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    sand washing down a beach

    The End of the World as We Know It

    Ragan Sutterfield

    February 3, 2020
    3 Comments
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    • Rol Dix, February 2020

      HOW TO MAYBE SAVE CIVILIZATION 1) Automobiles, airplanes, trains and cargo and cruise ships are not going away 2) Agriculture, building air conditioning, and cement, aluminum and steel production change very slowly 3) The 2015 Paris agreement and building renewable energy sources are too slow 4) Sea surface temperature rise plus melting of permafrost, glaciers and sea ice are well advanced 5) Recently, climate models are showing much faster global average temperature rise 6) Only blocking sunlight can reduce global warming fast enough 7) Only reducing Green House Gases can permanently preserve civilization 8) Therefore, a serious carbon tax and geoengineering must be employed! 9) Join the Citizens Climate Lobby at cclusa.org and help promote the carbon tax

    • No one important

      This is the answer: you cannot change the world but you can change. Yes, most people don't care that they destroy the planet, either because the planet is not important to them, or because they do not understand what they do. Perhaps the planet is doomed, but maybe not if you change. Watch over cerulean warblers, a patch of trees, a person without a home, a stranger, a prisoner, a wounded soul. In the end, the change may be small, but for the better.

    • Dimitrios Orfanidis

      Listen, I am also deeply concerned in the climate changes and I do my best not to pollute and to recycle everything. In my last visits to China and India, I really saw facts that led me to the conclusion that earth is doomed anyway! Even in the most "civilized" or "advanced" countries, governments and people DO NOTHING toward this goal. How can you persuade billions of Chinese and Indians not to pollute the planet, if they cannot have the essential daily food? Do you think they care what you say on pollution? Do you think people are ready to give up their IP phones, computers, cars, luxurious houses and holidays to save the planet? They just live the present and do not care of the future. They still sell guns to kill one another and chemical weapons, they use chemicals to improve the growth of their crops regardless the consequences on the environment and health. Do not worry, nature is revenging at us all, slowly and steadily! We are a malevolent virus which will extinct one day from earth! Epicurus said "The percentage of the idiots in the society is colossal. There is no way to cope with such stupidity"

    A couple of years ago I walked along the boardwalk of the “Ding” Darling National Wildlife refuge on Sanibel Island, Florida. It is a place raucous with life and color – tree crabs scurrying among the mangrove trees, roseate spoonbills wading in brackish marshes, clapper rails creeping among the reeds. If you wanted to see the varied life of the given world, the mixing of ocean and land and the complex ecosystems that bursts from that edge, then Ding Darling would be a good choice.

    But the life that the refuge hosts may not remain for long. My grandchildren will likely encounter a different scene, far starker, and they will probably do it by boat. Already trees once green are brown, their roots soaked in salt at levels to which they are ill-adapted. Their desiccated limbs are only the beginning of a wider death, spreading across the coast. The sea is rising and by century’s end it could reach several feet above current levels, covering places like Ding Darling.

    Death is a common reality for those who pay attention to the natural world. The death of landscapes, of species, of varied flourishing futures. The dying person here is not the planet itself; life in some form or other will go on. What is dying are the ecologies of abundance from which we humans have flourished. This is the period of the planet that we can honestly call Mother Earth, and she is dying, soon to give way to a planet that is far less nurturing and far less forgiving. And those of us who are living in these times must reckon with the reality that we are in a period of hospice.

    Hospices are hard places to be. Death is a hard reality to face, personal or planetary. And as we face the death of the earth as we know it, many of us have been locked in that classic first stage of grief – denial.

    sand washing down a beach

    Photograph by Danielle MacInnes (Public domain)

    Denial, when it comes to our ecological crisis, can take many forms. There are of course those who outright deny that the earth’s climate is in chaos or that it is our burning of fossil fuels for the last two centuries that has caused it. But the kind of denial that is more prevalent and persistent is the kind I’ve found within my own life. This is the denial of the addict who refuses to admit that the problem is really so bad, that our world is in a crisis that must be answered like a catastrophe. Instead we offer solutions of moderation – drive a little less, buy clean energy, put more efficient windows into our oversized buildings. We believe that by cutting back a bit we will alleviate the disease that is spreading like a cirrhosis in the world.

    Dale Jamieson, a philosopher who was involved in the Rio Earth summit and other early efforts to address greenhouse-gas emissions, wrote a book about our situation titled Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle against Climate Change Failed – and What It Means for our Future. As Jamieson outlines in his book, our chances for meaningful action to halt catastrophic climate change have passed and all we can hope for now is a future that is a little less dim. “Climate change is occurring and is effectively irreversible on timescales that are meaningful to us,” he writes, “Our failure to prevent or even to respond significantly reflects the impoverishment of our systems of practical reason, the paralysis of our politics, and the limits of our cognitive and affective capacities.”

    We are now locked into climate disaster, with massive extinctions, extreme weather events, and large-scale displacements of people already happening as a direct result of the expanding appetites of human civilization throughout the Industrial Age. Even if we were to all stop our driving, mining, and burning of coal today, the world would still be suffering the consequences of our past actions for centuries to come.

    Denial can do strange things to us. It can send us into anger and despair, or it can catapult us into action. But not all action is good action.

    There are serious proposals to send mirrors into space to deflect some of the sun’s light from the earth. Others, noting that volcanoes can cause significant cooling when they disperse particulates into the atmosphere, believe we should create an artificial volcano effect over the planet. The schemes are varied, but the idea is the same – human technology can solve this problem caused by human technology. This is an approach writer Wendell Berry has called “the homeopathic delusion that the damages done by industrialization can be corrected by more industrialization.”

    The question, then, is what are we to do if we do not accept the promise of technology; if we recognize the death of the earth and her ecosystems that have nurtured and sustained our lives? What if we do not want to simply keep going on as usual? What do we do if we want to take this death seriously and search for a better way to live into whatever future life there will be on the other side of climate chaos and mass extinction?

    I found an answer to these questions on a visit to a friend who was dying. She had cancer, a disease that ebbed and flowed for many years of her life, but now the end was coming and she knew it. Her husband, understandably, was not ready to accept her end. He was busying himself with fighting for a cure, trying to keep her alive just a bit longer.

    I sat with her, alone beside her bed. She told me she was ready to die now, but the only barrier to that peaceful transition was her husband’s insistence on her survival. “He wants to take care of me,” she said, “but I have caretakers. What I need him to be now is a lover.”

    For those of us who live now, in the hospice of the earth, wondering what to do in the face of its death, my friend’s words offer wisdom. We cannot save the earth. We may be able to save places and habitats and species. We can do good by changing our relationship to the earth from extraction and toward cultivation. But we will not keep it from dying, at least in the form in which we have known it. Our task now is to love the earth to its end.

    It was the novelist Jonathan Franzen who first challenged me to abandon a hope pinned to windmills and reflected in solar panels and to instead move toward action rooted in affection. Franzen is an avid birder – a topic about which he has written frequently for the New Yorker. In one such essay, “Carbon Capture,” Franzen unsettles the standard climate-change narrative and questions whether conservation might be losing out to concerns focused solely on carbon dioxide.

    Franzen’s problem with the narrative of climate change is that it tends to engage with a problem outside of the scale of human competence and affection,operating on the level of the abstract institution, the government or the corporation, rather than on the level of the personal or local. “It defies individual resistance, creates big winners and big losers, and tends toward global monoculture,” he wrote. “Under the shadow of vast global problems and vast global remedies smaller-scale actions on behalf of nature can seem similarly meaningless.”

    Franzen admits that for many years he was paralyzed by the overwhelming challenge of the climate crisis. He couldn’t drive anywhere or buy anything without guilt and anxiety. Franzen felt like a puritan before the pulpit of an apocalyptic preacher where he heard the message: “coming soon, some hellishly overheated tomorrow, is Judgment Day. Unless we repent and mend our ways, we’ll all be sinners in the hands of an angry Earth.” And like many religious people who grew up with such a harsh gospel, he left the faith for a time, living with little care for conservation or climate change simply because he couldn’t handle the anxiety they caused.

    The change in his care for the earth came when he began to watch birds. By paying attention to this beautiful and varied corner of creation, his affection was cultivated. He began to be concerned about deforestation, but not just any deforestation. He began to care about the destruction of specific forests in Appalachia where cerulean warblers breed. His actions on behalf of those forests were motivated not because of some abstract carbon count, but because he’d come to love a specific creature who lived there. “[W]hen I started watching birds, and worrying about their welfare,” Franzen writes, “I became attracted to a countervailing strain of Christianity, inspired by St. Francis of Assisi’s example of loving what’s concrete and vulnerable and right in front of us.”

    Franzen discovered that the way to live in this world-changing time is to pay attention to the small and specific and to let our attention lead to affection. “[W]hen you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals,” Franzen once wrote, “there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.”

    How can we begin to cultivate such real relationships? The most practical advice I can offer is to find a time and a place and make them holy. For my family the time is Friday and the place is Allsopp Park, a small urban woodland in Little Rock. Friday is my day off and we’ve found it the easiest day to defend against outside activity.

    On Fridays our television remains in the closet, our laptops are closed and stored away, and the use of our phones is limited. After breakfast and coffee we begin the mile-long walk to the park, where we descend into the woods and make our way along a rocky trail to a small stream. It is there that we sit, my girls climbing over a fallen tree or wading in the shallow water. We watch for what is around us – sapsuckers and sycamores and scurrying squirrels.

    Cerulean Warbler

    Cerulean Warbler Photograph public domain

    This time each week is a kind of school in which we learn to recognize the sacred. Wendell Berry once wrote, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” In Allsopp Park, we are learning to see such holiness, and from that seeing we are drawn to care for what is both upstream and downstream from there.

    There is another aspect of Saint Francis’s vision that Franzen fails to mention. If we are to embrace the Francis who made peace with wolves and preached to birds, then we must also recognize that he was a man who wore the clothes of poverty and fasted days on end.

    Pope Francis writes of Saint Francis in his brilliant encyclical Laudato sì: “In calling to mind the figure of Saint Francis of Assisi we come to realize that a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion, which entails the recognition of our errors, sins, faults and failures, and leads to heartfelt repentance and desire to change.” This conversion is essential if we are to love the world. As we all surely know from the loves already in our lives, our desire to love and our capacity to love are not always the same. Repentance in the context of a conversion toward love is different from the abstract guilt of so much religion and environmentalism. It is a way of living that helps us get beyond our own selfish desires, and look instead at how we might begin to live toward the flourishing of other lives rather than perpetuating their damage.

    This conversion, as Pope Francis points out, cannot remain ours alone. If Saint Francis had simply lived as some haircloth-wearing mystic without the fostering of a community of practice, then the power of his life of penance wouldn’t have continued as it has. “Self-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation facing our world today,” writes the pope in Laudato sì. “Isolated individuals can lose their ability and freedom to escape the utilitarian mindset, and end up prey to an unethical consumerism bereft of social or ecological awareness. Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds.” The ecological conversion we need, says Pope Francis, is a “community conversion.”

    Conversion into community is hard for those of us accustomed to the comforts of an individualistic consumerism. There is, however, one aspect of my life that has felt like a conversion – one that has also often led me into joy and pushed me into action on behalf of the community. Several years ago, just after the BP Deep Water Horizon oil spill, I began to be serious about bicycling or walking or riding the bus as my primary mode of day-to-day transportation. It was, especially at the beginning, a hard transition. Suddenly hills seemed to appear that I’d never noticed before. What had seemed short distances were suddenly long rides. The circle of stores and activities that I had easily enjoyed with a car suddenly constricted to a more manageable distance of around three miles.

    My associations also began to change. I’d never ridden a city bus in Little Rock, but now it was a part of my basic transportation. I became familiar with the schedules and absurdities of a system that serves many of Little Rock’s poorest residents but is often ignored by those who can afford a car. I became concerned about the well-being of the bus system and was ready to use what little power I could bring to bear to advocate for its improvement.

    In the same way I became a part of bicycle advocacy in the city, signing petitions for adding bike lanes or slowing traffic, joining vigils for fallen cyclists who were killed by the combination of the reckless speed of cars and the inattention of distracted drivers.

    What began as a desire to change my relationship with the economy of oil spilled over into many other aspects of my life, opening me up to realities I’d simply never seen and connecting me to communities of which I was completely unaware.

    This choice to bike as much as possible rather than to drive eventually dictated such crucial decisions as where I would live and where I would work. It became a central practice and it was, indeed, a conversion. Not a perfect one – I still drive more than is good for the planet – but this conversion has opened me up to a different way, a different reality toward which I have been slowly turning my life.

    I have been on the streets of New York, marching with tens of thousands of others to demand action against climate change. I have organized conferences and written articles and books. I still participate in some of these things, but now my attention is focused more on my neighborhood, my home, and my watershed. Around my home I’m planting trees on our small urban lot. In a few years, I hope that it will be a landscape rich in biodiversity, a place that will offer enough habitat for small creatures to flourish. These are small things and they are not solutions. Instead, they are beginnings for us to live as we were always meant to be: human creatures, drawn from the earth, humble in our hopes.

    Contributed By Ragan Sutterfield

    Ragan Sutterfield is an Episcopal priest serving in his native Arkansas. He is the author, most recently, of Wendell Berry and the Given Life. His work has appeared in The Christian Century, Sojourners, and The Oxford American among other places. www.ragansutterfield.com

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