To sit by the wounded and soothe them

What happens to hope when our chances of avoiding catastrophe fall away, and we begin to see there is no way out of the present climate crisis, no matter how many lights we turn off, no matter how many wind turbines we install? How does hope change as the earth’s climate becomes less and less hospitable and less and less controllable? Project us forward to the year 2030, when we will probably know for certain that the catastrophe is full upon us. What will our hope look like then?

In a haunting and beautifully written contribution to Dark Mountain, Issue #15, Ingrid M. Rieser discusses the work of researcher Vanessa Andreotti who says there are at least three paths open to us “if we decide the current system is not ‘fixable.’

First, we might try “hacking the system – using the system’s resources to create something which undermines or defies logic. But when attempting to play the system, you always run the risk of being played instead.” Second, we might “leave altogether and try to set up a new, separate alternative, simply walking out (think eco-villages). But in both cases, she says, “you will risk ‘reproducing modernity’s violence’. Inadvertently bringing with you the very evils you hoped to escape.” Put in Buddhist terms: “no matter where you go, there you are.” Our old habits, character traits, and personal problems will tag along with us. Though we may change our residence ninety-nine times, our inveterate tendencies and unwholesome mental formations will remain—warm as toast, and tight as a drum.

But, according to Andreotti, there is a third path – that of hospicing. Rieser says that we think of hospicing “as caring for the dying, and that is exactly how Andreotti and her colleagues intend it.” They see this kind of hospicing as: “sitting with a system in decline, learning from its history, offering palliative care, seeing oneself in that which is dying, attending to the integrity of the process, dealing with tantrums, incontinence, anger and hopelessness, ‘cleaning up’, and clearing the space for something new. This is unlikely to be a glamorous process; it will entail may frustrations, an uncertain timeline, and unforeseeable outcomes without guarantees.”

For many of us, hospicing will be an essential, perhaps primary, component of our response to the present climate and environmental crisis. And, the crucial first step in the process is to tell the truth. For the greatest gift one can give a dying person is to gently take their hand, look them straight in the eye, and, with radical tenderness and great compassion, say to 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.

In all of this, I think of the following lines from Walt Whitman’s poem, ‘The Wound-Dresser’:

Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.

Extinction Rebellion statement on the UN IPBES 2019 Global Assessment on Biodiversity

“In recent weeks, the environment has risen to the top of the political agenda and the truth is beginning to be spoken. This has culminated in the UK Parliament declaring an Environment and Climate Emergency – two days after Scotland and Wales.”

“However, too much of the focus has been on greenhouse gases and climate change. We also face an ecological crisis – the sixth mass extinction – which is as dangerous for our planet as climate change. The UN IPBES report on biodiversity released on Monday shows that our way of life is causing nature to collapse.”

“The UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report is the most damning of its kind and reveals our consistent and extensive failures to address the accelerating loss of biodiversity. It is both shaming and shocking. Little or no progress has been made towards halting extinctions, loss of habitat or restoration of ecosystems, within safe ecological limits or sustainable production and consumption.

Dr Alison Green, National Director (UK) Scientists Warning and spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion

“The report delivers a stark message that humanity is engaged in the mass annihilation of other species with whom we share our home.” Read more . . .

Grieving Today: The bees are gone from our gardens

I am undone. Normally, many bees buzz around me as I work in the gardens. But today, May 11, there were none. Not a one. That is not quite true, I did see three native bees in the strawberry patch—small bees, the size of flies—but no honey bees. I provide nesting blocks for native bees. These nesting blocks are often called bee hotels. I’ve made a large space for them, enough for 3-5000 eggs. (see image below.)

Native Bee Hotel

We live on a quarter acre of land, most of it is garden, herb garden, vegetable garden, perennial beds, and fruit trees, with many native flowers and flowering shrubs. We have some lawn but we’ve stopped mowing it. We’re slowly relinquishing it back to nature. It is already a foot deep in some areas and is teeming with dandelions, yarrow, violas, and other wild flowers. The rabbits love it. They sit for hours eating in our grassy ‘meadow’. During the day we often stop and smile and watch the rabbits, birds, and squirrels.

But the bees are gone. I searched every square inch of our property today, and there were no honey bees at all. Not a one. This is our fourteenth year caring for this small property, and this has never happened before. I used to see honey bees as early as February.

If you live in a big city, this is not something you would notice. But here is where we live:

Vegetable garden area, July 2018

We live on a relatively long, narrow, urban lot in the old part of town (with big trees and small houses). Over the years, we’ve turned it into a wildlife habitat. We use no pesticides or herbicides, and we are completely organic.

This loss hit me very hard. It feels like I’ve lost some very close friends and I don’t know what happened to them. Yes, I know it was probably caused by neonicotinoid pesticides. I grieve, and grieve very deeply, but I am not angry. Instead, I feel a kind of quiet compassion for the whole thing. And I feel a sense of tragedy. Too much has been lost already. Too many tipping points have been crossed. When you get to this point, a sense of calm floods over you, and you sit down beside Walt Whitman, and say with him:

 Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,

But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,

To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.

from "The Wound Dresser"

(Forgive them for they know not what they do.)

‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’

The sudden collapse of thawing soils in the Arctic might double the warming from greenhouse gases

Climate News Network:

“We are watching this sleeping giant wake up right in front of our eyes,” said Merritt Turetsky, an ecologist at the University of Guelph. “We work in areas where permafrost contains a lot of ice, and our field sites are being destroyed by abrupt collapse of this ice, not gradually over decades, but very quickly over months to years.”

“One-fourth of all the land in the northern half of the globe is defined as permafrost. This long-frozen soil is home to the detritus of life over many thousands of years: the remains of plants, animals and microbes. The permanently frozen soils of the region hold, so far in a harmless state, 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon: twice as much as exists in the atmosphere.”

“And as the Arctic warms, this could release ever-greater volumes of a potent greenhouse gas, to accelerate global warming still further, and the consequent collapse of the soil, the flooding and the landslides could change not just the habitat but even the contours of the high latitudes.” Read more . . .

Read the researcher’s article published in Nature (International Journal of Science) April 30, 2019 HERE. It is well worth the time. The first image of the Batagaika crater in eastern Russia is stunning. Look closely at the trees to get a feel for its size and character.

Abrupt thawing of permafrost is dramatic to watch. Returning to field sites in Alaska, for example, we often find that lands that were forested a year ago are now covered with lakes. Rivers that once ran clear are thick with sediment. Hillsides can liquefy, sometimes taking sensitive scientific equipment with them.

The Second Shoe Has Dropped: the IPBES Global Assessment Report

This was a particularly difficult day for me because the second shoe has hit the floor very, very hard. The first shoe dropped last fall when the 1.5C report was published by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, indicating that we have only 12 years left to address climate change. The other shoe dropped to the floor today when the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published its unusually stark Global Assessment Report, the most thorough planetary health check ever undertaken.

Let me state it right up front: the report is devastating. It was conducted by more than 450 scientists and diplomats, and was three years in the making. As well, it drew on over 15,000 reference materials and runs out to over 1800 pages. A shorter 40 page summary for policymakers is also available.

“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

The Report finds that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.

The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. The picture is less clear for insect species, but available evidence supports a tentative estimate of 10% being threatened. At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th century and more than 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened.

“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Prof. Settele. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

Let us be clear, both the IPCC report and this IPBES assure us that it is not too late, but ONLY if we engage NOW with transformative change: “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

Question: How good are we at transformative change? Who exactly is going to steer us away from “the current limited paradigm of economic growth?”

I highly recommend reading the two press stories HERE (Guardian) and HERE (BBC) and, if you are so inclined, download and read the summary for policymakers.

We shall never find our way home

A few days ago I began reading Climate Matters: ethics in a warming world, by John Broome, an economist and moral philosopher. Chapters One and Two are very good, as he introduces the book and lays out the science of climate change in a clear and succinct way. But as soon as I got into chapters 2, 3, 4, 5, I began to feel uncomfortable: something seemed wrong.

When I picked it up again today, I skipped a few chapters and went directly to Chapter 10 on population. It was while reading this chapter that I realized the problem: He never addresses the issue of human suffering. He never addresses the suffering of those who remain alive but who will suffer greatly from day to day, perhaps for their entire lives, in ways that are unimaginable to those of us who live in the industrialized West.

Checking the index, I see that there is only one reference to human suffering in the entire book and that is on page 180 where he describes features of climate catastrophe that will be genuinely bad. He lists three such features. It is the first of his three features that mentions suffering: “First, global-warming catastrophe will cause suffering and death to a great many people. There will be starvation. There will be wars over water and other resources. There will be deaths from diseases and floods, and from many other causes.”

This is the only time he mentions human suffering. He does address the ethical ramifications of deaths by climate change, but he does not address the massive suffering of those who remain alive. This is striking to me. How can this be? Is suffering not quantifiable?Is it not something that can be put in economic terms?

I must lay this book down. I do this because my ‘cost/benefit analysis’ prevents me from reading more at this time. Perhaps I will return to it in the future.

In all of this, I cannot help but think of the words of Pope Francis: “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 (from Laudato Si).”

If we do not reach beyond complicated theoretical arguments, and open ourselves to the suffering of others in a very direct and personal way, we shall never find our way home.

Hope: Danger’s Comforter

In the next few weeks, I will focus on hope as it pertains to the present climate disruption. This first meditation is from Thucydides. I offer it without comment, and suggest that the good reader to meditate on the text for an hour or so and try to express the ideas that come to mind. The portion I’ve selected is from the famous Melian Dialogue. This is the discussion in which the Athenians articulate the bald facts of perennial power-politics when they say to the Melians: “since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must (lines 87-89).” Here are the remarks that bear upon the question of hope:

Melians: “It were surely great baseness and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried . . . to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect.

Athenians: “Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources, if not without loss at all events without ruin; but its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colors only when they are ruined; but so long as the discovery would enable them to guard against it, it is never found wanting. Let not this be the case with you, who are weak and hang on a single turn of the scale; nor be like the vulgar, who, abandoning such security as human means may still afford, when visible hopes fail them in extremity, turn to invisible, to prophecies and oracles, and other such inventions that delude men with hopes to their destruction.