TRIGGER WARNING: discusses climate breakdown, mass extinction, fear of death, fear of disaster.
Bill McGuire, Professor of geophysical and climate hazards on Twitter, 10:48 PM November 10 2022:
(Response to a report headlined “carbon emissions from fossil fuels will hit record high in 2022 climate crisis.“)
“….climate scientists [are] saying we need urgent action if we are to keep below 1.5C. For God’s sake, look at the figures. 1.5C is dead and buried. Emissions are not going to fall 45% in 7 and a bit years. They just aren’t.”
Matt Colborn in the UK, Tuesday 19th July 2022:
By midday the temperature was thirty seven degrees celsius. I ate lunch in the doorway, watching the ants crawl on the concrete patio slabs just outside my door. The Sun was a blazing, incandescent eye in a cloudless blue sky. The temperature had crossed the threshold from pleasantly to unpleasantly hot.
After lunch, I did a little more work on my laptop but by mid-afternoon it was becoming too stuffy and closed inside to concentrate. I had been forced to close the windows and the doors because every time I opened one, a blast of hot air would plough into the annex rooms. If I needed to venture outside, I had to make sure the door to my bedroom, living room and bathroom were closed, enclosing the vestibule like an airlock before I could open the front door. The relatively cool air inside had become a precious resource, like a small puddle of rapidly evaporating water in a desert. Fortunately, the annex, although old, has thick walls and the downstairs is protected by an uninhabited first floor. This was protecting me from the worst onslaught of the heat. But for how long?
At 03:12 PM, the MET office recorded a breaking temperature of 40.3°C at Coningsby, Lincolnshire. Coningsby is about twenty miles as the crow flies from where we live. The official press release from the MET office was fairly bland, but Prof Peter Stott of the MET office found the temperature “shocking” and “very worrying.” In the same article, Professor Hannah Cloke of Reading University was more blunt: “The all-time temperature record for the UK has not just been broken, it has been absolutely obliterated. Even as a climate scientist who studies this stuff, this is scary.”
From the Cataclysmic blog “Forty Degrees.”
To Bear Witness
The main motivation for writing Cataclysmic, a personal record of climate breakdown on Substack, was to bear witness.
I’ve lived on this planet for almost fifty years. Today, the world population is now 8 billion and counting. When I was born, the world population stood at about 3.9 billion — roughly half that number. About 62% of human-caused carbon emissions have occurred since I was born. About 70% of wild animal populations have been wiped out by humans. This means that the world that I live in today is radically different from the one in which I was born. Climate campaigner Bill McKibben has suggested that the Earth of the twenty-first century is so different from that of the twentieth that it deserves a different name — Eaarth (McKibben, 2010).
The natural world has been mutating, steadily, into something unrecognisable. There are no longer insects on your windscreen after a drive. In my region of the UK, there is little snow or ice in winter. Glaciers have been vanishing. The ice-caps have been shattered. The forests have been torn down. The coral reefs have bleached. Wildfires, heatwaves, droughts, devastating floods dance across the planet in a seemingly never-ending procession. Bill McGuire writes that there is now no chance of “dodging a grim future of perilous, all pervasive climate breakdown.” (McGuire, 2022, p. xiv). He warns that we’re heading for a “hothouse state” that we’re all “committed to living on.” This is a world “that would be utterly alien to our grandparents.” (McGuire, 2022, p. xv).
Despite the uptick in extreme weather, many of us in the Global North seem almost totally unprepared, emotionally or practically, for this future. Plenty of us still live in denial or disavowal. Since starting Cataclysmic, I’ve even had exchanges with out-and-out climate skeptics. But still, many of us now live life on two levels. For very practical reasons, we go through the motions of everyday life, which includes planning for a future that we assume will be pretty much like the present. On another, perhaps visceral level, we know that things are not okay. Sooner or later the familiar, the almost comforting patterns of everyday existence will be irrevocably altered.
Climate breakdown is rarely out of my thoughts these days. Reality is out of joint. Things feel very wrong even when one is not directly in the path of extreme weather. We’ve had an anomalously mild autumn, so far. Yesterday, my father described the weather as being ‘like April’ — in mid-November. We saw a butterfly. The bees were active. A daffodil was coming out. To anyone with even a cursory knowledge of natural history, this is all deeply wrong. As deeply wrong as the extreme drought that gripped Europe and China last summer. As wrong as the catastrophic floods in Pakistan, Nigeria, Seoul.
The ‘Spiritual’ aspect of Climate Breakdown
It’s my belief that climate breakdown is as much a spiritual as a material crisis. For a start, when attempting to comprehend the scale of climate breakdown, I find myself resorting to mythic and religious tropes. The language of apocalypse seems wholly appropriate to the age in which we live. Ragnarok is here. The four horsemen gallop over the horizon. Kali-Yuga has entered its final phase.
Adrian Tait thinks that such mythic imagery might help us to better comprehend humankind’s “grossly disordered interaction with the more-than-human world.” (Tait, 2021, p.107). This is because “climate psychology is necessarily an imaginal venture as well as a rational one.” (Tait, 2021, p. 108). Tait invokes the imagery of the Hindu deity Shiva, “the creator and destroyer of worlds” to help us with this:
“The point behind this invocation is that, thanks largely to the power we have acquired through fossil fuels and technology, we have assumed a god-like status, a sense of omnipotence. But it is a classic case of hubris and nemesis because we have been revelling in our superhuman power with little concern for the consequences.” (Tait 2021, p. 108).
I’d remind people of the words Oppenheimer used when the atomic bomb exploded above Trinity: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” It’s a line from the Bhagavad-Gita. Since at least the atom bomb, we’ve possessed tremendous power that we barely know how to use. Some even date the advent of the Anthropocene, the age when humans operate as a geological force, to the first nuclear bombs.
Mythic imagery can help cut through the bewildering and often dry tangle of statistics and reports, providing a broad shape for comprehending the Anthropocene. Imagery need not only issue from traditional sources: in confronting climate breakdown, I often find myself turning to Science Fiction. On the terrible day that the UK experienced temperatures of 40 degrees celsius, I was reminded of the Twilight Zone episode “Midnight Sun” where the Earth drifts into solar fires. My suspicion is that this sort of imaginal engagement might prove to be more powerful — and possibly motivating — than all the facts and figures in the world.
But beyond this, I believe that the ecological crisis at least in part begins with the turmoil within our own minds. It is not just basic material needs but an urge to power and excess that drives the overuse of fossil fuels. This makes it a ‘spiritual’ problem. The restlessness of the ego, and resultant suffering, presents a key problem for many of the contemplative traditions. Humanist journalist Douglas Rushkoff characterises our woes in terms of the Algonquin word, wettiko: “a delusional belief that cannibalising the life-force of others is a logical and morally upright way to live.” (Rushkoff, 2019, p. 159.)
In a fascinating piece, neuroscientist David Presti has even likened our dependence on fossil fuels to a stimulant drug. He suggests that our fossil-fuel addiction might even be framed as a ‘brain disease’ in the same sense as an addiction to alcohol or other drugs. And one thing characteristic of people who suffer from addiction is a pervasive absence of meaning in their lives (Diaz, Horton & Malloy, 2014). This inner dimension of our woes is, paradoxically, potentially good news, because it implies that the means for transforming this crisis lie within us all.
But there exists a significant obstacle.
Scientific materialism and beyond
We live in a culture with an official creed of scientific materialism (Sheldrake, 2020). This creed is distinct from science itself, which remains indispensable. Scientific materialism is part of the inheritance from the Enlightenment. One key assumption is that living systems can entirely be understood in terms of mechanisms. These mechanisms are composed of inert, purposeless matter. They lack anything resembling a life-force or soul. In scientific materialism, the proposition that life is mechanical is not just seen as a useful metaphor, but as a literal, unassailable truth (McGilchrist, 2021, chapter 13).
Scientific materialism is inadequate for tackling the current ecological crisis. This is in part because the creed denies that any living thing has intrinsic worth. Instead, the world is reduced to a heap of usable parts (McGilchrist, 2021; Sheldrake, 2020). So nature exists to be exploited. For this reason, it’s quite likely that scientific materialism has helped exacerbate the ecological crisis. The damaging nature of purely mechanistic approaches to life is now admitted by environmental activists who remain — rightly — strongly committed to science itself.
Despite this, scientific materialism still predominates within academic institutions, and this perpetuates further problems. This seems especially true in my own field of consciousness studies. There is currently a great effort to comprehend human consciousness purely in terms of brain mechanisms. But the initial conclusions hardly seem inspiring. The messages that consciousness is a brain-generated hallucination (Seth, 2021) and that free agency is an illusion (Wegner, 2002) seem to me exactly wrong for the severe challenges we all face, even if such suggestions embody partial truths.
These messages are damaging because they are systematically personally disempowering. They isolate us from the inner resources that we are going to need if we’re successfully to transform this crisis. B. Alan Wallace saw this over twenty years ago (Wallace, 1999):
“The modern western approach is remarkably empowering to those who create, market and distribute [brain-changing] technology and drugs” but is “profoundly disempowering for the individual.” (Wallace, 1999, pp. 185—6).
This is because a corollary of the assumption that everything is mechanism is the assumption that if you sufficiently understand that mechanism, then this will allow you total control. So the mind is controlled when the environment, body and brain are controlled (Wallace, 1999). And in today’s world, those with money, power and a technological edge are those who can assert such control.
In fact, an ethic of manipulation and control has become a founding assumption of modern societies. This sort of manipulative approach is also very evident in mainstream discourses over climate breakdown; perhaps its ultimate expression is geoengineering, which imagines mechanistic interventions upon Earth-systems. McGilchrist thinks that the predominance of such values is due to the domination of the limited worldview of the left-brain (McGilchrist, 2021).
The Deep Ecologist Arne Naess once stated that “ethics follow from how we experience the world.” (Naess,1989, p. 20). And there’s ample evidence that humans have the capacity radically to transform their experience. Experience the world differently and, following Naess, one’s values shift. This must entail stepping out of our technological cocoons and encountering the natural world, and each other, anew.
This is where transpersonal experiences come in. Transpersonal experiences can be simply defined as:
“Experiences in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans.) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche or cosmos. (Walsh & Vaughan, 1993, p. 103, quoted in Daniels, p. 2005, p. 218).
One crucial aspect of these experiences is that they seem to facilitate a sense of deep interconnectedness with an animate world that pulses with awareness. It’s no coincidence that psychedelic experiences induced by drugs like psilocybin seem to be associated with an uptick in ecological concerns. The same is true with spontaneous spiritual experiences in nature. I think that the human capacity to go beyond the ego, and for transformed relations with a living world, may be one key to developing a less invasive and more cooperative relationship with the Earth. One can only hope that such a shift occurs in time.
What if it’s too late? The hospice approach
One of the initial motivations for starting Cataclysmic was a May 2022 Glastonbury conversation. My friend is currently a serving Green councillor and is a veteran campaigner. Her touchstone was the 1972 study Limits to Growth, a book based upon the results of a computer program that predicted global collapse if we continued to rely upon a destructive, extractive economy. This friend of mine experienced despair some time back and now believes that we have left it too late to avoid ecological catastrophe.
That conversation crystallised many thoughts. I too sensed that it was probably too late to avoid serious societal disruption, and possibly mass extinction. Hope, too, had stopped being a bromide and had become an emotional burden. One of the clinchers was the abject failure of COP26 in Glasgow. Many people felt the same sense of despair after that conference. This was because it was clear that the most world leaders were prepared to do was, in Greta Thunberg’s words, “blah blah blah.” This conclusion has recently been more than confirmed by its sequel, COP27.
For me, despair was not the end-point. Instead I wanted to find a viable, workable position that was beyond optimism, beyond pessimism, beyond unrealistic hope. A place where I could move beyond the paralysis I often felt when confronted with yet another piece of bad news. Fortunately, I was hardly the first to confront this problem. I took a lot of solace from Joanna Macy’s Active Hope. Active hope is where you fully acknowledge your feelings of grief as a positive sign that you care. After this, you do what you can.
A similar useful approach was outlined by William Debuys in this book The Trail to Kanjiroba. Debuys took his inspiration from hospice work, which includes the care of terminally ill patients. In an interview, Debuys outlined the approach:
“Hospice for the Earth arose from my hunger for a way of thinking about how we can continue our efforts to make the planet healthier and curb our own negative influences on it. In hospice care, you accept the trends of where things are going, and instead of focusing on the big fix, you focus on making things as good as you can, right here and now, for as long as you can. It requires you to relinquish attachment to outcomes and to focus on the fullness of the present.” Source: https://tricycle.org/article/trail-to-kanjiroba/
The approach DeBuys highlights constitutes a form of spiritual, even devotional, practise. One can accept this, I think, whatever one’s beliefs about the nature of the world.
According to ecological philosopher Rupert Read, we’re now all on climate breakdown’s front-line. Cataclysmic has become for me the equivalent of dispatches from that front line. These dispatches help me to make a little sense of the ongoing, often terrifying mutations of our world. My hope is that my writings might also help others to make their own sense of our tumultuous times. Apocalypse in ancient Greek, after all, means “revelation, disclosure.”
This is a front-line on which we are likely to stand for the rest of our lives: a sobering thought, indeed. ‘Doomer’ has very recently become an insult, and is supposed by some to represent giving up, almost a betrayal. But in fact the opposite is true. If we’re truly on the Titanic, then there’s no time to be lost. As Greta Thunberg said:
“Everything needs to change. And it needs to start today.” (Thunberg, 2019, p. 12).
We’d better get to it.
Diaz, N., Horton, E. G., & Malloy, T. (2014). Attachment style, spirituality, and depressive symptoms among individuals in substance abuse treatment. Journal of Social Service Research, 40(3), 313–324. URL = <https://doi.org/10.1080/01488376.2014.896851>
Daniels, M. (2005). Shadow, self, spirit: essays in transpersonal psychology. Imprint Academic.
McGilchrist, I. (2021). The matter with things: our brains, our delusions and the unmaking of the world. Perspectiva Press.
McGuire, B. (2022). Hothouse Earth: an inhabitant’s guide. Icon books.
McKibben, B. (2010). Eaarth: making a life on a tough new planet. Henry Holt & Company.
Naess, A. (1989). Ecology, community and lifestyle : outline of an ecosophy. Cambridge University Press.
Rushkoff, D. (2019). Team Human. Norton.
Seth, A. (2021). Being you: A new science of consciousness. Faber & Faber.
Sheldrake, R. (2020). The Science delusion. (2nd Ed.) Coronet.
Tait, A. (2021). Climate psychology and its relevance to deep adaptation. In Bendell, J. & Read, R. (Eds.) Deep Adaptation: navigating the realities of climate chaos. Polity, pp. 105—122.
Thunberg, G. (2019). No-one is too small to make a difference. Penguin.
Wallace, B.A. (1999). The Buddhist tradition of Samatha: methods for refining and examining consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies 6(2—3), pp. 175—187.
Walsh, R. & Vaughan, F. (1993). On transpersonal definitions. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 25(2), 199—207.
Wegner, D.M. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. MIT Press.