by Carolyn Baker
As with so many topics in this culture, near-term human extinction (NTHE) has become yet another issue for the debating society of the “cerebesphere”—a term I have coined for living only in the domain of the intellect while disconnected from the body and emotions. It seems that humans would much rather argue about whether they will become extinct in the near-term than actually understand and assimilate the terrifying scientific evidence that they are on precisely this trajectory. Similarly, many of those who firmly embrace near-term human extinction use it as a litmus test for everything they hear or read about catastrophic climate change, i.e, “I like what this guy says, but does he believe in near-term human extinction?” implying that only if the author embraces NTHE, are their words legitimate. Thus, true to the intellectual template of industrial civilization, a concept that should leave us shuddering or running screaming from the room as if our hair were on fire, is reduced to a quasi-theological debate.
As I have stated repeatedly, the issue for me is not what we do about near-term human extinction, but what we do with it. Our “belief” in it is trivial compared with our response to it.
The reader may wonder why I would suggest that there is anything beyond extinction. Extinction is the end—fine, la fin, das ende. What could possibly be “beyond” it? My answer: Everything. Yes, extinction means the end of this planet, your and my human body, and the human species, but the feeling, expression, memory, and impact of the sensibilities of living beings do not end. Where and how they endure or in what form, I do not know. What I will argue for is that some aspect of all life is eternal. Please bear with me.
In Extinction Dialogs: How To Live With Death In Mind, Guy McPherson and I adamantly emphasize that the real tragedy in terms of NTHE is not extinction but our failure to comprehend how valuable, precious, and urgent living our lives with passion and purpose in the meantime actually is. For this reason, we frequently ask the question of people we encounter: What do you love?
But what exactly is love? Despite our presence on this planet for some 13 billion years, have we really learned what love is? I have never claimed to be an expert in answering the question, but I do know some of the necessary elements without which none of us can give or receive it. I believe that empathy remains at the top of the list, closely followed by compassion. Most people reading these words would claim both traits in a heartbeat, and indeed they would be correct. Likewise most of the 7 billion human beings on the planet would insist that they too are empathic and compassionate.
Yet why do humans continue to obliterate this planet?
In my work with myself and countless human beings throughout my adult life, I have yet to discover anything that more quickly and more firmly embeds empathy and compassion in the human psyche than conscious grieving. Indigenous people everywhere know this, and so do numerous species of animals who often have their own rituals of grief or remain lying beside a fallen member of their pack for days or weeks.
In the cultures of industrial civilization, grief is viewed as a bothersome weakness displayed by people who must be carefully monitored so that they do not become pathological. In times of loss, the “grief police” are everywhere making sure that people “move on,” “put it behind them,” and realize that “life must go on.” However the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying notes that grief is an instinct resulting from human attachment to other beings. The Encyclopedia also notes that the issue of meaning is central to survivors: What does this death, loss, catastrophe, extinction event mean? What is more, people cannot make sense of losses in isolation:
… the process by which people make sense of their world is social interaction. When something important happens in individuals’ lives, they do not just think about it; they talk about it with others. Grief and mourning do not just happen inside a person; they happen in the interactions between people. In most cultures over human history, myth and ritual provide the intersubjective space in which one can construct the meaning of the deceased’s life, death, and influence over the survivors’ lives. In contemporary Western culture, in which rituals and myths from earlier times have fallen into disuse, intersubjective space is characterized by informal verbal and nonverbal interaction aimed largely at communicating shared meaning. Often people see contemporary communities constructing their narrative by inventing new rituals that allow community members to feel a sense of togetherness.
Industrially civilized cultures seem to be the only ones that have attempted to make grief a “private” affair. Don’t let other people see you being weak; don’t inflict your weakness on others; have the decency to fall apart behind closed doors; people don’t want to be bothered with your grief. Sound familiar?
For more than two decades, I have been passionate about the healing, empowering, joy-enhancing benefits of grieving. And since becoming familiar with NTHE, I am even more passionate and committed to assisting people in conscious grieving for the plethora of losses they have encountered, including the destruction of all life on earth. I do not hold a belief in NTHE as a litmus test for anything, especially with respect to grief. In fact, we could take NTHE completely off the table, and we would still be carrying an uncanny burden of sorrows simply as a result of growing up in industrial civilization. However, in the light of NTHE and the demise of the human and more than human life on earth, I have come to believe that there is now nothing more important than consciously attending to our grief. Why?
Some would argue that we should be doing, not grieving. To those folks I would ask: How can we possibly engage in one without the other? Engaging in the type of activism to which we feel drawn is essential, and the fires of activism must be tempered with the waters of grief. Otherwise, we burn out and risk compromising our empathy and compassion.
What is more, grief never has been nor will be a “private” matter. All traditions have known and taught that grief is a community matter and is best healed in the context of the village. Moreover, many traditions believe that unless the community grieves together regularly, its members become toxic to one another. In the Dagara Tribe of West Africa, a grief ritual happens approximately once a week so that people can discharge their sorrow so as not to put the village at risk.
Moreover, as noted above, it is not simply grief for our perishing planet that we are carrying. Most of us labor under the burden of an enormous backlog of grief—the deaths of loved ones, the loss of intimate relationships, the loss of careers, bankruptcies, foreclosures, debilitating illnesses, and even ancestral grief that has persisted across many generations. Quite often, people do not understand how much grief they are carrying or its ramifications until they begin the grieving process.
But might not people become “stuck” in grief and become depressed, morbid, or unmotivated? In fact, the opposite is true. What people become “stuck” in is unmetabolized grief which often becomes clinical depression. Since grieving is an extremely natural process, it arises and if allowed, is discharged and then subsides. Yes, it may return once again or many times, but by allowing ourselves to engage in the conscious grieving process, grief quite naturally shifts and finds its own place in the psyche. The result is actually the opening of space for other emotions, increased physical energy, a deepening of joy and the appreciation of beauty, and enhanced connection with the community and all living beings. “The deeper the sorrow, the greater the joy,” wrote William Blake. In fact, grief is a doorway—a corridor to unknown, disowned, or dormant parts of the psyche that may incite, even inflame our creativity and most precious human gifts. And finally, grief and love are interdependent. When one is enhanced, the other is enlivened.
To this end, much more of my work in the future will focus on conscious grieving, and I invite you to join me and a number of individuals who are aware of our planetary predicament as we come together for a weekend workshop June 12-14, 2015 entitled “The Gifts of Grief: Grief As Sacred Work.” The workshop is designed to create a beautiful, safe, and supportive space for grieving, followed by celebration of our deep work together. For further information and registration, please contact Hollie Galloway at: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Please visit the DONATIONS tab. I’m open to non-monetary donations, subject only to your creativity. For example, I would appreciate your generosity with respect to frequent-flyer miles.
McPherson’s latest book is co-authored by Carolyn Baker. Extinction Dialogs: How to Live with Death in Mind is available. Electronic copy is available here from Amazon.
Tech note, courtesy of mo flow: Random issues have been appearing with posting comments. Sometimes a “Submit Comment” click will return a 404 Page Not Found, or another error, for no apparent reason. To ensure you don’t lose a longer comment, you can right-click select all, and right-click copy, in the comment box before clicking “Submit.” If that hasn’t been done, the comment text will likely still be in the comment box when clicking the back button, or the forward button — depending on the error — on your browser.