Refiguring Finding humanity in an age of extinction
Jeppe Dyrendom Graugaard
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Refiguring – Finding humanity in an age of extinction
“The conversation we need to have with our children about climate change”
Once I had articulated this sentence, it kept coming back to me unexpectedly like an echo that had escaped its origin. The declaration had first come up after I shared another climate science story on Facebook and one of my friends commented something like: “Yea, I don’t know what to say to my kid when he grows up”. I didn’t think much of it then and I didn’t respond to the comment. Yet it kept stirring. What to say when children start to become aware of climate change? Then, my girlfriend was pregnant with our second child. Laila was born a few weeks after the publication of yet another IPCC report, which announced yet another round of depressing science about the state of Earth’s climate. As a researcher with a degree in climate change, it hit me in the same way it has hit me so many times before: we’re screwed. But the emotional contrast between my reaction to that report and the arrival of my daughter couldn’t have been greater.
Seeing my daughter come into this life was an experience that pushed me ashore in a different place than where the grief over climate change keeps washing in. A newborn is a creature of the present and, presently, everything feels just… right. With my daughter on my arm I wrote the hardest thing I have ever written, a letter to my three year old son telling him how I feel about the future. During most of my twenties I didn’t want to have children – in equal measures because I thought it was irresponsible and because I was afraid for their future. So when my son was conceived I was in equal measures thrilled and terrified. I wrote letters to the speck growing inside my partner’s womb, trying to articulate my feelings. But they were letters which I could never finish because I was overwhelmed by the future I imagine he will grow up in. Now, three and a half years after Jonathan was born, I pushed myself to write a letter describing my grief.
This letter has been a long time in the making. I first started writing it four years ago and I’ve often since returned to it. Every time I’ve tried I have fallen into deeper darkness. This letter is overwhelmingly hard to write. I’m afraid that I don’t have the ability to finish it. That my powers will run out. Each attempt is followed by a wave of complex emotions that I cannot find my way through. I feel scared because I worry about your future. I feel sad because you don’t know what you’re losing. I feel powerless because I cannot change where your world is headed. And I feel anxious because you represent the possibility of a future different to the one I am seeing. The more I think about it, and the more I write, this tangle of emotions expand their grip on me. I get angry. I’m ashamed. I despair. The blanket of feelings is suffocating. I fall silent. Then I go under.
Today I start again. Not because it has become any easier but because I feel worse for not writing to you. Please… forgive my inadequacy. I cannot write this as a poem or a song of hope. These words are wrought from my inner darkness and I don’t have the capacity to mould them for you any further. All I know is that I have to let you know about my struggle to remain human. Strange as it may sound to you – in whatever time and whatever place you are reading these words – my humanity is at stake. And so is yours.
You are three years old and your sister was born just eleven days ago at this point in time. So you don’t know about humanity or the world or the future. Thankfully. But every time I look outwards from our little family bubble into the wider world it all seems to have unravelled a little bit further. The heating up of the planet. The extreme weather. The political corruption. The misery of the uprooted. The excess of a small elite. Extinction. I have looked at this for many years now and it is clear that it won’t stop. Not in my lifetime or yours. You will grow up in a world where much of what I took for granted in life is disappearing. Like ice sheets. Rhinos. Pensions. Exotic food. Careers. And so much more. And if you ask me why – because that is your favorite question right now, keep asking it! – I’m afraid I can’t give you a clear answer. I just know that I have to keep looking at it. That seems to be the plight of my generation.
A friend of mine gave me a word for “it”: the Enormity. Something so incredibly horrible that we instinctively avert our eyes because it is unfathomable and too enormous to bear. That’s what is going on right now, something enormously ugly, unjust and irrepairable. And it hurts to tell you this. Oh, my dearest Jona, how it hurts! It hurts more than death. When I was younger, and more fearless and foolish, I would seek out death just to confront my own end. And after a while I stopped fearing it. Death. What I didn’t know then is that there exists a much greater fear. A fear of losing not my self – which, as I see it, is a melting back of my atoms and spirit into the world – but a fear of losing that which I love more than my own life. To see it transformed, degraded and tortured. Killed.
Sometimes I watch you play and I secretly wish that you will always stay innocently unaware of all these things which it hurts to tell you. I am powerless in the face of all the things that I want to protect you from but cannot. Some day the Enormity will catch up with you too and I won’t be able to shield you. How terrible it is to think that you might one day journey into the same grief I feel! In that darkness, all I can give you is this small light: grief and love flows from the same headwater. If you find yourself grieving for someone or something, it is only because you love that someone or something. Cherish that grief as a gift that will let you remain human in the face of loss. Don’t shy away from it. Hold it. Let it remind you that the fabric of this incredible universe is love. Despite all the violence today this is the deep truth of existence. Because grief is love and love is truth.
I want nothing in this world but your being well. Your sister’s being well. Our family. Our kin. We must do nothing but extend this wanting in ever greater circles! Always remember that. This wanting is the seed of an ordinary but boundless joy, one which makes the darkness bearable. Like today when we added a door and a small set of drawers to your den outside. You were Nabo and you lived in the woods, I was Giraf and lived around the corner of the bike shed in “Hamburg”. Later, your mother swept the fallen autumn leaves on the terrace into piles and you rammed into them with your digger and tipped them into the hedge. In the afternoon your grandparents came around with bread rolls and played with you. We shared some pizzas before they left and you went to bed. You fell asleep long before my goodnight story about Captain Woodenleg was over.
I want the future to be ordinary in this way. However, the truth is that our way of living is a privilege that will be available to an ever narrower range of people. One day our life will change irrevocably too. In the coming decades, the infrastructures – physical and mental – that hold up our sense of the ordinary are likely to falter. Life will change in ways that will make it harder. That doesn’t mean that life has to get any less meaningful. But the suffering on this Earth will swell with the rising oceans and intensify with the frequency of the hurricanes and the firestorms. So I am worried for you and your sister, for our family and kin. And right now there are unscrupulous and uncontrollable forces at play which are accelerating the disintegration of the community of life to the point where a sizeable collapse of our collective life support systems seems almost inevitable.
What I wouldn’t give to be able to tell you how it will all play out. You will, of course, know much more of the story by the time you read this than I do now. From my vantage point, here in the autumn of 2018, all I know is that the storm has been brewing for a long time and it keeps building. The larger human community is fractured to a point where it no longer makes sense to speak of a “we” – if it ever did. “We” are on the tip of understanding the consequences of the past. We are beginning to understand that a two degree warming of this planet is almost unavoidable – and that it won’t stop there. People are beginning to catch on. To get anxious. The absurdity of global politics and the inability of the state machinery to justify itself has become total. Some turn their eyes away and begin voting for fascists. Some are chaining themselves to the trees to protect the forests. The collapse is like no other in history. What its slow roll means is unfathomable.
The contours of the future the Enormity paints are wrapped in clouds too dark to enter. They instil the reptile fear of a world of where only “the fittest” survive, an apocalyptic future of all against all. This is when the floods come, when drought disrupts food production, when the coral reefs have all died, when societies collapse not only economically but socially and the war to survive reaches a great crescendo. But that war was always rigged: those who can have already bought up the land we all want to escape to, built fortresses, hired gunmen and achieved superhuman powers as they merged with machines to create a new human class. The future the Enormity presents is a continuation of all the worst trends of today. It leads nowhere but to paralysis of the mind.
But the fear also has a past tense. In a sense, this is heavier to come to terms with: when it hits home what we have already lost, the immensity of the suffering of humans and non-humans alike, the degrading of nature and of our own soul – it is a weight no one can bear. So we don’t. Today – and by the gods I hope this is no longer so by the time you are reading this letter – most people avoid the past with all its violence, racism, bigotry, misogynism and ecocide. It was never really in the news, and when it was it was either portrayed as isolated incidents of brutality or staged as an argument between people with opinions about opinions. This is the irony of the privileged in this day and age: all our problems lie embedded in our culture and institutions just beneath the surface of the everyday but we’ve convinced ourselves that they are other people’s problems.
Both the past and future of the Enormity leave no room to be human. The Enormity is a helpful way to describe what is happening to our planet but it is an abstraction and one that doesn’t leave much room for the present – which, the joke goes, is where you will have to live if you want to survive it. The trouble is that to be awake and present today means to walk through life brokenhearted. And this is why writing this letter feels overwhelmingly difficult. I am afraid I am doing you wrong by saying these things. All I can say in my defence is that these words are committing me to do the best I can for you, for your sister, for our kin. I surrender my life to your future. I won’t pretend that these words are altruistic. I simply don’t know what else to do.
Perhaps I am wrong and it will feel different to you. Oh, I hope it will! I didn’t grow up with climate change. I grew up believing my childhood wonderland of the 1980s could continue forever. Perhaps that is why I feel broken. I knew the world before we realised that we are living through an age defined by extinction and ecological upheaval. For you, it will be the norm. You will know this as a fact of the present, not as a discussion about a disaster looming in the future. My promise is that although you might find me blathering about the beauty of life and of nature, I will not pass on my guilt or my sentimentality. I will help prepare you for the world that is coming – although I don’t quite know what that means.
These words are hard. Like nothing I’ve written before. Something has changed in me as I have been writing this letter. The words have cracked something open. They hold a promise to you. To your sister. To our kin in the community of life. I have to live with their consequences. But these consequences are simple and clear. It feels like they lift a weight off of my chest. I surrender my life to your future. Somehow the heaviness I have felt for so long pales in comparison to this fact. You see, now I see… This letter was never for you. It is to myself. It is not about you either. You are you and you are free to become you. Whatever you do and whoever you become, I love you. Nothing can change that.
A last thing: I want to thank you for giving me this beginning and these simple facts. They would not be so clear without you and, in this sense, you are their origin if not their destination.
Pushing myself to say words that were impossible to say, my folly became obvious. “We” don’t need to have a conversation with our children about climate change. That is a conversation for which there is no recipe in just the same way that there isn’t any one conversation we need to have with our children about death. But in societies that are wilfully ignoring and devaluing the past we lack both the knowledge and practice of having that kind of conversation. It is not an easy conversation and so we often impose ourselves on it before it even gets started. “Don’t worry”. “Perhaps it’s not that bad”. “You’ll see, it’ll be ok”. “There’s no reason to mourn in advance”. The inability runs so deep that some of us even think we have a responsibility to hope that everything will be ok. This kind of response is not appropriate when we’re looking at the consequences of something like climate change or death. We need a different way of engaging our collective predicament.
Any conversation about climate change – with our children, with our peers or ourselves – has to start from the fact that what we are doing to the environment is something we are also doing to ourselves. That we cannot “save the planet” or stop doing what we are doing to nature without also saving ourselves from doing what we are doing to us. Global warming is not about the environment. It is about culture. A particular culture. The Earth’s climate is not changing for reasons that are somehow separate from ourselves or “outside of humanity”. It is a specific way of being human, the way we have organised and go about our lives, that is upsetting the stability of the climate and hurting the planet. We don’t seem able to escape it. There is no blame here. “We” didn’t ask to become part of a dominator culture that consumes nature to feed dreams of progress, immortality, fashion, youth and innovation. We were just born into or swallowed up by it. And slowly, our way of feeding ourselves, our way of making a living, our way of spending time began costing the planet and the very foundation of our lives.
How we go about being humans is going to decide what kind of world is to come after the storms have washed over us. We can become part of the many circuits of life again even if collapse is unfolding. The deep truth that climate change is revealing is that the Earth is not separate from us. That the boundaries we tend to create around ourselves are not real but imagined and cultural. They are so ingrained in our mindset that we actively keep creating these boundaries. Other cultures are telling us there is something “beyond” this imagination. And what that is, simply put, is a kind of revelation that the self and the world are cut of the same cloth. What “I” do to the “world”, I ultimately do to myself. This connectedness is there whether we recognise it or not. It is a law of nature. When we act as if it isn’t, we contribute to the erosion of nature – whether that “nature” is what we call “the natural world” or our own inner being.
Consumer societies have ignored this existential rule of thumb so thoroughly that most of us have become blind to its reality. Our blindness is ideological. “Modern civilisation” is not just mega-infrastructures, industrial modes of production or the sum of oil consuming societies. It is an ideology, which is founded on the basic idea that “we” humans have the right, the might and the intelligence, to rule this planet. That we have evolved to be free of the bonds all animals have with the Earth. And so, our dominator culture has become ecologically illiterate. If we want to keep some of the extraordinary economic wealth we’ve accumulated on the back of nature, we need to relearn the ABC of nature within a few generations. Because the law of interconnectedness prescribes that continuing as if “nature” is something humans can possess, manage and dominate leads to disintegration and collapse. If you don’t heed this law, you are bound to fall somewhere sometime. And so, here we are, in free fall.
The question climate change seems to pose to all of us who have become dependent on the ideology and infrastructures of civilisation is how to be human in an age of disintegration and collapse? Although humans will, for many decades to come, continue to transgress and make inroads into the “natural resources” that uphold our existence, all is not lost. There is so much to care for. And what we don’t care for is much less likely to make it through the storms. Caring for someone – a dog, a tree or a patch of land – means involving oneself in the world. Getting tangled up in it. While that is not heroic (like “saving” nature or the planet) it makes a difference – not least for ourselves because we are forced to be attentive, to hold the presence of an other and not to impose ourselves on it. At the moment, we still have the ability to create shelters from the storm. Whether we build them for ourselves only or build them to shield the wider community of life will make a difference for what kind of world is to come.
“How to be human in an age of disintegration and collapse” is necessarily a question without a straightforward answer. It is more of a compass than a recipe. Perhaps, paraphrasing the poet Rilke, we can live this question and learn to love it as if it was a book written in a foreign language – so that we may some day live our way into the answer the question holds for us. To live this question we have to face the fact that our lives, our societies, have been built on a pretence that we are separate from the world, from nature, from our bodies, from each other. This runs through our culture to way back when. It runs through every aspect of our lives right now. It is an idea that has made it into the bricks and mortar of everyday life. But it is just an idea. An idea we now need to let go of – if we want to keep our place within the wider community of life.
Looking into my daughter’s eyes these first months of her life, I experience a presence and an intelligence that doesn’t dominate in the least. She is just immediate, responsive, curious and… there. She is not just “innocent” or “unacculturated”, she is for real. I wonder in how many ways I’ve learnt not to be there or not to be for real since I was that little. Dominator culture is acquired, it has nothing to do with “human nature” – it is a sort of perversion of our instincts. Dominator culture doesn’t just exist out of nothing, it is the product of a historical alienation from nature. But this alienation is not inevitable. My daughter is showing me that a different kind of real is possible. A different reality. We don’t have to accept all the ways that we’ve learnt to bend to the logic of domination. It is our children’s birthright not to get numbed by violence, inane commercials, bullshit jobs, hollow promises, electric smog, ecocide and poison food.
So we need to question the way our culture has normalised a way of life that costs the planet. And more than that: to ask what kind of humans this culture makes of us. The double-bind our culture has brought on itself is existential: simply by living within consumer societies, we are contributing to the degradation of nature and undermining the foundation for our own existence. We have to enter into a wider conversation about how we are going to be human beings in the midst of a historical collapse of high-tech civilisation. A conversation that doesn’t pretend that the world created by fossil fuels can continue without leaving the planet a wreckage. A conversation which doesn’t try to convince anyone about anything. A conversation which doesn’t fall into the pitfalls of either hope or despair but keeps a fierce love for the world burning once darkness has fallen.
The ground for this conversation is established by three premises. The first is that it is no longer possible to “stop” climate change and some form of breakdown of the infrastructures we depend on. If there isn’t at least an openness towards this perspective, the kind of conversation I am describing above won’t follow. The second premise is that it isn’t just a conversation between people. We have to include the voices and perspectives of the more-than-human world if we are going to reshape our place and our role on this planet – we have to engage our animal selves. Thirdly, meaningful action is still possible. While breakdown is approaching, it won’t be the end of the Earth. There will be a world after and what we do today, right now, can make a world of a difference.
To change anything in the world we will have to change our selves too – otherwise our actions will end up reproducing the problems we are trying to solve. We have to go to the bedrock of our being and ask ourselves what kind of beings we are going to be. Where our allegiance lies. Who and what we want to trust. What we we are going to do. Not as a matter of “working out a plan” or “doing the right thing”. As a matter of being honest with ourselves. As a matter of finding out what we can bear to lose and what we cannot part with. Change is a constant, a core principle of life and evolution. We now know that we humans have caused everything around us to change. Refusing to change ourselves would not only be reckless, it would go against the grain of evolution and come at the cost of the rest of the community of life.
This may seem confusing, even impossible. How do we create a change in our being? My inkling is that we don’t. We can’t effect a change in our being. We can’t think our way to it or imagine it. We probably have to start with sensory awareness of what is already there in our being. Perhaps we can simply begin by getting a sense of the expansive kind of being that we can see is right there in our children. We will need that if we are going to have an honest and meaningful conversation with them about climate change. The way we have the conversation matters. Children deserve to be held and protected as long as they need it. But if adults are fearful, children feel it. We can’t have the conversation as if Sauron is cursing the world behind black clouds, landing orcs on every continent. If you look at climate change long enough it will overwhelm you and make you cry from despair. That’s not going to help any child very much. When they come asking, how do we have a conversation about something so immense, protracted and yet defining for their lives?
We can only have that conversation honestly if we ground ourselves in life and do what we feel able to do. We need to practice having real conversations about climate change. Ones where we don’t end up trying to convince someone else about the gravity or the solve-ability of the situation. Ones where we don’t buckle in to pessimism or optimism, hope or despair, science fact or science fiction. Ones where we let ourselves be vulnerable to the meaning and consequences of planetary change. Ones where we don’t revert to the basic cultural inclination in the face of ruin: a pat on the back and a remark that “it’ll be alright”. Nothing is alright and this is not just another apocalypse fantasy. This is a historical change which marks the end of an epoch.
No matter what we name the coming time in history, the Holocene epoch is over: the global climatic and ecological characteristics of the last 11,500 years are changing irrevocably. That is, the conditions that provided for the emergence and growth of complex civilisation are vanishing. Societies that are wired for consumption and growth based on fossil fuels and depletion of nature are going to flounder. How hard we fall will depend on how quickly we give up on the ideology of growth and begin restoring and regenerating ecological diversity. Restoration and regeneration as a paradigm is so far from the consumption and growth mindset that it can be hard even to imagine the change. But perhaps we don’t need to be able to imagine it or to have a five step plan for it.
Perhaps we simply need to begin leaning a little: leaning out of our own centre of gravity and leaning into the community of life. Letting our sense of surety and control be challenged for a moment by our natural affinity with plants, animals, people and the land. Perhaps we can find ways to reconnect with the deeper forces that move the dance of evolution and life. Perhaps we will then also encounter a different sense of being human – one which doesn’t put us in the centre of everything. Humanity doesn’t equate with humanism. Our humanness is not something we automatically bring to fruition by virtue of being born into the species and possess a faculty called reason. It is more evasive than that – like a responsibility we take on, not just for those around us, but for the rest of the web of life that sustains us. It is a task which calls for us to begin trusting our organism and find our proper place within that web. We don’t need a manual to do that. Our organism already knows what we need to know.
A year ago now, Laila came into being under an October new moon. Reports of negative global trends in ice melt, biodiversity, forest fires, ocean acidification and the frequency of hurricanes continue. “Two degrees” seem no less unavoidable today than they did a year ago. But what my children are showing me is that, while reports are going to keep giving us bad news from now on until the end of civilisation, there are things in life that are infinitely more important than obsessing about the change that is coming. The future is not yet. It is a space we can see the contours of – but no certainties exist with regard to how it will unfold. We can look at mega-trends and see exponential change, a “Great Acceleration”, an unraveling or a collapse but how we fare in the course of the events that will change both the planet and our societies for good… no one knows. To find the strength and courage we need to face rapid global changes, we will have to step out of the future and into the present.
What we need is awareness and presence – not to get stuck in the headlights of the Enormity of it all. The sense of urgency we feel in response to seeing the forests burn or the ice caps melt, all too easily rips a hole in the present. We need to hone those skills which help us live with the knowledge of global change while we give our attention completely to those who need us most in the present. Our capacity to act flows from our presence and unless we ground ourselves in the present we won’t be able to see what the ongoing degradation of the Earth is asking of us. It is asking us what kind of human beings we are, what kind of beings we are going to be, knowing what we know? The course of action we take is determined by how we answer that question.
We need to rediscover the meaning of climate change: not as a consequence of something we did in the past but of who we were and what kind of relationship we maintained with the Earth. We need to ally ourselves to each other, to nature, to the planet. For each of us to find our place within the community of life on Earth – a locus where our existence can expand and strengthen the bonds of life – we have to find mutual support in a world where individualism and personal success has become synonymous with happiness. The only real measure we have of the quality of the future is the health of the biosphere. As that health decreases the Enormity will creep in through the cracks of history. This is the whisper of the future and the provenance of our children’s reality: change, not only our ways, but our way of being human. Come back to the community of life. Otherwise the impending disaster will unmoor us from the Earth. Our species will be washed off the planet without having appreciated its beauty or its sweetness. We will have lost the chance to recreate our existence on this Earth. Not in our own image, as an innovation or a fantasy of some immaculate conception. As humans on Earth.
This essay is the first part of a longer text in the making. If you’d like to read the next chapters as they are finished, you can sign up to receive them by email here.