I’m not a gambling man. Never been. I’m more inclined to rational calculation and everyone knows the odds are always in favor of the house. The thrill of getting lucky, getting a big payout never outweighed the pain of losing for me.
Despite this, I recently made the biggest gamble of my life. Having just crossed that mid-life milestone of 40, I made a bet knowing the next 40 years will be drastically different from the past 40. Of course I’ll be aging, but the world of the next 40 years will be a radically different one from the one we know today.
So what was this bet? One year ago today, I bet my future by leaving my career and home in order to rebuild my life from scratch.
No, I don’t have fuck-you money. No big inheritance or windfall. Not even close. I’m not one of those FIRE types. (Financial Independence, Retire Early) types. This is not about coasting, relaxing, or retreating from the responsibilities of a respectable citizen.
I walked away from it all, the very things that I used to think made for the good life: comfort, security, material acquisition, technology, and unwavering faith in progress.
The journey here
Making this bet wasn’t an abrupt or rash decision. I started seeing cracks in the foundation at least 10 years earlier. I’m deeply grateful to Chris Martenson for writing Crash Course, which brought these foundational cracks into crystal clear focus for me. There are systemic, intensifying, and intractable problems in the intersection of growth-based economics, energy, and ecological (un)sustainability. These problems are not theoretical, philosophical, or cerebral thought experiments. They are real problems with real impacts and immense destructive power if not dealt with in action, not in thought.
I’d always considered myself well informed when it came to big global issues like climate change, poverty, environmental degradation, violence and exploitation around the world. And I firmly believed in the narrative I was taught, the one every good American is supposed to believe: That we are above these problems because we have the best system of governance and economics in the history of mankind. That we have a duty and responsibility to lead the world out of these problems. That we’ll accomplish this by promoting rapid industrialization, capitalism, and through technological innovation.
In hindsight, the unwavering faith in technology is the deepest trap I fell into. My views were decidedly techno-utopian, a true believer of the story of progress. Had ecomodernism been a thing back then, I would have been a card carrying member. Perhaps it was inevitable, coming from a culture who’s deepest underlying values are:
- Heroic individualism
- quality of life directly proportional to material standard of living
- accumulation of wealth is the highest and most noble aspiration
- Separation. Dominion over nature
- humans are separate from nature.
- The arc of human progress correlates directly to our domination of nature
- God created nature to serve human needs and gave them dominion over it
Of course, no-one ever teaches these things. They are just things you know and feel. They are self evident even if you don’t understand them or can’t articulate them. They are rules of nature — like gravity. You don’t have to be aware of gravity to be under its influence. And knowing about it doesn’t give you the power to transcend it or ignore it. That’s the power of cultural narratives — we’re all a product of them, and incapable of escaping their influence.
Anyone who embodies these core cultural values (individualism, materialism, separation) will be rewarded with power, money, respect. Anybody who fights them or embodies counter-cultural values will loose power, money, and respect. (At least initially)
So, like a gravitational pull, my natural aptitudes, skills and talents drew me into the world of technology. I embodied the values of individualism, materialism, and separation and I got some money, power, and respect, just as promised.
So it was natural, almost inevitable, for me to land in the software business. Software is a world made for the heroic individual (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk). A career for people to disrupt old systems and innovate new solutions: progress makers. The opportunities to express control over nature and grow material wealth through systems optimization and efficiency are almost boundless. And these trends are only accelerating. The opportunities in data analytics and automation to grow material wealth and make systems of extraction and production more efficient are staggering. The power and money to be made in these fields over the next 40 years is massive and growing.
Despite having a driver’s seat in the cutting edge of this industry, and a career with no upside limits, I walked away. I rejected a career and life built on the promise of a better future through participation in “business-as-usual”.
I made a bet against everything my culture teaches me to bet on. I made a bet that I could improve both my life and make the planet a better place by rejecting the dominant story of my culture. I bet that:
- Making less money would lead to a better quality of life
- Consuming less would lead to a better quality of life
- Rejecting comfort and convenience would lead to a better quality of life
That’s on a personal level. But, on a much broader scale, I bet that:
- Life-as-we-know-it is headed for collapse under “business-as-usual” without immediate revolutionary changes in resource management, ecological impacts, and social roles (energy, environment, and economics)
Infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible. Human survival in modern industrial societies requires infinite growth. Since it’s a mathematical certainty that growth can’t continue forever, the only question is when we run into hard limits and have to adopt new systems. Overwhelming historical evidence suggests that bumping into a hard limit means war, deprivation, and violence. I bet that we hit these limits in my lifetime. And even if the timing is wrong, I also bet future generations will find it morally reprehensible if we decide to push the problem onto their shoulders.
In the wise words of Stephen Jenkinson, every older person needs to be ready for the day when a younger person walks up to them and asks them two questions:
- When did you know, and
- What did you do about it?
Human activity has already warmed the planet by over 1C. Current emissions guarantee we’ll hit 1.5C — it’s already in the atmosphere. Without massive revolutionary changes to consumerism and reductions in fossil energy use, we’re on track for a catastrophic warming of 3C or more. In our lifetimes. Not several hundred years in the future. Human activity has already started the 6th great extinction – an unprecedented planetary event. Ecosystem disruption and biodiversity loss are existential threats not just to polar bears and whales but to every living system on the planet, including humans.
- I bet that we still have time to adapt and adjust to this reality and reduce the most extreme outcomes — war, famine, complete ecological collapse.
- I bet that that we can still create a world where humans accept the dire predicaments of modernity, and rise above the denial that defines the present era.
- I bet that we can create a world where the following values are reversed from today’s status-quo:
- We value cooperation over competition
- We value connection over separation
- We value quality over quantity
- We value presence over isolation
- We value physical over virtual
- I bet we can learn as a culture how to grieve for what’s been lost and I bet that grief can teach us more joy, connection, unity, justice, and peace than we’ve ever known as a society.
As painful as it is for me to say, I think this bet is a long-shot. The odds of winning this bet are low. It means rejecting much that we’ve been taught. It means rejecting much of our current way-of-life. It means incurring some pain. It means the loss of some comfort and convenience. But the payoff of this bet is so huge and the stakes are so high, that I simply could not resist taking the bet!
So, embarking on this new life is not about ‘saving the world’ or any other grandiose idea. But, it is about aligning what-I-know with how-I-live. It’s really as simple as that — no longer living in denial. It’s about realigning values and embodying those values to give life meaning and purpose — to become a LEAVER, not a TAKER in the words of Daniel Quinn.
Our mission at 180 forward is to learn, teach, and inspire others to think beyond sustainable towards regenerative ways of living.
This is a direct response to the systemic, intensifying, and intractable problems in the intersections of growth-based economics, energy, and ecological (un)sustainability.
Next up, we’ll explore specific activities and concrete steps that can be taken to turn ideas into action, starting here.