One time around spun our gallant ship
Two times around spun she
Three times around spun our gallant ship
And sank to the bottom of the sea.
— Lyrics from “House Carpenter“
“OUR GALLANT SHIP is a personal blog in which I explore a realization that came to me suddenly and unequivocally on January 08, 2019. It came to me before I began studying climate change. It came unannounced and uninvited, not as a thought, conclusion or deduction, but out of nowhere as a sudden and irrevocable reality. As such, it demolished my world view and pitched me into an altogether new and disquieting field, with an equally disquieting horizon.
The realization was simple and straightforward: The human species is not going to make it, and nothing can be done to stop it. It struck me immediately that the three main factors were climate change, population pressure, and human frailty. Though we may be able to slow down the coming catastrophe and mitigate some of its worst consequences, everything will come apart, bringing with it chaos and suffering of unimaginable proportions. Needless to say, I cannot be certain this is how it is. But despite this, and precisely for the very same reasons, I agree with Rupert Read when he says: “I leave open that the ending might be by way of a positive transformation, the opposite of collapse. We don’t know that this isn’t possible, because we don’t know what human beings are capable of in novel circumstances. Tragically, I definitely would not bet on it (even while I try to throw myself into enabling it to have a chance of happening . . . ), but to pretend that we can be certain that it won’t happen is both prematurely to close down the open-endedness of human being and to overstate our own epistemic powers.”
My focus in this blog will be on four main areas: climate change, population pressure, human frailty, and “What then must we do?” The first three elements comprise what I call ‘the intersect of extinction’. When climate change, population pressure, and human frailty come together at scale, a tipping point is reached, creating a churning cauldron of destabilizing ingredients locked in a deadly cycle of destructive feedback loops, leading to near-certain social collapse, probable catastrophe, and possible extinction. It seems clear to me that no matter how it plays out, no matter what we do, this civilization is finished. The most we can do now is to lay the groundwork for transformative adaptation, and prevent as much suffering as possible. We must feel our way into the future, without pretending we know how to fix it, and without pretending we know how the story ends.
Human frailty, the third ingredient in ‘the intersect of extinction,’ requires some explanation. If one looks with un-blinkered eyes at the field of human activity on this planet, one sees a species that is simply too violent, self-centered, deceptive, rapacious, predatory, hubristic, distracted, venal, myopic, apathetic, exploitative, deluded, brutal, greedy, hateful, and fearful, to curb its impending demise . . . and these limiting factors, these unwholesome mental formations, inveterate tendencies and habitual patterns, cannot be pushed to the back of the counter. Indeed, it would be foolish to think we can do our maths without them, for they have been with us since time out of mind, and will be with us tomorrow and tomorrow, at every turn muddying our smartest forecasts and projections.
None of this negates or diminishes the blessed balm of loving kindness, creativity, intelligence, courage, transcendence, egolessness, beauty, love, and compassion that swim in the very same pool. But we must not deny what is happening now, right before our eyes, every hour of every day, in ourselves and in others. For these human frailties, these unwholesome mental formations, infect all of us to some degree, and they will take us down, for they are becoming more and more amplified and intensified in our ever more crowded world with its increasing complexity, instability, and fear.
What then must we do? The question I will be asking throughout this blog is how each of us can develop and enlarge our compassionate capacity to respond to chaos, instability, and unprecedented global suffering. What does this predicament mean for us psychologically, socially, politically, spiritually, and pragmatically? What does this mean for me personally?
To many of my readers, this may sound like a dark vision, but the greatest gift one can give a dying person is to gently take their hand, look them straight in the eye, and, with tenderness and great compassion, tell them “Dear friend, you are dying.” This is what a friend should do. One must not lie to them. One must not pretend it isn’t so. One must not give them false hopes. For hope can be an obstacle, it can allow us to persist in our present way of life entirely immersed in a soothing bath of wishful thinking and self-deception, blunting the immediacy and urgency of what lies at hand.
To look at all this is not being a pessimist or trying to be an optimist. One has to look at all this. And you are the only one who can change yourself and the society in which you live. That is a fact, and you cannot escape from it. —Krishnamurti
Denial has many faces. Some of us stubbornly deny climate change; others deny its human agency. Still others accept climate change but deny its severity and urgency. Perhaps out of the gravity and urgency conveyed in this blog, we may, one and all, discover the immense depth of our bond with each other and with this precious planet, and set to work, for the welfare of all future generations, humans and animals alike. Though it may be too late for many things, it is not too late for this.
In terms of climate change, my aim will be the same as the authors of “Facing Up to Climate Reality” when they say: “Our aim is to pursue climate honesty rigorously and deeply without counseling despair. We will be deluded neither by optimism of the intellect nor by pessimism of the will. . . . Virtually all treatments of climate-change . . . pretend that one can have endless economic growth while preventing climate-catastrophe. And virtually all treatments similarly pretend that our lives are going to get better and better, as we grow the economy forever and rein in human-caused climate change. . . . Instead, things are on balance going to get worse. And virtually no-one wants to admit this. In this crucial sense, virtually the entire world, by our lights, is engaged in climate-denial.” As the authors say, “Real climate-honesty is the necessary prequel to effective climate action.”
Pope Francis drove to the very heart of the matter when he said “our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.”
Given the gravity of the situation, I have committed myself to explore more deeply, study more intensively, observe more closely, and inhabit my life more fully. I will meet with others, act with and for others, write, meditate, take care of my family, and do whatever else I can to develop the tools, skills, and sensitivities that will enable me to give comfort and aid to those who will suffer the most as this greatest of all catastrophes unfolds. This blog is an expression of that commitment. And I hope it is an expression of courage, where courage is what Dr. Kate Marvel described as “the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending.”
With Paul Kingshorn, I can say that “I have tried not to lie myself about the state of the world; not to tell myself, or anyone else, what we all wanted to hear . . . I have done my best to try to be clear-headed and clear-eyed.”
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.