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.

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.

How does air pollution relate to climate change?

“Air pollution in the form of aerosol particulates . . . play an important role [in climate change], but because they are washed out by rainfall, their average lifetime is in the order of a week. Hence their effects are not global but rather regional, and their production has to continue for their effects to be present. Their effects are also complex because some reflect the sun and cause cooling, some (carbonaceous) are dark and absorb the sun’s rays, and many become involved in clouds and affect the brightness, lifetime and disposition of clouds; in general, they cause a cooling effect.

“In contrast, even if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere today, the elevated concentrations already established would persist for some time, thus underscoring the need for urgent reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Hence, changes in atmospheric composition, and particularly the increase in carbon dioxide concentrations, enhance the greenhouse effect, although with important regional effects from aerosol particulates.”

2018 Ludwick Lecture — Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)

What if we forgave everyone?

Of all the essays I’ve read on the present climate chaos, Catherine Ingram’s Facing Extinction is one of the best, and perhaps most consistent with my own point of view. This is partly because it addresses the related issues of population growth and human frailty in conjunction with climate change. Though it is a long read, around 15,000 words, it is worth all the time you can to give it.

The essay is divided into ten sections: Dark Knowledge, Courage, Distraction and Denial, Social Unrest, Over-Population and Co-Extinctions, Techno Fixes and Escape to Mars, The End of Legacy, No Blame, Grief, and Love. As well, she ends the essay with a number of ways of dealing with all this: Find your community (or create one); find your calm; release dark visions of the future, and pace your intake of climate news; be of service; be grateful, and give up the fight with evolution. I offer one quote from each section:

Dark Knowledge

“Because the subject is so tragic and because it can scare or anger people, this is not an essay I ever wanted to write; it is one I would have wanted to read along the way. But the words on these pages are meant only for those who are ready for them. I offer no hope or solutions for our continuation, only companionship and empathy to you, the reader, who either knows or suspects that there is no hope or solutions to be found. What we now need to find is courage.”

Courage

“Courage is often confused with stoicism, the stiff upper lip, bravado that masks fear. There is another kind of courage. It is the courage to live with a broken heart, to face fear and allow vulnerability, and it is the courage to keep loving what you love “even though the world is gone.”

Distraction and Denial

“You may find yourself in the company of people who seem to have no awareness of the consequences we face or who don’t want to know or who might have a momentary inkling but cannot bear to face it. You may find that people become angry if you steer the conversation in the direction of planetary crisis. You may sense that you are becoming a social pariah due to what you see, even when you don’t mention it, and you may feel lonely in the company of most people you know. For you, it’s not just the elephant in the room; it’s the elephant on fire in the room, and yet you feel you can rarely say its name.”

Social Unrest

“We now see large regions of the world that are no-go zones. Failed states, where life is cheap and barbarism reigns. Huge swaths of Africa are now lawless and controlled by armed and violent men and boys roaming the countryside in gangs, engaged in despicable acts too sickening to write. The Middle East is much the same as are parts of South America. All of these areas are enduring severe drought. As professor and journalist Christian Parenti said in an interview with Chris Hedges, “How do people adapt to climate change? How do they adapt to the drought, to the floods? Very often, the way is you pick up the surplus weaponry and you go after your neighbor’s cattle or you blame it on your neighbor’s ideology or ethnicity.”

“It is a mark of immaturity to be unable to delay personal satisfaction for the chance at greater wellbeing for all at a later date. And it is yet another wearisome example of why we humans are in the mess in which we find ourselves. We see it throughout human history. Greed is not new to modern times. We can easily understand the greedy impulse as most of us are afflicted with it. Perhaps the evolutionary imperatives from ancient times would have had no use for delayed gratification since servicing immediate needs often meant the difference between life and death. However, we can now see that being enslaved to our base desires and impulses is contraindicated to our survival. Seeing disintegrations occur in the developed countries gives a glimpse as to what societal and economic breakdown will look like when there are widespread food shortages everywhere and when the infrastructures, including the electric grids, become spotty, too costly to maintain, or are no longer working.”

Over-Population and Co-Extinctions

“According to many scientific studies, some of the inevitable outcomes of overpopulation are severely polluted water, increased air pollution and lung diseases, proliferation of infectious diseases, overwhelmed hospitals, rising crime rates, deforestation, loss of wildlife leading to mass extinctions, widespread food shortages, vanishing fish in the oceans, superbugs and airborne diseases along with diminished capacity to treat them, proliferation of AIDS, less access to safe drinking water, new parasites, desertification, rising regional conflicts, and war. As astrobiology professor Peter Ward explained in a story on the BBC, “If you look at any biological system, when it overpopulates it begins to poison its home.”

Techno Fixes and Escape to Mars

“Energy and industrial technologies have destabilized and poisoned our atmosphere and waterways. Our cyber technology has created a global industry of online financial theft, child pornography and predation, identity theft, illegal drugs, and many other criminal endeavors made possible through the internet. War technologies have made us the most effective killing species ever in history. In the 20th century, the deadliest in history thus far, an estimated 231 million people –most of them non-combatants–died in war and conflicts. High tech weaponry in the 21st century is even more capable of large scale death and destruction at the push of a button from thousands of miles away.”

As Joanna Macy told me in an interview more than thirty years ago, “We think technology will save us. Technology got us into this mess.”

The End of Legacy

“There is a cognitive dissonance that takes getting used to when you realize there is no need to consider how you or your name will be remembered in the future. Not only that, your interest in future projections about life begins to fall away. You may marvel at how many personal conversations with people you know or news items from around the world assume that human life carries on indefinitely. You may find it difficult to hold interest in these conversations and stories, as though you chanced upon a madman on a street corner earnestly proclaiming his grand plans for the future when it is clear he is hallucinating. You don’t hang on his every word.”

No Blame

“In a recent blog post, writer James Kunstler proposed a pithy theory of why humans chose each step of our path in history: “It just seemed a good idea at the time.” We plunged forward with each new way of doing things, each new invention, because it made life easier at the time. There was no intention to destroy ourselves. On the contrary, for most of the time since the Industrial Revolution, it seemed that life was getting better for greater numbers of people. With medical advances, we wiped out most of the contagious deadly diseases, controlled infections, and greatly extended life expectancy. We built transportation capabilities that allowed us to travel to the far ends of the earth in a day and thereby learn of other cultures while on their own turf. And then we hooked ourselves up to each other in a world of instantaneous communication, which has been a whole lot of fun. But we didn’t factor in the cost of all this bounty as we built modern civilization.”

Grief

“Many of us are also in anticipatory grief; that is, in the period leading to full extinction, we are aware of how hard it will be for those who are already living marginally, such as the nearly one billion people who are now under nourished and who must search for food each day. These numbers will increase and food and fresh water will become impossible to find. Even here in a rich country, I know many people who live month to month, barely making the rent, foregoing all but the most basic necessities. They are considered the poor in our First World countries, and they are also growing in number. In the United States alone, many of those who were formerly middle class now live in their cars or in homeless shelters or on the streets. Even those in situations of abundance are often relying on jobs that are destined to disappear or on bank accounts and investments that will likely disappear as well. After all, much of the so-called wealth of the privileged is simply numerical digits floating on cyber screens.“

Love

“Left to its own conditioned patterns, our minds get into all kinds of trouble (unless one was very lucky in one’s conditioning, which is rare). Developing the habit of re-directing your awareness when your mind is lost in fear or troubling stories induces confidence along the way. Your attention starts to incline toward ease more frequently. You find that you can choose calm. You can choose gratitude. You can choose love.”

Visit Catherine’s web site HERE. And a YouTube audio version of the essay (read by the author) HERE.