by Carolyn Baker, who writes at Speaking Truth to Power
When I began writing this article, a friend of mine had recently entered hospice. While I was finishing the article, my friend died. She was not in the same town as I, but during the past month, we had been able to speak by phone several times a week. Given my friend’s decline and death and its impact on me, I was not taken aback by Daniel Drumright’s essay “The Irreconcilable Acceptance Of Near-Term Extinction,” posted last week on Guy McPherson’s Nature Bats Last blog. The timing of its arrival in my awareness was completely synchronistic with my friend’s death, so rather than shuddering as I finished the essay, I silently said to myself, “Yes, of course.”
Drumright’s thesis is simply that we must accept that “humanity has now crossed numerous irreversible climatic thresholds,” and “that by so doing, we have ushered in intractable near term extinction (NTE) of most of life within the next several decades.” In other words, NTE is a veritable certainty, and our existences on this planet as a human species is about to end. As I write this article, I am going to assume that NTE is valid and certain.
Four years ago I made a conscious decision to spend the rest of my life preparing for the collapse of industrial civilization and assisting others in doing the same, but the conscious preparation in which I have been investing my time and energy was preparation for something dramatically less catastrophic and smaller in scale than the extinction of our species. Whatever images of collapse we hold in our minds, they tend to include a long, protracted demise alongside a number of “cliff events” followed by a significant die-off of humans with a dramatically reduced population of survivors who sooner or later will cooperate to create fledgling communities and a new way of life profoundly informed by the demise of industrial civilization. Meanwhile, as the images of collapse in our minds have danced, paraded, shriveled, expanded, and metamorphosed millions of times, an entirely divergent and more terrifying scenario was congealing in the external world which rendered our most valiant collapse-preparation efforts paltry by comparison.
If NTE is real and on-schedule, as it surely appears to be, does it really matter if we have an exquisitely equipped “doom-stead” in which to hunker down or if we wander homeless in the streets? What certainly matters to me is that whatever our fate may be, we face it in the company of trusted others and not in isolation, for in the face of our extinction, we are the only ones who can mutually appreciate and celebrate what it means/meant to be human. And while the reader may react by exclaiming, “Yeah, what it meant to be human was the hell we have created,” I would argue for the reality that we are both human and more than human, and that our catastrophic undoing issues from the tragedy that we never fully discovered what that actually means. Yet for anyone reading these words and still breathing air, no matter how foul, it is not too late to embark on the journey of discovery, knowing that often, as with my friend, the treasures of the journey are not discovered until its end. The day before she died, she told me that her passing was precious to her and filled with gifts she could never have imagined.
My friend often spoke of making her “transition” which I find particularly fascinating in the light of Drumright’s article. Since at least 2008 many of us have been using the word “transition” either as the name of a socio-environmental movement or as a synonym for collapse or “the Great Turning.” As we do so, we rarely use it as a synonym for death, but in fact, our “transition” may be precisely the transition which my friend made as I was writing this article. In fact, the wrenching reality of NTE demands, yes demands, that we confront our own death and the meaning of our life.
In his essay, Drumright emphasizes the quality of our final days and also encourages us candidly to arrange for a peaceful death in the face of potential extinction horrors. With this I cannot argue, but I ask you, dear reader, as you read these words, are they enough for your soul? Is some corner of your psyche left empty and wanting more? Some part of me cries out for more, and where I find nuggets of satisfaction is in the words of poetry, ancient stories, and the wisdom of indigenous traditions. My favorite is Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes.”
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
In the Dagara Tribe of West Africa, the people say that when death comes, it should find you fully alive, fully engaged in what gives you passion and vitality. How many citizens of modernity have a clue what this actually means? Or as Mary Oliver asks in another poem, “are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?” For me, full aliveness is about being with the tragedy and horror of NTE—weeping, shrieking, raging and at the same time savoring every second of the joy I find in my work, delighting in both serious and silly conversations I have with friends, telling stories with my drum, cooking a delicious meal, playing fetch-ball with my dog, and the ecstasy of a Mozart piano concerto. Derrick Jensen, I always come back to your epiphanic maxim: “We’re fucked, and life is really, really good.”
In a recent You Tube video “Why Climate Change Is Not An Environmental Issue,” Ryan Cooper argues that it is instead an existential issue which cannot be conveniently labeled as environmental, economic, biological, or a matter of national security. It is all of these and much more. NTE compels us to ask monumental questions of meaning and purpose that we have been unwilling to ask or have only addressed peripherally.
Throughout my collapse preparation, I have never embraced a survivalist mentality. In fact, I have come to believe that making physical survival one’s top priority in collapse preparation is, in fact, part of the reason we are facing collapse. Charles Eisenstein says it best in his marvelous book The Ascent Of Humanity:
The human gifts that have empowered us to bring the planet to the brink of catastrophe are not intrinsically evil, demonic powers to be spurned, but are, in the end, sacred means to take the creation of beauty to a new level. The problem is that we have not respected them as sacred. We have prostituted our gifts. We have been stuck in the delusion that their purpose is to gain us comfort, security, and pleasure, which follows from the idea that there is no real purpose to life but to survive, which follows from our deeply held Newtonian ontology, which itself is just the culminating articulation of separation.
Frankly, a part of me feels some relief, some validation in Drumright’s essay, confirming for me that the work in front of us is no longer so much about logistical preparation as it is the honing of our emotional and spiritual awareness. NTE solidifies what Eisenstein argues: “Limiting our destructiveness is not a matter of reining in our natural selfish impulses; it is a matter of understanding who we really are.” But what does it mean to understand who we really are?
The project of self-awareness is nothing less than an epic saga–a hero’s or heroine’s journey into our essence. It encompasses the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between. It necessitates remorse as we look unflinchingly at the ways in which we have helped contribute to the annihilation of our planet, and it also includes intimate familiarity with the part of us that is inexorably whole and untouched by the madness of industrial civilization.
Living In The Head Keeps You Dead
But one caveat about the journey of which I speak: It cannot be made intellectually.
My work in life coaching and other capacities puts me in constant contact with individuals who confess that they spend most of their waking hours in their heads. Since I have spent most of my adult life in some form of academia and have written numerous books, I cherish the human intellect and its capacity for problem-solving, critical thinking, and personal empowerment. However, we are all descendants of the Newtonian paradigm of separation in which the intellect is deemed superior to the body and emotions and as such, has become a tool of disconnection as opposed to community. Thus, as we embark on the journey of preparation for the future, only certain parts of us are on board. For most of us, it’s all about “gathering information,” “mastering,” “figuring out,” “learning skills,” and “planning ahead.” Each of these tasks is enormously important, but in our pre-occupation with them, we become estranged from the body and emotions as industrial civilization has so rigorously trained us to do.
On the one hand, living in the head as we prepare often feels safer than actually feeling what we’re feeling about the future. I regularly hear from people preparing for collapse that they feel safest when they are sitting at their computers amassing still more information about collapse or when they are busily engaged in some form of logistical preparation such as building a fortress or re-stocking food or medical supplies. On the other hand, when asked to sit quietly, close their eyes, and breathe deeply, they may have a great deal of difficulty doing so and may begin wondering what this has to do with anything in the external world.
No person reading these words needs to be reminded of the libraries of documentation our species has acquired in the past four decades verifying the inextricable connection between the emotions and the body. Yet in those forty years, it seems as if humans have become even more dis-embodied than at any time in our history, save perhaps, during the so-called Age of Reason in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And while it is true that we live on a shamefully toxic planet in which our food, water, and air are hideously polluted with carcinogens and other poisons, none of this is ameliorated by inattention to the body and emotions.
Not only does the mind-body disconnect increase our susceptibility to illness, but it robs us of the full aliveness that is required for the quality of life we owe ourselves in the face of NTE. Once again, “Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?”
Conscious work with the mind-body connection through regularly attending to body sensations and emotions in designated times of quiet contemplation ground us in the midst of stressful and daunting decisions we must make regarding the future. I have provided much more on this in my book Navigating The Coming Chaos.
Admitting Ourselves To Hospice Care
So if Drumright is even close to accuracy in his forecasting of NTE, then the likelihood of our physical death within perhaps the next decade or two is not a preposterous notion. In fact, at the rate climate change is surging, this time frame may be generous. People willingly enter hospice care because they clearly, consciously know, as my friend did, that they are dying. Typically, in hospice care they receive a quality of nurturing rarely found elsewhere. Not only are they bathed in kindness but if they choose, they are actively supported in reflecting on their lives and intentionally and lovingly prepared for their death.
I invite the reader to consider the possibility that we are now entering a period of hospice for ourselves and with each other. Never before in human history or in our own personal history has our full embodiment, the healing of the mind-body split, been as urgent as it is in this moment. Never before have we so desperately needed to reflect upon our lives and find meaning in them as we do now.
Nurses and hospice volunteers seem to be a special breed of human beings who are attuned to the needs of the dying and have the capacity to tread where many others cannot go. Yet as we face NTE, we will surely become hospice nurses for others. Our most important training: the willingness to lie down on our own hospice ground and do the work I have just explained.
My friend has made her transition, and I stand in awe of her courage and clarity, praying that when my time comes, I can make mine with half as much consciousness. My work in this moment is to make sense of her presence in my life and find meaning in her passing.
I invite you to join me with the poet, Daniel Skach-Mills, in savoring a wisdom that tempers the pain and uncertainty of all transitions and all extinctions:
Of inexhaustible stillness,
From which everything arises
And to which everything returns,
Rests beneath the surface of what
You call your real life
Of noise and busyness,
Desire and fear.
Beneath the continual need for noise
Lies the fear of silence.
Beneath compulsive busyness:
The desire to feel truly alive.
This pool isn’t muddied
By what happens on the surface.
When it wells up from the depths,
Moments that lave you in the Now’s
Quiet clarity naturally appear.
Your mind will dismiss these,
But pay no attention.
Follow these moments,
Back to their Source,
Back to that which is seeking
To know itself through you,
To itself as you.
Realize this stillness to be what you are,
And you’ll be at peace in the midst
Of sorrow and upset,
Level when surrounded
By chaos and imbalance,
Watering the withered lives of beings
You don’t know and will never,
In your lifetime, see.
~Daniel Skach-Mills, The Tao of Now~