Until the late twentieth century, every generation throughout history lived with the tacit certainty that there would be generations to follow... Hardships, failures, and personal death were encompassed in that vaster assurance of continuity. That certainty is now lost to us, whatever our politics. That loss, unmeasured and immeasurable, is the pivotal psychological reality of our time.
–Joanna Macy, “Working Through Environmental Despair”
Giving it up
As we’ve entered the denouement of the Anthropogenic Era, much of the discussion about climate change centers around what its effects will be on our quality of life. By those metrics, for the next couple of years I’ll settle for an apartment that’s cool in the summer and warm in the winter, an adequately stocked fridge, clean drinking water, affordable and reliable Internet and cell phone service, and a neighborhood free of diseases and marauders. In terms of the emotional and spiritual effects of environmental catastrophe—the sort of things almost no one seems to be discussing—I’ve been working on that for much of my life by contemplating mortality. When I was a child, every time I saw a shooting star I felt a brief thrill, followed by sadness and a slight fear. I believed they were dying stars, and I’d think someday there won’t be any stars left. I used to delight in shouting into canyons, seeing how long my echo would reverberate, disappointed when it finally died. Whenever I skipped a stone across the water, the minute it left my hand I hoped it would skim forever. Later, I held my breath whenever a space shuttle returned, hoping it wouldn’t hit the atmosphere at the wrong angle and bounce off into space forever, or come in too sharply and disappear in a bloom of incineration.
In elementary school, we had occasional air raid drills. When the warning bells rang, the teacher turned off the classroom lights, and we dutifully crouched under our desks, putting our coats over our heads. It was a welcome relief from the boredom of school. Occasionally while we crouched during the drills, I’d hear a plane overhead, and I’d think: is this really it? Would our coats really protect us from an atom bomb? Could my mom and dad and me all make it home through the fires and chaos? None of these fears rose to the level of panic. Hiding under the desk, I’d think it’s safer in the teacher’s closet than under the desk, and if I can make it there without getting caught, I’d even have a chance to see what’s in her coat pockets and purse. The thought came not from larceny but curiosity, and curiosity is tied in with hope.
I’ve been in a lifelong dress rehearsal for the final curtain of my own relatively minor play. When I was about seven years old I began to suspect that although I’d come close, I would probably not be around when we finally landed a man on Mars. (In 1953, I never imagined that it might be a woman.) My family tree is riddled with cancer, and in my twenties I realized that there’d probably be no cure for cancer during my lifetime. “To discover a cure for cancer, we’ll have to discover the secret of life,” Doc Rosenblum once told my father, a view reflecting not so much science as old Doc Rosenblum’s scientific and philosophical limitations.
Even back in the days of nuclear anxiety though, I felt that annihilation wasn’t really imminent. Despite threats of an atomic bomb attack, there was always some doubt about the worst really happening. We could probably survive a nuclear attack. And it might not even happen: the second before pressing the red button, even the worst human being might still hesitate, if only out of fear of mutually assured destruction. In these days of accelerating climate change though, the train has already left the station. When fear marries with scientific certainty, when hard science tells you that your train is hurtling toward the gorge where the bridge and trestle are already blown, you can try running until you reach the end of the last car, but then what?
Climate change is the ultimate terror, the end of everything. More minor terrors have acquired the imprimatur of The Name We Dare Not Speak, and so we can whisper their names, shiver and thrill to them in melodramas, murder mysteries, and horror movies. If the setting is secure enough—around a campfire, at pajama parties, in Fundamentalist churches—we still scare our children and ourselves with tales about them, but the implicit message is that we’ve all got a chance of being saved if we stick together or if God backs us up. With climate change, however, the largest destructive force we have ever faced, the fuse is lit and we have no way to yank it out. Do we have any defense other than denial?
Despite the occurrences and predictions of increasing drought, famine and pestilence, rising sea levels, monster storms and wildfires, heat stroke, accelerating species disappearances in these early stages of the Sixth Mass Extinction, acidification of the ocean, unleashed methane gas from the thawing tundra, and other signs about the Anthropogenic Era ending, we still flinch, turn away from genuinely accepting the ultimate reality. This is the essay I don’t want to show to my thirty-year old daughter, who still has plans and dreams. I don’t bring up climate change around potential or new parents, nor in discussions with my financial person about my retirement portfolio. All these people believe in their plans and future, and it’s not my place to upend their apple cart. I wouldn’t have wanted to stop Johnny Appleseed by telling him that someday DDT, Alar, and Roundup would seep into the groundwater and the eggshells of eagles. He was a good man with good intentions, more power to him.
Contemplating mortality has involved vacillating for much of my own life between hope and denial. Once I raced an airplane on my tricycle. Even though I knew it flew hundreds of miles an hour, I saw it moving slowly across the sky, and I figured that with enough effort I could outrace time and distance. (I might have won too if I hadn’t come to a busy street.) Now having passed seventy years old, I’m realizing that I probably won’t be around for the finale of the Anthropogenic Era. I’ve begun catching some early whiffs of the denouement, but it looks like I’m going to miss the climactic sturm unt drang of the Apocalypse. Quelle dommage, meaning both “too bad” and “what extraordinary damage is coming down the pike.” After all, I’ve put in a lot of preparatory work, so I’d like to see the finale.
I watch squirrels gathering food in late autumn and sense that it feels different to them than it does in summer—the leisurely summer foraging becomes a frantic urge to store up for the oncoming winter. Does it actually feel different to squirrels in different seasons or am I projecting my own dread? Does anxiety exist on a purely biological level or does it require some knowledge of the future? This morning I heard a robin chirping, and I realized that it’s mid-summer and I’ve seen fewer robins this year. As I watched it hop around looking for worms, I anthropomorphized: poor, brave, lonely thing. I expect I’ll increasingly feel this as more flora and fauna disappear. Butterflies, bees, and frogs are already dwindling, though mosquitoes seem to be gaining ascendency. Just like so many parties I’ve been at, the first to leave are the ones you hope stick around, and the last to leave are the ones you’re irritated at.
Because I occasionally look for silver linings, I’d be remiss to discuss the end of our species without pointing out some of the upsides. There could be a great rebirth of irony, one of the sublime affinities and talents of the human mind. When Crosby croons, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,” global warming will give it a lot more resonance. Birth announcements and wedding vows will evoke more complex emotions. With homo sapiens’ re-entry closed off, the Hindi menu of reincarnative possibilities will have to be reconfigured. People who buy cut flowers may come to seem like poachers and vandals; plastic flowers may come back into vogue. All those self-help books will finally reveal their true nature: decorative nests on the side of a crumbling cliff. And perhaps best of all, I’ll be hearing a lot of Barber’s Adagio for Strings and the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth, those exquisitely melancholic classical pieces. Keats walking in the woods, heard a nightingale’s beautiful song and was surprised to discover he felt sad; beauty exists, he realized, because it’s ephemeral. Sic semper homo sapiens.
What matters at the road’s end?
In his prophetic novel The Road, Cormac McCarthy poses the penultimate questions: in the final days of our species is there any reason for living, any meaning to our existing? He creates the perfect laboratory for examining the questions: nothing on Earth will ever grow again, which means that what little food remains is finite, and a father and his young son walk through the world of ashes trying to survive. Along the way they dodge gangs who kill and eat others. The pair runs into a starving old man, and the father won’t share his food. The father has a gun with just a few bullets. He intends, when the predators are closing in, to shoot his son and himself. Why keep going? The son asks why his father refuses to share their food. What makes them different from the cannibals?
Primitive paintings on dim cave walls, the aspiration and great fall of the Tower of Babel, the statues of Easter Island, the Aztec and Incan temples all speak of various ideas about the purpose of our lives, our strivings and our relationship to the universe. Will it matter what’s left behind after we’re all gone? Personally, here’s the best I can do: I imagine myself in a spacesuit cut loose from my tether, slowly tumbling off into the vast black universe, the remainder of my life measured by the dropping oxygen gauge, spending my last minutes inside my hermetically sealed bubble singing aloud and laughing at my fantasy that I’ve finally made it to Carnegie Hall. Maybe even laughing at the vainglorious Great Pharaohs who inscribed the details of their lives on their tombs so they’d achieve immortality. We are all Pharaohs and Queens in our own lives, and I’m still my father’s boy: Herb used to compensate for his own thwarted dreams by sitting on his throne working a crossword puzzle, content and safe from everything else going on in his world.
Although it would seem to call for something greater to mark the occasion, will there really be any difference between how we live out our individual final moments and how we live out the final moments of our species? The Pharaohs ordered their names and their lives’ high points inscribed on the tombs that were built for them while they were still alive; they couldn’t imagine that invaders and looters would dare to break into their tombs after their deaths, scratching out their names and stealing their possessions. Later, Ramses II, aware that his tomb wouldn’t remain inviolate, ordered his name scratched even deeper into the walls. After Ramses, other Pharaohs tried a new wrinkle in the arms race, eschewing pyramids and hiding their tombs in secret caves. Meanwhile, invaders were removing the gleaming white limestone that covered the Great Pyramid of Khufu and carting off the stones to build their own mosques and forts—the ultimate fuck you and abnegation of the Pharaoh: it isn’t you who will live forever in people’s memory, it’s Us. Still in thrall to our imperative to survive, to our belief that we’re a pinnacle of creation, that Someone or Something has at least noticed us and hopefully even smiled upon us, we struggle against believing, let alone accepting, that we’ve entered our endgame.
We can conceive on a conceptual level of the end of our collective existence; we can intellectually know that fundamentally we’re just a speck of dust in the timelessness of the universe. But can we really accept it? Is it an accident that in talking about the end of our species, I unconsciously wrote the word conceive? We certainly have feelings about our individual end or the end of our loved ones: when children first learn that they or someone close to them is mortal, they feel afraid or sad. (Anger comes later, when they acquire the perspective that things don’t always work in accordance with their plans and hopes.) Upon learning of our mortality, we quickly set about insulating ourselves—doing it alone and finding others to help—with whatever we can scavenge: denial, notions of an afterlife, fame, possessions, addictions, excitement, love.
In the dusk of the Anthropogenic Era, will we finally realize that our braggadocio and preening, our quarrels, feuds, and wars, didn’t justify the toll of misery and lives, and will we allow all of those to precipitate away until only our sense of grace and love remains? Or will we fall back on the fang and claw, determined to eke out every last moment of survival? Because of the perspective our consciousness affords us, we have a unique challenge: figuring out how to live through our final days. And when our species disappears, will it matter whether our final resonance was a fierce, futile fight for survival or whether our final resonance was our capacity to create and appreciate beauty, love, music, writing, and art?
Our desire to survive is fueled by the combustion of hope and denial. I still fantasize that at the end I will be able to do something for my daughter and my lover and, having accomplished that, I will write the Great Human Tract and bury it in a time capsule so a thousand or more years from now some new or alien species will discover it and my writing might have more importance than just an indecipherable curiosity piece. In addition to using writing as a defense, I draw upon my well-developed skill of whistling past the graveyard. Tremulously whistling about the end of homo sapiens isn’t the worst way to spend my time; it helps keep my spirits up.
You laugh or you cry
Thank you all for coming out to see me tonight in this awful weather. Which reminds me, Mark Twain said that everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it. Boy, he should have been living today. Close to eighty percent of Americans believe in angels, which is why climate change deniers will ride their horse off a cliff and expect the horse to change into a unicorn. Sure, some people are getting worried about climate change, but I think the way technology’s developing we’ll figure out a way to digitize the climate. These people who keep complaining about what’s happening to the environment, why don’t they just go live somewhere else if they don’t like it? Besides, Nature’s already re-finding her balance; there’s fewer fireflies around to heat things up. I’m telling you, this is the best of times to be living in. Yesterday some guy wanted to pick a fight with me for cutting in front of him and I said, "Do you really think this is worth fighting about with the end of the Anthropogenic era coming?" Remember how Novembers used to suck in Chicago? Today another guy comes up to me on the street and says, "Isn't this great weather for November?" I said, "Well, it presages the end of civilization as we know it, but at least it's not thirty-five degrees and sleeting." Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like there are no downsides to climate change. Already the scam artists are making money off it. I sent in $175 for a How to Survive Climate Change Kit, and they sent me a copy of Kafka's Metamorphosis.
But look, now’s not the time to give up hope: I figure Nature’s almost at the point where she's beginning to realize that she needs us and she’s getting ready to negotiate. And all that ice in the Arctic, who needs it? It wasn't doing anything except clogging up the Earth's sinuses. By the way, you know the difference between the Gulf Coast and Bangladesh? The Gulf Coast doesn't flood as often yet. Say, what about those rising sea levels? Pretty soon America’s holiday will be the Firth of July. But, hey, none of this stuff matters anyway; civilization’s only a social construct.
How about some entertainment news? They’re predicting climate change will be next summer’s blockbuster. And the latest issue of Condé Nast Traveler magazine showcases the 10 Best Resorts to Witness the End of Civilization From. By the way, I see that God announced last night He’s planning to close His long-running production of The Anthropogenic Era. "It's been quite a run," He said, "but now even the theater’s getting pretty run down." Asked about His future plans, God revealed only that He plans to focus His creative energies elsewhere.
But seriously folks….
Memories and possessions
My daughter left for college and when she returned to Chicago she quickly found a job and an apartment. Nine years after that, her bedroom in my apartment had remained pretty much the same—stuff in her drawers, posters on the wall, a futon, blankets which I washed once in a while to get rid of the dust, and an old dresser that one afternoon she and her middle-school friends decorated with indelible magic markers. Her books, accumulated since grammar school, were on a bookshelf in another room, alongside a cork bulletin board with a few photographs and a notice from the State of Illinois that as a newly licensed driver her license was now on probation because of a well-earned speeding ticket in Wisconsin. (Well-earned not because she was going nineteen over the limit, but because a few hours before she drove off, I told her, “Make sure you don’t speed in Wisconsin. They’re really tough on out of state speeders.”)
But I finally had her come over to go through her things and decide what to donate, what to toss, and what to take with her. Crawling under her bed, we found a few dusty, grody duffle bags that we opened with trepidation. Whatever was in there smelled so musty that we quickly zipped up the bags without inventorying the contents, ran them outside, and tossed them in the dumpster. She ended up leaving everything else in my apartment. The problem is, she revealed, she was thinking about moving across the country to either Austin or Portland, so it didn’t really make sense to bring more things to her own apartment right now.
I told myself that I didn’t believe in hanging on to the past any more fervently than I believed in looking forward to the future, and that her lingering presence in the house said something only about my inertia. But for the rest of the day I felt ambushed by sorrow. Sorrow and joy are like earthquakes, sudden chain reactions, explosions of things we’ve always unconsciously known. In my seventy years, I’ve undergone two major prunings of possessions I once thought so valuable that I imagined after my death I’d either have them buried with me, or that my lover, relatives and friends would go through them and spend hours reminiscing about me and reassessing who I really was.
The prunings consisted mostly of old T-shirts, over-wrought writing, report cards, birthday cards, letters, my high school yearbook, redundant photographs, a lot of film negatives, and some certificates for achievements that didn’t seem too meaningful even when I got them. The first great extinction was during the 1960’s—an era marked by an upheaval of values. So much of my generation was excited, adrift and moving around the country that I remember asking someone where she considered her home. “My junk drawer’s in a dresser in my parent’s house in Boston,” she said. The second extinction came a quarter century later when I moved into my fiancée’s home, caused by a combination of not enough room for much of my stuff nor, on both our parts, much perceived need for it. I did keep some classroom photos from grade school, and it surprises me that I remember the first and last name of every single person in the photos. One of the girls in my 4th grade classroom photo has scratch marks over her face; a friend and I had decided we didn’t like her and tapped her face a few times (in the photo) with a tack hammer. Last year I googled my friend, who I hadn’t seen or heard of in over fifty years and found his obituary: he’d become a big entertainment lawyer in LA and the year before he’d choked to death in a restaurant on a piece of food.
My daughter and I both ended up making different excuses for maintaining her presence in the apartment, but our excuses covered up a deeper reason that’s redolent with some mourning for the passing of the past, and with some anxious curiosity about the future. How do you know when an era really ends anyway?
It’s later than you think,
While you’re still in the pink
Whatever the Earth eventually evolves into, we will not be around to see it, not even the 1% who are already building environmentally enclosed fortresses that will prove to be little more than the tombstones of social Darwinists who embraced the denial of the fittest. The Etch-a-Sketch will eventually be wiped clean of us; a Finger has already begun to twist the knob, wipe the slate. The lunatics who walk the sidewalks with their signs proclaiming the end is nigh are becoming like the hypochondriac’s famous last words on his deathbed: “I told you I was sick.”
The main road is the one we use denial to try to avoid; it’s as though we keep reading about travel without putting down our smart phones or leaving our easy chair. We don’t give ourselves a chance to discover that fear and sorrow are seldom as unbearable as our defenses and anxiety warn us they are. Ideally, as we approach closer to death, our dance of hope and denial slows; the two lifelong partners embrace more tightly until they merge into something that approximates peace and may even become peace itself. Ultimately the most important thing is how we will go through our end times, which is at least partly a matter of choice. We may go out in an avalanche of misery, a manic or ecstatic joyride, a beautiful sorrow, a handbasket to hell, or we may just drift off into a cloud. Me, rather than protecting my food and water with a semi-automatic gun, I hope to leave feeling peaceful.
I am sitting on a too-crowded beach in Michigan, morosely swatting sand fleas while my partner Lynn naps without a care in the world. I map out the rest of the day, vacation’s end. We have to leave in an hour and a half, wash off as much of this damned sand as we can so we don’t get too much of it in the car, find somewhere to change clothes, and start our hour and a half drive to Chicago, hoping to get there ahead of the end-of-weekend traffic, which means we won’t have time to stop and eat anywhere, and I’m already hungry. When we’ll finally get home and get all this crap unpacked—I told her she brought too much stuff—maybe we can salvage a little something of Sunday evening, though some of these sand fleas may actually be mosquitoes, which means the goddamn bites will itch all night long.
I kill time watching a middle-aged guy build a small sandcastle while his kids cavort in the water. The castle’s so small that people saunter, stride and slog past without noticing him and his work. Now he’s spraying parts of his castle with a water bottle and using a small pointed stick to make little designs on the walls, dig out windows, and mold turrets. The sands of Egypt, the sands of Michigan. He carefully, slowly pours little pebbles just a few at a time from a pail, making a tiny road to the castle and escalloping the walls. At what point does a compulsive act become peaceful, the artist merge with his art? I eye the waves lapping onto the beach and am relieved to note that his castle will be safe for several hours. I realize that I haven’t noticed being bitten for several minutes. I consider going over and talking to him, but he’s so intent I don’t want to disturb him. Geoglyphs scratched centuries ago into the desert floors of Arizona by the Anasazi are now surrounded by fences to protect them from Visigoths who have found meaning in their lives by driving over them in their ATVs. In New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, where Native Americans painted and carved petroglyphs on walls, you can also see felt-tip graffiti.
When the castle-builder and his family leave, I walk over to take a closer look. I think about digging a trench around the castle to extend its existence. A good thirty years ago, walking in a park on one of those mild, end of summer days, I saw someone way off sitting cross-legged, so still and erect that I knew he was meditating. I walked closer and saw that he was smiling, his eyes closed. Not believing in vibes since my days of acid trips, I nevertheless felt his aura. Today on the beach I remember him and feel his peacefulness again. The smallest acts can reverberate, endure, change how we and others experience the world.
A. E. Housman has always resonated with me, something my poet friends tolerate just because they like me. Housman rhymes; the few times he does associative leaps, you can follow them; and you always know what his poems are telling you: outdated stuff, all that. “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now”, has only twelve lines. During Easter season, Housman looks at a blossoming cherry tree, and he does the rueful math from Psalm 90:10: a man is allotted seventy years—threescore years and ten—and twenty of those have already passed for him. Cherry blossoms, a sign of spring, last only a very short time, their white bloom resembling snow. Christianity and most other religions have sugarcoated death, but Housman will have none of it:
And since to look at things in bloom
50 springs is little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
I’ve been in Washington, DC when the cherry blossoms appear, but I didn’t really understand their resonance until I went to Japan, where cherry blossoms are both a reminder that the world has beauty, and that the beauty is over before you know it. The moment doesn’t need us; we need the moment. Better to take the time to appreciate mortality, beauty, and the bittersweet irony of things. The delicate and ephemeral cherry blossoms appear during the gateway of spring, blooming pure and already ghostly. In a panorama that covers nearly half a wall inside Tokyo’s National Museum of Modern Art, Parting Spring, Kawai Gyokudo’s two six-fold screens begin with a cherry tree at the head of a gorge above a peaceful river, shedding its blossoms into a gentle breeze; the blossoms waft down the gorge, downriver, until finally they become wind-driven snowflakes driven over a rough, gray sea. Buddhist monks work for months carefully creating intricate sand mandalas and mark the completion by destroying them. Cherry blossoms, calligraphy, meditation, sand mandalas remind us to slow down and appreciate time, appreciate life. We haven’t been nearly good enough at savoring and conserving the things on our planet that could have sustained us. We still have time to do some of that. If we can give up the delusion that salvation leads to something beyond our life span, we can still find the salvation that’s left for us.