What if we need to be a broken hearted society? After all, we are living in a dying society. Why shouldn’t we be heartbroken everyday?
One of the few things that has consistently brought me joy and helped me to release some stress over the past several years is going for a drive on this circle route I take. It usually lasts about an hour, and I listen to music nice and loud the whole way through. Singing, sometimes crying, sometimes yelling. It’s… really something. I wonder how much ecological damage I’ve caused by doing this? And is it enough to take home the ability to ground myself? How do we really gauge what’s worth it?
Stephen Jenkinson, an author and palliative care guru, describes in his book Die Wise how most audiences he has been with “believe without saying or being aware of it that being upset is a kind of noble labor and that it should be rewarded… a public expression of pain or confusion is a problem for the listeners or the experts to solve, as if the hurt has an automatic request in it to have the hurting end.” But he doesn’t feel persuaded by this. Being hurt and expressing it — finding a language for it — is a chance to go deeper into the hurt, not to hide away from it or pave over it. He says “hurt has to find its name and find a language that does justice to what has been seen and endured… people can hurt towards a purpose. They can hurt for some reason or merit beyond how it is to hurt and be hurt. Saying more when you think you’ve said enough is one way to begin that labor”.1
If capitalism leads to collapse, which it does, then grappling with the thought of your own death and hurt becomes political. Collapse is defined by Yves Cochet as “the process at the end of which basic needs (water, food, housing, clothing, energy, etc.) can no longer be provided [at a reasonable cost] to a majority of the population by services under legal supervision”.2 The engineer Jean-Pierre Dupuy describes the view of “enlightened catastrophism,” where the threats that present themselves to us today shouldn’t be viewed as “fateful probabilities of risks” but as “certainties”.3 Accepting them as inevitable will enable us to handle them as they need to be handled. We won’t spend time arguing with the captain of the Titanic about the best way to prevent the collision with the iceberg. We will (hopefully?) figure out the best way to save those who are on board. But if we take this example further, then we would have to provide more lifeboats before we could know that it would sink. I believe we are at the stage where we are arguing with the captain about how to avoid the collision, though. It is certain that we will hit the iceberg.
“Collapse is certain, and that is why it is not tragic”.4 It just is. Death is certain, and that is why it’s not tragic. It just is. But then what is the meaning of life? What if the meaning of life is what we do with our shit?
Jacques Lacan wrote that “the problem of human society is what to do with one’s shit.” And Timothy Morton expands on that: “many non-humans also appear concerned about what to do with their waste.” Broadening it even further yields his idea of hyperobjects, defined as “things that are massively distributed in space and time relative to humans. ‘Hyper’ in relation to some other entity, human-made or not.” And this raises the question: “what should we do about substances on whose inside we find ourselves”?5 We are in a world of stuff, stuff that will outlive us. So we’ve fallen into the trap of trying to solve our own deaths. And as I type this I am still struggling with it.
In Die Wise, Jenkinson gives an example of a man who told him that the “point at which continuing to live made no sense” is when “he would not be able to make his way up the stairs to the bathroom on his own.” The toilet is a marker for our quality of life. Jenkinson goes on:
“Our culture places enormous emphasis on success in toilet training in our early years… the symbolic project that carries so much the nuance of autonomy, control, and mastery is absorbed into how we manage the vision of the void beneath us”.6
The toilet is a symbol of our competence, mastery, and control over the natural world. What do we do when we can no longer flush?
In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon spill, BP CEO Tony Hayward said that “the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation.”
“Am I dependent in, what I’m defending?”
— Bon Iver, Faith
We are caught up in the results of every action that was made by every person for all of time. Human survival is dependent on a multitude of ecological environments that are all interconnected and living. When even one of these organisms is affected, the whole chain is affected, from underground to surface to air. Species extinction is a normal occurrence, but the level and rate of extinction has sky-rocketed due to human actions. There can even be the extinction of ecological interactions that send shockwaves through the intricate web of the living world.
This is a pretty bleak picture. Can it be changed? Yes. It’s a mistake to see these horrors as the neutral product of human flourishing. Alternative farming systems such as agroecology, permaculture and bio-intensive micro-agriculture restore soils and ecosystems “by reducing the impact on the climate and by restructuring peasant communities”.7 They are also able to produce comparable or superior yields per hectare as industrial agriculture with less surface used. Cuba’s Grupo De Agricultura Organica (GAO) received the Right Livelihood Award, touted as the alternative Nobel Prize, by showing this was possible in a concrete, large-scale way. But this is not business as usual, and thus any attempt to shift towards this method of food production is immensely difficult.
Pablo Servigne and Raphael Stephens, in How Everything Can Collapse, bring up a phenomenon called sociotechnical ‘lock-in’. “We all stop at the petrol station to fill our tanks because our ancestors (some of them) decided at a certain point to generalize the use of the thermal engine, the car and oil. We are stuck in the technological choices of these ancestors”.8 Through the promotion of ever-denser road infrastructures, governments increase the use of these same structures through supply-chain organization. This prompts investment and public support. Tax revenues grow, and the highways will expand and destroy other more efficient transport systems. For example, the United States government destroyed the tram system with the help of General Motors, Standard Oil, and Firestone.
Jenkinson: “Obliged to suffer, they are not obliged by the disease but by the medical innovation that has given them More Time and, by the inability of the law to keep pace with the innovation, to suffer”.9
We cannot stop growing, even though that is what we desperately need to do. “None of our institutions is adapted to a world without growth because they were designed for and by growth”.10
We can’t, or shouldn’t, go out and shop anymore. We’ve gotten used to making it a moral imperative after COVID, perhaps before, in a more specious way, because of our opposition to capitalism or ecological collapse. But then who are we? Are we anybody? Currently we can’t attend events that reinforce our identities. I can’t go to poetry readings to pretend that I am a poet anymore, and my self-image, sense of self, is suffering because of it. I miss being able to conjure a certain energy into a room, and I miss what doing that means about who I am. That is worth saving to me, but all of the other madness that keeps this machine turning isn’t.
The most energetic and resilient fear that Jenkinson has seen in his time working with dying people is that life will go on. “That the living will continue to be the living and be able to proceed as if the dying person is past, done, over, in some way as if that person had never really, enduringly been…”.11
Dying wise is about having witnesses, and being a witness to others dying.
I have been trying to use Instagram less, and to establish “posting days.” During those days I will post what I want to post, try to get some “engagement” on it through liking things and just generally being active. I wait an hour and see who liked what I posted. Then I go through a routine of checking stories, checking my story to see who has seen it; sometimes I hope a particular person sees what I post. I want to know that what I have posted has been seen, and that I am someone worthy of being liked. I will check my own profile and imagine that I am seeing it for the first time. What will someone think of me, commoditycreature, when they land on my page? Oh, decent follower to following ratio. Has a link. People like their stuff, they are active. This is who I am, this is how I would like you to see me.
“He had saved every nameplate from every office in every clinic and hospital and university he had ever worked, and they were all in the death room with him, bronze and silver and stainless steel declarations over and over of his name and his degrees and his accomplishments and his status in the world, reiterations that he was still what he was, that he would die an oncologist, that his competence and mastery would survive what he would not survive, testimonials all to the Quality of his old Life”.12
I don’t want shows to be over. I miss all of my friends so much. My body is in pain, aching to see them and give them hugs. Is anyone else sad, too?
Jenkinson has called the novel Coronavirus a god.
“It follows, exploring the several so-called ‘psychic’ phenomena (e.g. telekinesis, remote viewing) from the lab of Cartesian-Platonic Western science will be an ongoing, rank fail, for the fact of the major cultural self-deceit called ‘objectivity.’ In fact all matter is consciousness imbued and any single ‘object’ cannot be ‘separated’ from awareness but only isolated from the self via a set of steps routing around any ‘object’; this requires a ‘presupposition’ or, realizing certain circumstance will be encountered demanding a practice of ‘avoidance’ (practical invisibility.) Herein (indigenous practice) is a matter of seeing but purposely, consciously not engaging but because the Western method is ‘proactive’ (projective) it cannot avoid engagement (drawing attention to itself) concerning certain laws and attending forces it does not factor in (does not know how to.)”
— Ronald Thomas West, Transcendent Warfare & Shamanism
Nothing will settle back into normalcy. The past hasn’t ended. All solutions to the climate “crisis” aim to defend only “business as usual”. If our solutions aim only to preserve the cacophony of commerce, then has anything been solved?
We are living in a swirl of consequences, interconnected in every moment, and in a way, present in every moment. Everything vibrates with the energy of the recent and distant past. The actions we take are baked into our current society’s daily functioning. The depth of the problem spreads further than personal responsibility.
We can have storytelling. We can have movies. We can have everything left over at the end of the chain. We don’t need to go back to “a simpler time” and won’t win without tools. But capitalist “technology,” created and continuously sustained on global genocide, is going to kill us all.
There is a deep lack of people up to the task of keeping the nuclear infrastructure running. We thought we could keep all the information needed to run it in a data set and that the next generation could come along and interpret it easy-peasy. But, “more ironically, American researchers have realized that the best way to transmit knowledge over very long periods is the oral tradition, that is to say, the transmission of myths by speech (and not in writing or, even worse, via electronic data). So nuclear experts have sought advice from the ‘specialists’ of these traditions: the few North American Indians who are still alive, precisely those whose people were driven out to make way for uranium mining…”.13
I have routinely been shown over the past couple of months that my aspirations towards objectivity or reasoned and rational discourse may not be as wise or as noble as I imagined them to be. Ever since I asked myself the question “how can I write objectively?”, numerous texts have urged me to go in the opposite direction.
Our fear of death comes from knowing that once we die, people carry on. We are spoken about like we no longer exist because we aren’t here physically. We know there is no strong obligation to keep our name alive and within the community, and we may even feel awkward about doing that because it brings up uncomfortable feelings and thoughts — thoughts like “I might be dead someday too.” We distance ourselves from our dead loved ones because we feel like it will keep us even more alive.
Walter Benjamin wrote that the only historian capable of altering the present by writing about the past is the historian “who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy, if [the enemy] wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.” Success aside, the enemy is still winning every battle, and the dead are perhaps even more endangered than the living.
“The future is inside us, it’s not somewhere else”
— Radiohead, The Numbers
I believe that how we view death can be liberating. Not fearing it, but recognizing it as a being or entity outside of ourselves that has the potential to loosen our overlord’s grips on our psyche. I have been failed one too many times by the systems that were supposed to help me to believe that they will get better. I see them getting worse on an almost daily basis. Ending climate change means ending global capitalism.
I want to determine how to escape a fatalist resignation after coming to terms with inevitable societal and ecological collapse. Figuring out what actions I can take, and finding joy and gratitude in what I already have are major parts of that.
I am becoming a druid. Part of the initiation is to plant at least one tree and nurture it to full health. It’s likely that tree will outlive me. I am interested in developing spiritual fortitude for myself, through my practices in druidry, meditation, and art. I believe sharing that process can help others.
Introspection can serve mass liberation as long as we are willing to lose the deep-rooted individuality that is seeping its way through our cultures, and as long as we are willing to share our vulnerable thoughts and feelings in service of connecting with others. Coming to the realization that we are a part of a larger whole, and that we need to respect and perhaps even be in awe of the complexity and beauty of the larger systems of life, is necessary for our survival.
We must continue the search for what can emerge from the cracks showing in the system. We must approach a future that is based in compassion for all of life.
- Stephen Jenkinson, Die Wise, 2015 (North Atlantic Books), p. 239.
- Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens, How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times, 2020, trans. Andrew Brown, (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press), p. 2.
- Ibid, p. 100.
- Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, 2013 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), p. 140.
- Jenkinson, p. 146-147.
- Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens, How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times, 2020, trans. Andrew Brown, (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press), p. 63.
- Ibid, p. 70.
- Jenkinson, p. 42.
- Servigne and Stevens, p. 70.
- Jenkinson, p. 278.
- Ibid, p. 142.
- Servigne and Stevens, p. 141.