In Defense of Mother Nature; Contemplating Our Predicament & Coping With It

You can think of this essay as a spiritual successor to the three-part Post Modern Religion series I have shared previously. There’s some heavy crossover with my political philosophy essays too.

A Demise of Our Own Making

Now climate change, for me, used to be something of an abstract concept when I first heard about it in middle school. There was always a sense of worry, but being a stupid naive kid who believed the adults of the world knew what they were doing, I figured eventually humanity would solve the issue. I chose to be hopeful, and believe the government wouldn’t let us pollute that much, burn too much fossil fuels, if our collective survival was on the line. Surely there was a plan, an “execute order 66 as soon as ______ happens” type of fail-safe. After all, 2050 is a really long time from now, so even if we somehow screw it up, I’ll at least be around 60 years old by then…right?

Of course, eventually I grew up and learned some hard truths. First of all, the grown-ups of the world are not infallible and in fact many are just as stupid as some of the kids I knew when we were growing up. Nobody really has their own shit totally figured out, let alone a foolproof plan to solve the world’s troubles. Not only that, the rich (and their stooges in government) are legitimately terrible people who would rather the rest of us suffer even in a non-climate catastrophe world via hunger, poverty and despair rather than give up a fraction of the money they could never spend in a lifetime anyway. The baby boomers in their first election, chose the embodiment of corruption (and progenitor of shamelessly divisive politics with the Southern Strategy) over the kindest, most earnest man I’ve ever seen in public life, with a brilliantly farsighted platform to boot. (And for the record, I will always believe in my heart of hearts that this was the turning point in modern history, where we chose a Barabbas analogue over the path to humanity’s salvation.) Soon after, Reagan got elected in a landslide, told everyone to only worry about themselves and ripped the solar panels off the White House in a needlessly spiteful move. Everyone in power with the influence and resources at their disposal to make the sweeping changes necessary to save our species has and continues to be operating under the philosophy of “fuck you, I got mine!” (Make no mistake either, they know exactly what’s coming–they just don’t care about saving the rest of us.)

Over the years I’d see article after article explaining in painful detail how dire the situation really is and these inevitably came with the realization that no sweeping reform was coming. In college, I recall one year it randomly snowed in the middle of April after weeks of warm weather and blooming flowers. The next, there wasn’t one single snowfall all winter which was unheard of in my state. The very next still, it randomly shot up to 80 degrees in the middle of February with no warning. Those were the incidents where climate change seemed imminent for me, where it stopped being an abstract, long-term warning from a headline and became my new experiential reality. The revelation that insect populations have decreased exponentially in just one generation was the real tipping point for me, where I stopped believing things could be shrugged off as merely an inconvenience at least for another few decades. You may laugh if you wish, my own parents did, but I was convinced then and there, that civilization as we know it would collapse within ten years.

Now in this most dreaded year, 2020, with the hellish red skies of our Western region, scorching and freezing temperatures in a single state at the same time, 100 degree heat waves in the arctic and the hottest temperatures ever recorded in both the US and abroad…I’m starting to think even that 10 year deadline may have been optimistic. Call me a doomsayer akin to my ancient namesake or a conspiracy nut, but I believe there’s a very real chance our society may not last even another five years. It’s a scary and depressing thought I take no pleasure in patronizing, especially considering I’m so young and I wasted my youthful years in the wrong body, forced to act out a role I never wanted to be.

And yet, if it has to happen (and I’m not saying we give up trying to at least mitigate the fallout coming in the meantime, mind you)…why not at least try to make peace with the inevitable? In my younger and more anxious years, I searched for meaning in this crazy world through a variety of places. I came to the conclusion that, ultimately, nothing is supposed to last forever anyway. That may sound like a depressing cop-out answer but let me explain…

The Aquarian’s Creed

We’re all going to die; that was the price of admission. What’s changed in the last few years is that more of us are recognizing this will probably happen sooner than we thought. For some of us, one of the concepts we clung to in order to justify our brief corporeal existence was that we might leave a political, dynastic or cultural legacy of some kind for people to remember us by. What’s changed in the last few years is that more of us are recognizing even the impermanence of such conceited goals in the face of mankind’s collective existential fragility. What good is it to be the best when there’s no one else left to marvel at your accomplishments? Perhaps then, a truly worthy heritage requires a bit of selflessness to ensure a longer period of survival?

In the end, all narcissistic pursuits are in vain. Anything you built will corrode away, anything you wrote will turn to dust on the shelves, anything you did will be forgotten. Empires collapse, buildings fall to disrepair, dynasties decline and individuals rot in the dirt among the filthiest worms. It was all going to happen sooner or later anyway; everyone and everything was made to wither away given enough time, whether that be 100, 1,000 or 1,000,000,000 years from now. Speaking for myself, while I’d have preferred a few more good years going to kink parties, camping trips and the opportunity to take DMT just once, I believe this is the ultimate lesson in life. During our time in the plane of consciousness, the Universe wants us to process the inconvenient truth that everything in it, including ourselves, are inescapably vulnerable and temporary. From the ego death of psychedelics to the looming threat of our own mortality, the message is: “All Things Come to Pass.”

The Sapient beings on this and all other planets who can rise above primitive evolutionary instincts, let go of selfishness and accept their own perpetual insignificance are the true celestial elite.

  1. By abandoning pride and allowing themselves to be vulnerable with others, they will be rewarded with trusting, supportive relationships.

  2. By abandoning tribalism and appreciating the diversity of cultures, they will be enriched with new perspectives and practical knowledge.

  3. By abandoning condescension and accepting that they share common ancestors with even the most pitiable man, the weakest child and modest creature, they will see the full beauty of nature. For all our arrogant assumptions about being made in God’s image, destined for greatness, in truth we are no different than bacteria in a petri dish, rapidly approaching our biological carrying capacity and the resulting mass extinction to follow.

  4. By abandoning hubris and accepting that our actions have consequences, we prevent undesirable outcomes for ourselves in the future. That applies to how we treat others as well as systems we do not fully comprehend, such as the environment.

  5. It’s only by abandoning the need to dominate, accepting our own individual limitations and making peace with our neighbors here on Earth that we can utilize limited resources optimally and discover the true splendor of the wider Universe and perhaps meet our fellow Sapients.

It all begins by thinking beyond our own individual wants and needs. It’s not about being bigger or stronger than “the others,” because in the grand scheme of things we’re all equally susceptible to the void beyond our atmosphere’s delicately coordinated protection. Those who can overcome these and other pervasive character flaws are the ones who will get the most out of existence while it lasts, meet the Creator in dignified humility, and answer their admonition with an appreciative “At Least It Was Here.”

The Fate That Awaits Us

You may dismiss the sentiments from the previous segment as solipsism or existentialism run amok. You may assume I’m a nihilist trying to excuse us from the consequences of our actions since nothing lasts anyway. So let me clarify a bit further. Are our choices still important if all things must come to pass in the end? I would argue that yes, they are. While purely selfish endeavors are fruitless in the long run, selfless farsighted ones can ensure humanity as a whole progresses and our collective legacy lives on far longer than any individual’s ever could. These things may fade anyway, but enjoying them for exponentially longer in the meantime still counts for something.

Climate change hasn’t suddenly rendered our agency irrelevant since we have less time to do meaningful things for ourselves and humanity. Climate change just shortened the deadline and, as it was before, it’s up to us to decide what we do with the finite time we have left. So do you spend every remaining moment with the people who are most important to you, do you seek retribution on the wealthy elites who largely got us into this mess, do you live out the forbidden pleasures of your bucket list before it’s too late…or go back to work and try to pretend none of this is really happening? The choice, as it always was and always will be, is up to each of you.

It’s pretty much inevitable that Earth undergoes a mass extinction and societal collapse at this point. What isn’t a given yet is whether or not humanity, in some form or another, survives and how we proceed from there.

Dark Timeline

The pessimist in me thinks that as resources become more scarce, the nations with nuclear weapons which are the most badly affected will threaten and demand resources from those that are fairing marginally better. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that they use their arsenals out of spite in a crabs-in-a-bucket mentality if they don’t receive some form of aid. Alternatively, the citizens of these particularly devastated countries may revolt, seize control of the nukes and use them for terrorism or warfare. In this way, a unique combination of mankind’s ingenuity (in creating technology as powerful as nukes at all) and carelessness (by allowing climate change to happen in the process of doing so) would serve as our poetic downfall. That would seem to be the most fitting end for a species which was cursed with great intelligence to build things, without enough wisdom to utilize them properly.

ASIDE: In fact, one wonders if perhaps Homo sapiens were the very worst hominid to continue into the present. There were smarter hominids which may have developed faster and applied technology in a more properly restrained manner than we managed to do. Alternatively, the neanderthals, had they survived, may have lived on in a blissfully ignorant, yet sustainable hunter-gatherer condition indefinitely. Either extreme would probably lead to a happier existence for everyone–the hominids and all other species–than the path humanity chose for ourselves.

After we’re gone, the only animals I’m confident will survive are the Eusocial insects, particularly wasps and ants. In our absence, they will expand their colonies over a world devoid of megafauna, but slowly replenishing itself in plant and fungi biomass. Over millions of years, the new plants will convert much of the CO2 to oxygen, but there will be no animals to benefit from this renewal except the joyless lineage of Hymenoptera. The oceans, thoroughly acidified by this point and cluttered by plastic waste, will be largely dead, ironic for the birthplace of all life on Earth. As sea levels rise and hurricanes increase in frequency and intensity, their only practical function towards the living will be that of the hazardous nuisance. Perhaps if and when the pH levels neutralize, some new form of aquatic life may evolve from the arthropods on the surface.

Sooner or later, the Vulcans will pass by Earth to observe what was once our planet, and they will find nothing but a savage world of giant two-foot long insects locked in an eternal war waged indiscriminately between a thousand hostile colonies. It will be a simpler version of Man’s world, stripped of our pretenses towards intelligence, inalienable rights and dignity. The true overarching bent of evolution will be laid bare for what it always was: greed, brutality and lethal competition. There will be no language with which to communicate, no need or ability to accumulate knowledge, no history to be passed down, and certainly no abstract concepts like math or love to inspire reverence in the indistinguishable warriors. The six-legged successors of our folly are far more direct in their purpose and efficient in their ruthlessness. The Vulcans, and other civilized races who managed to overcome the fermi paradox, will happily ignore our terrifying planet and enter into a time of mutual peace and betterment without us.

Eventually the sun will engulf the Earth, the stars will dim, and the Universe will rip itself apart through some combination of dark energy or vacuum decay. From that perspective, none of this will have mattered in the grand scheme of things.

Light Gray Timeline

The frustrated idealist in me hopes that such a nightmare scenario as described earlier is not our future and that some people might survive to carve out a small silver lining from all this. Will our resilience be the result of some coordinated effort, a calculated preservation of the worthiest with a carefully tabulated plan for resurgence over time? Or the haphazard efforts of many autonomous tribes/alliances among the common folk? Either way, I hope those who remain will learn from the catastrophic mistakes of their ancestors. While not artificial, and certainly not taken to this scale before, there have been severe ecological shifts in the past. They likely played a key role in the desolation of the Bronze Age civilizations and may have spurred the Germanic as well as Hunnic tribes westward to overrun Rome. In these earlier calamities, man did not have ecological scientists to explain the phenomena which had led to their destruction so that they could avoid the same pitfalls again. The average person wasn’t educated in those days so that the survivors could plan ahead for the future upon rebuilding. We do have those advantages, and now that we’re about to fully understand the impact of our choices on the world, maybe we can atone for the errors of our ways and do better going forward. (It’s a long shot but that’s how the Federation emerged in Star Trek and Guardia sprang from the ashes of Zeal in Chrono Trigger.)

If I could say anything to guide those survivors, it would be this:

In my teen years, the same time I slowly began to appreciate the true threat of climate change, I also came to learn that the materialistic, over-consuming, short-sighted, capitalist-consumerist lifestyle I had been raised to see as normal was actually a new and unsustainable phenomenon. Silly as it may sound to some of you, it was reading Ian Malcolm’s morphine-induced rants from Jurassic Park (the novel, not the bastardized Spielberg movie) when I was 13 that first made me consider the idea that, in our modern world of artificial conveniences and technology, we had actually lost something important from our past. Other pieces of media, like My Dinner With Andre and Carter’s “Malaise” speech, in addition to my own experiences with nature and psychedelics seemed to confirm that for me as well. The methodology of my outlook may be unorthodox but as we witness the impending climate disaster, the proof is in the pudding. Something we’re doing isn’t quite working out, for us or for the Earth.

To paraphrase Malcolm, another huge problem is we keep developing new technologies and rolling them out to the public without stopping to consider the ramifications first. (As an example, maybe we could have had a discussion on disposal of plastic waste and banning single use plastic before using it to make everything.) In a similar vein, everyone goes through life constantly bombarded by society (especially their parents) with the expectation they go into debt for a degree, join the machine and get a job, buy a house in an ecologically destructive suburb and have three kids which will further drain the planets’ strained resources. No alternative life directions are allowed, and if anyone strays from the assigned path they’re berated for doing so. We’ve organized society in such a way that artificial, and only very recently designed, entities like corporations operate with the single-minded purpose of endless growth (which is unsustainable) and maximizing shareholder profit (which often leads to underpaying workers and abusing the environment.) These organizations have already taken control of much of the world’s resources and the only way to have a voice in their governance is to buy stock (which fuels their growth anyway) or encourage politicians to do it (and they’re mostly bought off already.) The world is moving too damn fast nowadays for anyone to take a step back and see the big picture, much less discuss the possibility that maybe we’re not moving in the right direction.

There’s never any time in a person’s life where we encourage, much less allow, them to question this newly formed status quo and whether or not it’s really worth the trade off. As a result, over time people are born into this system and never challenge the “normal” state of things because it’s all they and their parents have ever known. There’s no pre-programmed “stop and reflect” point in the constitution to allow us all to collectively discuss our trajectory as a society and possibly change course. So, through a combination of the framers’ inability to see future developments in technology or corporate law as well as the corruption of our elected officials, it’s virtually impossible to pull the plug on this Frankenstein’s monster we’ve created.

At this point, we’ve had capitalism-consumerism for ~300 years, industrialization for ~200 years and modern corporate law as well as conglomerations for ~100 years. In that time, the combination of these three forces has led to the complete desecration of our planet as well as unprecedented inequality of wealth. We are well past the point of at least slowing down a bit–blasphemy against Supply Side Jesus I know–and doing a little introspection as a community. We haven’t, so Mother Nature ended up hitting the breaks for us. If humanity is lucky enough to have survivors of this disaster, it’s the last chance we’ll ever get to stop and rethink our principles.

Sure, we gained safety as well as comfort in our pursuit of industrial technology, but we lost that connection to nature and each other which made life more meaningful. Electricity is nice, so are cars, but if rising depression/anxiety/loneliness/suicide rates are anything to go by, they pale in comparison to seeing close friends and family every day as opposed to just Christmas and/or “whenever I get some time off from work.” While they’re nice to have, and can enhance our lives in moderation, digital trinkets and cheap plastic ornaments don’t make us truly happy by themselves. Without meaningful bonds with other people and access to nature, it’s been proven that humans are miserable. In the beginning, we may have created domestication and civilization with the purpose of protecting ourselves from the elements while still having access on our terms. However, I would argue that somewhere along the way we took it too far, lost sight of that balance, thought ourselves wholly separate from the natural world and started building a prison for ourselves without realizing it. We took the environment for granted in our goal of maximizing comfort and accumulating an endless supply of money until there was nothing left to consume anymore.

Now, I know right off the bat someone’s going to accuse me of being overly romantic towards the pastoral version of the pre-Industrial Revolution I’m yearning for. And I’m not saying we ought to throw the baby out with the bath water and go back to living in log cabins, burning whale oil for light and praying in lieu of modern medicine either. However, the climate apocalypse is, was and will be the ultimate proof that the “full steam ahead on the materialism train!” approach we were using before isn’t good either. This is what I was referring to earlier when I said I hope the survivors of the Anthropocene extinction event (if indeed there are any) will be wise enough to forge a new path that might preserve what we can of both worlds.

This particular essay has grown far longer than I had first intended it to be, so my concrete suggestions for how we might do so will have to wait for a follow up post in the near future.

Either way, the sun will engulf the Earth, the stars will dim, and the Universe will rip itself apart through some combination of dark energy or vacuum decay. From that perspective, it doesn’t matter whether we got it right the second time around or not.

Sorry for getting kinda real there. Here’s an upbeat song to cheer you up a bit for making it this far.

2 Comments

  1. It’s a terrifying picture you paint, C. And terrifyingly close to the truth, I fear. Let’s hope the frustrated idealist in you wins the day and that there are at least some human survivors of this imminent man-made disaster.

    Right now COVID-19 is the overriding issue in my immediate environment. Despite the horrific TV images of a blazing West Coast it’s been a long time since I heard anyone around me mention climate change. Too scary and depressing, perhaps…

    I belong to a generation that was early enough along the timeline to actually do something about preventing this mess, but didn’t. We f*cked up, to put it mildly. And there’s no learning from our mistakes this time. As you say, the best we can do now is cherish our loved ones (so important!) and keep in touch with whatever nature there is left.

    I’m as horrified as you are by the rapid decrease in insect populations. The irony is that insects will likely be the sole survivors of what is to come.

    Your speculations about how other hominins might have fared are fascinating. It’s one of a very few bright moments in the inky blackness of your discourse. Even the lyrics of your upbeat song, musically uplifting though it certainly is, are about loss, a loss reflected in images of a hostile natural world.

    Your riveting account covers all the bases — I’d say this is its great strength. Although the final outcome is simple, the issues surrounding it are complex and need to be illuminated from all sides. You do this wonderfully well.

    It’s a tough read (the proverbial sledgehammer between the eyes) but it’s also a chastening experience. We have to face the facts, and for that I thank you.

  2. Cassandra, I’ve been giving your essay a lot of thought during the past day or so. There’s a sentence in it I would like to turn round to read as follows: “If we are to make peace with the inevitable, why not at least try to mitigate the fallout coming in the meantime?” There are enlightened individuals and groups throughout the world who are doing just that, most notably in terms of small-scale nature conservation. I feel we should draw some kind of hope from them, however temporary. It’s nowhere near enough good to counter all the bad but it’s something to hold on to and believe in for as long as we are here.

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