Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

The Climate Minds dialogues #2

BY JULIA MACINTOSH AND STEVE THORP

This is the second of a series of dialogues around the theme of Climate Minds (the first one is HERE). Steve Thorp and Julia Macintosh are responding to the question: how can we respond in mind, body and soul to the emergency of climate change. This follows up the contributions by artists, activists and writers in the latest Climate Minds edition of Unpsychology Magazine, which you can get FREE from HERE. If you’d like to join the conversation, you’ll find the invitation to submit to Unpsychology on Medium HERE.

PART 2: THINGS HEATING UP

Steve: Dear Julia

Into this summer of holidays and heatwaves, firestorms, hurricanes and hallucinatory politics has crept an unexpected narrative. Perhaps, after all, there is something in this climate change thing, say some media commentators — maybe this is the wake-up call? Or maybe this is just another version of the silly season, and once the weather gets colder, we’ll forget all about ‘global warming’ — until next year, maybe, or sometime in the future when it might be all too late.

Of course, the Climate Minds edition of Unpsychology Magazine that we edited was all about giving voice to different narratives and voices around the climate emergency. And this includes the strong and persuasive argument from some that it IS too late. Too late, that is, to fundamentally reverse the effects of human-made, carbon-based climate change, but (hopefully) not too late to work out how we, as a human species, can realistically respond.

We’ve had wake-up calls before — over 30 years ago to be specific — as the recent New York Times essay, Losing Earth, sets out. It reads like an obituary for our civilisation — a serious, dispassionately written piece in one of the planet’s pre-eminent mainstream publications. And it lays the blame firmly at the doors of the politicians and corporations — particularly in the USA — who knew what was happening and failed to act.

It’s easy to feel personally responsible for this stuff — to buy into the green capitalist line that if each of us makes better consumer choices, things can change. Of course, we all want to feel some sense of personal agency in the world, but I’m reminded of Derrick Jensen’s view that “personal change does not equal political change”— and it is political change that has always been needed to respond to this emergency with any sense of scale:

“I want to be clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change”. (Derrick Jensen, Forget Shorter Showers, 2009)

It’s hard to accept this sometimes, even in the midst of an ominous summer like this one. Life goes on. Nothing really changes — except that the Earth dispassionately delivers to us the consequences of economic, political and industrial choices made over decades — even centuries. And meanwhile, as sand runs through the timer, our politicians quibble and squabble and prevaricate — and the climate emergency remains way down the agenda, with no indication that they will find a way to break through this impasse.

On a human level, life also goes on. We experience loss (as you know, my Mum died earlier this summer) and joy (for me, surfing, running, music, spending time with my granddaughters…), and periods of soulful creativity and activism, and moments of shared intimacy, connection and love.

Sometimes its hard to square this circle, and to distinguish between the grief (and joy), we feel in our individual lives, and the despair (and hope) we feel at the state of our world.

What do you think?…

Julia:

A beautifully written invitation, Steve, thank you. What do I think? To be very honest, today is a numb day and my thoughts are frighteningly flippant. Yep, it’s too late. Yep, we’re living through the end times. Yep, we’re all going to die.

I feel poised, as though I am floating through a thick viscous jam of paradox. It matters / it doesn’t matter. We humans are wonderful / we humans are awful. We deserve this hell we’re creating / we are to be pitied for the suffering we will have to endure, as the globe heats up and the margins for comfortable life diminish radically. We’re sleepwalking to the edge of a cliff / we’re waking up in unprecedented ways to the complexity and worth of this home we share.

I’ve been in a strange place over the past several weeks. My daughter has flown the nest and is out exploring the world, away for a year to study abroad in the USA, by way of a backpacker’s summer venture in South America. I have plenty of things to do, a list as long as my arm, but have felt utterly stagnant in the wake of her leaving. I’m not feeling sad; on the contrary, I am delighted for her plans and excited to be stepping into a new chapter of my own life. But empty nest syndrome does indeed confront me: what next for me, and not just how, but why? What is the point of all this? What is the point of me?

It all leads to the same thing: we’re all going to die – climate change or no climate change. We will all die, and the human race will become extinct at some point and the earth will get swallowed up by the expanding, dying sun. We’re all going to die. So how will we live? And why?

From the depths of my cynical lethargy, wells up a joyful giggling laugh. My numbness starts to tingle and feeling returns. We’re here, alive, now. In the face of the intractable, I can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of paradox, and the notion that letting go of certainty is the only way to truly engage with certainty. Breaking free of the clutch of the absolute, whether it is called irreversible climate change or impending death: I must give you the same response. I care / I don’t care. I’m afraid / I’m not afraid. I’m ready / I’m not ready. Either way, I am still here, alive, now — come what may. The joy of being — of being — spills all over my existential empty nest angst. I am both purposeless and filled with purpose. I am both already-dead and still-alive. I am holding on with all faith, and letting go with all faith.

Back over to you…

Steve:

I love that you are able to identify these polarities, and to just ‘be’ with the sometimes ludicrous, sometimes wonderful reality of being human. Though I have to say that I’m finding it hard to hold them at the moment, Julia!

We’re dealing with the inevitability of death, for all of us, and for our so-called civilisations. When individuals — and cultures — get overly grandiose, it’s difficult to hold this reality close. And its not just the strange phenomenon of crisis denial that feeds this. The positivist “we can do it” strand of our culture (and our individual personalities), whilst sometimes a good thing to keep us going from day to day, can also be majorly problematic at a time like this (note: there’s never BEEN a time like this).

Facing these psychological and existential polarities is a mature response, but isn’t often done, and isn’t easy when it’s attempted. I think that maybe its because we DON’T face the fundamental polarity of life and death very well in our culture, that things have spiralled. The Climate Crisis is only the latest human-caused tragedy that has emerged from this tendency of human beings to see life as cheap; to put some kind of belief or principle — even just blind expediency — before the recognition that life — all life — is precious.

This might seemingly verge on the sentimental — but what makes my Mum (who died in June) any more precious than any other Mum? Or my granddaughters who came for a magical summer visit with us any more precious than the millions of children who suffer or die before they have lived into adulthood? If we were able to think more universally and ecologically, then we wouldn’t do and keep doing those things that sometimes deliberately and sometimes inadvertently seem to have held life— all life — in such low regard.

You write: We’re all going to die. So how will we live? And why? It’s a great reminder, and I think we also need to ask ourselves, how will we die?, because without that question we will never know how to truly live.

Grief has a strange alchemy, hasn’t it? It has the potential to open a personal loss up into something far bigger — a recognition of the truth of what we have lost, are losing and may continue to lose. Perhaps it is the acceptance of this that holds any hope we can glimpse for the future.

Julia: Hello Steve

I’m going to respond to you from a different angle of grief today. I learned a couple days ago that my cousin had died of a heart attack at the age of 51. I wasn’t close to him, but as a child he was always with me at the children’s table, at the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner get-togethers of our two families. Fourth of July parades in the summertime and high school football games in the autumn. I was very fond of him when we were little. I remember being chased, holding hands, running and laughing with him.

This cousin grew up to become a very troubled man. His depression and extreme rages, his drinking and violence, combined into a toxic stream of turmoil and chaos. He was a redneck white man who voted Trump and owned guns and did jail time and goodness knows how he treated women in general; his own mother he treated badly and threatened regularly. Our family is thankful that he died of a natural cause and not by suicide or indeed in outwardly violent circumstances. My mother reflected wearily to me that he could so easily have been the latest face on the national news, among so many faces on the news who have exploded into bloodshed.

My grief for this particular cousin lies not in his death, but rather his life — his turbulent and rage-filled life. I wonder if my grief for my cousin’s life might be a fitting metaphor for the grief I hold for our violent, disturbed, chaotic culture which is causing such damage to our world. I may not be a Trump devotee but I’m still complicit in a human-driven culture predicated on domination and violence on all levels of experience. I walk on cement pavements that suffocate the soil and grass beneath them; I buy food from shops which sell the dead carcasses of animals and fish; I type this on a laptop made of minerals mined from the earth and plastic which will someday clog up a landfill. My grief today is for human life and all the prickly edges of our existence, the misery of poverty and inequality and suffering and violence that runs through our human history. Today I am grieving for giraffes and elephants, whales and Monarch butterflies and white rhinos and passenger pigeons and dodos. I am grieving for the grizzly bear that was shot as a prize game piece and the children dying in Syria and Palestine and the woman and baby killed by a falling tree during Hurricane Florence.

I wish I could write something less difficult, Steve, but my grief today bubbles like a pot of boiling oil that splashes and burns, melting and distorting one’s weeping bleeding flesh. My grief today is for that little boy who ran and laughed with me, and held my hand.

Steve: A postscript

I can’t leave this dialogue hanging like that. You name your grief so eloquently, my dear friend. As I said, my mum died in June, after a long decline and the cruelty of Alzheimers. I’ve seen her death as a relief, but that’s not all of it: I haven’t really ever been honest about death and what it means to me. And I think now is the time to face it; after all, if I am writing blithely about the death of civilisation as we know it, I need to know that this means what you remind me it means: the end of things.

I’ve been reading Stephen Jenkinson’s Die Wise, and it is full of stark, beautiful and sometimes grim wisdom. Here’s something to leave you with and to end this portion of the dialogue:

“…you begin to die when you see your own death. Your own death: It isn’t something that is prompted by bad health, not necessarily. It is something you can see in another person’s death, or in the death of a star, or in the last stubborn, falling leaves of November, or in the graying exoskeleton of a crayfish on the beach of your spring break vacation, or in the proper final withering of every idea you hatched at age fourteen and defended ever since against any evidence to the contrary about what love should mean or do or feel like, or how long it should last, or why.”

The death of a star — there’s some perspective! There seems to me something essential in this for all of us when we are faced with the grief of this great dying…