The Civilization We Grew Up In Is Already Dead. So now what?

“If we want to learn how to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.”

This is the last line in a fine essay by Roy Scranton, former U.S. soldier and currently a doctoral candidate in English at Princeton University.  The essay, published in the New York Times philosophy blog “The Stone,” is one of those rare attempts to really lay out the gravity of the situation we face today, as humans on a rapidly destabilizing planet.

Readers of Transition Times have been hearing me give my doom-and-gloom warnings for years now.  But it’s very rare that such grim scenarios break into the gilded precincts inhabited by readers of The New York Times.

Here is Scranton:

“The challenge the Anthropocene poses is a challenge not just to national security, to food and energy markets, or to our “way of life” — though these challenges are all real, profound, and inescapable. The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses may be to our sense of what it means to be human.

“Within 100 years — within three to five generations — we will face average temperatures 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today, rising seas at least three to 10 feet higher, and worldwide shifts in crop belts, growing seasons and population centers.

“Within a thousand years, unless we stop emitting greenhouse gases wholesale right now, humans will be living in a climate the Earth hasn’t seen since the Pliocene, three million years ago, when oceans were 75 feet higher than they are today.

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan

“We face the imminent collapse of the agricultural, shipping and energy networks upon which the global economy depends, a large-scale die-off in the biosphere that’s already well on its way, and our own possible extinction.

“If homo sapiens (or some genetically modified variant) survives the next millenniums, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have inhabited.”

Yes.  We know this.  It’s actually what Scranton does next in his essay that most interests me.

He makes a turn into the humanities, arguing that since “studying philosophy is about learning how to die,” then we have now “entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.”

Scranton reminds us that “the biggest problems the Anthropocene poses are precisely those that have always been at the root of humanistic and philosophical questioning: ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and ‘What does it mean to live?’

“In the epoch of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality — ‘What does my life mean in the face of death?’ — is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?”

These are the kind of questions I ruminate about daily.  It comes back to Mary Oliver’s signature question, in her haunting poem “The Summer Day”—“What will I do with my one wild and precious life?”

We never know if our own deaths are right around the corner.  Will the truck driver around the next bend be distracted by his phone, cross the yellow line and blow me to oblivion?  Will my next physical exam reveal a terminal illness?  It could happen any time.

But as Scranton says, the climate change issue is much bigger than any of our individual lives.  It’s about the future of human civilization on the planet.

He ends his essay provocatively, saying that the problem of climate change cannot be solved by “buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning.” What is needed is a profound philosophical shift; to go from a civilization built on the illusion of endless growth and consumption, to a steady-state civilization that the planet can sustain.

We need to realize, Scranton says, that the human civilization all of us grew up in “is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.”

Yeb Sano breaks down speaking about the devastation in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, and begs the climate negotiators to act decisively to curb carbon emissions

Yeb Sano breaks down speaking about the devastation in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, and begs the climate negotiators to act decisively to curb carbon emissions

Watching the desperation on the faces and in the voices of the climate negotiators from sea-level nations like the Philippines, Bangladesh, and the Maldives, it’s clear that these folks have already absorbed the lesson we in the higher-terrain countries have yet to confront.

We cannot go on with business as usual any longer.

Not if we want to bequeath a livable Earth to our descendants.

Severn Suzuki speaking out

Severn Suzuki speaking out

Severn Suzuki said it all, so eloquently, speaking to a climate change summit way back in 1992, when she was just a girl of 12.  Are we ready to listen yet?

A Prayer to Mother Earth

Amazon rain forest

Amazon rain forest

In an emotional speech this week, the President Rafael Correa of Ecuador announced that he would be opening more of the country’s pristine Amazon rain forest to oil drilling, cancelling an earlier initiative to have wealthy countries fund the maintenance of a huge natural reserve.

The money simply did not come through, and Correa felt he had no other choice but to start selling oil drilling permits to the highest bidder, to keep his small country afloat.

This is terrible news for the planet.

Once again, short-term gain is being put over longterm health.

My mind immediately leaps to all the animals and people who live in that green and glowing forest, who will soon be hearing the whine of the chain saw and the roar of the bulldozer, and smelling the bitter odor of ancient oil fouling land and water.

Species we have not even met yet will perish.

Of course, this is happening every day, all over the planet.  But when you hear about yet another safety wall being breached, opening up a brand new, as-yet-untouched area to drilling, you have to stop and say a silent prayer.

A prayer to what, to whom?  What power can stop the relentless spread of our destructive species over this globe?

To me it seems clear that only Gaia herself can do it, by her usual methods—fire, flood, famine, great shaking of land and sea.  Epidemics of viruses and bacteria.  It has happened before and it will—it must—happen again.

I know I sound apocalyptic here, but apocalypse is in the air.

I don’t believe in a conventional form of afterlife, but I do believe that when we die our bodies return to the earth, and our spirits return to the energetic field of the planet.

We will return to the great dance of life in this biosphere.  Time is different there—fluid, stretched, endlessly long.  Our little human lifetimes are no more than brief flashes, like the shooting of stars against the August night sky.

Human beings do represent a great leap from the last dominant species on the planet, the dinosaurs.  But unlike the dinosaurs, when we perish it will be by our own hands—by our drills, our combustion engines and our inability to curb our own numbers.

My prayer is to our great Mother Earth, that she welcome us back into her bosom when we fall, and bring us back into the fold of endless regeneration.  If some of us humans survive the cataclysms that await, I pray we become wiser in our use of our tremendous, tragic intelligence.

If I had been asked to speak at Commencement….

This is what I would have said:

It’s become a cliché to say that every day is the first day of the rest of your life, and yet like most clichés this one holds truth to it.

When you walk down that aisle today holding your B.A. diploma, achieving a goal which you have worked towards for many years, you will be stepping into your adulthood with all the rights and privileges, but also all the responsibilities that this maturity brings.

The year 2012, long prophesied as a time of great change and transition, is not an easy time to be reaching adulthood.

I don’t have to tell you that times are tough economically, or that our planetary environment is facing its own severe shifts due to anthropogenic global heating.  You have probably heard tell of a “sixth great extinction event” on the horizon, if climate change projections continue unabated on their current course, causing the heating and acidification of the oceans and resulting drought, floods and violent storms on land.

Most of us “know” about these issues the same way we “know” that toxic chemicals in our food, water, air and household products cause cancer.

We do our best not to think about it too much, because thinking about it just makes us scared and depressed, and what can we do about it, anyway?

I want to suggest to you, as you step out into the world this afternoon with your newly minted B.A., that you are stepping into an unprecedented opportunity to do more than any previous human generation has ever done.

It is not an exaggeration to say that you have the opportunity to turn this great Titanic of an earthship around, sailing her away from the iceberg and into safer waters.

There have been “greatest generations” before now.  But their challenges have been far less global and all-encompassing than the challenges we face now.

Now it’s not just a nation or even a group of nations that are faced with disaster.  It is the entire globe, human civilization writ large, which could in fact be toppled if the earth gives a great climatic shrug of her shoulders and goes back to the evolutionary drawing board.

Even the most sober earth scientists are predicting that if we do not change our habits of carbon emission, the resulting global heating will make the world uninhabitable for some 90% of current species on the planet by the year 2050, including 90% of current human populations.

I lay this out for you starkly not to depress you on what should be a happy and auspicious day, but to impress upon you the importance of the decisions you will be making and actions you will be taking in the coming years.

While it is true that lifestyle changes of individuals can only have limited effect on climate change, they are a start.  We can choose to support alternative energy whenever and however possible.  We can choose to push our elected representatives to shift subsidies and incentives away from fossil fuels and towards renewables.  We can encourage sustainable agricultural practices in our own communities and through our consumer choices.

What I would ask of you above all is to stay informed and engaged with these issues as you move forward into adulthood, and seize all opportunities to push governments and corporations to do the right thing not just for the bottom line or the national interest, but for the good of our planetary home and her current life forms, including humanity.

I am not proud of the condition of the world that my generation is now handing off to you.  I am not proud of what I and my cohort have allowed to happen on our watch.

The past cannot be undone.  But the future is yours to shape.

Don’t be afraid to try out completely new ideas. Listen to your dreams, listen to your intuition.  Be alert, be thoughtful, be creative.  Tune out the background buzz that will try to lull you into complacency and inaction.

I hope that when it’s your turn to witness your children stepping out into their adulthood, you will be able to be proud of the world you have created for them.

Truly, their future is in your hands.

Silent Spring Dawns Hot, Dry and Merciless

This week, turning the corner into the astronomical Spring, we have gone abruptly from warm winter to hot summer.  And I mean hot: it was 84 degrees Farenheit in western Massachusetts today, brightly sunny, with puffy white cumulus clouds against a brilliant blue sky, unobstructed by any leaves.  No shade.

Today reminded me of a wax model: beautiful but blank.  The façade of beauty, with the crucial vital spark missing.

When I went for a walk up the mountain early this morning, the woods were eerily silent.  I remembered mournfully the spring mornings of my childhood, where I would be awakened by the joyful singing of the dawn chorus of thousands of birds each happily greeting each other and the new day.  Reaching the top of the mountain having heard only the distant cry of a single phoebe, I stopped to sit on a rock and listen for a few minutes.  All I heard was the dim rushing of the traffic on the road far below me, and the drone of an airplane churning its way across the sky.

Coming down again, a few chipmunks hurried out of sight along the path, and I was keenly aware that there were no acorns underfoot, despite the oak trees towering overhead. Last fall was a terrible year for acorns, so all the animals that depend on them for overwintering must be very hungry now.  I know the bears are on the move, as one came and pulled down my bird feeder yesterday. I am thinking of bringing some sunflower seeds along on my walk tomorrow, to spread by the path as an offering of atonement.

While no one of us can shoulder personal responsibility for this tragedy of the commons, all of us who have benefited from the heedless extraction of oil and relentless destruction of the forests and the oceans must be aware of the extent to which we have brought this on ourselves, and taken the rest of the natural world along with us.

Will there come a day when the sun rises in the brilliant blue sky and looks down on a hot, dry planet, silent except for the hardiest of species, like the cockroaches and the ants, who survived previous major extinction events, and will once again continue about their business single-mindedly, able to wait out the eons while life reboots and resurges again anew?


Rigoberta Menchu Tum, who bore witness to genocide in Guatemala, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992

This weekend filmmaker Pamela Yates came to Bard College at Simon’s Rock to screen her film GRANITO: HOW TO NAIL A DICTATOR, as part of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.

This powerful film makes quite clear how the genocide in Guatemala was about land rights, with U.S.-backed military juntas working for the landowners and the corporations to clear the land of indigenous people and peasants so that big internationally funded projects like dams and mines could proceed unobstructed.

Two hundred thousand people, mostly indigenous Mayans, were massacred in the 1970s and 1980s in the service of American-fueled greed, in Guatemala alone.

It strikes me that this story is repeating now—if indeed it ever stopped—as we continue to fight over resources and land on our finite planet.

It is happening now in the forests of Indonesia, where on the island of Sumatra plantations the size of the United Kingdom, the size of Belgium—unimaginably huge tracts of magnificent rain forest with some of the richest stores of biodiversity on the planet—are being bulldozed and replanted with palms to feed international demand for palm oil.

The indigenous people who made the forest their home for millennia are being mercilessly deprived of their natural habitat just as surely as the rest of the flora and fauna there.

Endangered Sumatran Orangutan

The loss of biodiversity, including the loss of ancient indigenous human cultures, is a tragedy that cannot be quantified.  What is being lost is priceless.

It may seem like it’s all very sad, but all very far away, too.

But our summer temperatures in March have everything to do with the destruction of the last remaining old-growth forests in Indonesia, in Africa, in South America, in Canada.

Once the forest is gone, the topsoil will begin to erode.

Desert will prowl the borders of what used to be forest.

When, as in the Indonesian palm oil plantations, diverse ecosystems are replaced with monocultures, those monocultures more vulnerable to pest and climate disruption.

And then?


Lately I have been having recurring waking nightmares about food shortages.  Already I am concerned, as a backyard gardener, that these hot, dry spring days will not provide the proper growing conditions for spring crops like peas and lettuce.

Imagine conditions like these being replicated across the globe.

Imagine a growing season where all over the planet we lurched from heat and drought to torrential rains and tornadoes.

In the US we have become accustomed to thinking of food insecurity as something that happens in other parts of the world.

Famine stalks Asia and Africa.  It doesn’t come near us.

Or it hasn’t come near us for a very long time.

This year, as I see how the natural world around me is struggling to provide for the chipmunks, the bear and the turkeys; as I greet the arrival of the few straggling migrant birds who have managed to run the gauntlet of a landscape devastated by chemical warfare and industrial agriculture; as I gaze out at the bare trees shimmering in the unnatural midday heat, I know in my heart that it is only a matter of time before our turn comes.

Today it is the indigenous people of Indonesia who are going down with their forests.

It is the desert people of North Africa who are starving, and the teeming masses of Asia who are fleeing the floods of torrential rains.

We in the huge, pampered gated communities of North America and Europe will be insulated from these shocks for much longer than those on the outside.

But our time will come.

And when it comes, it will be with the full force of every violent futuristic film we’ve ever dreamed up.

Waterworld, anyone?  Mad Max?


Usually I try to stay positive and keep the flame of hope burning brightly, a beacon for myself and for others.

But today this stark, in-your-face, first-day-of-spring evidence of the coming train wreck of climate change has guttered my hope.

Time is running short for us, just as it is for the bears and the birds and the native peoples of the forest.

We are coming inexorably into Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

An Unlikely Environmental Evangelist

There were two reasons, many years ago, why I ended up choosing literature as my field of study rather than environmental studies or law.

I was turned off from environmental studies, my initial choice for an undergraduate major, by a scary required statistics class and no options for getting remedial help to bring my weak math skills up to speed.  I ended up with a B.A. in English and Journalism.

I briefly flirted with the idea of law school after college, but could not fathom spending the rest of my life reading and writing legalese.

So I gravitated towards literature, comparative literature, literature of the world, and my dissertation focused on testimonials and political personal narratives of the Americas.  I knew early on that what interested me most about literature was opportunity it presents for passionate narratives about the intersections of the personal and the political.

That has remained my interest all these years later.  But it has finally become clear to me, over the longer arc of my life, that my early, instinctive connection to the natural world, my recognition of the importance of law, and my duck-in-water ease with the discourses of both journalism and personal narrative, are all finally coming together in what I see as the imperative task to which I must dedicate the last third of my life: awakening my fellow and sister human beings to the urgency of heading off climate catastrophe.

If this sounds like a moral crusade, well, so be it.

I was not raised in any religion, nor do I follow any religious practices now.  I don’t believe in God as a benevolent white man in the sky, nor do I believe that one needs to sit in a particular building, listening to a particular preacher, to reach out to the divine.

But I have always felt a deep spiritual connection to the natural world.  When I was 8 or 9, I used to go out into the woods and sit alone in my “spot,” which was a circle of mossy stones at the top of a big stone ridge, ringed by maples and centered around a grassy glade.  It was a small circle, no bigger than 10 feet in diameter.  I would just sit there and look and listen to the birds in the trees above me, the small insects on patrol in the grass, feeling the wind ruffling against my face and a kind of inner exultation and delight that I can only describe as religious ecstasy.

No one taught me to do this, and it wasn’t until much later, reading personal narratives by indigenous elders, that I was able to put this early spiritual connection with nature into a broader polytheistic cultural framework.

I believe that everything in our world is tinged with spiritual significance.  And I believe that human beings, because we are unique among animals in being able to see the effects of our actions on the larger landscape of the planet, and to both predict and alter the future, have a special moral imperative to do what we can to be the responsible stewards of the natural world of which we are a part.

I have never said that out loud.

But thanks to environmental activist educator Eban Goodstein, I now recognize that this is exactly what I should be doing, whenever I can, as urgently and passionately as possible.

Goodstein, who founded the national organization Focus the Nation and now heads up the Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College, writes in his 2007 book Fighting for Love in the Century of Extinction that it is crucial that people who understand the seriousness of the pivotal moment at which we stand begin to speak up—not in legalese or scientific jargon, but in the clear, ringing tones of moral conviction.

“The real problem that nontheistic environmentaists face is not a depth of passion, but a failure of moral language with which to cultivate and nuture that passion,” Goodstein says.  “Unless passion about life on Earth is nurtured, and mass extinction is understood clearly in terms of good and evil, then political opposition to the great extinction wave of our generation will be weak and it will sweep across the next century unabated.”

Goodstein recommends that each of us “develop a thirty-second ‘elevator speech’ that is a response to the question: ‘Why do you care about global heating?’” What you say won’t be convincing or memorable to people unless you can quickly tell them why this issue is deeply important to you, and why they should also care.

It can’t be a laundry list of words that have been so often used they’ve become clichés: sustainability, clean energy, even droughts or wildfires.  Goodstein suggests that when it comes right down to it, we should care about global heating because it is “just plain MORALLY WRONG” to ignore the prospect of the sixth great extinction of life on Earth, when we not only know it’s coming, but have a pretty good idea of how to head it off.

Given my non-religious upbringing, I’m not that comfortable with the language of good and evil or moral righteousness.  And yet it is no accident that all human religions do codify a moral code that seems to be hardwired into our species.

Goodstein refers to Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson’s 1984 book Biophilia, which set the stage for evolutionary psychology in arguing that human beings have evolved to love life and work to extend life by interacting positively with our environment.

Whether we come at the issue of climate change from a religious perspective (God made us the stewards of life on Earth, we have a moral injunction to protect all God’s creatures) or a nontheistic but nevertheless spiritual reverence for the natural world, or even a simple scientific recognition that the current fabric of our ecosystem will live or die depending on human choices now, there is no doubt at all that each of us needs to get our elevator speech nailed down and go out to become evangelists for the natural world.

I don’t use the term evangelist lightly.  Christian evangelists have a reputation for single-mindedness bordering on fanaticism.  They believe deeply, and they are willing to take the risk of expressing their beliefs out loud, and actively trying to convert others.

I am someone who has been known to hide in my own house when the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked at the door.  I have never followed any preacher or religious dictate, nor have I ever considered trying to persuade others to any given point of view.

But the situation we face now is unprecedented in my lifetime, or human history as a whole.  It demands an unprecedented degree of commitment.  It demands taking the risk of climbing up on a soapbox and speaking out loudly and passionately enough to draw a crowd.

Those of us who are awake to the gravity of the coming environmental catastrophe need to be getting out there trying to instigate change through every possible channel: electoral politics, grassroots activism, legal challenges, moral persuasion, standing on our heads–whatever it takes to wake people up and get them moving.

So what’s your elevator speech about?  Mine, I think, is about love.

Whether we call it love for God’s green earth, or the love for the natural world, what we mean is the same: love for our children and future generations, who should not be denied the pleasure of listening to birdsong in the trees on a peaceful spring morning, knowing that their world is stable and secure.

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