Facing Extinction, My View
I read Ms. Catherine Ingram’s essay:
The data she cites seems realistic and reasonable;
the inferences she draws about potential, likely and current forms of consequential social and societal breakdown seem logical;
the observations she makes about the feelings, reactions, sadnesses and denial many people will respond with to the facts about global warming and biodiversity loss — and the dire implications for the long-term health and even survival of the human species — also seem rational and accurate;
and the recommendations she makes for managing one’s own state-of-mind — consciousness, psychology, expectations, mood, calmness — are helpful.
My comments on Ms. Ingram’s essay
You have to remember that (1 to 4):
1. Despite science being able to make credible estimates (from climate and socio-economic models with super-computers) about the pace at which the climate and environment will degrade, nobody really knows how quickly and to what extent society will degenerate. In 10 years time, life might be worse than we would imagine that future now, or it could be better than our fearful projections today. Who knows?
2. Looking back over the history of homo sapiens (200,000+ years), and over the history of homo (2M+ years), one sees a talent for adaptability to difficult circumstances. So, I find it unlikely that homo sapiens will “go extinct” even if social and environmental conditions deteriorate very quickly and very badly. But, those degradations would certainly cause much suffering, much death, and at some point begin reducing the human population. How far a reduction? I don’t know, but certainly not to zero, for a long long time.
3. If I had to throw out a number, I’d say we are good for at least 200 years. Why that number? Because anything less seem improbable to me, based a bit on the physics and a lot on gut feeling; and I can’t really project from any factual basis beyond 200 years, so I don’t know. Even so, I suspect people will continue to exist well beyond 200 years, but a guess without any educated justification.
4. Ingram phrases her recommendations for mentally coping with the facts about global warming climate change in a manner I would characterize as “psychotherapy.” I tend to phrase the same ideas from a perspective I think of as Zen Buddhism, in its most general sense. That is to say (a through g):
a. For each individual: life is always uncertain, life is precarious, death is certain to occur, but when and how are unknown.
b. Life is a gift, don’t waste it by living unaware of it: distracted by the “maya” of all our social fads, obsessions and daily ego dramas, and by all our technological gee-gaws facilitating our entertainment and “games.” You don’t necessarily have to be a Zen monk sitting in Za-Zen all night (kept up by green tea) and with consciousness totally focussed on the breath of the moment, but you definitely should keep very clear awareness of yourself, your body, the environment that surrounds you and beyond that the human network you allow yourself to be “attached” to.
c. The point is to actually experience the awareness — and joy — of being alive, as often as possible. Obviously, sometimes we immerse ourselves in tasks — pleasurable or unpleasurable — that “we lose ourselves in” for a while. For my mother such immersion is gardening, for me it can be working out a differential equation or a new poem. But I “resurface” to enjoy a meal, enjoy listening to the birds on my hillside, to see the changing of the light, to feel the changing of the temperature and the breeze, to inhale the stars at night, to remember many good times of the past, to eat ice cream, and even to watch the Twilight Zone on TV.
d. This clear awareness (c) equates to being grateful for experiencing life, at the very least when the momentary experience is not one of pain. But even so, the best way to live through pain is to not deny it and try to avoid it, thus setting up a conflict with the external reality of pain pushing on you, and which conflict only adds anxiety and more frustration to the pain you already are experiencing — and that means added pain. Every painful experience comes with a minimum level of pain we must experience, like it or not. So facing this fact is the best we can do: suffering through that minimum (which is not to say it is negligible) realistically rather than trying to deny it and thus causing ourselves to suffer more than the minimum. It’s not fair, it just is.
e. This all means that one should engage in their lives with a positive attitude: do what is in you to do, for the good and for a sense of fulfillment. The details of this depend on the individual and their circumstances. I don’t think of this as a mad rush to check off a bucket list of fantasy treats and entertainments, but instead to apply your mind, body and talents to those activities (creative, kind, socially and psychologically positive, at least harmless) that bring a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment to you. Your life is a gift, a very improbable gift, so use it in a way that does credit to you and justifies the receipt of that gift. For Christians, I refer them to the Parable of the Talents. For folklorists, I remind them of Joseph Campbell’s advice: “Don’t waste time” and “get it done.”
f. My contention is that the more people that live as outlined in “e,” the better the state of the social (and physical) world we all live in at the moment, and therefore that regardless of what happens geophysically and environmentally to that world, we will have a better life than might otherwise be the case under the circumstances. The utopian extreme of this view is that if “everybody” lived the ‘e-life,’ then we would have the best social network for dealing with the physical consequences of global warming climate and environmental degradation, and consequently the best deployment of both warming attenuation responses (e.g., changing our energy systems, that sort of thing) and mitigation strategies (e.g., helping those impacted by droughts, crop losses, inundation, extreme unlivable heat, intelligent applications of technology for social benefit, etc.).
g. Regardless of what everybody else does, or doesn’t do, your life is your responsibility to set right and enjoy as best you can (again, being kind regarding your societal impact). Also, you are just one individual and can hardly take on the whole problem of “fixing the world.” It’s too much, you can’t do it, and trying to will just destroy you. Being the best and happiest “you” (in a clear-eyed knowing way) that you can be is the best contribution you can make to the whole of society, besides being the most personally rewarding way to use the gift of time and consciousness that you have been given by the intriguing randomness of evolution.
So, yes, it is sad that we can see into a future that looks rather grim, and it is difficult to avoid upsetting deniers when we try to speak frankly about the facts we are aware of, and it can be sad to have to “let go” of many youthful illusions about both the continuity of the natural world that hosts us, and about the human networks we are entangled with or which cast us off, but maybe this awareness of and adaptation to reality is not really new. Maybe it has always been true that clear-sighted individuals have always had to navigate their lives through an unstable present and into an uncertain and apparently increasingly hostile future, and that their most honorable and most satisfying course of action was to live up to their potential, as best as they could, for the duration allotted to them.
It should be obvious that all the above is a projection on my part, my “best guess” of how I would like to try to behave if and when I am faced with an existential crisis, a life and death situation. In my own case, the above attitude came to me as a result of dealing with personal crises — which for me were the equivalent to life-and-death — and my application of Zen ideas garnered from much reading. Basically, I extracted ideas from my intellectual storehouse, in times of stress, to find something practical to make passage through hard times bearable.
A person I have corresponded with very recently is an ex-psychotherapist who is dying of cancer, and who wrote: “The only thing that I know is that PEOPLE DONT CHANGE UNTIL THEY FEEL PAIN.”
I agree that people only really question their self-image, and attitudes toward the conduct of their lives, until after having first been gob-smacked by the random and cruel realities of life. One way of rephrasing the above would be:
“Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.”
—Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727),
Newton’s 1st Law of Motion, a.k.a. inertia.
So my conclusion is: live confidently, make the best of it and enjoy it; in that way you add goodness to the world. And, yes, we have to accept that there will be pain and suffering for many many others no matter what, and even despite whatever best efforts we put in to relieve and prevent as much of that pain that the rest of the world will be burdened with. And, this has always been true. This is what I want my children to know and apply in their own lives, because I know that then their lives will be as happy as is possible.
Be aware, be intelligent, be confident, be kind. Life is a gift. And, have fun!
I guess this last is my definition of love.