How to Assess the Present Moment?
The year is 2022. War rages again in Europe. Famine expands in Africa. Political systems are mired in divisive deadlocks. Autocratic governments proliferate. An energy crisis threatens economic collapse. The rich are getting absurdly richer, the poor poorer. Well, this is not new. But there is more trouble brewing--much more. Coral reefs that foster the bounties of fish in the seas are dying. Arctic ice is disappearing. Mountain glaciers that provide water to entire regions of the planet are vanishing. One third of Pakistan is submerged by biblical flooding. Ocean levels are rising at exponential rates. Repeatedly record-breaking heat waves are crippling agriculture. The Atlantic overturning meridional circulation (AMOC) that carries warm equatorial waters north and cold arctic ones south is stalling. Hurricane and typhoon storm strengths are increasing. The Jet Stream in the upper atmosphere that once regulated weather patterns is disintegrating. Desertification spreads across the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia. Mega-forest fires rage on every continent. The sixth great mass extinction of plants and animals in earth's history is well underway--at an unprecedented rate. Agricultural soils have become sterile of nutrient-creating worms and microbes from the constant application of petrochemical fertilizers. Micro plastics permeate the planetary seas.
The seven hottest years on record have all occurred since 2015. Millions of climate change refuges are on the move. One billion are estimated to be displaced by 2050--that's one in eight humans on earth. Evidently, 50 years of ecological activism, 35 of alarming climate science, and 27 years of United Nations Climate Conferences, have failed to alter our biosphere-debilitating, thus collectively suicidal behaviors.
In the words of UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, "We are on the road to climate hell--with our foot on the accelerator." That is, we are on course to not only exceed the supposedly safe limit of 1.5 degrees increase in average global temperature over pre-industrial times, but rocketing toward a catastrophic 2 degrees and beyond into "runaway climate chaos." As Extinction Rebellion co-founder, Roger Hallan, puts it, what we face is "The loss of everything. Forever." Anyone willing to seriously investigate the actual evidence gathered by climate scientists is forced to confront this stunning conclusion. Human actions are collapsing the viability of the entire biosphere--the self-regulating basis of complex Life on Earth. The situation could hardly be worse. But it soon will be.
Lest you think this is an alarmist over-statement of the moment, consider that the four hundred plus nuclear power plants around the planet depend on the reliable operations of the current industrial economy. Any serious disruption of this economy could result in failure of those power plants and the subsequent release of plutonium. Further, there are tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that require maintenance to avoid degradation. Through the recent COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have witnessed how suddenly our economic systems can be disrupted. These shocks are insignificant in comparison to those currently emerging from accelerating climate chaos and ecological degradations. The potential to leave this planet a plutonium-poisoned wasteland is the ultimate consequence of our contemporary behaviors.
Can anything be done to stave off this cataclysmic conclusion to civilization's meteoric arc? The science indicates that opportunities to fully prevent catastrophic effects have passed. Global warming to 2 plus degrees is "baked in" by the existing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. The challenge now is how to mitigate and adapt to the unfolding changes in Earth systems of atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere. Even if we immediately cease emitting CO2 and methane into the atmosphere we will not avoid drastic disruptions, though it would mitigate their severity and duration. Serious adaptation would involve efforts such as moving cities, creating new water capture systems, and practicing rejuvenating agriculture. Alas, potential mitigation and adaptation efforts are not being undertaken in any significant manner. In fact, CO2 emissions continue to rise. Thus the conclusion: "We are on the highway to climate hell--with our foot on the accelerator." No one on the planet will be immune to the reverberating effects of this calamity.
Why, then, if the evidence is so overwhelming, are we not galvanized to collective action in the face of this existential threat to Life as we know it? How could we possibly have done this to our blue-green planet--much less to our selves--when we had actually generated the knowledge and had the time to act otherwise? Consider that the vast majority of climate disrupting activity has been generated by the most highly educated, technologically advanced, economically wealthy, and democratically governed nations--a minority of the human population that dominates the global economy. If one plays 'the blame game,' fingers can be pointed in all directions. Yes, policy makers, governments, and corporate leaders have long been aware of our suicidal trajectory. Yes, average citizens have fueled CO2 emissions with their indulgence in consumptive appetites. Yes, insidious disinformation campaigns have obscured and discredited the science. Yes, effective action would have required imagining 'future troubles' and prioritizing those over immediate concerns.
Books could be written about 'how and where' we went so wrong. Indeed, many have been. When it comes to 'why' we have failed our selves and the biosphere so utterly, it is often stated that humans are inherently inept at acting in response to distant future events. Is this an accurate assessment of human psychology, or is it relevant primarily to our modern consumerist mentality? Is there something about Modernity's 'worldview' that predisposes our behavior toward such short-sighted appetites, resistance to our own scientific logic, and fraudulent deception?
What Went Wrong with Our Worldview?
Homo Sapiens Sapiens, or Modern Humans, emerged as a species around 200,000 years ago. That is a minuscule moment in the biosphere's 3 plus billion year existence. Agriculture-based civilization dates from only around 10,000 years ago. Industrial technology is but a few generations old. Humans inhabited every continent but Antarctica and used their manipulative intelligence to alter landscapes across the globe even before the industrial revolution. But once we harnessed fossil fuels, our extractive exploitations, constructive disruptions, and population growth exploded. We became "moderns"--a culture of 'the new' obsessed with 'progress,' driven by technological innovation that promised ever more power and control. Like the steam engine that carried its colonial creators around the globe, no society has been able to resist Modernity's dominion.
This 'modern' world view, facilitated by material science, is reflexively mechanistic. It perceives the world in terms of predictable cause and effect. Its analytical methodology is reductive. It leads us to assume that, with enough knowledge of how things are composed, we should be capable of manipulating and controlling all events. Whatever 'goes wrong,' we should be able to fix it--eventually. So why would we worry about problems in some distant future? We will solve them when we get there.
This supreme confidence in our ability to analyze, manipulate, and control the world (at least eventually) seemed quite reasonable, based on all the 'progress' we made with our reductive physics, chemistry, and biology. But our cherished scientific method has betrayed that confidence in recent decades. The study of what are termed complex systems, from weather to ecologies and human societies, has revealed that the world is created and maintained by self-organizing impulses in such systems. Our rampant industrial activities and manipulations of our environments have disrupted the ability of natural systems to maintain their self-regulation. We have pushed them toward "tipping points" in their operations that are leading to radical transformations and collapse. These are not 'problems we can fix.' Yet we continue to believe we can evade the consequences of our actions through yet further technological innovation and manipulation. Most revealing, we refuse to seriously consider reductions in our use of energy or levels of consumption. To do so would be tantamount to admitting that our boundless appetites and lust for power are destroying the systems of the biosphere, thus condemning our species--that our Modern way of life, our vaunted civilization, is not only suicidal but Life-destroying.
It can be argued that this is a moral or ethical issue: the greedy appetites of a minority (who produce most of the greenhouse gasses) are imposing misery and death upon the majority. From this perspective, what 'went wrong' with our worldview is that it somehow does not support the ethical values upon which Western style societies are supposedly founded. And why might that be? Perhaps because it is based not only upon a mechanistic concept of cause and effect, but also a hierarchical, competitive, 'survival of the fittest' concept of nature. Both these assumptions about 'how the world actually works' have been shown to be limited by recent systems science. The natural systems that order the biosphere, it turns out, are beyond our control and mutually enabling--effectively cooperative. It is not our science that has failed us but a mechanistic Modern worldview that can neither conceive nor appreciate the ways complex systems self-organize, self-regulate, and mutually facilitate each other. Culturally, we have not 'caught up' with what we science has taught us about 'how the world actually works.'.
To put it another way, cultural evolution leading to industrial economies made human intelligence dangerous to the living systems of the biosphere. We are a species that lived most of our history as hunters and gatherers. Not until we changed our selves into agriculturalists, generated hierarchical states, and magnified industrial technology with fossil fuels, did we become a fully 'rouge system' that violates the mutually enabling reciprocity of natural systems--not, that is, till we invented modern civilization.
From a systems science perspective, human intelligence manifests the most potent known forms of complex adaptive systems--meaning systems that self-organize, self- regulate, and purposefully adapt their operations to promote their continued existence into the future. Such systems have selective agency. Human intelligence 'super charges' this emergent capacity of feedback networks in complex systems to assert influence on their environments. However, as an expression of the inherent impulse of adaptive systems to promote their continued existence, human systems, once technologically empowered, appear unable to resist the pursuit of ever more manipulation, power, and dominion over natural ones. Our success has become our doom.
Systems science reveals a further irony to this situation. Even human social and economic systems have been shown to manifest their own agency, their own self-organizing and self-directing impulses--thus their own self-perpetuating impulses. These hierarchical, competitive, control-obsessed system networks, which our actions generated, have become 'powers unto themselves.' Even though we humans might want to change our behaviors, our systems do not. Our problem is not just the way we think but how feedback networks are configured in our societies, economies, governments, corporations, even our educational institutions. We cannot simply control these now self-directing systems. Indeed, they tend to control us. Significant changes in how they behave will require radically 're-wiring' their networks. If we desire to change our destructive behaviors, we must oppose and redirect the agency of our civilized systems We are neither collectively insane nor inherently wicked -- despite our 'wicked ways.' We are being swept along by the control-obsessed, inherently amoral systems our techno-logical impulse gave rise to -- which now 'run the world' despite our ethics. Even our personal identities are formed around these rapacious juggernauts.
We created industrialized civilization and it created our dilemma. Yet we cannot simply 'go back' to being pre-industrial societies in order to avoid catastrophe. Not, that is, unless we first 'wind down' the operations of our current systems in ways that 'defuse' their biosphere-disabling effects of pollution, environmental degradation, climate disruption, and potential nuclear contamination. We would have to use our industrial economy to undo its ravages. Again, however, we have known its effects were bringing calamity upon us for decades, yet we have not acted accordingly. So what would 'going forward' in a realistic manner look like? And what primary values could redirect our worldview so that our behaviors would actually become life-affirming rather than life-destroying?
It appears that to behave differently than we have, and are, means choosing a different worldview--one whose first principle is that human systems must be biosphere facilitating. Such a worldview would be based on systems science. But how does a person, much less an entire society, fundamentally re-configure its worldview--its assumptions about 'how the world actually works?' Well, it has happened before, as illustrated by the industrial and scientific 'revolutions.' That, however, took many decades, if not centuries--time we do not have. After all, to deliberately choose a new worldview based on systems science, a majority of us would have to attain some basic understanding of its concepts. Presently, this science is rarely if ever taught in schools and remains peripheral even to most professional scientists.
So perhaps, given the degree to which human systems are entrained in Modernity's mechanistic, competitive worldview, there is no avoiding 'business as usual,' come what may. Yet even resigning ourselves to this course could be accompanied by choosing to live our individual lives in honest awareness, bearing witness to 'all that is passing away'--perhaps forever. This is not an argument against efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ecological degradation. Rather, it is an appeal to 'facing the scientific facts,' and then acting from the impulses which arise in us as a result. 'What went wrong' with out worldview is now 'baked in' to our own systems. They are our most formidable opponents--not the individuals who appear to be 'in power.' Consequently, significant change cannot really come 'from the top down.' It would have to arise 'from the bottom up,' from small local re-configurations of attitudes and systems.
How to Inhabit This Moment?
If we are in fact among the last generations of humans to inhabit the biosphere as we have known it, perhaps the last manifestations of civilization to exist on earth, how do we inhabit our final moments in geological time? How can we choose to feel, think, and behave, that brings all our exceptional human capacities for understanding, emotional feeling, affinity, and creative expression 'into play' with our particular historical moment?
Some have described the task as creating a culture of "planetary hospice." Hospice has come to indicate compassionate palliative care for the terminally ill. Here, palliative means efforts to make a patient as comfortable as possible when there is no cure for illness that will result in death. In this approach, we become the compassionate attendants of both the collapsing biosphere and our own impending demise. This situation is rather like that of any self-consciously mortal creature. As humans, we are aware we will, eventually, die. If we live our lives honestly, this awareness can enhance our appreciation of life--of being an instance of 'being alive' and being conscious of the experience.
But, at this juncture in the history of the cosmos, we mortal humans are confronted with the possibility of 'The death of everything. Forever.'-- certainly the demise of 'the world as we have known it' within a generation. Is this thought terrifying? Is it more terrifying than the thought of our own deaths? If the thought of our own deaths does not stop us from living honestly and boldly, why should the notion of the biosphere's impending demise paralyze us?
We might here name our times 'The Age of Elegy.' Elegy is a word for a poem expressing a serious reflection or lament for the dead. 'Facing the facts' or our circumstances, we might then choose to make our primary purpose 'singing the biosphere, and our selves, into eternity.' How we live our personal and social lives could become our 'elegiac poem' in honor of that self-organizing impulse in complex systems that made the world, including the civilization that is proving to be its undoing.
It is sometimes said that gratitude and grief are intimately related. In that view, grief can enhance gratitude and gratitude can alleviate the pain of grief. The more we experience our grief the greater our capacity for gratitude. The more gratitude we experience the less debilitating our sense of loss and sorrow might become. But to plumb the depths of our grief requires expanding awareness of just what we might be 'loosing,' or have had that we shall have no more, or might have experienced but now will not. In the case of the collapsing systems of the biosphere, all the myriad interdependent complex systems of 'the natural world,' most of us are woefully ignorant of just how marvelous these actually are.
Thus, to fulfill the role of compassionate attendants to 'what is dying,' we must exert ever greater effort to understand 'the patient.' And, the more complexly we understand its actual character, its self-creating, self-adapting agency, the more we can grieve what is passing away, thus the greater our appreciation and gratitude can become. What is unique about this act of hospice is that the 'attendant' is also the 'patient'-- the presently healthy humans focused upon the degrading species and systems of the biosphere. Thus seeking to know our own personal complexity as thoroughly as possible becomes part of the hospice. Then there is the grief for younger generations, and even future ones, who will have to inhabit the escalating disruptions cascading from our recent, as well as present, behaviors.
The same can be said about our civilized systems. Biosphere-destroying juggernauts these might be. But marvels of self-organizing, self-adapting agency they are nonetheless. As such, even these monstrosities are worthy of complex understanding, awe for their terrible powers and elegant creations, grief for their passing, gratitude for enabling our knowledge -- thus our more informed compassionate attendance. This view applies to us as individuals as well. In one sense, individual humans have become monsters, gobbling and smashing their way through the interdependent networks of natural systems. Anyone who participates in industrial economies and consumer society is committing 'crimes against life itself.' Though we do not intend this devastation of the biosphere, it is a consequence of a worldview within which we are all entangled, of the systems our actions enable. It seems that most of us do 'love the natural world' in some way, despite how our behaviors have ravaged its self-regulating agency. Here we attend to a 'tragic flaw' in our own human character.
The notion of tragedy has become rather dissipated in contemporary language use. It is now applied to most any kind of misfortune. Its older sense derives from ancient Greek drama and involved a sense of fate or inevitability in human acts that lead to calamity. Thus, the tragic is not simply 'bad luck' or disaster. For the Greeks, it seems there was value in 'making art' from human error, even arrogance--as it appears inherent in human behavior. The notion of hubris expresses a kind of inflated sense of importance that leads to a disaster of one's own making. The word derives from hybristikos, translated as "given to wantonness, insolent." There is even a sense of 'offending the gods' associated with it. That thought can be understood as our Modern assault upon the self-ordering, self-adapting agency of the biosphere--the latter standing for the 'creative force' of life itself, or 'the gods.' Our 'tragic flaw' then is our inability to restrain our capacity to manipulate the world in ways that damage natural systems, thus threaten even our own existence.
If we are to honestly 'face the facts' of our historical moment, we must consciously step onto the stage of our collective tragic drama. Depending on how we choose to 'play our parts' in it, there might yet be a catharsis -- a process of releasing profound, repressed emotions that give us new meaning and understanding. This plunge into the reality of our moment has been termed "deep adaptation" by such as Jem Bendell. It is generally conceived as a "framework of resilience, relinquishment, restoration, and reconciliation to reduce harm from climate and ecological devastation."
Taking a stance characterized by honest analysis, planetary hospice, elegy, and deep adaptation has the potential to dissipate our differences, conflicts, and competition. It could foster greater meaning, purpose, emotional honesty, and genuine community. As Stephen Jenkinson, sings it, "friends are made on a dark road out of town."
Moving Forward through Analysis and Affinity, Grief and Gratitude
Taking actions that decrease our disruptions of climate and ecological systems is obviously a wise practical choice, in so far as it might improve our own future survival. It can also be part of this 'planetary hospice,' if it is done with compassionate acceptance and relieves the immediate suffering of human-induced degradatiions. That is, though such actions are unlikely to prevent a cataclysm, these can be expressions of our affinity with and gratitude for the biosphere. Reductions in consumption, ecological disruptions, and greenhouse gas emissions thus become part of 'palliative care' for the world--even part of our 'elegiac poem.' There are at least three related avenues for inhabiting our present moment in these regards.
Radical Attention: The first is to choose to pay radical attention to a convulsing world, and our experience of it. We can enhance that experience through greater understanding of 'what is passing' -- both in terms of natural and civilized complex systems. The more we know about how these create, order, and purposefully direct their operations, the more compassion, affinity, awe, gratitude, and grief we can express. Thus the more impetus we might have to live honestly and boldly in 'the times we have left.'
New Worldview : This radical attention can be amplified by gaining greater understanding of systems science, using it to challenge our habitual mechanistic assumptions about cause and effect, about 'how the world works.' When one reflects upon one's experience of self-ordering systems through the analysis and concepts of the science, one's marvel and appreciation can be greatly expanded. The knowledge systems science has given us both arises from Modernity's worldview and reveals its reductive delusions. To re-frame our experience through this science is to evolve a radically new worldview, one that connects our human intelligence with all the other complex adaptive systems whose agency collectively generates the biosphere. In this science, we can logically encounter the factual mystery of Life as its own creator.
Naturalistic Spirituality: This sense of mystery in the science of self-directing systems provides its most stunning implications. By revealing how agency emerges unpredictably from such systems, the science becomes a basis for a new, naturalistic sense of spirituality. This concept is surprisingly simple. The evidence that complex adaptive systems manifest selective agency, through their self-organizing, self-adapting networks, provides a scientific basis for the notion of 'spirit' as an animating impulse producing consequences in the physical world. This concept of spirituality is based on empirical research that demonstrates the unpredictably self-directing activities of complex adaptive systems and how that agency continually creates the biosphere. Such a worldview closely resembles that of animistic pre-modern cultures, which concluded that humans must be cautious about how their own activities effect those of the 'spirits' of natural systems. It is arguable that our Modern culture's lack of such a spiritual concept is why we are incapable of restraining our biosphere-destroying behaviors. Using our science to restore such an attitude to our culture would greatly amplify our empathy for 'all that is passing away.'