There’s a giant elephant in the room, and I need to address it because it’s threatening to squeeze the life out of me if I don’t. So instead of posting about all the interesting things that I love talking about (psilocybin! Mental health! Luuurrrv. God. How to Be A Good Human – all of these coming soon), I’m writing about The End of Times.
Yes. I’m going there.
We live in a time of rapid and unpredictable change. When I first considered writing this post, COVID-19 was a faint rumour. Now I’m sitting at home in voluntary isolation, wondering whether I should have bought more yoghurt before throwing away my car keys. 2020 started with the threat of nuclear war, then wildfires took over the headlines, then Corona reared its head. And above this all looms the giant of climate disaster. Life as we know might just be ending.
Like everybody else’s, my social media feed, my social interactions, and my work environment are littered with references to climate change. Greta Thunberg is a household name and I am uncomfortably conscious of over-fishing, desertification, wildfires and droughts. But like most people I have skirted over the discomfort these thoughts awaken with a variety of pacifying thoughts: ‘we can still turn this around’, ‘if an apocalypse is about to happen we’d see it coming and have time to prepare’, and ‘it probably won’t happen in my lifetime, or at least not until I’m old’.
Then something in my heart started changing. I barely know how to describe this other than by calling it an intuition, a gut feeling which began its unwinding first in my personal life. At the end of last year I decided to quit my job in two years from now, giving me just about enough time to right my financial wrongs and pay off my car. This might not sound momentous, but to me it was, because I’d always imagined myself going into academia. I was going to do my Ph.D., I had my topic all planned out, I was going to be a pioneer in the field of multilingual literacy. And so I couldn’t understand why my ambition was failing me, why I wasn’t writing more research papers and attending conferences, grabbing all the opportunities afforded to me by my somewhat interesting and stable job in academia. Why was I dragging my feet on this?
Then it hit me: I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m a good fit for academia – I’m an enthusiastic teacher, I love doing research, I am interested in meaty topics – but I don’t actually WANT this. It doesn’t feel connected. It doesn’t feel urgent. It doesn’t feel alive to me anymore.
So I started reimagining my possible future, and planning for the quiet more communal life I hope soon to lead. Because suddenly I was imaging living on a farm, practicing permaculture and other sustainable ways of living, I started reading more and connecting more with like-minded people. Whilst this was happening, the flood of climate-change related information was becoming harder and harder to ignore. Then a friend sent me an article titled “Deep adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy” and the unformed thoughts in my mind merged into clarity: this could really be it. The urgency within and around me says that we are living in the last few years of relative normalcy before society as we know it collapses.
I’m no climate scientist, but I watch one video about the consequences of over-fishing or read up on the stats regarding temperature increase or Arctic melt and I am left with a weird sense of cognitive dissonance: this information tells me the world is ending. Why are we carrying on as normal? Why are politicians squabbling over policies and laws that will make little to no difference, when it seems we have long since passed the point of no return?
If things are ending, why does everything seem so normal?
“Deep adaptation” crystallised that vague sense of despair for me. Bendell writes that the effect of climate change is becoming visible in non-linear ways, in other words that change is no longer predictable and happening incrementally, but that the changes instead suggest “runaway climate change.” Elsewhere in the article, abandoning subtlety, he says: “Unfortunately, the recent years of innovation, investment and patenting indicate how human ingenuity has increasingly been channelled into consumerism and financial engineering. We might pray for time. But the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war.”
I don’t have the subject expertise to analyse whether the claims he makes are in fact accurate. Many experts criticise Bendell’s conclusions – here is one well-balanced example; but I personally am sufficiently convinced by the research Professor Jem Bendell cites, by his conclusions which resonate with what I am seeing, and by his forecast of the future: he suggests that we are facing a near-term societal collapse, probable catastrophe, and possibly even human extinction. We cannot know what this will look like, although we can guess; we cannot know whether we will live to tell the tale, but it is almost certain that the way we have been living is about to change drastically. And any efforts we are currently making to mitigate this crisis are largely in vain. Which means that instead of trying to conserve our current ecosystems, trying to gradually change policies, switching to greener light bulbs and recycling more (none of which are bad things per se), we should be planning for a future where we might not know where our next meal will come from.
Is this simply fear-mongering? Well, at the very least Bendell believes himself. As do many others, who are now forming online communities under the Deep Adaptation banner. Perhaps the future is not as gloomy as Bendell imagines it, but to me, speculating about whether an impending collapse is a certainty or only a likelihood feels counter-productive. I find that Bendell’s suggestion resonates deeply (and uncomfortably) with me. It feels true. And if it isn’t – well, then, it still brings my priorities into stark relief.
Naturally many questions arise: If the world is about to collapse, how can I prepare? Should I even try? Should I sell my possessions and go live in a hippie commune? (Not an entirely unattractive idea.) Should I start stockpiling guns and pain medication? Bendell himself suggests that we approach the changes with a focus on resilience, relinquishment, restoration and reconciliation. These are interesting concepts and I’d like to write about them in further posts. For now, I’ll say only that I think hope, rather than defeatism, could and should still flourish.
What this article, and the headlines about COVID-19, and about the fires and the floods and the droughts, awaken in me first is the urge to pause. “I might die soon”, I whisper to myself. I don’t think that thinking about death is a bad thing, and I have been doing a lot of that for all my life. But this is the closest I have ever come to a cancer diagnosis or a near-death car crash. My future is laden with uncertainty. I might soon lose my family and my possessions. Endings and frightening beginnings are breathing down my neck in a new and almost tangible way. What strange and beautiful grief.
“Here at the end of all things”, as Frodo said to Sam – what remains that really matters?
This does. This moment, in which my dog is barking outside at the neighbours’ arrival, the autumn night fragrant and heavy and very dark. I’m itchy from half a dozen mosquito bites. I ate too much and my stomach sits uncomfortably below my ribcage. I can hear crickets, and my fridge humming, and now that my dog has stopped barking, little else. My cup of tea is lukewarm and delicious. There is so much air suddenly, now that I am aware of it, that I breathe it in in large gulps, savouring its coolness and imagining how my body hums with oxygen, transporting life into every cell. I am so profoundly alive.
If the world as I know it is about to end, then this is what I want to do with the time I still have left: I want to hear really beautiful music. I want to have really good sex. I want to laugh really hard. I want to hug my mom more often than I do. I want to be kind. I want to relinquish any sense of entitlement, let go of jealousy and competition and envy, embracing instead my life and the people it has been graced with with wonder. Every lover: how beautiful their skin, their cheekbones, their laughter. Every friend: how nourishing their presence, how dear to me their mannerisms. How dear to me my own body, and the stinky furry body of my dog, and the twining tendril of the bower vine inching its way gradually up my porch.
Perhaps all it takes to be in the moment is to realise you might not get another.