"Another End of the World is Possible": Practicing the Yoga of Despair
What will it take for human beings to change? I think, maybe, it would take dying.
On October 5, 2018, a painting of “Girl with Balloon" by anonymous street artist and activist, Banksy, was sold at Sotheby’s for over a million English pounds (a million U.S. dollars). Seconds after the gavel ended the action, a shredder which had been hidden in the frame, destroyed the bottom half of the painting. (You can see the whole thing in this video.) The little girl in the painting disappeared and all that was left was her red heart-shaped balloon.
We can debate what Bansky meant by the act which turned a painting into a piece of performance art, or whether it was a cynical ploy to drive up the price of the painting, but I couldn't help seeing it as an omen about the end of hope.
Banksy’s depictions of the girl with the red balloon had already gone viral before the Sotheby's action. The painting is often interpreted as an expression of hope and is sometimes accompanied by the phrase, “There is always hope". Looking at the shredded image of the little girl and the lonely balloon rising, I couldn't help but think of human extinction caused by rising air temperatures. And the fact that the destruction was triggered by the fall of the auctioneer’s gavel suggests the ultimate cause of the destruction: capitalism.
A few days later, a UN report came out which made this interpretation seem prescient.
“You Have Permission to Freak Out”
On October 8th, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report which concluded that the Paris Climate Accord goals were too modest: 2°C warming (above pre-industrial levels) is no longer considered a safe upper limit; we now need to stay under 1.5°C. The problem is we’re already at 1°C and we're not even on track to stay under the earlier 2° target. Right now we're staring down the barrel of 4°C! (For a frame of reference, 4°C is the difference between now and the last Ice Age.)
And, according to the IPCC report, we now have only 12 years to cut carbon emissions by 45%, and until 2050 to cut 100%. The tone of the headlines reflected the serious nature of the report’s findings:
Cutting emissions to this degree, says the report, will require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” What’s more, “there is no historical precedent for the scale of the necessary transitions.” David Wallace-Wells summarized what “far-reaching and unprecedented changes” would look like:
“a complete rebuilding of the entire energy infrastructure of the world, a thorough reworking of agricultural practices and diet to entirely eliminate carbon emissions from farming, and a battery of cultural changes to the way those of us in the wealthy West, at least, conduct our lives."
And some scientists are saying this is the conservative view of things!1
Wallace-Wells summed up the news with this succinct notice: “You now have permission to freak out."
… Brought to You by Coal
So now, I have to ask: Does anybody actually think we are going to see “historically unprecedented change” in the next 12 years? I mean, we’ve known about the threat of anthropogenic climate change for 30 years (and we’ve been warned about the limits to growth for even longer) and nothing has changed. In fact, we’re headed in the opposite direction. 2018 is now expected to hit an all-time high for carbon emissions.
I have to agree with Dave Levitan: “If we were going to solve climate change, we would have solved climate change."
The media is obsessed over the Republicans’ denialism, but that’s increasingly looking like a distraction. Just a few months before the IPCC report, the Trump administration released a report which cynically used a 3.5°C hotter future as a given to justify not taking action to improve fuel economy standards—essentially saying “it would be too little too late.”
More recently, as the worst wild fire on record raged in California, the Trump administration released the US National Climate Assessment, which predicted global temperature increases between 2°C to 5°C(!) by the end of the century. The report was released on Black Friday, apparently in the hopes that people would be too busy shopping to read the news.
Meanwhile, investors are seeing climate change as an opportunity to cash in. And now, as I’m writing this, a reporter is contacting me for a comment on the UN climate summit in Poland, which is being sponsored by a coal company!
If Only Scientists Would Invent the Tree
As I wrote here recently, my prediction for our future is this: Capitalism will keep doing what it does: “consuming forests, species, and human potential and excreting carbon dioxide, toxic chemicals, and radioactive waste—in short, eating everything in sight and shitting where it eats” until there’s nothing left.
In addition to higher temperatures and rising seas, over the next 80 years, we can expect increased drought, soil degradation, and food and water scarcity; mass migration and the spread of diseases; and more wildfires, superstorms, and floods. This isn't some crackpot end-of-times raving. This is the mainstream view. Correspondingly, we can expect increasing economic disparity, expanding ethnic and racial conflict, the continuing rise of charismatic demagogues, increasingly overt forms of corporate slavery, and the collapse of government and social institutions.
Throughout all this, people will keep praying for some techno-fix, like a machine which will suck carbon out the atmosphere—as if nobody has ever heard of a tree, what novelist Richard Powers describes as “a simple machine needing no fuel and little maintenance, one that steadily sequesters carbon, enriches the soil, cools the ground, scrubs the air, and scales easily to any size. A tech that copies itself and even drops food for free. A device so beautiful it’s the stuff of poems.”
And while scientists are hard at work trying to invent the technological equivalent of the tree, the Amazon—the lungs of our planet—was just effectively sold to the timber industry in the last Brazilian election. No, I’m not looking to scientists to save us. In fact, it seems more likely that scientists will kills us with some harebrained geoengineering scheme.
Why We’re Not Going to Be Saved
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think we’re doomed. The reasons why have less to do with parts-per-million or degrees centigrade than they do with human psychology and culture:
Unlike wars, climate change does not present us with an easily identifiable enemy whom we can “other”. The enemy is us.
We don’t want to question the (il)logic of growth on a finite planet. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it’s difficult to get a person to understand something when their whole way of life depends on not understanding it.
Neoliberalism has succeeded in convincing most people that (in the words of Margaret Thatcher) “there is no alternative.”
We are unlikely to change until a crisis forces us to, but the nature of climate change is that the effects of our actions today are “baked” into the earth’s climatic system and don’t manifest for decades, by which time it will be too late.
Capitalism has proven to be impressively resilient and able to absorb dissent and capitalize (pun intended) on its own failures.
Our democratic system of government is structured to discourage rapid change and encourage compromise. We now have the luxury of neither.
The very solutions we cook up have a way of making the problem worse, because we are still operating from within the same level of alienated consciousness which created the problem.
(And this last one may be the most important …)
As eco-theologian Thomas Berry has said, “We will not save what we do not love.” And I don’t think most people love wild nature. I think most people (including myself sometimes) dismiss it or hate it or fear it.
Nature Bats Last
No new technology is going to save us—not renewable energy, not nuclear energy, and not carbon capture. No political party is going to save us either—not the Democratic Party, not the Democratic Socialists, and not the Green Party. And certainly, no tweak of our existing economic system is going to save us—not a carbon tax and not even a Green New Deal.
The activists aren’t going to save us either. Witness mainstream climate activists who naively advocate for a transition to renewable energy, without advocating for a corresponding cut in consumption2 or talking about what that would really mean —an economic contraction which would make the Great Depression look like halcyon days.
The problem is, few people seem to want to talk about the real cause of climate catastrophe: capitalism and the dominant cultural myth in the west, the myth of progress. In a way, mainstream climate activists aren’t that different from industrial capitalists: both think we can still have our cake and eat it too. Both seem to be driven by an unquestioned faith in human progress, the belief that human beings are destined to forever keep expanding our dominance over nature.
What’s more, both climate activists and the fossil fuel industry adopt an adversarial attitude toward nature. Consider the response of many activists who, when faced with the futility of the policy changes they are promoting, respond that we should “go down fighting.” But what if the problem is the whole notion of “fighting”? We’ve been trying to fight nature at least since the Scientific Revolution (maybe since the invention of agriculture), and we see now where that attitude has gotten us! From this angle, the “fight” against climate change starts to look indistinguishable from the war being waged on nature by human civilization. What Guy McPherson has written about the climate action group, Extinction Rebellion, applies to a lot of climate activism:
“Because nature always bats last and also because nature always gets her way, a human rebellion at this late date hasn’t got a chance at preventing or slowing human extinction. Even if we did have the means and fortitude to rebel, I don’t know how we can meaningfully rebel, and against what. After all, our several-thousand-year-old rebellion against nature, in the form of civilization, is precisely the route by which we’ve found ourselves peering into the abyss of extinction.”
Die Early and Often
Since I published my 2-part essay about the end of the world here at Gods & Radicals, I’ve been contacted by lots of people who have been thinking the same thing. It turns out there’s a whole community out there prophesying the near-term extinction of the human species. I probably disagree with most of them about what “near term” means. 3 I think I have more faith in the resilience of capitalism than many of them do. There’s still a lot of the planet for capitalism to consume before it’s done. 4 But my most interesting discussions haven’t been with those people who focused on the “We’re doomed!” aspect of my essay, but those who were more interested in the question, “So what do we do now?”
One of these discussions was with Patrick Farnsworth, the creator of the podcast, Last Born in the Wilderness. Patrick talks with folks about climate change and radical political theory, and has interviewed such significant voices as Silvia Federici, Derrick Jensen 5 , Paul Ehrlich, John Zerzan, and Charles Eisenstein, as well as several of my fellow G&R contributors. One of the questions Patrick frequently asks is: “What is climate change asking of us?” Or to put it another way: “As individuals and as a species, what is the Earth calling us to.” Patrick surmises—and I agree—that fighting to the bitter end is not the answer to that question.
In the second part of my earlier essay, “Die Early and Often”, I tried to suggest a possible answer the question, “What is climate change asking of us?” My tentative answer was “die early and often”. To “die early” means to confront our death while we are alive—not just our individual deaths, but also the death of our civilization and the death of the human species (among countless more species). We also need to confront the death of our myths, especially the myth of progress and the myth of the individual6. To “die often” means to discover and create rituals and myths which will help us confront death. I believe that Paganism has the potential to help us do that. Paganism can help us learn to die well.
“We need to be intimately acquainted with death, as these are the rites over which our witchcraft presides, not some nudist holiday camp capers predicated on a glut of cheap oil. … For witchcraft to be anything other than the empty escapism of the socially dysfunctional it needs to feel the shape of its skull, venerate the dead and the sacred art of living and dying with meaning. … We need to offer the death rites in a culture that pretends that death can be cheated.”
— Peter Grey, “Rewilding Witchcraft”
The Sin of Despair
But talking about death is a big no-no in environmental circles—not to mention our wider culture. There is an incredible amount of resistance within the climate movement to any message which might provoke despair. In fact, some climate scientists have been encouraged to soft-pedal their findings due to the fear that, if the hard truth about climate change were widely known, people would just give up.
Despair is a cardinal sin among climate activists. Activists (myself included) resort to all sorts of strategies for avoiding acknowledging how hopeless our situation is:
Denial: Climate activists have our own form of denial. We don’t deny that climate change is happening, but we deny what it means—the inevitable death of human civilization and possibly the human species.
Anger: Plenty of justifiable anger is on display in climate demonstrations, usually directed at the fossil fuel industry or policy makers. I wonder how much of our anger is a cover, a way of avoiding our own complicity, and way of staving off a creeping feeling of despair.
Bargaining: The idea that we can replace fossil fuels with renewable energy without a corresponding decrease in human consumption is a form of bargaining, and most climate activists (myself included) are guilty of it.
All of these strategies are employed to avoid despair. But eventually, some of us work through these stages of grief and arrive at depression. We despair.
The Yoga of Despair
“Some will be afraid of this knowledge, witchcraft should be liberated by it, liberated from petty concerns to pursue lives of beauty, liberated from the sleepwalking into death that our culture has made for us and our children. So I counsel, confront death.”
— Peter Grey, “Rewilding Witchcraft”
Here’s the thing though. As someone who is going through this process now, I can tell you, despair isn’t as bad as it seems from the other side. For one thing, there is a kind of clarity which comes with despair. A sense of peace settles. Priorities come into focus. And, strangely, a new feeling of power emerges out of surrender—not the power over nature, with which we are so familiar, but rather power with nature.
Father Bede Grfiiths says despair is a yoga. A “yoga”, in this sense, means a path or method of enlightenment or awareness. The idea of despair as a path to enlightenment is pretty foreign to most people in the West. Most activists equate despair with paralysis. People avoid it, suppress it, medicate it. But there is a wisdom to be found in despair.
Imagine a patient who is given a terminal diagnosis. There are many ways a person might respond to the news. They may pass through some or all of the stages of grief. They may search desperately for miracle cures. Or they may despair. They may give up hope of survival. But some of those who give up may discover a new peace. They may decide that they want to live more meaningfully and intensely with the life they have left. They may decide to focus on healing their relationships with others or fostering new ones. They may devote their time and resources to creating a legacy for the next generation.
We have been given a terminal diagnosis for our civilization, and quite possibly our species. As Peter Grey has written, “The inevitability of our physical deaths is now being played out on a planetary scale.” Despair is a natural response to this news. But despair is not something to be avoided. Despair is a teacher. Despair teaches us about our limitations. Despair teaches us where we belong. Despair teaches us what matters most. Despair teaches us how to live.
Shaun Chamberlin’s experience of despair, which he writes about on his blog Dark Optimism, is illustrative:
“… the harsh truth is that I cannot save Nature and/or humanity from the ongoing devastation, though I could burn myself out trying. … And facing that reality hurts.
“But, beyond agony, joy.
“I sit with that pain, and its attendant tears and rage, I refuse to run from it or to distract myself with entertainment or with frantic work, and I find that it does not end me.
“Eventually, I come out the other side, somehow empowered. The psychic energy I have been using to suppress that fear and despair is released, and I look at the world with fresh eyes.
“‘Ok’, I breathe, ‘here I am, in a dying world’. It’s the same dying world I lived in yesterday, but today I see it for what it is. ‘What now?’
“And this time the question feels less desperate, less anxious. What story do I want to tell with this day, with this life? The question is suddenly filled with possibilities.
“The knowledge that we are all going to die becomes liberating, rather than oppressive. …
“And then maybe, yes, I decide to spend my time trying to preserve dying species, to right injustices, to create more joy and wonder, maybe even to work for reform or revolution—maybe those are the stories I want my life to tell. But now it comes from such a different energy; from a deeper wellspring. Maybe that new energy will even bring other stories, other possibilities? But certainly it banishes the sense of desperate obligation, the futility and frustration, and leaves the simple expression of who and what I am.
“There is no fear of burn out, for now I am doing and being exactly what I choose at every moment. No, the impossible struggle towards sustainability is not what I’m here to do, but for now, maybe it is what the thing that I’m here to do looks like, from the outside.”
Another End of the world is possible
One of the things I talked with Patrick Farnsworth about in our interview was the curious response of some people to the news of impending civilizational collapse and human extinction, who say, “Well, if you believe that, why don’t you kill yourself?” I think it says a lot about us that we cannot imagine a meaningful existence without the belief in infinite human progress. While there are some circumstances in which suicide might be a rational and dignified response to a terminal diagnosis, there are other possibilities, other ends of our world which we might imagine.
After all, there is still beauty. And joy. And love.
“The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”
— Carl Sagan
In one of the last scenes of one of the Avengers movies, the robotic villain is confronted by one of the heroes, who is another artificial intelligence. As the sun sets in the background, the robotic villain says, “They’re doomed,” referring to humanity. “Yes,” responds AI hero thoughtfully, “but a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.” Indeed, I would argue that a thing is made even more beautiful by our awareness of its mortality.
“The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal. Because any moment might be our last. Everything’s more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be more beautiful than you are now.”
— Achilles, in Troy (2004)
Knowing that we will die can make us love the world even more. Knowing that our relations won’t live forever can cause us us to love them even more. And what do we do for the people we love? We try to lessen their suffering. We try to deepen our connections with them in the time we have left. And we mourn them when they are gone.
For my own part, I have found a kind of peace in knowing that we’re doomed and discovering that there is still meaningful way to live. I haven’t worked it all out yet, but things are shifting for me. I have realized that we can’t save the planet, or the human species, or even human civilization (and I don’t think I would want to if I could). I have had to let go of all that big picture stuff.
Now I am turning my attention from “Nature” writ large and “the Planet” to the place where I live and to the beings—both human and other—I interact with on a daily basis. I am turning from my hopes for future to the needs of the present. And I am discovering that I love this place and these beings7, especially the few wild parts of it that remain—the Michigan Lakeshore (sandwiched between a coal-fired powerplant and a steel mill) with its dunes, forests, and wetlands, the milkweeds and wild lupines, the cottontail rabbits who live under my deck and the red-shouldered hawks who stalk them, the silver maple I planted with my kids when they were little and my poor ash tree, which is valiantly fighting to survive an ash borer infestation.
It took my realizing that I was losing them to realize how much I loved them.
Which brings me back to Thomas Berry’s observation that “we will not save what we do not love.” Climate activism is, by necessity, focused on the global, the general. 8 And yet, love is always specific. We cannot love “the earth”, because we cannot have a relationship with the earth, any more than we can have a relationship with “humankind"—it’s too big. But we can love the place where we are and the places where we have been. Most of us cannot love “the whales”, because most of us don’t interact with them regularly. But we can love the species with whom we are direct relation.
“Ovid tells the story of two immortals who came to Earth in disguise to cleanse the sickened world. No one would let them in but one old couple, Baucis and Philemon. And their reward for opening their door to strangers was to live on after death as trees—an oak and a linden—huge and gracious and intertwined.”
— Richard Powers, The Overstory
I feel a little embarrassed to be ending this essay on such a sentimental theme as love. But, then, love and death have always been paired in the Western imagination—Eros and Thanatos, Death and the Maiden, the Womb and the Tomb, the ambiguous apple in the Garden of Eden. So perhaps it’s not so strange that death should lead us to love.9
After writing my previous essay on this topic here, one commenter turned me on to the novel, The Overstory, by Richard Powers. I highly recommend it. It’s a book about love and death … and trees. The novel interweaves the stories of nine very different human beings and the trees they develop deep relationships with. The trees are as much characters in The Overstory as the human beings. Powers’ aim is to try to de-center the human species, if only just a little bit. From his interviews, it’s clear that Powers is not hopeful about human survival, though he does have hope for trees: “I am equally certain that commodity individualism, a thing we’ve assimilated so deeply that it feels as inexorable as death, will not outlast an ordinary white oak that you might plant today.”
Powers has said that The Overstory was born out of his first encounter a giant redwood, when the realization that humans are not destined to be masters of this planet hit him with the force of a “religious conversion” and he felt himself “bound back into a system of meaning that doesn’t begin and end with humans.” Note that it was a specific redwood—not a professed love of “Trees” or even “Redwoods”—which triggered his transformation. I believe that a kind of revelation or conversion—and only this—has the power to really transform humankind’s relationship with our home and the other species we share it with.
What would happen if such a conversion took place on a mass scale? I wonder, what love might be born in the hearts of humankind if we really believed that this is our end? Maybe we would fall in love with our home again. Maybe we would find our kin again among the wild beings of this place. Maybe we would use our remaining time to try to save as many wild species and as many wild places as we could. Maybe we would adopt a hospice mentality for our own species and try to lessen the suffering of other human beings. Maybe we would form networks of human solidarity and multispecies mutual aid. Maybe we would create death rites for dead and dying species … including ourselves.
None of this would save our world, but it might just save our souls … or, to put it a better way, it might just enable us to find our souls again.
I frequently find myself asking, “What will it take? What will it take for human beings to change?” I think, maybe, it would take dying. What is a religious conversion, after all, if not a kind of death? I think maybe the only way we could really experience a conversion to a biocentric way of life is if we believed—if we really knew—that we were going to die. Maybe radical love is only Possible when we give up hope for ourselves.
I’m thinking now that maybe the meaning of Banksy’s shredded painting is a little different than what I first thought. Maybe what he was saying was:
After hope, there is still love.
1 Some argue that the report ignores the potential non-linear impact of feedback loops and tipping points. In addition, the recommendations in the report include carbon capture technology which has not been invented yet. For more on the conservative nature of the IPCC, see here. For more on “scientific reticence", see here.
2 The easily-obtainable fossil fuels are running out, and the energy-return on-investment (EROI) (the net amount of energy you get out of a source after subtracting the energy used to extract it) for renewable energy sources is a fraction of the EROI for the fossil fuels our culture has been depending on for the last 150 years. The same is true of the newer methods of extracting the harder-to-get fossil fuels, like fracking or the tar sands. What this means is that the net energy output of our culture will go down, drastically, and so too must our consumption. Also remember that switching to fossil fuels will do nothing to eliminate two other major causes of global warming: industrial agriculture and deforestation.
3 I also have to say, the resemblance of some Near-Termers to Christian End-Timers in their enthusiasm for catastrophe is more than a little disturbing. While I do want global industrial capitalism to collapse, I don’t want billions of people to suffer more and die, and I don’t want the human species to go extinct. I’m not looking forward to any of this.
4 Though I’m not ruling out the possibility of rapid collapse, I find John Michael Greer’s prediction of a couple centuries of gradual decline—having started already in the 1970s—to be most reasonable. Don’t be lulled into believing that we have generations to change things, though. We are the last generation that could have stopped climate change.
5 This is not an endorsement of Jensen's or DGR's transphobic statements.
6 Only a new myth can replace an old myth. The myth of human progress is a version of the ancient patriarchal solar hero myth, in which the god-hero must slay the monster (representing mother/nature) in order to transcend chaos and death and achieve mastery and immortality. But there is a counter-myth, in which death is not something to be overcome, but something to be surrendered to, in order that the cycle of life may go on. The goal of the hero in the countre-myth is not domination, but partnership, not transcendence, but participation. And the only monster which must be slain is our own ego. Examples of these two meta-myths can be found woven throughout the world's both ancient and modern. See Jules Cashford and Anne Baring, The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image and Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
7 At its core, maybe that's all being “pagan" really means.
8 The globalization of environmentalism has contributed to the homogenization of place in Western culture, and leads to such ecological blasphemies as biodiversity offsetting.
9 The first gods of the modern witchcraft revival, Gerald Gardner's Goddess and her consort, were deities of Love (“Istar") and Death (“Siva").
John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.