that climate change was here, yet the voices denying it kept getting louder.

Then in 2020, COVID-19 arrived. I remember feeling horror and grief as one country after another began to report hundreds of deaths every day. But I also felt hopeful. After years of division, perhaps our nation would be brought together against a common enemy: the pandemic.

How wrong I was. Instead of uniting us, the pandemic divided us even further. I was baffled. For over a century, wearing masks and avoiding public gatherings were standard methods for dealing with a major outbreak. But now, even these basic concepts were being called into question.

Then in the summer of 2020, something occurred to me: If we can’t even come together to fight COVID-19, how will we ever come together to fight climate change?

I had always assumed that once the climate disasters got bad enough, we would get our act together and phase out fossil fuels. But all the evidence I had seen over the previous 4 years suggested otherwise.

So, I started researching. I wanted to know how bad things were, and how long before climate change started affecting our food system and infrastructure. Soon, I came across an article by David Wallace-Wells called The Uninhabitable Earth, an incredibly well-written and well-researched article that explained exactly what we’re in for in the coming decades.

After I finished reading it, I felt like throwing up. I finally understood that if we didn’t stop climate change, it wouldn’t just be inconvenient or bad for the economy — it would completely destroy our civilization. And not in the distant future, but in my own lifetime.

For the first time, I wasn’t just worried about climate change, I was scared. For days, I walked around with this nervous feeling in my gut — kinda like butterflies, but more like hummingbirds. When people spoke, I barely heard them. Sometimes, I forgot to eat.

However, I kept telling myself that collapse wasn’t inevitable. Technically, it was still possible to phase out fossil fuels in time to avert catastrophe. And maybe scientists would make some incredible clean-energy breakthrough, like fusion power plants.

That was my way of coping, but it didn’t work for long. A few months later, I came across a lecture by Sid Smith called How to Enjoy the End of the World. It was and still is one of the most fascinating lectures I’ve ever heard.

Sid explained concepts like the cost of complexityenergy return on energy invested, and Jevons paradox. He also talked about the decline of oil reserves, the depletion of mineral and water resources, and the exponential destruction of the natural world.

Then he said something that really frightened me: “…all of which would spell the end of civilization even without climate change.” I know I said that becoming collapse-aware is a process, but if I had to point to a single moment when I finally understood that the modern world is doomed, it would be the moment I heard those words.

During his presentation, I had completely forgotten about climate change, so to add that on top of all these other existential crises made me realize a terrible truth: It’s already too late to save civilization.

That night, lying in bed, I cried. And not just for me, but for everyone I loved. Especially my children. I felt like we had all been given a terminal diagnosis, and I was the only one who knew about it.

At first, I didn’t tell anybody. I was afraid they would think I was crazy. But bit by bit, I started testing the waters, like when I tried to talk to James about it at lunch.

A few months later, I went hiking with a friend named Aaron. He understood the dangers of climate change, so I thought he’d be receptive to the idea of collapse. As we walked through the woods, I told him a little about what I’d learned.

He listened somberly. “It’s gonna be a mess,” he said, “but hopefully Biden will turn things around.”

“Yea, hopefully…” I said, trailing off. Then I told him about a subreddit called r/collapse and how it’s full of people who think civilization is doomed.

He scoffed. “Yea, there are a lot of crazy subreddits.”

“I’m starting to think they’re right,” I said.

He looked at me. “Then you’re spending too much time on that subreddit.”

And that’s as far as I got with him. Aaron is convinced that oil companies are spreading climate doom in order to make people feel hopeless and give up trying to save the environment.

The thing is, he’s not wrong. Oil companies are spreading climate doom in hopes that we’ll give up. That’s why I always emphasize that even though it’s too late to save civilization, it’s not too late to save as much of the natural world as possible. Every 1/10th of a degree of warming that we prevent will save millions of lives and countless species.

I said as much, but he didn’t want to hear anymore.

A few months after that, the Pacific Northwest had one of the worst heatwaves in history. Several towns broke their high-temperature records by more than 5°C, over a billion sea creatures cooked to death, and the small village of Lytton burned to the ground.

Climate scientists were shocked. Although they had done a great job forecasting the rise in average global temperatures, it seemed they’d been wrong about the impacts of rising temperatures. At 1°C of warming, we were already seeing the kind of disasters that weren’t supposed to happen until we reached 1.5°C.

That’s when I began to realize that we might not have several decades left. We might only have one decade left before things rapidly fall apart.

So, I tried warning more people. I talked to friend named Heather who loves nature and is always posting things about climate activism. We discussed the concept of “global weirding” and how unpredictable the weather has become.

I said to her, “I’m kind of losing hope. It seems like climate change and biodiversity loss aren’t just getting worse, they’re getting worse exponentially. At this point, I don’t see how we can turn things around.”

“It’s definitely in snowball effect,” she replied, “but if we got some serious legislation and policy in place, we could turn this around in our lifetimes. For our children’s children.”

I almost told her that our children probably won’t have children of their own, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t bring myself to tell her that she’ll never be a grandmother. Who am I to put that thought in her head?

A few weeks later, I sent Sid Smith’s lecture to my older brother. He’s always been interested in emergency preparedness and doomsday scenarios, so I thought he’d be more open-minded about all this. When I called him, he admitted that he never got around to watching it, but assured me that things weren’t as bad as I thought.

“If it gets too hot to grow food, they’ll just move the farms north.”

“I don’t know if that will work,” I said, “With the jet stream breaking down, the weather will get too erratic for farming.”

He dismissed that idea, so I tried another tactic.

“What if we start running out of fossil fuels?” I asked. “Our entire agricultural system depends on oil and natural gas. Without them, we’re kinda screwed.”

“I don’t think that will happen,” he said. “They’re always finding more oil, and I’ve read that the Earth constantly generates oil, so we’ll never actually run out.” (That is bullshit, by the way.)

Obviously, I wasn’t going to convince him. However, there were several people I did convince. And in a way, their reactions were even more disturbing.

For example, I have another brother who patiently listened to everything I said and agreed that civilization will probably collapse in our lifetime. And yet, he doesn’t want to talk about it. Occasionally, I’ll send him an article or video about collapse, but he rarely replies.

I can understand why. Talking about collapse can be very upsetting, so I think he’d rather focus on enjoying his life. I get that. I really do. But it’s not the way I deal with bad news. When I’m upset, I want to talk it out.

And that’s exactly what I told another friend of mine named Jen. I told her that if we’re still alive in 20 or 30 years, we’ll be living in conditions like some of the most lawless and impoverished places on Earth today.

She didn’t say anything.

“You think I’m crazy, don’t you?” I asked.

“No, I don’t think you’re crazy. It’s just that…” She shrugged. “There’s nothing we can do, so why even talk about it?”

That reaction is so strange to me. If a massive comet were headed toward Earth like in the movie Don’t Look Up, would everybody just carry on like nothing was happening? Like we weren’t all going to die a fiery death in the near future?

I feel like I’m running around the deck of the Titanic, telling everyone, “Look! The ship is sinking!” and people are saying things like, “No it isn’t” or “We can still fix it” or “It’s not that bad.”

Maybe I’d be better off joining the orchestra, making music, and enjoying myself as the ship sinks.

In a certain sense, I already am enjoying myself. Becoming collapse-aware has made me realize how unbelievably precious life is, and how lucky I am to be alive.

Every morning I sit on my porch, marvel at the majestic trees, and watch as the sky changes color. Every day I hug my kids, tell them I love them, and treasure every moment we have together. And every evening I stand in my garden, watch the insects, and bask in the beauty of the leaves and flowers.

I try to appreciate everything in my life, from the sound of my cat purring to a simple glass of water. I can’t put into words what a miracle it is to be a tiny piece of the universe, observing itself for an infinitesimal moment in deep time.

But I can’t pretend everything is okay, either. I can’t just go on with my life like I did before. I refuse to bury my head in the sand. I want to talk about what’s happening. I want to come to terms with it. I want to warn people.

Most of all, I want someone to hug me and say, “I know. I’m scared, too.”

The last few years have been some of the loneliest years of my life, but I’m trying to change that. Last fall, I participated in Good Grief Network’s 10 Steps to Resilience and Empowerment in a Chaotic Climate, which was a wonderful experience.

And recently, I’ve started participating in Michael Dowd’s Post-Doom discussions. His focus is on moving from collapse awareness to collapse acceptance. The idea is that if you trust reality and embrace your mortality, you can live a life of awe and gratitude, even in the face of collapse. That sounds pretty good to me.

Currently, I’m working on finding more collapse-aware people in my own town, which is challenging given that most people don’t advertise their belief that we’re all doomed. It also doesn’t help that my social skills suck, but I’m not giving up.

Maybe a year from now, I can write another post about how I’m not so lonely anymore.

If you feel alone or misunderstood because of what you know about the future, don’t despair. Be patient, and keep looking for likeminded people online or in person.

Let’s find one another and make music together before the ship goes down.