Climate Strike! Act 4

Act 4.
Joy, Compassion, and the Big Picture

Stop worrying. Seriously, climate anxiety is a real thing and it would be better not to suffer from it. Some people have gotten so stressed about reports of inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change that they’ve gone into therapy. The American Psychological Association now recognizes “eco-anxiety” as "a chronic fear of environmental doom".

I know that fear can be a powerful motivator in the short term. Most of the politicians in office now got there by playing to fear. Fear works, in the short run, but it makes us miserable and stressed. We end up anxious and depressed. Let us take action to mitigate climate change, but not out of fear. We don’t need your fear, your anxiety, your stress, your worry, or your panic.

I know that Greta Thunberg – the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist – says she wants grown-ups to panic, but I disagree. What we’re after is sustainability, and panic is not sustainable.

And, no, we don’t need hope either – at least not the usual understanding of hope, which is often just fear trying to be optimistic. If you have hope, that’s fine, but it isn’t necessary. If you lose it, you can still happily carry on -- if you're spiritually prepared to. To begin that preparation, reflect on this: in a situation devoid of hope, caring for each other and our home is as worth doing as ever. We do it for its own sake -- not for the sake of a hoped-for outcome.

Maybe it’s the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself and maybe it isn’t, but even if it is, the point isn’t to last forever. Whether as individuals or as a species, the point is to have a good run while we’re here. Enjoy the bliss of existing for the instant we have – and when I say “we,” I mean both "you and me individually", and "humankind."

Our species, homo sapiens, has been around about 200,000 years. Our genus, homo, has been around ten times that long -- so the duration of the genus homo, so far, is 2 million years. Homo sapiens is the sole surviving species of that genus. The others have all come and gone. Some of the more significant or longer-lasting ones:
  • homo habilus (2 mya - 1.5 mya),
  • homo ergaster (1.8 mya - 1.3 mya),
  • homo erectus (1.9 mya - 0.14 mya),
  • homo antecessor (1.2 mya - 0.8 mya),
  • homo heidelbergensis (0.75 mya - 0.2 mya),
  • and most recently, homo neanderthal (0.24 mya - 0.04 mya)
Homo erectus lasted 6-8 times as long as homo sapiens has so far.

Still, we had a good run. If the measure of flourishing is population numbers, we've flourished, particularly in recent centuries. If the measure is the overall well-being of the members of our species, we were doing OK for the first 90% of our 200,000-year run, but took a bit of a hit 12,000 years ago when the agricultural revolution allowed the rise of the centralized state, concentrations of wealth, large standing armies, slavery, oppression, and a considerable boost in the proportion of us in misery. But we've also taken some strides toward equality that suggest that maybe in another century or two -- if we were to last that long -- we might work out the kinks of the agricultural revolution and enjoy its benefits more than we suffer its downsides. Moreover, even amidst our atrocities, we did some amazing stuff: art, literature, music, science, and spiritual practice. If this is the end of the run for the species -- and, indeed, the genus -- to which we belong, let us face that demise with the same equanimity and quiet pride with which we hope to face our individual demise, when that time comes.

The Earth has seen five mass extinctions. The first one was 444 million years ago: the Ordovician extinction. 86% of all species went extinct. Then life bounced back. New and different species emerged and flourished.

Then 69 million years after the first mass extinction – that is, about 35 times as long as the genus homo has existed – another mass extinction hit: the Devonian extinction of 375 million years ago. 75% of all species went extinct. Again life bounced back – new species proliferated.

124 million years went by – that’s 62 homo durations. Then the third mass extinction: the Permian extinction of 251 million years ago. This one was a real doozy: 96% of all species ended. From the 4% that were left, new life forms again sprang forth and filled the earth – this time for 51 million years.

The fourth mass extinction, the Triassic extinction of 200 million years ago, wiped out 80% of the species of the time. This time life bounced back with the age of the dinosaur – about 700 species of which we’ve identified so far, though paleontologists think there were lots more we haven’t discovered yet.

Dinosaurs owned this planet for 134 million years – about 67 homo durations – until they, along with 76% of all species then in existence – were wiped out in the fifth extinction: the Cretaceous extinction 66 million years ago.

Five mass extinctions. The time between them was anywhere from 51 million years to 134 million years -- and the last one was 66 million years ago. So if we’re heading into the sixth great extinction, that would be within the schedule range.

My loyalty and identification is with life itself. My heart’s devotion, inspiration, faith, hope, and love lie with all of life – not the DNA that defines me as an individual, nor the DNA that defines my species, nor that which defines my genus, order, class, phylum -- or even kingdom. Rather, my belonging is to the beauty and the wonder of life, always finding a way. Consider the stand of aspen trees that is actually all one plant, one root system, one organism that can live, possibly, for 100,000 years. Or the slime molds that work in tandem, signaling to each other to join and form a multicellular mass, like a “moving sausage.” Or the vast and bizarre varieties of mushrooms. We – and this time when I say “we,” I mean “we living things” – will find a way. We always bounce back.

Life. Is not that the God that is a mighty God? Is not that the love that will not let us go?

We don’t need fear or hope, but we do need two things: joy and compassion. We need as deep a sense as we can reach of the joy there is in this wonderful mystery of being alive. We may not have tomorrow, so, friends, let us delight in today. And let us reach out in compassion to do everything we can in the time left to us to ease what suffering we can.

Joy and compassion. Those are the qualities that make for a good life in a world that faces no environmental dangers. It turns out they are also the qualities that make for a good life in this world that does face environmental dangers.

* * *
Climate Strike! Act 1: Fermi's Question
Climate Strike! Acts 2-3: Truths Still Inconvenient. Polls.
Climate Strike! Act 5: Thrilling Conclusion

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