Imagining the end: an earth without us

in Featured/Indy Essay by

The lead editor of this publication, Michelle Porter, in a brief email a couple of weeks ago: “I’m interested in an intelligent, interesting response to this, if it grabs you.” She continued, “I find the idea that they’ve given up on humanity really interesting.” The first words in The Guardian profile of Mayer Hillman she was referring to? “We’re doomed.” I sent the article to an old high school friend, who now works for the American EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). She barely had time to blink, “. . . unfortunately right on point” was the succinct and rapid response. 

Because Michelle and I likely read many of the same things that funnel through the internet that appeal to people of a certain intellectual and political bent, I had already read the piece. Mayer Hillman thinks that it is well past time for the governments and peoples of this planet to begin discussing the inevitable termination of life on earth as we now know it in honest, straightforward ways. His assessment certainly accords with my—admittedly layman’s—understanding of the current scientific consensus. The planet, because of increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, will continue to heat. The ice at the poles will continue to melt, swamping coastlines and low-level land as sea levels rise. Methane trapped for ages in the permafrost of the tundra as well as the Antarctic will be released, creating an unstoppable feedback loop. The oceans will absorb too much of the excess carbon, and the sea will acidify far too quickly for life to adapt, and the delicate and most ancient links of the food chain that made life on this planet possible will begin to weaken, to fray, eventually to break beyond repair. Models vary on how rapidly this will happen, and how it might shape your local weather, but a scientific consensus has been reached.

I use the future tense, but that grammar is inaccurate. The exponentially increasing number of extinctions on this planet suggest that the sixth mass extinction event is already underway. In the terms of evolutionary biology, these apocalyptic ends are already a reality, the human perspective, limited by the human life span, may well be incapable of understanding the sublimity of the massive change that is happening (rather than will happen) to this planet. Arguably it may have started back in the nineteenth century. The end began before your grandmother was born. 

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“. . . .the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that, “it is he who is dead and not I.”
–Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych

I am used to thinking about the need for frank discussion around death. I consider it something of my professional duty to get my students to think, at least a little, about their own inevitable ends.

A lot of my teaching and professional life over the past ten years has included introducing first and second year students to the joys of literature. A common observation—some might call it a complaint—is the ‘depressing’ nature of much of the literature I teach. Death, disease, crisis, war, rape, madness, and murder: my syllabi—covering everything from Antigone and The Book of Job, to Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, to Octavia Butler’s Kindred and The Autobiography of Malcolm X—might as well be issued with the Stones “Gimme Shelter” as a soundtrack. Or so my students complain.

To counter this complaint, or at least further the discussion beyond the banal, I have resorted to using a basic concept of existentialism: the importance of coming to terms with one’s own death, one’s own end: sein-zum-tode, Heidegger would call it, being-toward-death. The concept is complicated, and varies from existentialist philosopher to existentialist novelist to existentialist playwright, and I give my students little more than the comic book version. But here it is: as troubling as it may be to realize that one is going to die, in the recognition that our lives will come to an end we find the freedom to be and to become. Instead of repressing the fact of our inevitable end, a repression that inevitably leads to the depression and paralysis that accompanies self-deception, a consciousness of our own end gives structure and meaning to our day-to-day lives through an authentic relationship to the tenuous nature of our existence. We might still have to do the laundry and file taxes and clip our cats’ claws, but at least those banal chores are framed by an authentic perspective. And we might be in a better position to find the sacred and the sacramental and the joyous in our lives as a result. Thus goes the undergraduate lesson when we are about to read Dostoevsky or Camus, Kafka or Beckett, or even Joan Didion or David Foster Wallace.

But this awareness of death, and the artists who have tried to wrap their heads around it, usually applies to individual lives. I am in no position of expertise to make predictions about when life on this planet will cease to exist. I have a PhD in Victorian literature for god’s sake, not climatology, geology, astrophysics, or biology. But I do know—albeit only an intellectual level, based on the basic science my six-year-old son is capable of gleaning from Ted Ed videos—that an end will come. Nothing lasts forever, not even the universe, let alone homo sapiens. Even that most famous Victorian, Alfred Tennyson, knew that.

I am, in other words, still getting my own head around the idea of sein-zum-tode when it comes to life itself. 

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So I turned to art, thinking that if there is a gap in the imagination, then perhaps I might find it the emerging art of our time. During a phone conversation with Montreal-based poet-playwright Talya Rubin, she told me about the dream of the Hindenburg that led her to conceive of her performance-based show The Bluebird Mechanicals. I had read the script myself a few days before, in the wee hours of a sleepless night of my own. The Hindenburg felt perfect to me as a metaphor for the otherwise inconceivable end: communal life on a grand, luxurious scale, then swift and terrible disaster leaving nothing behind.

Still at a loss as to what to make of The Guardian piece that Michelle Porter had sent to me, I asked Talya what she had made of it. First, she said, it came as a relief, a relief to see that someone was at least speaking truth. Then, she said, came the almost unbearable, unspeakable grief of having to confront those truths. Rubin’s play—and new work-in-progress This is How to Listen to the World Disappear— intentionally disorients our usual ways of knowing in an attempt to come to terms with this new form of grief. Rubin told me about laying down on her apartment floor in grief when learning that the Great Barrier Reef was suffering irreversible bleaching. Rubin’s work, she told me, is really about the grief of loss, but a new kind of grief, a new kind of loss: the loss of a world, the loss of not just ourselves, but of being itself.

Not long after I spoke to Talya, Justin Brake ran a two-part series on ecological grief for APTN news. Included in his report was the work of Ashlee Cunsolo, director of the Labrador institute. Her contention: the Muskrat Falls protests arise not out of anger, but out of the profound psychological and spiritual loss experienced by the Inuit of Labrador. Reading the interviews, and watching the short film that Cunsolo contributed to making about this ecological grief, I could not help but notice that the peoples of Labrador have been coming to terms with the end for some time. For them it is not an act of imagination, but simply a recognition of the reality that they confront on a daily basis. Still, the universal grief they are experiencing, a kind of grand communal grief, lays beyond any known social norms. They themselves appear to struggle to articulate it.

An image from a very different sort of art came to mind. At the end of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora one of his central characters lands on earth for the first time. Raised in space, Freya has been to another solar system as part of an attempt to begin seeding humanity throughout the galaxy. That attempt has failed, foiled—not by a grand alien civilization or a tragic failure of technology—but by an impossible to categorize alien microorganism. The novel suggests that the kind of interstellar travel suggested by Star Trek and Star Wars-style space operas is laughably naïve. The sublime distances between the stars, the inevitable gulfs between astrobiology all suggest one thing: we are limited, at best, to this solar system, perhaps at worst to this planet. A planet we have been working hard to destroy for some time.

Robinson’s heroine, shaped physically and psychologically by her space journey, returns to a globally warmed earth where beaches have ceased to exist thanks to rapidly rising sea levels. She stretches out on a brief strip of artificially reconstructed beach, in an act of grief, shock and joy, attempting to reconnect with the ocean that gave birth to us all, the ocean we have deformed beyond recognition.

This planet, the novel suggests, is what we have. Earth is not our mother: we are the earth, the earth is us. Destroy the land beneath our feet, and the water that we drink, and there is no planet for us to turn to for refuge. If we acidify our oceans, we have not destroyed an environment, we have poisoned our own selves.

Robinson’s sprawling, space-girl stands in for the grief of our great-grandchildren. We have poisoned our own children, and our own children’s children. Instead of acknowledging that fact, as my EPA-employed friend from high school pointed out in a more involved phone discussion, many in the United States continue to treat the established science of global warming as a ‘debate.’

The end is still almost impossible to imagine.

And that failure, that failure to imagine the end, continues to trouble me. 

~

If you’re reading this, and you’re even a little bit like me, then you are hoping that Mayer Hillman is wrong, that the end is not yet inevitable. And you may be right. A new way of living on this planet may be yet found. Any number of bizarre, grand technological fixes to the problems being created by the problems of global warming are being proposed. One, or perhaps a quilt of interrelated solutions, may in fact stabilize the temperature on this planet long enough for life to continue existing, albeit in ways that will likely be very different from what our parents and grandparents would recognize. Perhaps in the next century or two Robinson will be proved wrong, and we will find ways to seed human life on planets light years away from this solar system. How, I imagine someone out there asking, are we to organize resistance to environmental destruction when we have already accepted an inevitable fate? How do we find our way to the next step of life, if we are so determined to accept our species’ death? 

Yet I cannot help but feel that this impulse on my part to insist on politically enabling ‘hope’ is politically destructive to the communal efforts that may save life on this planet and make what is coming more bearable. Rejecting the inevitability of my own death will not rescue me from mortality.

This planet enjoyed eons without the presence of human consciousness. Entire species had already evolved, dominated, and been destroyed by ecological collapse before a small group of homo sapiens emerged on the African savannah. Entire human civilizations—including the cultures and languages associated with those civilizations that we know little or nothing about—were once mighty empires. Even on this island, an entire culture was wiped out by colonial invasion a mere second ago in the frame of reference geological deep time provides. Shelley got it right: an accident of biology, a whim of environmental instability, a quirk of migration patterns, a random shot from the cosmic pool table that is space, and everything about your culture that you knew is not only gone, but forgotten.

Our current form of global civilization shows signs of thinking its rise inevitable, its progress one of continuous unchecked growth. These are seductive, pernicious myths. Until we can come to terms with the fact that we, as a species, as a global culture will one day not be, even as there were huge swaths of time in which we were not, it may be impossible to determine the best ways to be in this moment.

And so my long-winded response to Michelle’s email: Mayer Hillman is right. Until we confront the inevitability of our own end as a species, we will not know how to live as a species, let alone confront the profound existential crisis that threatens life on this planet. 

Featured photo by Bojan Fürst