Extinction and Responsibility: Why Climate Disaster Might Heal Us Even As it Kills Us
If climate disaster has left us with no future do we still feel responsible to the earth that outlives us? Or do we say “who cares?”
If we say “who cares?” then our sense of responsibility was never anything more than a moral rule, a business deal of sorts, where we agreed to behave honorably as long as we were allowed to project our egos into future generations. But I think real empathy for a world without us is still possible, and I think it matters in some way that can’t be calculated on a strictly transactional basis.
The possibility of near-term extinction is new, but the underlying dilemma this presents is as old as the Big Bang, or older. Death is death. It comes to the individual as surely as it comes to the species, the planet, and the exploding universe itself. What’s different now is only this onrushing inability to avoid facing this fact. And I think this is a good thing, because it forces a confrontation with the many reductive delusions that have limited our creative participation in the world, which is our responsibility to something more than ourselves. The chief among these limitations has been a strict and too literal image of who we are, an identity that keeps us trapped in a solipsistic circle.
This is especially true in America, where even in 1838, broad-minded Emerson stood out as an exception:
“This country has not fulfilled what seemed the reasonable expectation of mankind. Men looked, when all feudal straps and bandages were snapped asunder, that nature, too long the mother of dwarfs, should reimburse itself by a brood of Titans, who should laugh and leap in the continent, and run up the mountains of the West with the errand of genius and of love. But the mark of American merit in painting, in sculpture, in poetry, in fiction, in eloquence, seems to be a certain grace without grandeur, and itself not new but derivative; a vase of fair outline, but empty, — which whoso sees, may fill with what wit and character is in him, but which does not, like the charged cloud, overflow with terrible beauty, and emit lightnings on all beholders.”
Here individualism has become a religion. Here the male particular has lost all concern for the feminine universal, denigrating what it can’t see, and suffering the consequences of that loss of devotion to something larger and more mysterious than its Self. The would-be rugged individual is now nothing more than a braying but ultimately cooperative slave in a pyramidal caste system that has nearly colonized the whole of human consciousness. This system values the individual only as a paying spectator or praetorian guard at bread and circus dog and pony shows. This is what life means to many people — remaining distracted from onrushing realities as long as possible.
This limiting prism of individuality illuminates only a narrow spectrum of meaning and responsibility. As Emerson noted, “the impoverishing philosophy of ages has laid stress on the distinctions of the individual, and not on the universal attributes of man….the condition of our incarnation in a private self, seems to be, a perpetual tendency to prefer the private law, to obey the private impulse, to the exclusion of the law of universal being.”
The Literalism of this reductive story of Self has prevented our surrender to a larger responsibility, which is love. This Literal vision is what killed the paradise of earth. We know this because there are moments when our dogmatic grasp of identity loosens, and in those moments it becomes possible to detect a larger responsibility, an almost heroic need for honesty which doesn’t cease until we cease to breathe.
The Remedy of Suicide is False Humility
Now and then I encounter people who hate the human species. Sometimes I feel this too. But that’s a strange stance, because it recapitulates the error of our species: this perpetual tendency to oppose everything it encounters, to hate, and to objectify and scapegoat even itself. Self-hatred betrays a false modesty, a desire to remove the virus of humanity from the planet and to present the impression that this stance is somehow an act of virtue or innocence. But it only perpetuates the diseased thinking that is killing the world.
If I believe that humans are a fully separate species — an outsider of sorts — as our language, training and arrogance have hypnotized us into believing, then the extinction of the human species might seem like a simple remedy to climate change. Maybe cults will eventually flourish, each proposing with false modesty that this is the only remedy. It will seem like a universal perspective, but such an act of desperation, whether aimed at others or oneself, won’t help the planet. It’s only another insult to the earth itself, because we’re only an embodiment of this planet. As John Trudell said, “the DNA of the human being — my bone, flesh, and blood — is literally made up of the metals, minerals, and liquids of the Earth. We are literally shapes and forms of the Earth. That’s who we are.” We’re not separate. Our self-hatred is yet more hatred of the earth, and it will spread the disease of alienation even if we’re not here and the earth “recovers” without us.
I think there’s a wave of alienation and antagonism that is larger than us. We’re like drops of water in a wave rolling through the universe, a particular embodiment of a wider momentum. But in that moment of passing embodiment we are the wave and carry the whole momentum in our lives. And if we don’t learn what it means to stop participating and colluding in this destructive momentum it will remain with the earth and affect its development even if we manage to “cleanse” the ecosystem of all our sweet children.
Of course, this is entirely unprovable, but if our separation from earth is recognized as a delusion, then our vision widens by default (without wishful thinking) and we begin to recognize ourselves as an expression of a life force extending well beyond our individual or collective lives.
I’m not trying to convince you that this is literally true. But I feel this wider-angle story gets short shrift in a human culture that sees everything as separately or externally related and nothing as intrinsically whole. Any real healing has to involve a negation of this impoverished way of imagining ourselves and the world. Everything is a story or a prism which draws different wavelengths of meaning and potential out of the world. And this impoverished story of separation is killing us all.
There are so many other creative stories we could tell that don’t fight so hard to preserve an illusion of an independent Self: “The vision of genius comes by renouncing the too officious activity of the understanding,” Emerson said. “Men grind and grind in the mill of a truism, and nothing comes out but what was put in. But the moment they desert the tradition for a spontaneous thought, then poetry, wit, hope, virtue, learning, anecdote, all flock to their aid.”
When our eyesight is cleansed of Truism and Literalism, then our visions become metaphoric, and yield constantly to the life-giving drift of error, which is mutation, which is how we stumble with humility into larger worlds, which can never be pinned down by any Truism.
So even if we’re dying out, we have a responsibility to negate Literalism and understand the nature of this confusion of thought and thing that has driven us to such extremes of alienation. Our participation in this oppositional world view remains largely unexplored. That enquiry is subtle work that goes well beyond merely knowing what Korzybski meant. It hides in every relationship and response, and only by discovering these hidden errors of separation do we cease participating in the momentum that is destroying the world.
Not Participating in the Destruction of the World[i]
This is what John Trudell meant when he said “It’s not revolution we’re after; it’s liberation. We want to be free of a value system that’s being imposed upon us. We do not want to participate in that value system. We don’t want to change that value system. We want to remove it from our lives forever.”
And it’s what Lao Tzu meant by Wu Wei. This non-participation in the momentum of opposition opens up the possibility of ecstatic new visions and stories of communion. We can recognize these stories as metaphors. After all, there is no real wave of momentum either. That’s merely a metaphor for something that registers in our limited psychologies in this way. It’s a coherent default picture, but not Gospel. It’s a helpful distortion.
Look, all stories are distortions of reality. We need to distort reality because there’s no way to know reality as a living whole. The distortion helps us recognize (utilize, develop and appreciate) elements of an otherwise undifferentiated whole. The danger is taking the stories too literally, forgetting that every distortion is not only valid but also at some point invalid, which is true of any good metaphor. And the objective of a metaphor is not to pin down reality, but to negate those pins and unfold a new potential.
As Rilke said, “What we choose to fight is so tiny! What fights with us is so great. If only we would let ourselves be dominated as things do by some immense storm, we would become strong too, and not need names.”
We can’t waste what remains of life being dedicated to the narrow and particular. We have to give up this false humility, and retell our lives as part of something far larger than us. We can’t be embarrassed and ironic in the presence of the universal any longer. As Emerson said, “to feel the full value of these lives, as occasions of hope and provocation, you must come to know, that each admirable genius is but a successful diver in that sea whose floor of pearls is all your own.”
And in that spirit I tell you what might be a tall tale, or at least a metaphor. But it looms as a potential we have felt too small to develop: everything dies, even universes expand and collapse, in what appears to be a perpetually bubbling primordial soup of some unimaginably creative majesty. Life, death and responsibility, which is love, make demands on us without concern for our short life spans. Even our last breath must be an act of tremendous dignity and devotion. We owe it to the mystery of life itself, we owe it to the earth, to cease participating in this momentum of destruction.