denial, anger, bargaining, grief, acceptance: the five stages of ecocide

This essay appeared on Dissident Voice

“There is hope, an infinite amount of hope, but not for us.” – Franz Kafka

If artists are the antennae of the race, and writers and thinkers are also artists, then a vibration some are receiving and beginning to transmit to the culture more broadly now is new in the history of our species: the world is dying.

The world, not defined as “human civilization,” or a nation, empire, or culture, but the entire living world, which undergirds all those. Not in one region, but everywhere, all at once, and with escalating speed.

The custom at this point would be to cite statistics, summarize recent UN reports, quote news stories, prominent scientists, etc. But I will take it as a given that you have already read those, or are at least aware of them. What I want to get at is how this feels, what the inner experience of this knowledge is: to be living, aging and eventually dying in uncanny lock-step with The Great Dying, the greatest our species has ever seen, caused by us to boot. Is there even a word for this? I choose xenocide: we are killing almost everything that is not us. The antennae of the race are intimating is that this is ultimately suicide, because there is no “other” in the living world; we are inextricably imbricated in it. Ecocide is perhaps the most correct: we are killing our home.

This is the definitive experience of our generation. But there are reasons why most of us living today seem unable to comprehend it, and live (or die) accordingly. Thanks to civilization, we had already largely lost the living world before we were born, and now what is dying is something we barely knew existed. You might call this Big Yellow Taxi syndrome.

Denial. Just as racism is not just perpetrated by overt racists, denial is not just perpetrated by overt denialists. Perhaps you and I pride ourselves on the cognitive leap we have made – we’re not like them, the benighted masses who simply swallow the lies they’ve been fed, who can’t see through the propaganda, the ones “we” must educate. But if we have children, can we really disbelieve the lie that every parent is forced to believe – the last, best, bastion of magical thinking: that the world will somehow be better for them, not unspeakably worse, and that what we have done, how we have lived, will actually help them to thrive in it?

With or without children, are our daily lives altered in any substantial way by our knowledge? I’m not talking about adopting conscientious individual behaviors like eating less meat or taking the bus more. I’m talking about the fact that the infrastructure that sustains us shows no sign of reduction, exhaustion or, frankly, anything but frenzied growth. It is an infrastructure of denial. Denial, like racism, is systemic. And therefore, even once we know it’s happening, we don’t actually go around on a day-to-day basis with the Great Dying uppermost in our minds. We don’t go out in the street, and perceive immediately that “a social response of any kind [is] occurring,” as Dark Mountain Project essayist Arnold Schroeder puts it. The dying, for now, is far away, and largely invisible to most of us. There is a war, but we of the global urban working class and bourgeoisie are not on the frontlines. And, unlike those nightly casualty counts during the Vietnam War, the results are not even a blip on our now-omnipresent screens.

Around me, on the streets of San Francisco, nothing looks like it’s dying. The opposite in fact.

I mean, seriously, how does it get any better than what we have here? With a certain level of income and education, admittedly within reach of only a few thousands among our country’s hundreds of millions, you can live in historically unprecedented comfort in a place where it’s spring all year, gorgeous vistas await you at every turn, the shops and markets are filled with a cornucopia of good, fresh things to eat and fun things to own; the streets are regularly cleaned (in the nicer neighborhoods); all manner of diversions abound; parks, flowering trees and sidewalk gardens are maintained by gangs of enthusiastic volunteers; willing lads and lasses can be hailed to deliver you to your destination in their private cars with a tap on your phone…

I sometimes wonder: is this it? Is this the pinnacle? Is contemporary San Francisco at its savagely unequal best the apogee of human civilization, the best it will ever be?

The smoke from the most destructive and deadly wildfire in California’s history, which settled over the city for two weeks last year – giving it, briefly, the worst air quality in the world, worse than Delhi or Beijing – was, cognitively, something like the tiny spot on your lungs that the X-ray barely images. You get a scare, and for a little while, the inevitability of decline and death comes rushing in to overwhelm you, filling your whole field of vision, coloring everything black. Then you look again a little later; it seems to be gone. What was that? You feel relief, then oblivion. Life goes back to normal.

Until…

And here face downward in the sun,
And here beneath earth’s noonward height
To feel the always coming on, the always rising of the night…

Anger. Meanwhile, somewhere else, some people have realized that something is dying, but it isn’t the living world, to which they are largely indifferent, in both the cognitive and material sense, except possibly to view specific pieces of it as resource or adversary, depending on the circumstances. It is their own possibility for economic advancement that is moribund, and the cultural superiority that perhaps they were taught to associate with that lost possibility. For them, growth has stopped. Around them, others have risen, taken unfair advantage, over-reproduced themselves. External enemies are everywhere. Demagogues with war mongers whispering in their ears arise to stoke their rage. Weapons are everywhere. Information floods synapses, triggers responses: fight, fight, fight, or die. In Hungary, Poland, Italy, Germany, Austria, France, Sweden, Britain, Brazil, the Philippines, the U.S – “end-of-history” liberalism fades like a hothouse flower. Pre-existing authoritarian regimes double-down in a confusing game of Friend-or-Enemy? (We are at war with Oceania. We have always been at war with Oceania.) Everybody practices the Two-Minutes Hate.

Somewhere altogether elsewhere vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss
Silently, and very fast.

Bargaining. Here come the technocrats, the hope-sellers, the humanists. We can beat this thing. Look: slavery, fascism, nuclear war – we beat them! (Except, not really…) A new global generation is rising with new values, new insights, new technologies. There’s still time to turn this around. In 12 years…10…9…8… If we just do… x… Build this movement, implement this program, stop subsidizing fossil fuels, put carbon back in ground, save 50% of the land for wildlife, get the plastic out of the oceans, eliminate CAFOs, trust women, end capitalism…

But the science we trust when it speaks of technological possibility, we fail to heed when it speaks of feedback loops. Or of critical slowing down, the diminishing ability of a complex system to resist increasing pressures from within and without, so that once it reaches a certain point, collapse is inevitable. We fail to heed that we have already “baked in” an irreversible degradation of the living world, and we are not changing course in time to stop it.

That doesn’t mean nothing proposed in the bargaining stage is worth attempting. The metaphor of a single person’s dying begins to lose currency when you are talking about all life. Becoming Mars is not inevitable, and the islands of relative biodiversity, social harmony and ecological coherence humans and other species may be able to sustain within the rising seas of climate chaos could still influence a proximate outcome for the biosphere.

But the world our species came of age in, the only one we know; that world is definitively dying. What we have already done heedlessly over the last two centuries has set processes in motion that are irreversible in any term of less than thousands, perhaps millions of years. No amount of bargaining, of socio-political or techno-optimism will change that. It won’t rebuild the ice sheets or the glaciers, it won’t save the millions of species that can’t migrate, or the ocean ecosystem that depends on the chemical balance and food chain we have upended. It won’t preserve our forests, tropical or temperate, at anything like their present size. We are moving into a new regime, which will be increasingly chaotic and thus inhospitable to life, until it stabilizes at an unknown point. If we refuse to accept that or try to bargain it away, it will still happen. That is what dying means.

Grief. Ten years ago, a pair of disenchanted British activists declared that it was time to stop bargaining and start mourning. They had seen enough to understand that for all the fulminating of politicians, the triumphalism of corporate scientists and CEOs, and the creative resistance of woke activists, humans were not, and would never be, in charge of the destructive forces we had unleashed. And the idea embodied by our civilization, of somehow being in control of all life, or disconnecting ourselves entirely from the living world and still having lives worth living, was a lie. It was not Eastern or Western civilization but civilization writ large that had brought us to this point. And if it was too late to bring down its walls in the material world in time to prevent the Great Dying, we could still do something worthwhile by bringing them down in our minds, and making space for new stories to grow. So, the Dark Mountain Project was born, and its manifesto, Uncivilization (From the Mourning of the World) was published. And it went out into our culture largely through the abstract, bloodless, but far-reaching veins of the internet, indelibly a product of the catastrophic civilization that had thrown it up in order to better conduct its wars. With its vast effluence of entropy, our civilization is a toxic and clumsy parody of a functioning ecosystem, but it is still a system, and we all still operate within it.

To the dismay of some progressives, many tropes of progressive politics were abandoned by Dark Mountain’s writers and artists, because progressivism could or would not come to grips with what was really happening to the living world. This didn’t mean the project entered into an embrace of some kind of mystical, nature-centered proto-fascism either. Those who saw that seeking justice in human society was still part of the equation of meaningful survival, and was in any case inevitable and necessary (Respect Existence or Expect Resistance, as the saying is) could still find a home for their ideas there.

I like to think I was one of those. For me, Dark Mountain has been a needed oasis for feelings and ideas ignored or rejected by a Left that not only had little concern for the survival of non-human ecosystems, but no place for interiority as an essential component of collective human wellbeing. Everything that didn’t advance us down the mechanized chute to a rigorously rational socialism was elitist and reactionary. And human progress was incontrovertible, because Marx said so. (Except, he didn’t…) Pay no attention to that disappearing glacier behind the curtain.

So, thanks to Dark Mountain, I found I could transform paralyzing depression into thought and action by joining the emerging legions of grief. We mourned together in the catacombs of social movements that could not publicly acknowledge us, and in the shared but Balkanized spaces of the internet. And now, ten years later, ten years deeper in greenhouse gases, exhausted topsoil, destroyed rivers, razed forests, drowning coastlines, animal genocides, whirling continents of plastic trash, fires and floods –  the world’s first social movement founded not in anger or bargaining but in grief, Extinction Rebellion, has appeared.

Tragedy ∆ Farce: A Litany
First, they came for the amphibians, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t an amphibian.
Then they came for the charismatic megafauna, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t one of them either.
Then they came for the marine life, and I was a little depressed about that because – no more seafood. But I kept quiet about it.
Then they came for the last Indigenous Peoples, and for the poor – who were in fact, almost all of the people by then. But, well, whatever.
Finally, they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out.
Just a lot of cockroaches, jellyfish, and microbes.
(And I think they were glad to see me go, to be honest.)

Acceptance.

“A willingness to live without hope allows me to accept the heartbreaking truth of our situation, however calamitous it is. Grieving for what is happening to the planet also now brings me gratitude for the smallest, most mundane things […] I have found that it’s possible to reach a place of acceptance and inner peace, while enduring the grief and suffering that are inevitable as the biosphere declines.” Dahr Jamail, author of The End of Ice, in a recent interview.

As the Uncivilization Manifesto reminds us, “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.” Acceptance of death is not the place where activity ends, but the only place from which activity that has real potential to sustain meaningful life can spring. Because acceptance of death is an acknowledgment of truth, and only from a place of truth can any action come that understands life well enough to be beneficial to it.

Acceptance doesn’t mean accommodation with oppression and injustice. It means acknowledgment that we aren’t trying to prevent the apocalypse, because civilization is the apocalypse. We are trying to open a path to a future that is worth living in. Our feelings are experienced individually, and they do not directly impact the material world. But they are not irrelevant. The path to truth for a complex being must itself be complex. On the day a hundred thousand people come into the streets to grieve together for the lost reefs, the lost forests, and all the unnumbered victims, human and non-human, of civilization’s rise, we can mark the beginning of a new era in human life on this planet.

Dark Mountain’s latest anthology, #15, In the Age of Fire, has just been published. Material from its 51 authors and artists is showcased on the project’s website. I’m proud to have a story, “A Ceremony in Willka Qhichwa,” in the collection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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