To Live and Die in the Anthropocene

The debate over whether or not it is too late to “save the planet” from the human industrial-consumer juggernaut misunderstands the issue of the role of humanity and our future into the Anthropocene. An important flaw in the thinking of traditional “environmentalists” is that they partake in the errors of the culture they seek to reform.

Many would apply technological fixes like “geoengineering” to the symptoms of the system they cannot give up. They hold to the mostly unconscious image of humans separate from a thing called “our environment.” They fail to think in terms of the actual complex adaptive systems that comprise the entire Earth System, of which we are all a part. We are not “in” the environment; we are active agents within the Earth System.

Death is more Certain than Taxes

Regardless of the odds of human species survival in an increasingly unstable and dangerous world, the human predicament remains the same. Will we live and die with some semblance of dignity as one of the many species engaged in the dance of life? Or will we go down in a spiral of denial and resistance to the very forces that give us life, insisting on human, even American, “exceptionalism” to the end?

To avoid the latter path of self and system destruction, a major transformation in consciousness and practice must sweep across humanity and lead us toward ecological harmony. Yes, that does seem unlikely, especially in the short time we have to stave off at least some of the worst consequences of our former and current destructive practices.

Can we live and die well, as individuals, communities, and societies? Can we find ways to live well in the context of approaching societal collapse? Can we live well in the face of extinction? Only with courage and realism can we shape our lives well in the face of death.

Living Well instead of Denying Death

What, after all, constitutes living well in a deadly post-affluenza world? Moderns define living well by their consumption and by the accumulation of wealth, as a means of denying death. The post-modern predicament of impending collective death reminds me of the prophetic words of the old Plains Indian chief, Old Lodge Skins (played by Chief Dan George) to Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie, “Little Big Man,” just before a big battle,

“Today is a good day to die!”

It is not that one intends to die now. Some say we begin to die right after birth. Yet, the inevitable outcome is always a matter of timing. The advocates of “deep adaptation” recognize the grave prospects for human survival into the Anthropocene. They would have us accept our species extinction now in order to mourn properly our collective passing as new swings of Earth System instability make life increasingly intolerable. However, even the strong possibility is not a certainty. We must live until we die.

I am also reminded of Chris Hedges statement, “I do not fight fascists because I will win; I fight fascists because they are fascists!” The will to go on in the face of likely defeat or death has formed an important human value for centuries. Samurai warriors took it to the extreme, glorifying self-inflicted death itself as a respectable way to protect their honor.

Roy Scranton draws on his experience facing death on a daily basis deployed in Iraq and finds hope in living as if already dead, expressed in his book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. Scranton reflects on how we might live best in facing the grim realities of impending societal collapse as climate chaos increases the likelihood of human extinction.

I fight for the survival of human and other species not because I will succeed; I fight because I am still alive.

Dead End

Age seems to bring on associations with drugs the doctors say we need. Most are not addictive, though many don’t do much good and often have unwanted “side effects.” Sometimes the “side effects” are front and center! One of the discomforts of being a Jubilado (retiree, if you don’t know the word, en español) is the experience of the death of others in one’s own age group.

Few of us plan much for our death or that of others. When I hear that a member of my generation who is younger than me has passed away, it is especially disconcerting. Of course, we all must go eventually, but for myself, I’d rather it be later. When, later? Who knows? Just later.

Unplanned Death

But it is a matter of an entirely different order when we hear of a death of someone much younger, whom we have known since his birth. At our age, we find ourselves on the way to another medical appointment with uncanny frequency. On one such occasion at 8:30 AM,  about three years ago, while slogging through South Bay traffic to a UCLA imaging facility in Santa Monica, I got a call from a very close long-time friend, who abruptly told me her son had just died of a drug overdose. He was 30 years old; I was around when he was born.

“What?” I could not process what I heard. I had planned to visit her late the next day. “You can come over any time tomorrow; I’m not going to the gym.” With that veiled plea for me to come over sooner, she could not talk anymore right then. In all the years I had known her, since the early 1970s, she had never been at a loss for words. In that stop-and-go traffic on Pacific Coast Highway, so was I. I spent the rest of the week with her, working through all the many details of dealing with a death too soon.

Internet-Facebook-addictionYou just never know. I will not go into the details of a very vibrant young man’s death from an overdose of a mix of new designer drugs, or his girlfriend’s that followed. But from what I hear, a wave of such young deaths has swept the East Coast, then the West, in recent years. “Progress through chemistry” keeps the overseas illicit manufacturers ahead of the drug laws. So does the Internet, where rogue drugs produced somewhere in Asia without quality controls and at unknown strengths are purchased through distributors in other countries. Ironic. We seek solutions to all our problems through new technology and we create more problems with newer technologies, including the Internet.

Addictions and Illusions

Portugal abandoned its “war on drugs” years ago. Drug use has significantly declined there. When addiction does occur, authorities treat it as the “behavioral health” problem that it is; the patient is often freed of addiction or learns how to live with it. Portugal-660x420Unfortunately, we in the U.S. live in a punitive society where “treatment” is something that is done to the patient; it is not so much done by the patient. It often fails, just like the mass incarceration that pretends to be the “rehabilitation” of those caught by law enforcement self-medicating with illegal drugs.

In our U.S. culture of profit over everything – into which the drug business fits so well – we treat our environment just like we treat children, and adults for that matter, who may have problems. We may treat symptoms, but rarely their causes, wondering why the problem persists. We punish indiscriminately. We find enemies everywhere, or we create them. Pablo Escobar and “Chapo” were products of the U.S. War on Drugs.

Contradictions of Denial

Terrorists arise in resistance to the invasions and occupations of our fossil-fueled global empire – a collective addiction. Death and destruction are products of our alienation from the living Earth we inhabit. That is why we can’t get a grip on the climate crisis we created by our alienated culture of extractive capital and wasteful consumerism. And, of course, we deny it all and project blame onto the enemies we have created. Addiction is the goal of marketing, which leads to diverse forms of illness or death. We need a new “culture war.” The culture of life must win over the culture of death. The alternative is a dead end.

What To Do Now

Another Entry in the Mad Jubilado series

It is the always-present never-ending question of life. Sure, we have good intentions and sometimes they work out – as planned or not. Yet each moment is contingent. The future never arrives; it’s always out there because we are always here, in the present. We have our To-Do lists; we have our schedules. And we have our big plans. They all represent the near- and long-term future. We even have our spontaneous impulses, if we have held on to our creativity. But what to do now?

The Mad Jubilado has said many times, mostly to himself, “you could be run over by a truck tomorrow, so what are you going to do now?” It is just a reminder that life – and its length as well – is quite unpredictable and can end at any time, without notice, despite our attempts at stability through habits. So, what really is important?

Will contemplating such a core existential dilemma affect what we do now? Maybe, maybe not. What difference does the certainty of indeterminate termination make? We all know that we will not live forever, but at a certain level we push that realization out into the future far enough that it doesn’t bother us so much. That is easy enough when you are young, which is why so many die young due to feeling invincible.

Risk aversion grows with age, more or less. So grows the awareness of the certainty of death in the much nearer future for this seventy-eight year old Mad Jubilado than for the twenty-eight year old brazen base-jumper. To live well may not require taking high risks, but some risks will arise on their own whatever we do. I was about twenty-two when I barely avoided a head-on crash with a truck on a narrow bridge in central Mexico, with what seemed no more than a couple of centimeters between us as we simultaneously crossed that narrow bridge in opposite directions.

That got my attention. I realized that luck as much as skill allowed me to continue to Guadalajara and beyond to the rest of my life. Of course, I attributed survival to my own skill in “threading the needle” between the on-coming truck and the bridge abutment. Yet it shattered part of my youthful sense of being fully in control. We must play the hand we are dealt. Yet, our play may or may not be enough.

Anyone who has lived as long as this Mad Jubilado has seen others of her/his generation die; s/he usually takes notice. That has happened to me several times in recent years. Since about the time I retired, three of my university colleagues in California have died of pancreatic cancer. What is it about LA?

Then, now already three years ago, one of the most joyful life-loving women I have ever met, the wife of a close friend in Santa Fe, died too young after a shared struggle both of them endured for four years. Throughout that battle with cancer, they both lived life as fully as possible – more so than many do living in comfortable risk-averse habituated routine.

Habits can enhance stability, but they contribute little to “the hero’s journey.” It is always an honor to know people who live their lives creatively and fully. Adventure is the essence of the hero’s journey; it always involves struggle and the resulting unbounded joy in living, which should be a lesson for us all. No matter what happens, there is only one thing to do now: live!