On November 10, I posted an entry here on the shiny, happy topic of the possibility of our worst climate nightmares coming true (if you’ve not yet read it, please go back and read it now. Just scroll down or click http://rebeccahecking.com/?p=599 ). Apparently, I struck a chord. Based on the response to that post, it is obvious that I am not the only one who has considered this gloomy scenario. I’ve been mulling it over for a long time now….not sure if I’ve made progress, but the mulling continues… I don’t expect to wrestle this beast to the ground in just a couple posts. I expect this topic to be with me for the rest of my life, in one way or another.
I think the realization of planetary reality is an existential question similar in type if not in magnitude to the personal existential questions that come when we consider the finite nature of our own lives, and our eventual death. Religion has provided a cathartic answer to existential questions by offering concepts of heaven or reincarnation. Death isn’t really the end in this view, but rather a passage to a better future (either a quick trip to paradise or through the longer karmic journey). Looking at death as a natural event, where matter is recycled (supernovae seed the galaxy, decaying leaves provide for next year’s growth) also offers some comfort, perhaps not so personal, but comfort nonetheless. As humans, we need to rationalize our own death and the deaths of our loved ones, to make sense of it somehow. Whether we do this through belief in an afterlife or not is beside the point.
Looking back at the planetary scale at the present time, we are left with fewer options. I see no happy outcome equivalent to an afterlife to comfort us in our angst moving forward. But a natural event? Maybe, just maybe there is something there from which we can glean some wisdom.
What is happening to our beloved Earth is not “natural” in the sense that it would have happened anyway, without human intervention. Clearly, we are collectively responsible for this sorry state of affairs. Everything from the smallest piece of plastic litter to the largest planetary climate convulsions can clearly be blamed on humans. True.
One of my favorite quotes is from the famous biologist E.O. Wilson, ”…we live in Star Wars civilizations ruled by Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”
I would change “Stone Age emotions” to “Stone Age minds.” As a species, we evolved to deal with the conditions we encountered as Stone Age hunter-gatherers. Our ability to learn collectively and transmit knowledge across generations gave us the astonishing capacities (for good and ill) that we have today. It also gave us a level of self-awareness and a capacity for self-reflection that is the source of our pain over what we now face.
Perhaps what we are witnessing now is the logical outcome of the evolutionary branch that led our species down the path of collective learning. Perhaps we are on the verge of burning out, going down in a blaze of glory like any other animal that found itself on an evolutionary dead end path. Do we honestly think humanity will still be around a million years from now? A million years is a blink of an eye in geologic deep time. The dinosaurs survived for tens of millions of years before being wiped out by forces beyond their control. And humanity? Maybe the species with the big brain over-reached… and will quickly die off (in the deep time view).
So, maybe this is “natural” after all. Earth will recover. Earth will heal. But it will be on a timescale far beyond a human lifespan, and we won’t be around to witness it.
Does any of this help us now? Maybe a little. Seeing myself for what I am (an evolved animal with the mental capacity for abstract thought) helps me be gentle with myself in my grief, and helps me work through it all and process what is happening.
Seeing where I fit in the big picture of the history of planet Earth (about 6 billion years) and the universe (about 13.7 billion years) helps me put it all in context. I am a tiny blip of consciousness in this vast expanse of All That Is. Humanity is a slightly larger (although still pretty tiny) blip.
Of course, we live our lives on a much smaller scale than deep time, and I have barely scratched the surface in this post. There is so much more physical, mental, and emotional work to do as we face our future. But that is for another time.
Rebecca is the author of The Sustainable Soul: Eco-Spiritual Reflections and Practices.