I’m gonna be frank. It looks kinda bleak.
I’ve been writing this piece for a week and in that time have read several articles where climate researchers predict the complete collapse of human civilization by 2050.
This is hot off the heels of the IPCC report warning us that we are fast approaching runaway climate chaos, the WWF report saying that 60% of the wild animal population has left us since 1970, and the UN report stating 1 million species (one of eight) are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. Not to mention the melting polar ice and methane release, the slowing jet stream, forest fires, floods, insect apocalypse, or the plastic in our oceans and in the bellies of whales. There’s the exploding human population that continues to plunder the Earth for our short-term wants and needs while electing ‘leaders’ who aren’t responding appropriately.
And there’s all of us who are either in denial, or too overwhelmed, or disempowered to do anything. Throw in some religious fundamentalists, white supremacy, rampant misogyny, fake news, colossal narcissism and addiction, superpower governments run by morons and criminals, a handful of men hoarding most of the wealth, continued investment into fossil fuel industry and that’s a peek into 2019.
Pollution aside, it can be hard to breathe.
Of course, there’s cause to rejoice too. The sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg who is calling out the adults while calling in the children, Extinction Rebellion, and many countries taking significant steps towards righting our relationship with nature. There is still so much beauty in the world.
Welcome to the Anthropocene. The Earth’s sixth mass extinction caused by none other than me, you and our well-meaning ancestors. Here we stand, the most coddled humans in history heading into unprecedented uncertainty, with most of our heads in the sand.
I have two sons. They’re seventeen and twenty. Healthy, happy and equipped to be successful in a business-as-usual model but unready for hard times. I might have been a hippie in my twenties, but I raised them conventionally because I wanted them to ‘fit in’ and didn’t trust the alternatives. Every day for the last few years, I contemplate the possibility that neither one of them will live to be my age, or if they do, their world might be hellish: disease, war, thirst and famine. Obviously, I was more optimistic twenty years ago.
If I’m still alive in 2050, I’ll be eighty-two. Unless I learn some skills, I will have lived a life not knowing how to build shelter, find food, make clothes, or provide for any of my medical needs. I don’t know how to take care of myself.
But self-care? Hello. My massage therapist has excellent hands.
Recently, the casting director of a reality show called ‘Alone’ contacted me because I belong to a ‘rewilding’ group on Facebook. She asked if I might be interested in being dropped into the wilderness with nothing but a knife and compete for a half a million dollars.
My day begins with my kind husband delivering a fresh ground cup of coffee to my bedside table. If I’m not awake, he places it onto the cup warmer he bought me for Christmas and lets me sleep until my dog licks my face. So, I thanked her for the opportunity and said if they wanted to drop me off at a resort where the only contact I had was with room service and access to high-speed internet, I’d be game.
I live with the paradox that I am conscious of and grieving our imminent collapse as the most pampered and privileged person in my entire lineage. My mother was born in 1945 in West Germany and my father in 1937 in Cairo, Egypt. Their parents needed life skills to sustain them.
I remember my Oma and Opa’s garden with great fondness. They had a backyard about the same as mine, but instead of grass and a trampoline, their entire yard was devoted to sustenance. Their basement wasn’t a kid’s rec room either, it was a cellar.
My grandmother grew, preserved, saved seeds, knitted, baked, crocheted, cooked, sewed and hand-washed her laundry. When my mother was a child, they raised pigs in the basement. My Opa was a blacksmith, fitting horses with shoes. They never drove a car. Within two generations, all that knowledge is gone. We became the latest ‘settlers’ to immigrate to Canada.
My parents pursued the good life and were a success story; they worked hard, made good money and contributed to their community. I lost my roots to Europe and North Africa and became a daughter of North America. Like all children of immigrants, I grew up sharing precious little of parent’s point of reference. I don’t know the first thing about my parent’s grandparents, but my DNA results tell me I’ve got roots in Mongolia.
As we’ve moved across the world and severed our connection to our native lands, the world has become more disposable. Beauty from any culture can be bought and sold on eBay. There are many reasons to leave our homeland, climate change is currently one of them. But for anyone with the privilege, it’s possible to walk away from our disappointments, boredom and regrets. We can leave our troubles behind, start again fresh and forget about the mess we’ve made.
Here in North America, where 94% of the population are either immigrants or children of slaves, we throw everything away. We started with the indigenous peoples who met the settlers with generosity. This is a culture built by colonizers, and subsequent generations continue to reenact their values. We are fixated on novelty, and ‘progress’ by any means. Collectively we create unheard of amounts of injustice, suffering and waste. The last few generations have left a bigger and bigger mess — but now there is no escape. Everyone and everyplace will be affected as the Earth changes. There’s no where left to colonize.
We can call it capitalism, patriarchy, civilization, kyriarchy, status quo, neoliberalism, or the material world, what we are participating in is a collective psychosis that encourages and empowers humans to destroy life on this planet. With every generation, our disconnection to each other and the rest of life on the Earth has diminished. We are in a trance of deadly proportions, and the alarm bell is ringing. We are coming to see that there is no ‘away’ for the carcasses of our consumption; the plastic bag I used once to transport my apples will outlive me and my children.
We’re spiritually impoverished in a very comfortable way. We do not recognize sentience and the sacredness of Life and show no gratitude to all whom we owe everything. We do not know who we are, and we do not know what we do. The Lord might forgive us, it was He, after all, who gave man dominion over the Earth, but will our children?
As we awaken, the day-to-day dilemma we face is that our economy is dependent on the destruction of our world. As the colonial mindset has invaded every corner, we have come to view all that’s not us as inert matter. We think nothing of destroying the living systems that support life as a whole.
Even if we can get around our economic issues, our language, the very way we communicate, endorses the objectification of all non-humans. All we see is a person, place or thing. It’s so insidious and ingrained that we have no sense of what we are missing. Our senses are literally diminished. Most of us are too estranged from nature to notice the subtleties of a changing wind or how the chickadee alters her song in response.
Taking a step backwards in our comfort and convenience seems to be considered a failure worse than extinction, so we keep looking for solutions that are more sustainable. Electric cars and mono-crop solar farms are aims towards a better status quo, but they are Band-Aids not solutions. Unless we change the way we experience Life on Earth, we will continue on the path to destruction.
Robert Sandford, the EPCOR chair for Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, told me that, “We have literally altered Earth system function to such an extent that the world’s future generations will inherit will be unlike the world any human has ever known. Fulfilling the promise of meeting the needs of our generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs is, at present no longer possible. At this moment in time, there is no guarantee we can offer that even we — let alone they — will be able to meet their own needs in these altered conditions, let alone meet the needs of their children.”
Appropriate responses like immediately disavowing consumerism, single-use anything, rationing fossil fuel on the way to full elimination, and encouraging co-housing, sharing economies, and land restoration sound extreme to a population nursed on self-indulgence, profit and machination. No, we say, the answer is artificial intelligence. Let’s shoot our garbage into space!
Waking up from this trance of materialism means facing the damage we caused while we were sleeping. Everyone will have a unique experience, but for me, the process ain’t pretty. I don’t feel good about what I’ve done to the world — the harm that I’ve caused for my own convenience, the blind eye I’ve turned to injustices, or that I raised my children to follow and sometimes intimacy with them means further involvement.
We have been colluding with systems of oppression and destruction since we left the womb; complicit without consent. By the time we are of age to take our seat at society’s table, we are so brainwashed and dependent that we are blind to alternative ways of living and may not be able to see the all the ways we support these death systems.
We may be born as sovereign entities, capable of self-rule and full expression, but the second our skin meets oxygen in the institution we popped out in, we are processed, stamped and released to authorities who report to higher agencies. We raise our children with good intentions. We hope and pray they will become the best version of themselves but do so in an environment that erodes personal power before they even know what hit them.
Find your passion we say, with the ongoing subtle messages that our kids conform. They must go to this school, play this sport, learn this instrument, and follow the right career path. We actively teach our children to see the world as mundane matter for our consumption, nature as the consumable backdrop of the fascinating human drama. Our number one aim is to satisfy our desires. Through our daily words and actions, we teach them that human life on Earth is the main event. The only caveat is on the campground, where we teach them to take their trash away, as though our houses aren’t built in wild landscapes, as though our own backyard isn’t hosting a billion life forms and creating miracles every day.
Personal authority is lost with the rise of individualism. We aren’t raising children into adults as much as we are indoctrinating them to become food for the system. The system’s well-being is more important than our own.
This didn’t happen by accident, it was designed and centralized by those in power to stay in control. The modern world is a game of asshole, and you will never be president.
Since World War II, consumers of non-necessary goods and services are celebrated as patriotic citizens. Fashion, entertainment and ultra convenience are now how much of the world measures success and happiness. Conformity reached its zenith in the 1950s, where everyone appeared to want precisely the same thing: green appliances, big cars and a TV. Consumption with no reciprocity became normalized, even concretized. We collectively turned away from both from the trauma we caused and the personal traumas we were suffering.
Patriarchy became even more deeply rooted in boardrooms and in individual families. Many of us were raised in homes that were hotbeds of anti-femaleness. The worship of the rational mind and empirical science persuaded us that feelings, intuitions, instincts and kindness were useless in the age of modernity. The softness of a woman’s heart isn’t seen in factory farms.
Today, it’s normal to casually pick out cuts of meat even though we’d vomit if we had to witness the cycle of the animal’s life. It is normal for us to brag about the great deal we got on clothes made by poor people in horrendous conditions. We sell each other things that aren’t ours to begin with. It is normal for us to post about injustice on phones made in sweatshops. Normal that we wipe our bottoms with slaughtered trees even though they were someone’s home and our best defense against carbon. It’s normal to buy things we don’t need and then trash our impulses for the next generation to deal with.
Even after the world’s climate scientists said we must radically reduce carbon emissions or face runaway climate change, it is still reasonable to fly all over the world. It is normal to hear bad news and ignore it. It is normal to blame the leaders and see ourselves as good.
Oh, if only the world were more like me, we think. I’m not the problem here, nor do I have the solution.
White supremacy, normal.
Animal cruelty, normal.
Lack of empathy, normal.
Poisoning the Earth, normal.
Black Friday shoving, normal.
Plastics killing the oceans, normal.
Not talking about our trauma, normal.
A handful of men hoarding most of the world’s wealth? Normal.
Well, what can you do?
Post a happy selfie to combat despair?
Plan your next holiday?
Bleach your anus?
How did we even get here?
I imagine it began innocently enough. In the marshes of modern-day Iraq, where some of my ancestors laid down the tools of civilization. According to myth, it was the goddess Inanna who tricked her father into giving up the tools of civilization, and she gave them to the men and women of Sumer. They settled the land, divided the labour, irrigated and farmed, created a written language, accounting principles, law, trading, and taxes.
As time wove on and one nation succumbed into another’s, the goddess pantheon was killed, and patriarchy took over the masses. Eventually there was one god and it was His way or the highway — and oh, He lived in space. We devoted ourselves to an unseen overlord whose hands never got dirty.
The idea of ‘original sin’ was planted in the fertile soil of our psyches. The ‘original’ original sin is symbolically robust. Adam and Eve go against God by eating from the tree of knowledge. They had everything provided for them in the garden of Eden, they didn’t need knowledge, but those meddling kids ate from the tree anyway, and now we have singing fish sculptures, outdoor escalators, and atomic bombs.
But that’s not how that myth is told anymore. The all-male church leaders of the day co-opted the story and said because of Eve, everyone was a sinner, and redemption could only be found through the priests.
And our ancestors? Well, they bought it and sold it to us.
Rather than seeing themselves as manifestations of a divine mystery, they became convinced that they were blunders of creation who disobeyed a perfect God. This sin was passed from generation to generation, and there wasn’t a goddamn thing we could do about it except rely on male church authority. No matter what we did, we were inherently wicked, especially women. We were corrupt, destined to be a disappointment to our creator — the force of Life itself.
But then, in an epic twist, God gave the sinners dominion over Earth and put us in charge of everything.
And well, our people bought that too.
Now we live in a society that reflects male superiority, devours the natural world, and spits out shame on the daily. The material worldview is that we aren’t good enough, don’t have enough, and yet somehow deserve more.
The touting of one supreme being may be nothing more than an unholy pyramid scheme. Purposeful propaganda created by those who want the power to dominate those who were occupied with simpler things.
Mystics, those who encounter the divine directly, stepped aside or were killed like the many women burned at the stake. Entire populations who related to Life in the natural world were, and continue to be, butchered for the power of the pharaoh, king, pope, or today’s CEOs. There are very few humans who still live in unity with the land, and their lives are in real danger. Companies you and I support encroach on their land to get at their resources, which we buy in some altered form and probably throw away.
I doubt that our Mesopotamian predecessors could have imagined the world that would sprout from the seeds of their civilization. They couldn’t predict that two hundred and fifty generations later, their groundwork could lead to this.
Collectively, we gave up our personal authority a long, long time ago, while stripping Earth of her sovereignty as well. Our aching world is responding to all that we’ve done. Climate change isn’t just a problem to be solved. It’s the consequence of looking at the world through a material lens.
It may already be too late, only the future knows. But we alive now only have this moment to get at the root of this malaise, or we’ll drive off a cliff with a car full of kids without ever hitting the breaks.
“For us,” says my friend Mr. Sandford, “it is coming down to this: Either we will witness the greatest and most rapid transformation of humanity’s understanding of itself and vision for the future of the world and the planet; or we will have the most carefully and completely documented collapse of a civilization in all of human history.”
So what are ordinary people like me and you to do? What’s our role in this transformation?