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Hitting the Wall

This article, based on a podcast for Inner Green Deal,  describes how I see the world today, at 62, when I embark upon the last season of my life and maybe of our species on this planet.

Awakenings

Awakening is simply accepting reality as it is. 

I propose a metaphor. We walk a path since our birth. Our civilisation also walks a path since its birth. And both paths end abruptly when they hit a Wall. That wall is Death and Collapse. 

Most people walk the path totally unaware of the existence of the Wall. They are distracted by their daily worries, illusions and delusions. Until the day they meet the Wall and they die. Some people die of Covid, claiming in their deathbeds that Covid is a conspiracy. Some people affected by wildfires, floods, hurricanes, and Covid do not realize that our civilisation might very well be hitting the Collapse Wall.

Other people are aware of the Wall and, well before they hit it, direct their attention to finding passways through the Wall and imagining a good future beyond the Wall. Religion and Sustainability have kept many people ‘s attention away from the Wall.

Some have the courage to look at the Wall in the eye. And understand that all paths in the universe eventually end.

A Paradigm Shift

We see the world through our own pair of lenses. And we seldom look at the lenses themselves. A paradigm shift occurs when we suddenly see things differently. And when a paradigm changes, our behaviour also changes. Change how you look and look how you change. Naturally.

The big paradigm shift happened to me in 2009, when I read an article in the New York Times with the title The End Is Near. Quite a compelling title. Pretty catchy. Climate Change and Peak Oil could soon precipitate the End of Our World. The Transition Towns movement proposed a “positive” vision whereby local communities were the answer to reinforce our resilience and reduce our impact. This article shifted my paradigm and got me busy seeking passways through the Wall. I went vegetarian, learnt more about Transition Towns, became an active supporter of environmental initiatives within my organisation and … bought plenty of cans, water filters, and a couple of knives, just in case.

A second, deeper paradigm shift happened to me in 2018. That was the year I went to a wilderness retreat in the Italian Alps, where I faced my fears and felt inside me the truth of the aphorism: “It is not how many years in your life, but how much life in your years!” It also was the year of the Deep Adaptation paper, of the launch of Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future. It was the year of the publication of the 1.5°C IPCC Report. And, most importantly, that was the year that I decided to quit my job and devote the rest of my time to look at the Wall.

The Wall

As I mentioned earlier, the Wall at the end of the path has a double dimension: Individual Death and Collective Collapse. Both are inevitable. Sooner or later.

Facing our own mortality is probably the most important work for a human being to do. And it is particularly difficult in our modern times, where death and endings have been eradicated from our daily lives. Forever young. The title of Sheldon Salomon’s book, The Worm at the Core conveys very well our feelings when we (don’t) think of Death while watching TV. His book is based on Ernst Becker’s seminal book, The Denial of Death

Facing the possible/probable/inevitable (pick your preferred option) near-term collapse of our civilisation is, in my view,  the most important work for our society to do. I am not aware of the existence of a book with the exact title, “The Denial of Collapse”, but there are hundreds of books, reports, articles, conferences, and podcasts that discuss the topic from all possible angles. In the next section, I summarise my layperson’s understanding of those insights.

Collapse Is Inevitable, in My Layman’s Opinion

I’ve come to believe that near-term collapse is now inevitable. And I’m not alone, the French Statistics Institute (IFOP) confirmed in a recent survey that 70% of Italians, 65% of French, 52% of Americans, and 39% of Germans think that a collapse in the coming years is likely. 

The first reason to believe that collapse is inevitable is simply that, in this universe, everything has a beginning and an end. Full stop. I know that I’m going to die. And we should all know that we are going to die. And I also know that all societies and civilizations up until now have collapsed, have disappeared. The Roman Empire, the Mayas, the Aztecs, they all have disappeared. And there is a lot of research by J. Tainter, J. Glubb, J. Diamond. And some of them (Glubb) say that normally civilizations tend to last 200, 250 years before they collapse. And it’s 250 years since the Industrial Revolution. 

The second reason is that I do not believe that our political and economical leaders are willing and capable to act decisively. The only alternative to collapse would be a very steep managed Descent, i.e., a radical decarbonization of our lifestyles, implying an unbearable economic recession of unimaginable proportions. As a former European leader said: “We know what needs to be done; we simply do not know how to get re-elected if we do it”. Think of the electoral chances of a candidate in the US elections promoting the slogan: “Make America Small Again”. It will not happen. Full stop.

And the third reason is what I call “Ecological Overshoot beyond redemption”. The concept was beautifully introduced in the 1982 book Overshoot by William R. Catton: The Earth’s Carrying Capacity simply cannot cope with our pace of extraction of resources, emission of contaminants, and destruction of ecosystems. Whereas the main focus of attention tends to be Climate Change, Overshoot is manifest in all of the Seven Spheres (Conceptual model inspired by the work of Arthur Keller, French collapsologist and story-teller) that we can use as a frame to understand our predicament.

  1. The first sphere is the Atmosphere, where the build-up of greenhouse gases which trigger Climate Change and catastrophic Global Warming is gone through the roof and it now looks quite difficult to stay below the 2°C limit agreed in the Paris Treaty
  2. Second is the Biosphere, where, simply put, we are witnessing the Sixth Mass Extinction on this planet, as mentioned by the UN Panel on Biodiversity IPBS
  3. The third sphere is the Cryosphere, the world of ice, which is melting, as the case of Arctic ice sea extent seems to prove. 
  4. Fourth, the Hydrosphere, i.e., our problems with the water on the planet: acidified oceans, polluted rivers and shrinking groundwater. The situation is so serious that MIT Research on Water found that water stress might affect 52% of World’s Population by 2050.
  5. Fifth, the Lithosphere, i.e., the minerals in the crust of this planet, which are reaching their Peak, that is, a point where they become so scarce or difficult to access that the energy invested to obtain them is not compensated by the return. 
  6. Sixth, is the Pedosphere, the outermost layer of the Earth that is composed of soil. In a recent edition of the FAO Report, 300 scientists drew attention to the biodiversity beneath our feet, soil biodiversity, which drives many processes that produce food or purify soil and water. 
  7. And the seventh one is the Anthroposphere, the 7.7 billion humans living on this planet and increasingly struggling with the three threats mentioned by the Israeli historian Yuval Harare: Famine, Plagues, and Violent Death.

So, everything has an ending in our universe, our leaders will not act decisively, and, anyway our Overshoot seems to have gone beyond our agency.

After Sustainability, Post-Activism, Presence

As the British philosopher, John Foster, asserts in his 2014 book After Sustainability, some people still deny what it is happening, whilst others refuse to recognize that it is now too late to prevent it. But both these reactions spring from the same source: our pathological attachment to ‘progress’, of which sustainability has been one more version. So, in a sense, sustainability is a kind of Denial, a way to keep ourselves busy, a means to deal with our anxieties and our traumas, a strategy to save ourselves by saving the planet. A search for a doorway through the Wall.

When facing the Wall of our environmental predicament, it is important to ponder with serenity and equanimity what we can DO and who we want to BE. And, before answering those two crucial questions, we need to dig deep into the intention that fosters our existential agenda. We all have traumas, patterns turning us into quasi-mechanical artifacts reproducing once and again the same behaviours. Often, we simply do this to avoid situations that caused pain in our childhood, when we were ill-equipped to cope and simply chose the road of avoidance. It is also common to be moved by the need to be accepted, approved, and loved (see Contingencies of Self-Worth).

In the video, The Ego of Activism, Charles Eisenstein explores with Ron Harrington the issue of our intentions when we act for social and environmental causes. Clearly, revising whether the intention of our action comes from Love for the planet and those who suffer seems to be a good practice. Bayo Akomolafe mentions somewhere the idea of “Post-activism”, which shares some ground with Paul Kingsnorth’s insights as a “recovering environmentalist”.

When I think of the work that I feel called to do, I realize that I strive for an appropriate Ikigai that fits what my Head, Heart and Hands tell me about who I am and what I long to become:

My Head is busy trying to wake up to the reality of this planet. I do two things: 1) I collect and learn information about the state of the planet, and 2) I ponder how to share that information through the prism of a most probable major societal breakdown.

My Heart struggles to metabolize the emotional shock of the awakening: Fear, Anger, Grief, and Helplessness. Engaging in the facilitation of  “The Work that Reconnects”, developed by Joanna Macy, helps with the process of acceptance. I am also strongly called to engage in work about mortality, including my forthcoming training with the Nirakara Institute.

My Hands are at their best when I communicate. Facilitation is an art of communication that I am currently learning (mainly by unlearning to be a speaker). And I know that there are plenty of manual skills and low-tech solutions that I would love to develop, including vegetable-growing, bicycle repairing, a bit of carpentry …

So, in a nutshell, there are many things on the TO DO list, in what Paul Chefurka calls the Outer Path. But mostly, I feel called to stay with the TO BE list, working on who I am in the middle of this predicament.

Confronting the Brutal Facts with the 4 Rs

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist master from the Plum Village monastery in Southern France, once said: “When confronting reality, the first thing we need to do is to hear inside ourselves the Earth crying”. 

When you have the courage to confront the brutal reality of the Anthropocene, your natural and healthy reaction is to feel Fear, Sorrow, Helplessness, and Anger. A pandemic of Solastalgia (a mix of anxiety, anguish and unrest) invades the souls of a growing number of people who sense the impending catastrophe. Our awakening to the Apocalypse causes Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder and makes you suffer by thinking of the trauma that is coming. The Consolation: sometimes after Stress comes Presence and Growth. Of the good kind. 

In order to frame the kind of inquiry and exploration of this shadowy terrain, Deep Adaptation proposes four questions. The first one is Resilience. When thinking about this predicament, what is really important that we want to keep? The second is Relinquishment. What do we need to let go of now not to worsen the situation? The third R is Restoration. What can we bring back? Important things that we’ve lost over the last few decades. And the fourth R is Reconciliation. What do we need to make peace with? Who do we need to forgive? What do we need to embrace? It goes without saying that work with mortality is fundamental. And, who knows, maybe befriending the trauma of our future death and collapse helps us live better lives and die better deaths.

Reconnections

Our pain for the world can prompt in us an urge to break the splendid isolation that we experience from our childhood. True, the task is hard as society has perfected a culture that turns us into loyal consumers who believe we will reach wholeness with the purchase of the latest smartphone. 

Reconnection is a path which starts with a breakthrough when you break with the delusion that we are individual beings and ends when you no longer realize that you have merged with something Big. There are three basic practices that can help with this: 1) Mindfulness is for me a crucial practice of reconnection with yourself. Through mindfulness, I experience my physical sensations, my emotions, my thoughts; Deep Relating helps to reconnect with others and experience genuine encounters of the third kind. Simply saying “Being here with you, I notice” and “Hearing you say that, I notice” you can merge into another person’s world; and 3) Just by spending time in the woods and exploring rites of passage and ceremonies with the cycles of the Land, one can do the fundamental work of reconnection with Nature. We owe deep respect and reverence for Nature, because we are Nature. We have forgotten what indigenous cultures that established balanced relationships with Nature. Charles Mann, in his beautiful book 1491, describes the peoples living in the Americas before the arrival of C. Columbus. Healthy populations, living in harmony within their ecosystems, until we arrived and brought them Smallpox and Misery. 

All this is very well. And we have to be mindful of the risks of Spiritual Superiority.

Economy and Ecology

Recently, I read a fascinating essay contending that the invention of fire, one million years ago, was the first step in our long path to destroy this planet. Others claim that the crucial “killer” was the invention of farming some 10.000 years ago. For many, the Great Acceleration in the 1950s, just after the War, tilted the balance and set us on the inevitable path of collapse.

One thing is clear, our predicament started the moment we stopped feeling love, respect, and reverence for the Land. At some moment in our history, we forgot that Nature is our Mother. And we started making her sick. And when she started dying, we sent her to the hospice to die. And we are using her pension until she dies. And then we will die.  

Famous Last Words

During the events of May 1968, in France, a graffiti became famous: le mot “chien” ne mord pas (the word “dog” does not bite). For some reason, two words seem to be quite taboo nowadays: Death and Collapse. Both words confront us with the predicament of Impermanence. These two words don’t bite. Contemplating the meaning of these two words might help us understand who we want to be in the face of our predicament.

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.

4 Rs

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