Eschatological/Scatological* Visions: A Model of Reconciliation
*This piece is a translation of the original article written in Spanish. The original word in Spanish, escatológico covers both the “eschatological” (relating to death and the final destiny of the soul and humankind) and “scatological” (relating to an interest in excrement and excretion).
Our model of civilization based on growth is coming to an end. And the new model, compatible with the limits of the Earth, is not yet ready. More than ever, the activism needed to face this crucial time for the planet and humanity demands realism, maturity, and serenity. Establishing a model of reconciliation with the planet and with our mortality, exploring eschatological/scatological visions, can help us in this.
We are apes contemplating the collapse of our civilization in the forefront. On the edge of the abyss and ready to take the plunge. Unwary, capricious, despotic, destructive apes…
Everything falls apart. The Covid-19 is a beautiful first piece of dominoes. Unless we change the course of our affluent society by 180 degrees, we will witness and fall victim to a succession of catastrophes that in the coming years will gradually narrow our existential comfort zone: scarce food and drink, fragile shelter, growing insecurity…
During our lives, we will experience the greatest cataclysm in the history of humanity. And most Westerners are unaware and isolated in their homes, distracted by images broadcast by all kinds of screens or, worse still, trapped in the System, gripped by the precariousness of work and the absence of prospects. Without hope.
Reconciling to better cope with the collapse
The coming collapse provokes intense emotions: fear, anger, helplessness, sadness…
To metabolize those emotions and avoid the likely paralysis that they can provoke is the great challenge of our generation. The 4Rs model (Reconciliation, Resilience, Restoration and Recovery) advocated by Jem Bendell in his Agenda for Deep Adaptation (in Spanish) is useful for this purpose. Of the 4 Rs, the most crucial is, undoubtedly, Reconciliation. Reconciliation with one’s own mortality is a prerequisite for playing a useful role during the end of our world.
We have no choice but to enter into a dark night of the soul and make peace with our terror of death, which is at the root of our existential anxiety. A model of reconciliation with the world and with ourselves needs to be established. But first we must ask a couple of questions.
What to do? What to be?
We are on the threshold of a new page in the history of humanity and the planet. It is not impossible that the human being will become extinct before the end of this century. In the most catastrophic scenario, it is even possible that Life will disappear from the planet.
Facing this predicament, we should ask ourselves what attitude to adopt. Some live in denial, others in hopium (a neologism that combines hope and opium), others eat and drink knowing that tomorrow they will die (Carpe Diem), others recycle, ride their bikes and give up meat, others dedicate their lives to activism. Others (Extinction Rebellion) are even willing to sacrifice their freedom for the cause. The most heroic come to give their lives in defense of ecosystems…
That wide spectrum of attitudes depends on how we see the world. In this sense, I suggest reading the lucid text, And What Are You Going to Do? (in Spanish) by Esther Molina, my friend and colleague from the Spanish Transition Network (RedT), in which she mentions the three scenarios proposed by Joanna Macy.
What to do? Ego and Activism
The prospect is so brutal that many days it is easy to become discouraged. After all, we know that entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, leads irreversibly to chaos and disintegration. Fighting against it may seem a quixotic, useless, futile endeavour. Whatever we do, humanity will one day disappear from the Earth. And then all Life will be extinguished. And the Sun will explode and the Universe will become a dark and silent place. Whatever we do.
And yet, there are many who show their dedication and selflessness, and devoting their lives to all kinds of causes. From the bear in the Pyrenees to the coral in Samoa. And that is their life. Driven by a vocation of dedication, of involvement.
But some fall into the error of forgetting to review, with certain frequency, the intention that motivates this activism. In a recent webinar on the ego of activists, Charles Eisenstein asks a question that is experienced as the tip of a sharp arrow plunged into your deepest and most personal trauma: Would you be capable of sacrificing your notoriety, your protagonism, in the effort to prevent the planet from falling apart? The only possible activism must come from an intense love for the Earth and not from the impossible satisfaction of the traumas and shortcomings of your early adolescence.
What to be? Stardust
Therefore, perhaps the answer is not so much in What to DO but rather in What to BE. That presupposes that we assume that we are stardust; that it is not that we are in the Universe, but that we are the Universe; that Nature is not something that is out there waiting for us to exploit it, but that Nature is within us, it is us.
What to be? A tube
Alan Watts (in Spanish) argued in On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are that one way of looking at reality can lead you to believe that every organism is essentially a tube. One end serves to introduce nutrients and the other to expel waste. Inputs and Outputs.
From the humblest worm to the gorgeous ape that we are, that tube is the essence of our interaction with the Earth. Evolution has been adding different functions to the tube (eyes, ears, hands, brains), which improve the transforming efficiency of the tube, but, basically, we remain a tube.
What differentiates us from the rest of living beings is that we can choose what we consume and how we dispose of our waste. I have in mind here one of the Five Trainings towards full consciousness proposed by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh: to practice deep vision in our way of using the four types of consumption: food, sensory impressions, volition, and consciousness.
Civilization is a tube
What applies to an individual is also applies to a civilisation. At one end of the pipe of our society, we extract resources from nature (wood, oil, minerals…) and, at the other, we expel waste (CO2, micro-plastics, …).
Both on an individual and collective level, it is essential that the extraction of resources and the expulsion of waste is done in a way that is compatible with natural limits. This is not the case, as we know from the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report (1972) which warned us that our model of continuous growth is leading us headlong into the abyss.
We are tubes in the shape of apes
We know very well what we are, but we continually forget. We are an ape who was forced to leave the forest at least four million years ago and began to adapt to life in the savannah in small groups, giving rise to culture. For some reason, that ape stood up and began to use their hands, giving rise to technology. And their brain went from 500 cm3 to 1500 cm3 in a short time. And, as Charles Eisenstein says in The Ascent of Humanity, due to the development of culture and technology, that ape began to separate from the nature from which they had emerged.
That separation accelerated, brutally, 10,000 years ago, when the ape went from being a nomadic hunter-gatherer to a sedentary farmer. And the gap with nature became insurmountable some 250 years ago when we discovered the bestial transformational capacity offered by fossil fuels.
We are many tubes
Today, we humans are more than 7.5 billion tubes. In absolute terms, there are probably too many of us consuming at high levels and the habitat we occupy is taken away from other animal and plant species. A study on biomass by the US National Academy of Sciences shows that humans now account for 36% of the biomass of all mammals, and the livestock that feeds us occupies 60% of the total, which reduces the biomass of the rest of the wild mammals to 4%.
Yes, there are many of us and our extraction and pollution capacity far exceed the planet’s carrying capacity.
However, we do not all have the same impact. We know that a few million in the “developed” world prey and pollute more than the other seven billion, who, at most, heat their beans and rice by burning branches and trunks plucked from the dying jungle that brought them into the world.
And yet the “progress” of our societies since the 1960s has not improved the life satisfaction of most people in the rich world. Watching Louis de Funès‘ film, The Gendarme of Saint-Tropez, the other day, I longed for the quality of life of those years without mobile phones or online shopping.
Scatological visions: the sacred and the profane
Eschatology is the discipline/science/branch of knowledge that studies the ultimate fate of the individual and the universe, as well as studying the human being after death. Eschatology was one of the central themes of medieval theology, coinciding with another of the great historical pandemics (the bubonic plague).
Curiously, on the other hand, the term “escatología” in Spanish also translates as “scatology” in English (relating to excrement). In his book Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, the ex-activist Paul Kingsnorth argues that the modern toilet in which we waste litres of clean and perfectly drinkable water every day is the metaphor for everything that goes wrong in our civilisation.
With the toilet, one comfortably removes one’s excrements and forgets where they are going. Just as you don’t care about the origin of the food that your intestines have transformed, you don’t care about what happens to that waste.
For Kingsnorth, composting excrement is the new metaphor: from a linear society separated from nature to a cyclical society in which natural processes convert excrement into a nutrient. The circular tube.
Eschatological visions: the ineffable and the unfathomable
In September 2019, I deepened the experience of death in a retreat on rites of passage for living and dying. The wonderful Diana and Xavi from Transalquimia warmly hosted a seminar with Meredith Little (from the School of Lost Borders). There I began to experience that the cycles of the Earth are the channel that rocks us from cradle to grave; the touch of the leaves, the scent of the humus, the sound of the stream, the warmth of the forest stones. This was an entry into matter that preceded a retreat with Jem Bendell and Katie Carr on Deep Adaptation (in Spanish). Deep. And from there I went on to a convalescence caused by a lung condition. During which the end of my mother’s life began. Death with a capital M.
Reconciling with Death
We know little about Death. And yet the literature on death is extensive and intense. Ernest Becker‘s The Denial of Death is a good guide to go into the dark night and understand the mechanisms we use to control our terror in the face of death (Terror Management Theory). In this book, Becker proposes – amongst many other insights about death – how to reconcile the duality of human beings: on the one hand, we are exquisite beings, capable of creating poetry, of giving our lives for love, of understanding the mysteries of the universe.
But, on the other hand, we are animals, physiologically indistinguishable from other mammals, subject to the same laws of survival. Becker summarizes this duality in a brutal way: We are gods with anuses. Gods that defecate. Gods-worm.
Hope in despair? A model of (re)conciliation
The hope, if any, is that a growing number of us will want to return to the forest we abandoned some four million years ago. We will wish to return to live in groups of no more than 150 people, which corresponds, as Robin Dunbar writes in Grooming, Gossip, and the Origin of Language, to the “natural” size of the human group. We will perceive nature as something sacred, that it arouses respect, connection, and love. The experience of the Transition movement, which embraces this need to reconnect with a simpler way of life from the personal level (inner transition [in Spanish]) to rebuilding the resilience of communities, can facilitate this return. Because we are talking about a return, not a flight.
There is much to be done to restore the balance that we began to disturb when we first hit a stone on a dead ruminant’s femur to suck out its marrow. And perhaps the first and most important thing to do is to accept the rules and the inexorable limits of life on this planet. With a little technology to lessen the harshness of that reality, but without forgetting our tubular origin or our scatological horizon. To be cold when it is cold; to go hungry when there is no food; to die long before old age. That is Hope.
Nando is an experienced beginner, a becoming has been. The rest is just morbid curiosity for irrelevant details. He suffers mild pre-traumatic stress growth/disorder linked to his strong belief that collapse is here.
Find more of Nando at his website.