How to Be Happy At The End Of The World #4
Facing fear and embracing Life
Welcome to Part 4 of the How To Be Happy At The End Of The World series.
In this instalment I’d like to share something I’ve just submitted to Adbusters magazine. I want to share it with you as well because it brings together a lot of the ideas I’ve been writing about on my Substack and in the podcast and I thought you might enjoy it.
It’s a lot more poetic than normal and is usually the sort of thing I write in my journal but never share so I thought for that very reason I should start sharing that kind of thing.
The stuff that makes me a little hesitant to press ‘Publish’ on as it feels so personal.
But here goes….
I’m standing at the kitchen sink doing the dishes, lost in thought as my wife is trying to get my attention. Apparently I was ignoring her. She’s looking at me with a mix of scorn and then concern and she asks me what’s going on.
I’ve just spent the last few weeks down a rabbit-hole of climate science in preparation for an interview with the world’s foremost earth systems scientist. Standing here at the kitchen sink I’ve still got the numbers from his paper ‘The Future Of The Human Climate Niche’ reverberating inside me.
How we’re on course for 3-4°C temperature increase by 2070 and that failing mass migration, one third of the global population is projected to experience mean annual temperatures of >29°C currently only found on 0.8% of the Earth’s land surface, mostly concentrated in the Sahara. How the habitable area of the world is going to dramatically shrink. So much so, he concludes, that one way or another, be it by transformation or collapse, this civilisation is finished.
Rapid, almost miraculous transformation or billions will watch as hundreds of millions die. Crop failure, famine, wet bulb heat domes. Death but out of all proportion from anything I can fathom.
I take my hands out of the water and rest my weight on the edge of the sink, my head drops down and I stare at the water. Hearing the same numbers as I say them to my wife, she tries to reassure me that all I have to do is look after the kids.
“That’s just it” I reply. “I can’t. Not from this”. And I just break open and cry. Shoulder shaking, eyes screwed up, kind of crying. I gasp a little for air as I settle myself back down again.
A few days later I’m folding my 3 year old daughter’s clothes away in her drawers as she’s playing behind me on the bed and I cry again, this time silently but just as full of love and grief.
From what I see in the mainstream media, people seem to think that eco-anxiety is some strange abstraction that only affects young people who are too naive to know better and who must have got things out of all proportion. As far as I’m concerned, eco-anxiety is just plain old fear and it’s not limited to anyone based on their age. Its only limits, as I can tell, are awareness, compassion and the ability to experience and adequately deal with fear.
Fear is 100% the right reaction to our predicament. Fear is all bound up with control. Fear is what it feels like to not be in control, especially in high risk situations.
This is a high risk situation. The highest of all risks - existential no less.
And we as individuals understandably do not feel as if we are in control right now because no matter what any one person does to turn this around, it’s not enough.
What matters is what we do together.
A painful lesson within this grief is that individually, everything we do is both necessary and woefully insufficient at the same time. What we do together is everything.
What we’re currently doing together and have been doing for some time is the problem. It’s our culture, our values, our identities, our very way of seeing and interpreting the world.
Our shared stories that provide the unchecked lenses through which we make sense of the world and everything in it.
Right now our stories are no longer believable. The stage is flooding, the backdrops are on fire and the cast and crew are all too busy checking their phones to act or change the set between scenes.
Our stories don’t hold up anymore. I can no longer suspend my disbelief.
Go to school, go to Uni or College, get a job, work your way up, build a career making widgets or selling insurance, retire and get some sun, have some Grandkids and enjoy the fruits of your lifelong labour. Buy stuff, cool stuff, fill your new-build house with it, express the inner you through mass consumption and repress your fear. There is nothing to be scared of. Keep on shopping. Shop til you drop. The universe is a cold, dead, chance occurrence, devoid of meaning, nothing more than an empty void with some pretty lights that one day too will fade. You are all that matters so consume, consume, consume. You’ll be dead soon too.
Fear is the right reaction to our predicament, and as my pain points me to the source of my anxiety being control, the only thing I can do now in order to be happy at the end of the world is to give up trying to control any of this.
To give up running from the fear.
So I let it catch up with me, fully aware. I look it in the eye and let it know that I’m here. I let it watch me. I let it know exactly who I am because there simply isn’t enough time nor tears to put this off any longer. And as it gets closer to me, and I get closer to it, instead of shaking into a blubbering mess its mountainous shadow starts to shrink until it's the exact same size as me. It’s just a shadow. My shadow.
As we talk without words I realise that it wants me to stay alive. It loves me and needs me to live. So I listen to it as it silently speaks. I take the letter from its black-smoke hand and I let go of whatever has been holding me back from reading it.
I read the words.
Two words, nothing more: “WAKE UP”, in black, dripping letters.
Written in oil.
Wake up, it tells me, to the idea that all ideas are made together in community, all ways of life are shared experiences, all cultural norms are handed on. That all that seems so toweringly huge and insurmountable in this civilisation of growth and oil is built on nothing more than shared belief in a crumbling status quo.
And that in between the cracks of the pasted-on smiles of fake tanned celebrities, billionaires and Presidents, life finds a way to come through. All roads lead home after all. The cracks will deepen and converge, the monuments will falter and tilt. The ground will give way with a tug of the rug beneath it. And yes, finally, the woodcutters that we’ve become will fall with the cut of the last branch that supports us and as it drops we will come to realise what’s always been wrong. That there is no escape from being entangled. There is no separation - there is no ‘here’ without ‘there’.
We’ve never been in control. We’ve never been separate individuals. We’ve built all this together. Each of us a whole and a part in the story of the world. A story that is changing because it no longer holds. We’re all waiting with bated breath for what will happen next. Where will this story go? How will it end? How will the next one begin?
There are whispers in creation. There are clues in the ground itself, buried beneath the layers of the Anthropocene’s ‘wealth’ where a different kind of treasure has been waiting for milennia to be found. Where both XX and XY have long marked the spot to dig, with clue after clue leading us to find that every atom in us was forged within a Sun. That everything we know and love has been drawn together by the magic of the stars, watered by the ocean and nurtured by the land. That a spreading out of the branches of life from one shared source, sprawling in all directions across the globe, has been weaving everything together for 3.8 billion years. Nature’s intelligence running more imperfectly perfect than any AI, learning to know itself as it creates the very conditions conducive to itself in all that it does.
And that as it explores and learns, it has in us, folded in on itself as if pressing its face into a mirror for the very first time. It learns to live upright. It builds everything we know, have ever known and all that is lost. It stands here now in you and I just as much as it does a tree. And it wants us to live so it makes us scared. It chases us across the landscape of our souls until finally we succumb to ourselves and take the letter from its black-smoke hand and read the words aloud, so loud they reverberate across the seas, the land and sky, rattling every star-forged soul in creation with: “WAKE UP!”