On death and the climate crisis: We have woken the dragon, and the adults have left the room

by Peter Willis

To one degree or another, global heating is here to stay, and likely to intensify during the generations to come. We know we are not good at facing our own death, so why would we be any better at facing the fact that we have tied ourselves into rapid warming of our planet and, thanks to our prior denial, there is now no way we can unravel it?

Death is unique in our experience – the only event that we know is ahead of us which we cannot avoid or overcome. The most we can expect to achieve is to delay it or make it less painful and frightening. It stands for the ultimate loss of control.

This inevitability of death is perhaps the single most powerful influence, albeit operating at an unconscious level, that shapes how we modern humans live, individually and collectively. In his 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death the cultural anthropologist Ernest Bekker argued compellingly that the whole of modern civilisation is ultimately an elaborate defence mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality. Modern cultures prize youthful energy and productivity. We are at a loss what to do with old people and treat death as if it were a failure. By consigning death to the margins, we postpone confronting our own inevitable departure from this world and make it much harder for ourselves to enjoy the gifts afforded by a finite existence.

Now, suddenly, we find (assuming we choose to look) that in climate change we must confront another inevitability. As it becomes clearer that our current way of living cannot survive what the latest science suggests we can expect, we are given the chance to avoid the familiar siren call of denial and look this new and bewildering death in the eye. If we can muster the courage to do so, we may find a pathway to a genuinely transformed way of being human together.

If we set aside the two million or so years of our evolutionary journey as various forms of “homo” and just focus on our roughly 150,000 as “sapiens”, it seems clear that we developed remarkably stable ways of living in our small itinerant clans, as one species among others, hunting and gathering and developing tools, including representational language about 40,000 years ago.

Then, about 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, some of us started settling and farming, gradually domesticating both plants and animals. With settlement came the need for – and generation of – surpluses, the protection and management of which we handed to strong men, who in time became kings, acquired wealth, slaves and armies and fought neighbouring rulers for territory. This novel possibility of unrestrained accumulation seems to have given birth to the idea that our material goods might somehow act as a bulwark against death and the transience of life.

There existed no precedent among hunter-gatherer peoples for such social power gradients, which came to mark all settler civilisations and which, in time, made possible the owner-worker relations that powered the Industrial Revolution and the last two centuries of breakneck material progress.

Most of us have been taught that the hierarchical, city-centric, accumulative and often oppressive social arrangements that began 10,000 years ago represent the totality of human history and, by extension, our fate. What went before, we are told, was “pre-history” and of no consequence to our options as modern humans today.

Fortunately, there remain in every quarter of the globe a multitude of indigenous peoples, almost invariably disrespected by their local dominant culture, who trace their origins back to before this adventure into the modern. They never fully surrendered to the “civilising” process of separation from nature, social stratification and exploitative practices that have bedevilled the rest of us in our relations with each other and our environment.

If we find ourselves tempted to assume that these flaws in modern civilisation are “just how we humans are”, we have but to pause and regard our indigenous neighbours, not necessarily for their currently visible way of life, as this is often the result of tragic compromises enforced over generations by the dominant culture, but for the stories, values and worldviews they hold precious. Of interest for our purposes now, these include a humble and cooperative relationship with all other species and natural systems and a sense that death is a sacred part of the journey of all life forms, so not to be feared to the point of denial.

The great majority of us alive today have a journey to make if we are to begin to identify with and draw upon this deep-lying resource of our ancestry, a journey in which we must traverse and properly account for the costs and benefits that accrued from our fabled industrial age. No other discovery can better propel us into undertaking this journey than that we have found it in ourselves – in the Earth – to alter the climate for everyone, effectively forever and without the means to control what we have set in motion.

After 200 years of digging down into the bowels of the Earth and repeatedly poking the sleeping dragon of an energy balance that had given us a relatively benign planetary climate interlude (which, coincidentally, began about 10,000 years ago – see page 111 of the technical summary), we find the dragon is now wide awake and starting to throw its weight around in search of a new, much less civilisation-friendly equilibrium. Given what we know about tipping points and feedback loops in the global climate system, our chances of now coaxing the dragon back to its lair and singing it back to sleep must be zero.

Confronted by irrefutable news of the dragon’s emergence, our strategy of first resort – perhaps not surprising after two such successful centuries of increasingly technological digging – has been to set simple, memorable targets for eliminating our carbon emissions before the dragon reaches the surface. In doing so we reveal our longing for simplicity as a proxy for reality. If climate change really was a dragon, it would make perfect sense to think we could slay it. Men and their institutions would queue up to fulfil this glorious mission. After all, how much of our history has involved finding ourselves to be in danger and then boldly and ingeniously fighting our way out of it?

Sadly, climate change is not this kind of problem. It amounts to a profound unsettling of our entire home system which will give rise to altered patterns of survival, collaboration and conflict, none of which we can currently predict and most of which will feel quite foreign to the ways we experience ourselves and our lives today. Our home system is effectively moving beyond our control – perhaps simply showing us it never really was – something we find extremely hard to contemplate. Control of other species and systems, after all, has been the pivotal assumption underlying our “progress” these past 10,000 years.

At the launch of the IPCC’s latest assessment of the climate science in August 2021, United Nations secretary-general António Guterres wrote, “we are at imminent risk of hitting 1.5 degrees in the near term. The only way to prevent exceeding this threshold is by urgently stepping up our efforts and pursuing the most ambitious path. We must act decisively now.”

The idea that we have any realistic way to “prevent exceeding this threshold” is one that many climate scientists and experts now privately acknowledge is slipping into the realms of illusion. This is partly because what is left out of such earnest exhortations is an honest reckoning of the multitude of other societal fractures that are already deeply in play. We are too distracted by these and – at least at the level of nations and corporations – too distrustful or dismissive of one another to mount a credible collective attempt to solve the emissions problem, even if it were theoretically possible.

So, to one degree or another, global warming is here to stay, and likely to intensify during the generations to come. We know we are not good at facing our own death, so why would we be any better at facing the fact that we have tied ourselves into rapid warming of our planet and that, thanks to our prior denial, there is now no way we can unravel it?

If we look at all of this through a simplified lens of human psychological and emotional development and assume that our whole modern civilisation is on a journey of maturation as bumpy yet inexorable as any individual’s, we can speculate that we have been through a phase (again, we are talking about our “civilised” 10,000 years) strongly akin to adolescence. We know adolescents typically come into their physical and intellectual powers at the same time as they feel thrown into doubt about their true and durable identity. They easily become self-absorbed, form and break strong clan attachments and struggle with taking personal responsibility. And they never want to tidy their room.

In so many other ways beyond greenhouse gas accumulation, our earthly room is a mess. True to form, the majority’s collective response to climate science has been to deny, distract, kick the can into the future and hope. That majority has included most national governments, most corporations and media and large portions of the general public. It could not be characterised as a grown-up response. We may act like adults in particular sub-areas of our lives, but collectively, through our primary institutions of governance and in face of the big challenges like death and climate change, we have yet to come of age.

Because of this denial, those who have grasped the import of our current science have sought over three decades to break through the denial and wake up decision-makers in the hope of mustering a credible, mature response that could make at least some material difference to the outcome. This unfinished work will no doubt continue, but alongside it we should begin the other work of accepting that increasing warming will now bring disruption on a scale without precedent and ask ourselves what a fully adult response to this crisis might be.

One of the most pernicious narratives within the current climate change discourse is that there are only two possible responses. Either we all bring renewed effort to decarbonising the global economy, working together to calm the dragon so that the future can be but minimally disturbed, or we fail in that duty, allow runaway warming and thus trigger the apocalypse.

This binary stands upon two widely held assumptions, both illusions: that climate change is a soluble problem (we just have to try harder); and that somehow if we don’t all meet our nations’ Paris Agreement targets from 2015 we are effectively and collectively responsible for the end of the world.

The first assumption equates our reaching a zero-carbon-emitting economy with a victory over climate change – a dragon slain, a problem solved. If achieved quickly it might indeed delay or even limit some of the worst heating potential in an already disturbed climate system, but that disturbance is unequivocally under way. To motivate people to decarbonise by holding out the possibility of a “win” that involves a return to “normal” is dishonest.

The second assumption – that missing that “win” means ending the world – is rooted in the belief that our current way of organising the global economy and the governance of nation states and corporations is realistically the only possible way, so if that is destabilised to the point of collapse – which is now clearly on the cards – we humans will be left with nothing worth living for.

Our human nature is not to be confused with whatever temporary form our civilisation takes. Our current globalised civilisation has been but one of many human experiments in how to live well on this Earth, and while proving perhaps over-successful for the few in the short term, it has now shown it cannot provide that success for the many, nor for the long run. Whether some of us like it or not, we have learnt pretty much everything useful we could learn from this experiment and it should now be wound up or allowed to collapse. We will want to carry forward all that we have learnt from it as we look for fresh ways to survive and live well together in what will be deeply unfamiliar physical conditions.

Fortunately, history tells us that we humans are in many ways at our best when our backs are to the wall. Rebecca Solnit’s extraordinary 2010 book A Paradise Built in Hell, for example, shows just how transformative disasters can be for our communities when they are faced with destruction and death.

It bears remembering, however, that we are currently experiencing the threat posed by climate change in two very different timeframes: as an occasional local shock event in the present, like a flood or wildfire, and as a looming, generalised and globally distributed threat to our future wellbeing. The well-honed “backs to the wall” response Solnit writes about is appropriate to the first timeframe. It involves a release of adrenalin and in many of us an upwelling of altruism.

But how might we beneficially respond to climate change as a long-term existential threat that stretches into the generational future? Whereas a disaster brings communities out onto the street, literally as well as virtually, one can easily fall prey to private despair when contemplating the uncertainty and scale of the losses that lie ahead.

“A problem shared is a problem halved,” as the saying goes, but how to discuss something so sombre, so laden with future death, even with those close to us? In the age of text-based social media, the art of conversation is – perhaps temporarily – at a low ebb. Activist movements like Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future are a welcome and countercultural response to the felt need to share the grief and rage with others and at least do something with one’s existential angst. But they are still relatively small and many will feel they set too high a bar of commitment to personal activism for them to join in.

Missing are frequent, accessible opportunities to sit with small-enough groups of one’s fellow citizens, share one’s own questions and fears and listen to them share theirs. There is a potential for transformation in such simple and intimate medicine.

For some, however, conversation by itself is not enough. Our growing sense of impending danger has duly released a river of climate-related innovation, which is to be both expected and judiciously encouraged. Anything that offers genuine hope of either slowing the pace of warming or preparing us better to cope with inevitable shock events must be welcome.

Beyond such palliative innovations, to what should we pin our highest hopes? Hope that by some magic we will restore “normal” is a child’s hope. Grown-ups know too much now to entertain it. What if, instead, we cultivate a hope, grounded in our long experience of the human spirit under pressure, that, as the tired pillars of our civilisation crumble around us, we have it in us to find one another in a fresh light? So much of the potential in our humanity, after all, has been left unexplored or actively suppressed in our mad rush to secure eternal, materially denominated comfort at others’ expense. We are more than we have told ourselves we are.

Just as the medical establishment would have us throw every last drug and procedure at our elderly as they approach death, hoping to prolong life, so are we easily persuaded that our current social and economic order must be pumped full of whatever it takes to keep the party going. Yet there is wisdom in embracing and not resisting its inevitable death, setting our gaze on what may be wanting to emerge in its place, knowing that it will take patience, close attention and doubtless much suffering and grief before we are even able to see it, let alone enjoy it. But is this not what it means to be in an emerge-and-see?

As our individual death requires us to let go of our identification with our body and our worldly presence, so the death of our current form of civilisation requires us to dis-identify with it and what it has represented, opening ourselves to what else we might become.

(This article appeared first in The Daily Maverick)