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I have spent a lot of time this week thinking about a subject that most of us seek to avoid: ecological collapse. That first sentence alone will likely prompt some of you to stop reading. Avoidance is a common reaction to a topic most people circumvent in their day-to-day lives, often by way of gallows humor. Most of the people I know and love purposefully avoid reading any detailed projections of what lies ahead. After all, when we compartmentalize something too large for us to process, we are, in a sense, building four walls around it, both to seal the thing off so it cannot hurt us, and to inhibit the growth of terrible thoughts and feelings that would flourish if we fed what we are seeking to isolate.
At this stage of my life, I am pretty good at compartmentalizing. In good ways and bad. When something has to be done, I am skilled at shutting down my hesitations. Such shutdowns don’t protect me from fear as major events unfold, but they do allow for calculated preparation. And yet, all of my abilities to compartmentalize and prepare seem like nothing in the face of catastrophic climate change. It’s been said that no species can fully imagine its own extinction. Our inability to imagine ours may ultimately be the source of our undoing. Humanity has plodded through its discoveries, inventions and exploitations of the natural world with arrogance and abandon, as though we lived in a world without cumulative consequences.
And now, we are faced with climate disaster on a scale we will not be able to comprehend until it is upon us. While scientists have put forth various projections, we cannot know with any certainty when these catastrophes will overtake our way of life, or what it will look like in many of the places that we live or might retreat to. We do not know if we have five years or 30 before the social and economic order we are accustomed to comes undone — or if, by some miracle, human civilization will reorder itself and, to some extent, withstand what’s to come.
In Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, Paul Kingsnorth states flatly that “human civilisation is an intensely fragile construction. It is built on little more than belief: belief in the rightness of its values; belief in the strength of its system of law and order; belief in its currency; above all, perhaps, belief in its future.”
There is a significant amount of truth to that statement. The fragility that Kingsnorth points to is inarguably real. The hierarchies that human beings cling to bring order to a chaos we would rather not process. We are social animals, in search of both companionship and leadership. As a person with no religious beliefs, I attach the creation of gods to that same sense of longing. We are like other social animals, in that we search for mates and leaders, but we also have a consciousness so broad that it is, at times, almost unbearable. As we manage our day-to-day, compartmentalizing what we cannot bear, the hope that someone smarter, faster and more powerful than us has a plan is fairly universal. Alas, if there is a god of some kind, her intervention seems unlikely here. If there is any power great enough to so much as delay the inevitable, it is us, not singularly but in collectivity. And humanity has yet to rise to the occasion.
An increasing awareness of the threats ahead, coupled with the unfathomable inaction of most governing bodies, is maddening. While denial is still rampant, conversations about climate panic and grief have broken into the mainstream in the U.S. Grief for the world as we know it has already pushed some people over the edge and it will continue to do so. In some places, realization is no longer optional, as climate catastrophe has already wreaked havoc in irrevocable ways. This is true both inside and outside of the United States, though poorer countries have certainly taken the brunt thus far.
I am by no means immune to grief or panic. In my nightmarish daydreams, I see the formation of doomsday cults, mass suicides, rampant starvation and unmitigated violence. I see us choking on the air we breathe. I see myself, a disabled person, unable to survive the rigors of an increasingly uninhabitable world. But in my better dreams, I imagine that we, as people, who are capable of so much good, recognize our power and push forward changes that could prolong life on Earth. I see us planning and building and creating intentional communities that solve problems creatively, that prioritize decency, rather than expediency. Communities that are rooted in care, rather than fear and panic. Whether on a large scale, or on scattered smaller scales, human potential, which has always run in more than one direction, could deliver us to a continued meaningful existence. We could, in spite of everything, maintain lives that are very much worth having. I believe in that possibility. I believe we can rise above individualism and not treat the loss of vulnerable people as inevitable amid shifting conditions. I believe our ingenuity could be employed in life-giving ways that we have not yet imagined, but must begin to foresee.
I have always been in love with possibility, and I remain so.
But however it goes, there are dark days ahead, and sheltering ourselves from that reality only serves to make the worst case scenarios more likely. Letting reality in, beginning to feel the ache of it, and still moving in spite of it, is the first step. Beginning to envision what we must do collectively and individually to fight back and prepare is the next step — one that remains too unthinkable for most. But the time is upon us to accept that there are incredible catastrophes ahead, and that, if human life persists on Earth, our experience of it will be radically different.
Dahr Jamail, one of the great climate reporters of our time, has written at length about the state of the Earth, and about grief for the natural world as we know it. If you are ready to delve into these subjects, I highly recommend his work.
Earlier this week, I saw someone suggest that if we are really barreling towards our collective demise, that there is no point in doing anything but trying to be happy. I understand this perspective, but also feel that it limits our potential and purpose far too much. It’s a perspective that reduces the meaning of life to happiness, and while Epicurean world views can be enticing, I don’t think they hold up for most of us. I do not pretend to entirely understand myself, or any of you, but I know I am moved by drives more complicated than the pursuit of happiness. That said, I do think we should pursue happiness. I think we should find joy where ever we can, and that this has always been important. For those of us who do movement work, joy is a highly undervalued necessity.
Recently, organizer Mariame Kaba, a prison abolitionist whose work has had a tremendous impact on movement politics in the United States, said on Twitter, “We need lots more joy.” Mariame was promptly attacked by a naysayer who proclaimed that the world was too unjust, and too close to its end, for joy to be of significance. It was not the first time I had seen a stranger act as though Mariame’s reflections on happiness, or her sense of humor, were somehow steering people away from movement work. Such reactions fly in the face of reality, given that Mariame has driven more people toward that work than most of the naysayers could imagine. Every day, she is at work on a justice-oriented project or dreaming up her next effort — and on most days, she is doing both. I have never met anyone who works as hard as she does, or as persistently, with no regard for the odds that are clearly stacked against her. She taught me the words “we don’t believe in done deals,” and I have seen things that I did not believe were possible unfold because my community embraced those words. And yet, a stranger, who is likely doing far less, saw fit to scold her for saying that we need more joy. But as someone with a rich knowledge of history, Mariame knows that people have always needed joy amid struggle, and that human beings have always found ways to create moments of humor and happiness, even in the most terrible of circumstances. It is a human necessity. It is how we make struggle bearable. It is how we sustain: through relationships and the rejuvenation that joy can bring when we find it.
So yes, I believe we should pursue happiness. For some, that means seeing as much of the world as they can before its natural wonders are forever altered, or even torn asunder. For some, it means enjoying the precious, everyday experiences that our current way of life offers for as long as we can. Picking up children from school, binge-watching TV with our partners, playing with pets, and otherwise enjoying the trappings of a fully functional civilization while they exist. I, too, want to see more of the world while it exists as it does now, and there are few things I love more than lazing around with the people I love, watching TV, eating brunch, laughing at nonsense and seeing the people I care about smile. I don’t know how much longer any of it will last. Maybe five years, maybe much longer, but I no longer think of any time spent on anything that makes me happy as a “waste of time.”
That said, I am at a stage in understanding the transformation at hand that brings up conflict: What skills should I be learning to survive in a changing world? How much time do I have to learn? How can I balance adaptation, the pursuit of joy and the maintenance of justice work that I have always seen as an end in itself, odds be damned?
At times like this, we must remember that struggle and joy are not mutually exclusive any more than our struggles themselves are mutually exclusive. The proper balance is, to me, an open question, but we know that our struggles for justice only exist in separate silos because we live in a society that has successfully divided us according to our own interests. To have any impact on what’s to come, we will have to upend white supremacy and capitalism, and other evils as well. In thinking of what it would mean to either survive in collectivity, or experience a collective demise in spite of our divided existence, I am often reminded of Norman Maclean’s poetic words:
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.
I read those final words of A River Runs Through It when I was not yet an adult, and they have never left me.
The words I will leave you with today, if you have stuck out this lengthy reflection with me, are mine. They are words you may have already read, as I shared them on Facebook this week, in response to assertions that there was no point in continuing our activism if the human race has only 30 years of life yet. As someone who believes in justice, and who believes the pursuit of justice, in of itself, is worth living for, and who has also found more meaning, love and friendship in that pursuit than anywhere else, I say this:
I would prefer to win, but struggle is about much more than winning. It always has been. And there is nothing revolutionary about fatalism. I suppose the question is, are you antifascist? Are you a revolutionary? Are you a defender of decency and life on Earth? Because no one who is any of those things has ever had the odds on their side. But you know what we do have? A meaningful existence on the edge of oblivion. And if the end really is only a few decades away, and no human intervention can stop it, then who do you want to be at the end of the world? And what will you say to the people you love, when time runs out? If it comes to that, I plan on being able to tell them I did everything I could, but I’m not resigning myself to anything and neither should you. Adapt, prepare, and take the damage done seriously, but never stop fighting. Václav Havel once said that “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.” I live in that certainty every day. Because while these death-making systems exist both outside and inside of us, so do our dreams, so long as we are fighting for them. And my dreams are worth fighting for. I bet yours are too.
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