There is purportedly a Chinese curse that goes, “May you be born in
interesting times.” That curse must have landed on everyone alive today! One can
scarcely imagine more interesting times than we are living in now. Interesting
and also fraught with unique hazards and uncertainties.
I grew up in the “duck and cover” days of the Cold War when Americans
lived in constant fear of a Soviet nuclear attack. That was scary. But at
least we knew then where the threat was coming from. Today, by contrast, the
dangers are more diffuse, shadowy and numerous. What is the greatest risk
that we face – a global disease pandemic, financial collapse, suitcase
nuclear devices, cyber attacks, climate change, biological warfare? The
point is nobody can say.
But I’ll tell you what I am most worried about in the years ahead. I can
sum it up with the one word “Nature.” Not the sweet, cuddly, beautiful and
beneficent Nature that we love to adore. No, the shrieking Earth Mother on a
rampage, the Goddess ravaged and insulted and screaming for blood!
We are long overdue for a visit from this Goddess. The earth is extremely
patient. It has absorbed our noxious chemicals and smoke belching power
plants, our dams and our highways, our rapacious irrigation systems and our
open pit mines. But by all accounts the patience of the planet is beginning
to wear thin. Its ability to absorb our abuse won’t last much longer.
Neither will its capacity to supply us with the petroleum, the food crops,
the clean air and water that our modern lives depends on.
The choices that we make (or fail to make) in the next few years may
determine whether the human species survives, or goes the way of the wooly
mammoth and the saber tooth tiger. So yes, these are very interesting times
However I am not convinced that to be alive today is some kind of curse,
as the Chinese sage suggested. I would prefer to view it as a blessing in
disguise. It is no accident that the ideogram for “emergency” in Chinese
signifies “opportunity” as well. A crisis, in other words, is not just a
threat, it is equally a chance to change course and to evolve as a species.
An “emergency” is an opportunity for something altogether new and unexpected
What will emerge from the environmental crisis? Will it galvanize
humanity to find a way to live in harmony with the natural systems of the
air, the water, the soil and the biosphere which support us? Or will we
continue down our present suicidal path, laying waste to the earth’s limited
resources and ultimately destroying our own terrestrial nest?
The jury is still out. I would like to think that we will wake up before
it is too late. The only problem is that it is already too late! The
collapse of natural and biological systems is well under way. The human race
has entered into what James Kunstler calls The Long Emergency. The challenge
is no longer to prevent this, but to somehow manage the catastrophe.
Do you remember the movie Titanic? There was a big jolt and the lights
flickered off momentarily when the boat hit the iceberg. But moments later
the impeccably dressed passengers in the ship’s ballroom had recovered their
composure and continued dancing.
We are like those passengers. We are still dancing. And the ship of the
ecosystem and of our industrial economy is still afloat. We don’t yet see
the huge gash below the waterline where the sea is pouring into the engine
room. But don’t kid yourself. The damage is irreparable, if still largely
below the waterline and out of view.
I’m not just talking about climate change. Global warming is arguably
only the most glaring symptom of our systematic destruction of the
life-support system that sustains us. The critical global-lung called the
rain forests are also vanishing at an astonishing rate. Over half have
disappeared since 1990, and the rate of commercial cutting is accelerating
every year. The oceans are heating up, being poisoned and acidified and
overfished. An estimated forty percent of arable land that is currently
being farmed has been seriously degraded by toxic agrochemicals, erosion and
Clean water sources are vanishing even as global population soars and
demand for water doubles every twenty years. The planet has entered an age
of unprecedented habitat loss and the mass extinction of species. Affordable
and easily accessible reserves of fossil fuels are soon to run out,
compelling the Big Energy companies to go after ever dirtier and hard to get
to sources like the Alberta tar sands, and the recently discovered oil
formations lying thousands of feet below the Arctic Ocean.
Not only does the exploitation of these unconventional reserves often use
up nearly as much energy as it produces, but the environmental risks are
huge. The current boom in “fracking” of oil shale, for example, may
permanently poison the underground aquifers which we depend upon for our
drinking water. And potential future oil spills, like the 2010 Deepwater
Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, may render ocean ecosystems in the
Arctic or elsewhere into dead zones.
These environmental perils have not arisen in a vacuum. They are the
predictable outcome of a corporate-ocracy ransacking the earth for its
private profit; a virtually unregulated banking and financial system which
is careening toward the brick wall constructed by its own insatiable greed;
a political structure which has been sold lock, stock, and barrel to the
I am not convinced that to be alive today is some kind of curse, as
the Chinese sage suggested. I would prefer to view it as a blessing
in disguise. It is no accident that the ideogram for “emergency” in
Chinese signifies “opportunity” as well. A crisis, in other words,
is not just a threat, it is equally a chance to change course and to
evolve as a species. An “emergency” is an opportunity for something
altogether new and unexpected to “emerge.”
Add all of these together and you have...the Titanic.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the ship is sinking and there is
nothing to be done. Yes, the ship is sinking, and there is lots that we must
do. There are lifeboats to be mustered, distress calls to be made. And
everyone, and I mean everyone, needs to take a crash course in how to
survive in the North Atlantic in a rowboat. Because that is where we are
headed – or where the lucky ones are headed at any rate.
This is not to say, as certain religious zealots do, that the end is
nigh: God is about to scrap the earth as we know it and start all over again
No, the planet will undoubtedly survive. That is what planets do. Who knows,
humanity may survive too in some radically revised, and quite possibly
diminished form. Only time will tell. But what is surely a goner is human
industrial civilization in its current form – that is to say, the world of
cheap and abundant carbon energy, the world of limitless economic growth,
soaring human populations, and perpetually rising standards of living, the world of
That world is a dead man walking. But the curious thing is that almost
nobody seems to notice this. The holds are filling with water; the ship is
listing at a crazy angle. Yet the dance goes on!
Look at the initial response to climate change. For the most part, we have
ignored it. This is unfortunate, but it is also predictable. When a person
is diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness, their initial
impulse will be to say. “I feel fine… This can’t possibly be happening to
Denial is the first of what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross called “the five stages of
grief.” Fully a third of Americans don’t accept the clear scientific
evidence that climate change is happening. And for most of the rest of us it
falls low on the list of political priorities – well below fixing the
deficit, preserving our entitlement programs and rebooting the sagging
It is like the early stages of a cancer. The doctor has made the diagnosis,
but the symptoms are still relatively mild and manageable. Moreover, the
news is so shocking and unexpected that we literally cannot take it in. The
Titanic is too big to sink, right? And even if it is sinking, the scientists
will come up with some magical new technology which will keep the ship
afloat awhile longer.
Sure, we have read about global warming in the press, but it remains an
abstraction… Then gradually, we begin to notice warmer summers, unseasonal
droughts, more severe wildfires, unprecedented bouts of extreme weather.
This already happened for millions of Americans last summer, the driest and
hottest season as long as records have been kept for the US. It happened for
millions on the Eastern Seaboard who suffered the brunt of Super-storm
Sandy. It happened for farmers in the Midwest who suffered the worst drought
in decades last summer.
Once these sorts of things start to happen, the second of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’
five stages, the stage of anger commences. Actually, the more prescient
amongst us have already entered this anger stage. We see clearly what is
happening and are enraged at the corporations which have despoiled the earth
to boost their own quarterly earnings. We are enraged at the profiteers on
Wall Street, the corrupt politicos, the henpecked regulators – all the
assorted bad actors who have colluded in the destruction of our environment.
This anger may to a certain extent be justified, even therapeutic. But the
bottom line is that it does not serve us, or more to the point it does not
serve our imperiled planet. To be angry at a cancer won’t make it go away.
“The time for half measures has come and gone. We need to face
the fact that our lives are going to have to change, we are going to
need to find a new way to live on the planet.”
And in the end, anger also prevents us from taking personal responsibility
for what is taking place. Anger says that there is a “them” out there who is
doing something terrible to an “us.” And that is just not true. Sure there
are those who have taken advantage of the situation to feather their own
nests. But the bottom line is that we are all to blame. That is to say,
virtually everyone alive on the planet today is implicated in the industrial
system which is despoiling the earth. We are its beneficiaries, its minions,
its seven billion plus worker ants.
Or as the cartoon character Pogo famously remarked, “We have met the enemy
and he is us.”
So there begins a third stage which Kubler-Ross called “bargaining.” The
bargainer acknowledges that something terrible is happening, and he or she
tries to do something about it. We start recycling, we buy organic food, we
chose a fuel-efficient vehicle, put solar panels on our roofs.
If you want to see someone who incarnates the bargaining stage of
environmental grief, look at Barack Obama. The president clearly knows that
there is a problem. And he is making some good faith efforts to correct it,
offering tax credits and federal loans to green energy companies, regulating
power plants, and tightening emissions standards on cars.
But eventually Obama – and the rest of us – will discover that a little
bargaining with global warming and environmental degradation is simply not
going to do the trick. In fact, it will gradually dawn that nothing is going
to do the trick at this stage.
Again, I’m not saying that there is nothing to be done. On the contrary,
we do everything that we possibly can. We rage, we weep, we demonstrate, we
grow our own food, we sign petitions to save the whales – the whole nine
But we also realize that the problem is not a superficial one. Moreover,
the time for half measures has come and gone. We need to face the fact that
our lives are going to have to change, we are going to need to find a new
way to live on the planet, because powerful mechanisms beyond our prediction
or control are about to wreak havoc on our familiar world.
This realization is the entry into the fourth stage of grief – depression.
We clearly recognize that some form of tragedy has now become inevitable.
Indeed, it is already happening. We allow this understanding to penetrate
not just our minds, but also our hearts. We feel the pain of the earth as
As the cartoon character Pogo famously remarked, “We have met the
enemy and he is us.”
Does this sound fatalistic? I would argue that it is just being
realistic. We are no longer fooling ourselves by saying that we don’t have a
problem, or that the problem can be easily solved by some quick
technological fix, new law or regulatory sleight of hand. We have
acknowledged that a kind of death is taking place, and must now run its
Embracing the sorrow of this death is essential. Until this point, our
hearts have been armored against the truth of what is happening. We have
been so busy denying it, or trying to fix it, or to moderate its impact that
we have not actually allowed the immensity of what is actually taking place
to sink in.
But there comes a point when it does sink in, not just intellectually,
but emotionally. This happens in different ways for each of us. I’ll never
forget flying over the Amazon and looking down at the endless checkerboard
of soybean fields and isolated blocks of jungle which a few years ago was
unbroken forest as tears welled to my eyes. The earth’s last great
rainforest is being sliced and diced to produce cheap hamburger meat for the
fast food industry.
I don’t have any children, but if I did I would grieve for the fact that
they will grow up in a world largely bereft of tropical rainforests,
glaciers and icecaps, polar bears and gorillas and coral reefs.
Environmental causes are often presented as if they were strictly
practical issues. Climate change and the ongoing pillage of the planet is
bad because it will interfere with agricultural production, deprive the
world of “natural resources,” create disastrous mega-storms and disrupt the
smooth functioning our economy. These impacts are real, of course. Yet they
often blind us to the intimate personal dimension of the story.
|"We need to come up with a different story about who we are, and
what the earth is, and how we are inextricably connected to it."
Destroying the world is bad not just because it will hurt the bottom
line. It is bad because we are the world. This is what E.O. Wilson was
getting at when he introduced the idea of biophilia, which refers to the
instinctive bond which humans feel with other life forms. We are hard-wired
to love the earth and our fellow inhabitants on the planet – not solely
because it is in our self-interest to do so, but because we never were
separate and apart from them, even though our predatory economic system has
compelled us to act as if we were.
I know that this may sound a bit sentimental. We have been conditioned to
believe that “irrational elements” like emotion should not interfere with
pragmatic political and economic decision-making. Even environmentalists
nowadays are constrained to make their arguments in dry utilitarian terms
without reference to the grief that they – and we – are feeling at the
impending loss of so much of the natural world.
Yet it is precisely this divorce of thought from feeling which has been
at the root of the problem all along. Living in this schizoid manner has
freed the human race to exploit Nature and treat it like an insentient
object without autonomy and sovereign rights. And we can’t even begin to
heal our relationship with the earth until we acknowledge that our love for
it is real, and indeed must now guide our actions, as it has guided
indigenous cultures in the past.
Make no mistake, recovering the full measure of our innate biophillia
will be a wrenching process. We will be forced to recognize the enormity of
the suffering that we humans have inflicted on the earth and its living
systems. But embracing this pain, actually feeling the anguish of the earth
and its inhabitants is arguably the only thing that might help save us at
Ok, the word “save” is not quite accurate. There will be no salvation in
the sense of a magical solution. In fact, there may be no “solution” in the
usual sense at all. We are beyond that. The illness won’t be cured, yet
healing is possible.
Healing means moving beyond the old paradigm of exploitation to a whole
new manner of living on the earth. Healing is not always saving the patient.
It is letting what needs to die – in our way of life, and also, sadly, in
the world of Nature – die in order that something new can be born in its
And don’t kid yourself; this will be neither quick nor easy. “Some things
can’t be redeemed in a hurry,” writes William Stafford in his poem What To
Do When You Get Lost. “You learn the rules after the game is over,” he adds
This is the meaning of Kubler Ross’ fifth and final stage of grief, the
stage of acceptance. Acceptance is finally learning Stafford’s “rules” after
the game is over. That the game is over in this case means that we are no
longer fighting against the truth of what is taking place, we are not
wasting our energy in guilt or anger, we are not just trying superficially
to fix things, we have moved beyond both hope and despair to a clear-eyed
vision of reality.
In terms of the environment, acceptance means that we have stopped
fooling ourselves about how deep the pathology runs or how radical the
solution is. We recognize that what is at fault here is not merely a
particular corporation’s greed, or the policy of this or that administration
or political party.
Again, we do what we can do. Clearly fossil fuels need to be replaced by
renewable energy systems. Agriculture has to return to low impact
sustainable methods. We need a moratorium on the cutting of old growth
forests, strict bans on overfishing, and protection of endangered habitats.
But in the end we won’t be rescued by new technologies, laws, or even
more sustainable ways of living. If we succeed in weathering the coming
storm, it will be because something subtler, yet even more powerful has been
transformed within us. We could call that subtler thing “consciousness,”
although that would make it sound intellectual; we could call it “the soul,”
which would make it sound spiritual and otherworldly. We’ve already used the
word “heart,” but what we are talking about has little to do with raw
emotion or sentimentality.
Maybe a better way to express it would be to call this thing that needs
to change “our story.” We need to come up with a different story about who
we are, and what the earth is, and how we are inextricably connected to it.
We can no longer afford to tell ourselves that we humans are here to
dominate Nature, to wrest the maximum possible economic gain from the
earth’s living body. We need a whole different measure of success than
accumulating money and the latest high-tech baubles. Most pointedly of all,
we need a new understanding of happiness and how it is to be achieved.
When our story changes, our values change, we live more lightly on the
earth. When we live more lightly, the earth begins its slow recovery. I’m
not sure how we get to this new story. But recognizing that the old story
has not worked is the necessary first step. That is going to happen –
whether through heartbreak or catastrophe, or more gently through an
awakening of the human spirit, waits to be seen.
Richard Schiffman is the author of two spiritual biographies and a
journalist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, NPR, the
Christian Science Monitor, Reuters, and elsewhere. He does regular
environmental pieces for the Guardian where you can find his articles at
www.guardian.co.uk/profile/richard-schiffman. He is also a widely
published poet whose poetry portal can be found at
article was published in Natural Life Magazine in 2013.