Elegy to a Mother and Child
Mourne, yes; but Mobilize.
The other day, as I was heading home from Vancouver, a couple of orcas swam by the ferry terminal. A Friday afternoon in summer, the walk-on passenger waiting-room was filled with hundreds of people making their weekend escape from the city. Only two or three noticed the orcas or paid any attention. Most were too busy talking about their weekend plans, staring at their phones, or jostling for position at the still closed doors to the ferry.
Our resident pods are in a sorry state. Dams, overfishing, toxic fish farms and warmer water temperatures caused by climate change have decimated the salmon stocks they depend on. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the pods are harassed by whalewatching boats wherever they go.
Eventually the doors opened, and people rushed on board. I found a seat in time to see the inevitable flotilla of jet-boats zooming in from all directions to circle the small pod of orcas. Apparently, orcas are interesting enough if you’ve spent money to see them, but not more interesting than being first in line at the cafeteria.
Recently, a mother orca whose calf died started to carry her dead baby aloft. After six days without eating, the other orcas in the pod started to take turns carrying the baby so that the mother could eat, but she was still suffering greatly. Marine biologists were debating whether to intervene, fearing that the mother was at risk of starving herself to death. I can’t help but think that the mother knew what she was doing: she brought the political hunger strike to whalekind.
Finally, after seventeen days, she let her baby go.
Amid the non-stop shocks of 2018 — the US descending into authoritarianism, the “international community” coming apart at the seams, more record heat and wildfires — the story of this mother and her dead calf brought me to my knees. It’s not simply the heartbreak of that single mother mourning the loss of her child; it’s the blindness and indifference of humanity to the devastation we are visiting on the world; the indifference of those cellphone zombies in the waiting room to the suffering of that intelligent creature.
I am a trained scientist. I have been trained to question my assumptions and test my beliefs. I fact-check. I run controlled experiments. I gather information from multiple sources and compare perspectives. I instinctually reject “end of the world” claims as hyperbole. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” But no matter how you look at it, the news is extremely bleak. A new report out last month by other staid scientists warns that we may have already passed a point of no return with climate change. The worst-case scenarios we were warned about decades ago are happening in front of our eyes and happening faster than expected. Michael Stipe was right: It’s the end of the world, as we know it.
And yet we humans do practically nothing (or nothing practical).
Politicians of all stripes, regardless of pledges made during elections, maintain the same horrific policies as the previous regime: pipelines, fracking, dams. Everyone is disappointed, but no one is surprised; it’s commonly understood that moneyed interests have complete control of both the political system and the media that serves simultaneously as the unified source of information, culture, news, and popular opinion.
So, the people express their displeasure. They check the right boxes on surveys. They share memes on Facebook and cluck their tongues at climate change deniers. They “get” that climate change is caused by human activity, even if the politicians don’t.
Yet they don’t change their consumption. Apparently, they assume “human activity” only means “other humans.”
We may need to face the fact that homo sapiens is a failed evolutionary experiment.
No other animal has developed the same ability to manipulate its environment — we’ve always considered it a sign of our superiority — but we haven’t developed a commensurate ability to make good decisions about what we do with that power. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that we face an extinction-level threat — the threat of our own extinction — we dither. We engage in pointless debates and ignore the reality in front of our faces. We find someone to blame then wait for someone else to fix it. We pray for the deux ex machina of technology to swoop in and save us from ourselves, even when our slavish faith in technology is what got us into this mess in the first place.
If we fail this test, at least that last band of humans struggling against a climate they turned against themselves will have the cold comfort of knowing we alone caused the disaster. No meteor. No act of God. Just us.
How do you experience such heartbreak and soldier on? Do you rage at the stupidity of humanity? Shout: “wake up you fucking morons! The world is on fire. The biggest economy and largest military on Earth is now on step six of the fascist’s handbook. DO something!” Alas, that would be worse than useless. Those who get it are feeling just as overwhelmed, and those who are still in denial are too invested in preserving the fantasy to hear anything but the sound of their own fear.
It feels like the only options are fiddle while Rome burns or sweep back the sea with a broom. Then I remind myself that there are always more options. I have trained myself to see every either/or choice as a false-dichotomy; a red herring. Look for the both/and.
And so, like Benjamin Disraeli, I am prepared for the worst, and hope for the best.
The worst, unfortunately, is easy to predict. It has already happened. The worst will simply be an intensification of what is already in front of our eyes. More intense and more frequent extreme weather events. Droughts and other climate catastrophes that affect our food supplies, first driving up the price of luxury items, then affecting the basics. The inevitable drag on the economy caused by unprecedented destruction of infrastructure by natural disasters will test and ultimately crash a hollowed-out economy. The pressure of the failing economy will increase social and political tensions, and long-standing social fault lines will shatter. First evident in localized conflicts, the violence will only increase as current elites try to hold on to their privilege by any means necessary. Soon, our already weakened social institutions — politics, the media, social trust and the rule of law — will crumble far faster than anyone thought possible.
We know this is the trajectory because we have seen it all before, repeatedly. It’s not new. It’s only news because it’s happening to us. It’s only news because it’s happening to so many of us.
So, how does one prepare for the apocalypse?
As Einstein pointed out, you cannot solve a problem at the same level of thinking that created it in the first place. The current social systems are beyond repair. Our current, interconnected social-political-economic-environmental crises are the direct product of those failed and outdated systems and their complete inability to address these challenges evidence of their obsolescence. There may be elements of the current culture that are salvageable, but our new normal will be unrecognizable to our consumer-culture eyes.
And this is where the alchemy of both/and thinking begins. Once we accept the worst, we begin to see a new hope, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Apocalypse only means ‘revelation’, after all. Something old is ending; something new is coming. Still, transitions can be rough. Suddenly, the best we can hope for becomes as rapid a transition as possible to whatever this new normal will be. Preparing for the worst becomes a pathway to the best we can hope for.
But how do we do that? How do you build a new ship out of one that is sinking?
Ideologies and false-belief systems are what got us into this mess, so we need to find ways to ground our thinking — both literally and figuratively. We need to become more responsive to reality and less dependent on “thoughts and prayers.” We need to maximize our learning and refamiliarize ourselves with the basics of cause, effect; choice and personal responsibility.
There is one concept that I think can serve as a grounding foundation: the global footprint. The global footprint is calculated by taking the world’s productive capacity and dividing it by the number of humans. As of 2013, we each got 1.7 hectares to sustain us. That’s it. Sustainability, by definition, is learning to live within that footprint. Everything you consume — all of your food, water, clothing, and material goods, all of the energy you use (and the trees you need to draw all of that C02 out of the atmosphere) — must be supplied by that 1.7 hectares.
This goes beyond mere logistics. The global footprint implies a ground level ethics. It provides a metric by which the “golden rule” can be measured: if I use more than 1.7 hectares, I am taking it away from another, either from the future or from my neighbours. My overconsumption is, at best, theft and, at worst, genocide.
So, what would a community re-built around this principle look like? What would happen if a group of us combined our footprints together to figure out how we could maximize our quality of life by working together within the ethics of the global footprint?
And what would be possible if we created thousands of these hyper-local, resilient “footprint communities” connected through global communication networks. The strategy allows for widespread, diverse experimentation with rapid diffusion of workable solutions.
This is my dream and my commitment.
Not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality — trying to figure out what it takes to live a happy, healthy life within a sustainable footprint on a physical piece of land with a specific group of people making choices about what we will do with our hands and with our brains to make things work. How do we provide our own food, water and shelter? How do we build resilience and joy? How do we learn to be happy again with what we have? How do we reclaim our creativity and our culture?
It is a bold experiment with a new way of thinking and living that might provide a better way forward — an attractive alternative, not driven by ideology disconnected from reality, but instead consciously responding to the feedback received from the system.
So, prepare for the worst. Start to build the lifeboat. And there will be no need to hope for the best, because we will be building it as we go.