Joy in the Shadow of Climate Doom
The freedom in facing the inevitability of our personal apocalypse
Climate despair is mounting. In an article that I read last week, scientists and climate activists, not to mention the younger generation as a whole, are increasingly feeling as though humanity is already on an unstoppable course for climate apocalypse, and that it’s too late to stop it. Natural disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity, and multiple “tipping points” have already been reached. Many scientists believe that the situation is far more dire than the average person realises. Even for environmentalists “the full truth” of how bad it really is, is “hard to swallow”. Civilisation, as we know it, could collapse. Humanity, as we know it, could become extinct, or at least, massively shrink.
I will admit that climate doom is one of the things that most scares me about the future. More so than the spectre of nuclear armageddon, or bioweapons, or rogue AI — any of the things that billionaires think will destroy the world.
I know I’m not alone in this fear. The fear that despite everything still feeling relatively “normal”, that things could change very fast, and something truly awful could be around the corner. Most people my age feel the same way. Seventy-five percent of young people feel the “future is frightening”, and more than half of the ten thousand surveyed said they feel “sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty”.
Fear is the mindkiller.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
So how do we cope with this fear? How do we live in the shadow of climate doom? How do we find meaning in our lives, knowing it may all end sooner and more brutally than we would like?
The most tempting thing is to live in denial, to not think about what we fear. But this will never work forever. Inevitably the fear will return, stronger for having been suppressed.
“You’re just pushing your emotions down, these massive emotional things you’re dealing with, and then they jump back out, and blow up and you burn out and you can’t do anything.” — Rosalie, Active Voices
Instead, I would invite you to sit with me for a minute, and really think about what climate doom means for you personally.
What do we fear, really, when we think about a possible climate apocalypse? Death. Pain. Hunger. Loss of comfort. Loss of stability. Loss of loved ones.
It’s a natural feeling. But I think our society has become paralysed with thanatophobia, the fear of death. To the point that despair (feeling that nothing we do will change our fate) is leading to paralysis, and a general sense that nothing is worth doing because we’re all going to die.
But when I stop to think about what the fear of climate apocalypse really is, underneath, I realise that all the things I fear will inevitably happen, and were always going to happen, whether climate change is stopped or not.
This is weirdly comforting, to think about this. Whether there is a climate apocalypse or not, my personal apocalypse WILL come.
We’re all going to die and none of us know when. It could be today for all we know. I personally, could die today, or tomorrow. Climate change might do it, or a million other ways. This is true for you too. And true for everyone. It’s always been true. The human condition is to live in a state of uncertainty, and our life mission is to find meaning in a time when we know we’re going to die, we don’t know when, and we can’t stop it happening.
The fear we feel about climate apocalypse is the fear we feel about growing old and dying. It’s the fear we have of getting cancer. It’s the fear of us, personally, losing our lives, our comfort, our loved ones.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
I don’t know if it’s true that climate change will cause societal breakdown or not. I don’t know if I’m personally going to see famines and devastation and mass death the way that previous generations of humans did during the Black Death, the Irish Famine, the Bengal famine, WWI or WWII — or any of the famines and natural disasters that are happening around the world now in other countries.
Maybe I will and nothing I will do will change it. Maybe I will still suffer agony, loss, fear and death, despite us solving climate change.
Maybe I’ll get cancer, or my husband will die of a heart attack, and I’ll lose all the people I most love. Maybe I’ll become disabled, or get chronic pain.
All that makes me happy now, may be lost — WILL be lost.
“I get it. Feeling a good thing. Well I’ve got news for you. Eventually, it all goes away.” — Jobu Tupaki, Everything Everywhere All At Once
I don’t want an apocalypse to happen. I don’t want to get cancer. I don’t want my soulmate to die or to lose anyone else that I love.
I don’t want to die. But I will.
And the longer it takes me to die, the more loved ones I will lose. But I have no control over any of this. And that’s the way it’s always been and always will be.
This is the Buddhist view of impermanence.
“In other words, all clinging to life is an illusory hand grasping at smoke.” — Alan Watts, the World as Self
Don’t think if you stop climate change you’ll stop death. Regardless of whether humanity as a whole survives, all life (individual and collective) goes through phases of decay and dying. Life springs anew, on the heels of death. Changed and adapted to the strange new world. And it flourishes.
Maybe it won’t be human. But then, humans aren’t the only form of consciousness.
My argument isn’t against taking action, in fact I do take action. I think we should act, love, find meaning, be happy, regardless of whether there’s an apocalypse or not. Because our lives will end, sooner or later, anyway. And because we all love life, and all beings love life, so let’s help the planet flourish.
Yes it’s our only hope but that’s not why we should do it. We should do it whether we fail or succeed. Even if we knew we would not succeed, we should do it. Because none of us will prevent our own deaths, in the end, either way. All beings die. All species end. Extinctions, personal and collective, are unpredictable.
“All we ever get are a few specks of time where any of this actually makes any sense…”
“Then I will cherish these few specks of time.”
— Jobu and Evelyn, Everything Everywhere All At Once
So I’m not afraid. I’m here, now. I love. There is beauty. There is life, always on the heels of death, recurrence after loss, in new fresh forms. This also, is the way it’s always been, and always will be.
When fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain. — Litany Against Fear, Dune