The Cassandra Dilemma

December 19, 2011 • Climate Change & Mitigation, Daily Email Recap

Thanks to Kurt Dahl for this essay on how to get people to become concerned about population issues.

The Cassandra Dilemma

In Greek Mythology, Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Her beauty was so extraordinary that Apollo fell in love with her, and as a gift to show his devotion, he granted her the ability to know the future. But when she refused his love, he then cursed her by making it so that no one would ever believe her predictions. Cassandra had perfect knowledge of the future (she even warned the Trojans about the Trojan horse) and yet nobody would ever believe her – a frustrating curse in the extreme.

Today, this same extreme frustration is shared by many people who have extensively read about and carefully studied our unfolding sustainability crisis. These modern day Cassandras clearly understand that (unabated) the current trends in climate disruption, peak oil, water depletion, and soil degradation, combined with a rapidly increasing human population, will soon result in a disaster of unimaginable proportions.

These frustrated Cassandras have studied the facts, have integrated all of the information, and have done the math. The conclusion is clear – if we don’t act soon, within a few decades we will experience a violent, chaotic, and massive human die-off.

Those of us who have spent the many, many hours of reading, studying and discussing this problem have virtually all come to the same conclusion. Yet in our attempts to warn the general public, we all experience the same response. The (less informed) public simply does not believe us. Often they will argue that we must be wrong – even though they are often fundamentally unaware of the facts.

This “Cassandra Dilemma” that we face is itself a hotly debated and discussed topic within the community of sustainability activists. “Why won’t they listen to us? Why can’t we get them to read even the most basic information about the issue? How can we get them wake up to the danger?”

Unfortunately, a crisis that unfolds in slow motion is easy to ignore. As each day comes and goes – peak oil, population growth, soil degradation, water shortages, and climate disruption all seem to be no worse than the day before. The vast majority of people never notice the gradual, yet inexorable deterioration of our planet’s life support system. For most, their short term problems overwhelm any desire to consider the long term issues.

Perhaps there are some people that are simply unable to grasp any long-term implications.  And certainly most people are already fully engaged in their own day-to-day problems and have little time or energy left over to think about a problem that will not impact them for several decades into the future. Their approach is to say: “I don’t care. I’ve already got enough stuff to worry about.”

For them, apathy, denial, and false hope obscure the reality of the danger ahead. The essential question then becomes: How can their apathy, denial, and false hope ever be overcome? The Cassandras among us have completely failed so far.

I think I know why.

I have a friend, a single man, who is facing foreclosure on a small hobby farm he bought over a decade ago. It has been the focus of his life for many years, and soon now he will have to sell off all of his farm toys, abandon the property, and make a new and very different life for himself. Currently, however, he’s stuck. He isn’t selling anything and he hasn’t made any plans. He lives day-to-day on his farm, basically pretending that he can go on there indefinitely, simply ignoring the disaster that looms in his future.

I recently pressed him about getting going on a new plan, insisting that time was running out. His answer was profound, and directly applicable to our current Cassandra Dilemma. He said he was unable to “conceptualize a future”. That even when he tried, he could not “see” what lay ahead for him. And so he was stuck.

I think that may be the missing piece of this Cassandra Dilemma. I think civilization suffers from an inability to conceptualize the future.

By way of explanation, let’s try a thought experiment. Assume for a moment that we have developed a ‘worm-hole’ camera that lets us see (literally) into the future. It operates like a camera and can be pointed anywhere at any time in the future. We will use this ‘Cassandra camera’ to go forward several decades to a time during the height of the predicted collapse. Food is scarce, people are desperate, chaos and extreme violence are rampant, children are killing other children, cannibalism becomes commonplace.

We then show these videos to everyone on today’s Earth, and explain that this is their (or their children’s) future if we fail to act soon. So, after viewing these horrifying images, what lies ahead becomes completely conceptualized to everyone. Would that have an impact on the general public? Would that jolt people out of their apathy and denial? I think so!

Another example: which of these actions have had the biggest effect on controlling the methamphetamine danger to our youth: an in-depth article about the effects and medical dangers of meth addiction – or – a billboard with simply a picture of a hollow-faced, toothless, stringy-haired meth-skank? Of course it is the billboard. The billboard clearly conceptualizes a future that should be avoided. The article, though it is far more informative, does not connect in a way that could jolt someone out of denial. It is easy to ignore the article, but impossible to deny the picture.

And today, the single most successful NGO effort to reduce population comes from The Population Media Center in the form of television soap operas. They have taken the entertainment-education theories of Miguel Sabido and created soap operas that portray an improved lifestyle through educating women and providing them with birth choices. These television shows clearly conceptualize a better future if certain behaviors are adopted. And they work.

But instead, we Cassandras continue putting out scholarly essays, books, and videos. We attempt to convince through our solid logic and our depth of information. We debate the nits and details of peak oil and population projections. We argue about which solution is best, while at the same time expressing that it doesn’t really matter because no one will do it anyway.

I assert that what we Cassandras are doing is exactly what is described in that worn-out definition of insanity: “Insanity is doing the same thing over-and-over again, and then expecting a different result.”

Dr. Jack Alpert has insisted that no real action will take place until the general public realizes that in the not too distant future, their children and grandchildren will become killers, or be killed – that their children or grandchildren will eat other people, or be eaten. I think he is one-hundred percent correct – brutally harsh perhaps, but still correct.

So now…since we don’t yet have the ‘Cassandra Camera’, how can we conceptualize this future for the general public? How can we help them to remove the fog of apathy, denial, and false hope, and then form a clear impression of the danger ahead?

I think I have an answer. For the last eighteen months I’ve been working on this problem, and I believe I’ve come up with a creative and unique solution. Bear with me here – this gets a bit complicated.

The first part: I’ve written a book (well, half a book) called “The Corn Guild”. This is a work of fiction, a fast-paced thriller intended for the general public. It covers a period from 2028 to 2036, a period that chronicles the beginning of collapse (a time when the general public is just beginning to be concerned and scared), to the actual collapse event in the year 2036. And while it is primarily intended to be an accessible, easy, read, it also educates the reader along the way (much like my earlier novel “The Eden Proposition”).

However, the book is the small part of this effort. The big part – the unique and creative part – is called “The Faminarchy Project”. The Faminarchy project is a website ( ) where The Corn Guild book can be read (for free) in its entirety. The story of “The Corn Guild” ends just as the collapse event begins in 2036. This is the ‘set-up’.

So then, at the Faminarchy website, I am asking others (those concerned about sustainability, or even those who are just interested in writing a short story) to contribute a short story about what will happen during this collapse event in 2036 (there are several examples of possible plot lines provided). Like any fiction, these stories will have specific characters, in a specific locale, doing specific things (these stories are not another opportunity for a generalized scholarly essay).

These ‘famine stories’ will then all (unless wildly inappropriate) be published on the website as they come in. I encourage these writers to use their imaginations to create horrifying and extreme stories of chaos and violence – nothing very hopeful. I’m betting that this exercise in group creativity will yield many extraordinary (and frightening!) efforts.

This aggregation of famine stories will then force those who read them, and especially those who write them, to experience a clear conceptualization of our shared future. Lacking the Cassandra camera, this is perhaps the best we can do.

I am reaching beyond the usual sustainability suspects by contacting as many university creative writing programs as I can. As we all know, it is essential that we find a way to get younger generations involved. And I will make every effort that I can to publicize the website through Facebook and Twitter in order to get the widest possible attention and readership. I believe there is a chance that this could get substantial traction – it is a good story.

If you believe this to be a valuable effort, please forward this essay to everyone you know. And please, go to for further information. You can read “The Corn Guild” there. I’m sure you will find it to be an informative and intriguing read, a non-stop page-turner! Then, put on your frustrated-fiction-writer cap (you know you have one!) and create your very own short story masterpiece. You can do this.

It is essential that we find a way to increase awareness of the real danger ahead. Only then can steps be taken to turn us away from the abyss.

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