(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2012)
“Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.” Vaclav Havel
Dave Smith’s invaluable Ukiah Blog Live pointed me to a sobering presentation by Guy MacPherson on YouTube entitled Twin Sides of the Fossil Fuel Coin. MacPherson is a prominent conservation biologist who argues clearly and concisely that the only hope for the survival of humans beyond another couple of decades is the complete collapse of our global industrial society right now, today, and even that probably won’t be soon enough to stave off fast-approaching human extinction and the extinction of virtually all living things due to increasingly rapid global warming.
I watched the nearly hour-long presentation alone and then I watched it again a few hours later with Marcia, and then I spent a sleepless night wrestling with the overwhelming evidence that, barring a confluence of major miracles, we are about to experience massive economic and environmental collapse, and when I say “we are about to” I mean any day now, with some very reputable scientists suggesting the earth will be uninhabitable by humans in less than twenty years.
That’s right. Twenty years. Why? Well, in a nutshell, all recent data suggests that the warming oceans and the concurrent melting of arctic ice and the thawing of previously frozen bogs of Siberia, Canada, and Alaska are combining to release so much methane into the atmosphere that earthly temperatures will soon rise to deathly levels and everything that needs oxygen to survive will perish. And long before the oxygen runs out, crop failures and water shortages and catastrophic storms and economic collapse will instigate mass starvation and unimaginable social chaos. There will be no safe havens when there is no oxygen to breathe. We cannot move to a nicer place. This is it.
Meanwhile, I’ve got bills to pay and the men have arrived to install a deer fence. The house needs a new roof, we’re out of carrots, and we better get that package in the mail today or the presents won’t get to my sister before Christmas. Marcia is rehearsing some lovely cello-piano duets with Carolyn in the living room and the greedy bastards have just upped our health insurance twenty-five per cent and Obama is caving into the Republicans on tax reform because he is a Republican, and by the way, Obama doesn’t give a rat’s ass about global warming and the fast-approaching death of everybody’s children including his own.
So how do we proceed when we know the end of everything is so near? We can carry on as usual until something stops us from carrying on, or we can call our friends and say, “Let’s put our heads together and think of what we can do to try to help save the world?” And then we can start doing whatever we figure out to try to do. In either case, according to MacPherson, we’re doomed to a horrific future because we’ve waited too long to make the substantive changes we needed to make to avert global disaster. So why bother to try to improve things if we’ve already missed our chance? Why not just enjoy life as much as possible for however many years we have left and then when things get really icky, commit suicide?
That is probably what some of us will do. And some of us will hoard food and water in hopes of staying alive for a few months longer than we might otherwise live. And most of us will starve to death or be killed by other starving people or…you see why I had trouble sleeping.
In the meantime, I sure am enjoying the music Marcia and Carolyn are making in the living room—such masterful players, and so attuned to each other. What a miracle that humans evolved to where we could compose such gorgeous music and invent such fabulous instruments on which to bring forth such heavenly sounds. As it happens, I’ve been composing some new piano pieces I hope to record in the new year, and I’m looking forward to my novel Inside Moves being reissued in paperback in June with a flattering introduction by the famed Sherman Alexie; and I’m in talks with a publisher about bringing out a new edition of my book of writing exercises The Writer’s Path, and the deer fence guys are making great progress, which bodes well for the big vegetable garden I’m hoping to plant in the spring, and…
Gardens? Books? Music? Writing? What am I talking about? The human experiment is about to end. Forever. No more Shakespeare, no more Mendelssohn, no more Edith Wharton and Tony Bennett and Bill Evans and Eva Cassidy and Vincent Van Gogh. No more duets in the living room, no more walks on the beach, no more talks by the fire, no more snuggling in bed, no more laughter, no more Anderson Valley Advertiser, no more Giants baseball, no more going to the post office to get the mail. And no more garlic and basil and olive oil and almonds, i.e. no more pesto. Damn!
“The whole thing is quite hopeless, so it’s no good worrying about tomorrow. It probably won’t come.” J.R.R Tolkien
In 1971, at the ripe old age of twenty-two, I started an eight-person commune in Santa Cruz with the intention of becoming adept at organizing and operating group living situations that would, among other thing, minimize our use of automobiles and fossil fuels while maximizing regenerative ways of warming our dwellings in winter and growing lots of nourishing organic food. I was stoked (as we used to say) about the prospects of creating social systems that fulfilled the creative, emotional, culinary, and spiritual needs of individuals while enhancing life for the larger group and impacting society beyond the group in highly positive ways. What I discovered was that it was relatively easy to create such systems, but it was almost impossible to get American people, even fairly enlightened American people, to embrace such collective living arrangements for more than a little while.
Following the failure of the various communal systems I was involved with, I was initially at a loss to explain why so many people were so fiercely resistant to communal living (or even just neighborhood sharing systems) that were so much more economical and fun than going it alone. After years of thought, I came to the conclusion that social systems based on sharing rarely succeed in America because Americans (certainly those born after 1950) are entrained from birth to think of themselves first as individuals, secondly as members of a family (a distant second), and then maybe, and only maybe, as members of a larger group. Thus our various experiments failed because successful communal systems require individuals to put the group first, at least some of the time, which is the antithesis of the American way. In short, I was trying to fit round pegs into square holes, and I, too, was one of those round pegs, especially when it came to how quickly I lost patience with my fellow humans.
I mention these communal living experiments because in thinking about the fast-approaching end of life on earth, I think I understand why we have not been willing to change our ways to slow the destruction of the biosphere. We do not inherently feel we are part of anything beyond our separate selves. But even so, had we not invented such horribly destructive industrial systems and cars and trucks and trains that run on gasoline, and had we not so grossly overpopulated the world with our kind, we might be here for another two million years. Yet those destructive systems and inventions were born of our urge for individual power and control over others, and overpopulation is a function of our unwillingness to sacrifice individual desires for the good of the larger group.
So…do you believe Guy MacPherson, that the end of life is really very near? If you do believe him, what are you going to do about it? And if you don’t believe him, why don’t you?
Meanwhile, the deer fence guys are going great guns and Marcia and Carolyn are sounding fabulous and I want so much to believe that the scientists haven’t figured everything out that mother earth might do to cool herself down, and maybe we’ve got more time than they think and maybe my friends’ children and grandchildren won’t perish too soon. I’m sixty-three, so if I die ere long I will at least have had a fairly long life, but…
This just in! A planet with conditions capable of sustaining life is orbiting a star neighboring our sun! The star, called Tau Ceti, is only twelve light years away. Quick! Ready the giant spaceship (and dub her The Ark) and load the sacred vessel with two each of…
But seriously, folks, as the rain drums on our roof, and life goes on a while longer, I think of Mary Oliver’s poem The Buddha’s Last Instruction that begins
“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal—a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,