Tuesday, December 23, 2014

No Exit

I have been plagued recently by a recurring dream: I am in a place, usually a city or town, where I am at first enjoying myself because it seems to be a kind of utopia filled with people who are more or less hip, living an environmentally friendly and socially enlightened life; but then I decide I want to leave so I can tell others only to find that every place I think I can exit turns out to be a cul-de-sac or no exit at all. I begin to panic, increase the speed of my walking and running and searching but all turns out to be in vain: I can never find my way back to the entrance where I entered, nor find another way out. It is about this time that I usually wake up in a sweat.
            At first, I concluded that this dream was a metaphor for my current psychological state: unsure of my next move, unclear how or when or if I am going to publish my next book or whether I have any literary moves left. I know this is a common ailment among writers who always think that the last book will really prove to be the last, that all inspiration has finally left one bereft of ideas and exposed as a fraud. And so I have tolerated these dreams for the last few years, worrying about them some, but not really clear about what, if anything, to do. Then this morning I awoke from another one: same general tone and tenor, wandering through a seaside town, lovely, with nice hip shops of artisans making wonderfully inventive wares and restaurants that offer organically farm-raised or artisan fare. I ask someone the town’s name and I am told “Capistrano.” Nice name, too, I think. I want to meet up with my friends or relatives to show them my great find, so I begin to look for the way out and keep getting caught up in cul-de-sacs or going in circles and then find that I’m being followed by two rather threatening looking guys who begin to chase me as I break into a run, and I end up in a corner somewhere in a panic, grab a nearby bottle, of wine, maybe, and break it over the first guy’s head and am about to stab the second guy with the bottle shard when I wake up with my heart pounding. Again. No denouement. No exit.
            Now I am aware of Jean Paul Sartre’s play, titled, in English, No Exit. And as I remember it, the play depicts three people in a kind of hell, which, in Sartre’s imagination, consists of  “other people.” The three torment each other in various ways, and the whole idea is that hell is simply the place in which one re-enacts one’s characteristic sins or foibles or habits ad infinitum because there is no way out. No Exit from the tormented room of one’s psycho-physical drama. But my take on No exit is slightly different. After the latest dream, it occurred to me that the no exit signified therein may well refer to the inability of any of us, all of us, to escape the existential nullity of our time: death as a full stop, the end of all our striving, with nothing at all afterward. No reward. No punishment. No other people to torment us. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. With no way out of the nothing. And what that does is throw into question everything that we do, that we have done, that we can aspire to. It requires, at the least, a re-thinking of what we are here for, indeed, a contemplating of whether we are here for anything at all. Seriously contemplating it. Seriously feeling deeply, and without artificial lighting or solace, the dark night of the year, the dark night of the soul. Nothing. I am coming to nothing. All I am or think I am comes to nothing.
            What also occurred to me, as I dwelt in this space, was that all religion, all human striving and construction, in fact, is little more than a desperate attempt to provide an exit from this dilemma; a way out. While we can tolerate the fact that all other animals simply die without anything of them surviving in another form, we cannot tolerate that same fact for ourselves. We are the special animal. We are the chosen animal. We are the animal that has been selected to think and to decree that we alone have, deserve the grace to continue. We alone contain some inner core that simply cannot die. It is immortal. It is far too precious to simply end, decay, change into dirt and mud and become a home for slimy crawly things. At least this is the way most religions portray those who choose to, or are born to affiliate with them. Special people with a special dispensation from the deity they have invented to provide them exactly this special dispensation, this exit, this way out.
            But my recurrent dream seems to suggest the opposite. There really is no exit. We are all going to die, and we know it, and fear it, and retain the vain hope that somehow, we alone will get that special dispensation and be spared. Knowing all the while that the hope is vain. There is no special pez dispenser that gives out little pills to keep the inevitable from happening. There is none. There cannot be. Life cannot be without death. Others cannot be without our exit. And we know this. We all know it. We know there is no special part of us that will be allowed to continue. We know it. And yet, we keep hoping against hope. Hoping so desperately that we are willing, some of us, to kill, to kill others, to kill hundreds, thousands of others, in order to keep them from denying us, from pointing out what is obvious: there is no surviving. All changes. All dies. All ends in the same way. Trapped in circular streets, in Escher-like streets that go nowhere. That never provide an exit.  
            Perhaps this is freedom. Perhaps accepting this, realizing it, is what at some point frees us from the terror. Frees us from our desperation to find an exit. Frees us to simply live in the terrible knowledge that we are no different from all else: temporary appearances who live out our prescribed days as best we can, with no hope or need for reward, with the realization that the reward is simply this—our daily lives of irrational hopes and irrational fears and plans that we know are vain because what we are involved in is so impossibly huge as to be well beyond our ability to comprehend or control it. Which is the same thing as saying ok to it, ok to it even though our agreement, our acceptance is not required, it matters not to what is whether we accept it or not, but in some uncanny way it matters to us. To accept what is. To accept our entrapment in it. To accept that we have, really, no way out. No way out of our coming; no way out of our going. To accept that all we have, really, is this strange gift: the ability to be there while it happens.
            Woody Allen famously said: “I don’t mind dying so much; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Though it’s one of the funniest things anyone has ever said about this, I think he was exactly wrong: being there while it happens, while everything happens, is really all we have.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Climate Depression

I’m in a kind of climate depression. Yes, it’s an actual term, as you can see if you read a little blog (http://the-mound-of-sound.blogspot.com/2014/10/climate-change-fatigue-or-eco-depression.html) I found describing what happened recently to a Professor Camille Parmesan: she became so “professionally depressed” that, even with a Nobel Peace Prize (shared with Al Gore in 2007 as lead author of the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC), she started questioning her whole life’s work, moved out of the U.S. to the U.K, and doubted that she’d ever return to studying the dying coral reefs that are her specialty. Nor is she alone, she said: “I don’t know of a single scientist that’s not having an emotional reaction to what is being lost.”
            My depression, though, is not from doing science or even my recent reading of Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything (see blog for Nov. 30, 2014). Because the truth is, Klein soft-pedaled the real situation by focusing on what we, the people of the Earth, especially those in developed nations, could do to keep the warming of the earth from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius. Her implication clearly was that we still had time (though only till 2017); and that if we could just rid ourselves of capitalism and move from an ideology of extractivism to one of stewardship, we could prevent global catastrophe. And of course, we all want to believe that, human brains being wired to believe there is hope no matter how massive the problem, the worst is always in the distant future, yes, we can somehow figure out a fix. An interview that the journalist Dahr Jamail did with climate scientist Guy McPherson, though, dashed that view completely. The title of the piece, appearing on Truthout.org, gives the idea quickly: “Are Humans Going Extinct?” And what the piece concludes is that, yes, the extinction of our species is already well under way due to climate change, and is probably inevitable.
            Guy McPherson deserves some attention in this regard; he’s a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona who has been studying anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) for three decades. A lot of what he has been finding and preaching can be found on his website with the apt title: Nature Bats Last (http://guymcpherson.com/). I highly recommend it, though it is not for the faint of heart. Because what he says is sobering indeed—so sobering, in fact, that McPherson, suffering a kind of climate depression himself, has changed his message from the dreadful warnings about what he sees coming, to counseling people to just do what they love because it’s not going to matter much as far as the climate is concerned. Naomi Klein cited a paper Brad Werner gave at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in 2012—“Is Earth F**ked?”—and its title is relevant here; because for McPherson and many of the scientists he cites, the answer is a clear “Yes.” Earth Is Fucked. Or rather, not earth itself—for earth will survive as it has many times in the past; but for the human species and most other life on the planet, Earth is, indeed, fucked. Is, if the numbers are correct, heading for a mass extinction event comparable to the Permian Extinction about 250 million years ago that wiped out 95% of marine and 70% of terrestrial species then living.
            With regard to the 2 degree limit that Klein stakes her whole book on, McPherson and many other scientists insist we’re already there. That is to say, as Dr. Peter Wadhams, one of the most cautious commenters on the climate and head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at Cambridge, asserts in his August 8, 2014 youtube video: ‘the 2 degree limit was already reached in the 1960s.’ That is, even if we had stopped carbon emissions in 1960, the 2 degree warming would be reached anyway as a result of all the carbon emitted until then. I think this is something not widely understood and it should be: carbon emissions take something like 40 years to produce their effects. So trying for a 2 degree limit now is a fool’s errand; as is creating the impression that we still have time to reach a 2 degree limit, which is really a kind of subterfuge engaged in by governments and UN conferences and the IPCC. And in fact, McPherson quotes Wadhams thusly: “the carbon dioxide that we put into the atmosphere, which now exceeds 400 parts per million, is sufficient, if you don’t add any more, to actually raise global temperatures in the end by about 4 degrees.” Again, it’s that 40-year gap between emissions and warming. If emissions up to 1960 are enough to reach 2 degrees, and the emissions we’ve been pouring into the atmosphere since then are greater by many degrees of magnitude, then it’s clear that unless some miracle happens, we’re well on the way to 4 degrees or more by as soon as midcentury (this does not even include the damage done by methane [an even more deadly warming gas] seeps which, on their own, according to one researcher, will raise global-average temperatures by more than 4 degrees Celsius by 2030). And 4 degrees, or 5 or 6 or more, as many scientists project, essentially makes the planet uninhabitable by humans—a “dead planet” according to McPherson, on which no one, not even the very wealthy who think to insulate themselves in safe havens surrounded by their own police, will be safe. (By the way, the base line against which temperature increases such as 2 degrees Celsius are measured is the temperature in 1750, about when the Industrial Revolution began).
            In short, we as a species are fucked.
            Now every fiber in my being rebels when I write this. Even “knowing” what I know (and it should be clear to everyone that most of us really don’t have any firsthand way to verify the effects scientists keep warning us about; we have to weigh the evidence, yield to majority scientific opinion, take into account recent unusual climate events like Hurricane Sandy and the melting Arctic Ice, and act accordingly—which is why idiots like Senator James Inhofe and the hucksters at the Heartland Institute can keep blowing smoke to confuse the issue and maintain that the whole global warming scare is a hoax cooked up by Hollywood liberals like Barbara Streisand—Inhofe actually said that!—to advance the liberal/socialist agenda), even knowing what I know I want to leave humanity an exit, an escape hatch. Surely there is some technological fix that will save us (Klein debunks this in her chapter called “No Messiahs.”) We are, after all, the quintessence of dust, the paragon of animals, as Hamlet put it. The chosen species, the lords of creation. Which is, in fact, part of the problem. We really do think we are special. We really do see ourselves as separate from all other species—which we lump together as “Nature.” And granted by God “dominion” over them all, inalienable rights over all creation. I was raised to believe this, we were all raised and indoctrinated into believing this. So it’s almost impossible to believe otherwise; to believe that this time, there really is no technological fix (even Peter Wadhams suggests some temporary geo-engineering miracle that can give us time), no god or leader or scientist or group action that can save us. But if Guy McPherson and most scientists are right, that is precisely the ‘fix’ we are in; the hole we have dug ourselves. Our arrogance, our ignorance of the interrelatedness of all species, of our dependence on all others including lowly bacteria and dirt for our sustenance, has led us to think—since Francis Bacon expressed it 400 years ago—that we can and should treat the globe as our own little ball, to be used up and exploited in any way we can imagine to make our journey more comfortable. Blow off the tops of mountains to get at coal. Spread poisons on the soil to make farming easier, to make growth and life itself possible only for those plants that we can consume; those insects and birds and fish and mammals that we consider useful to us. The rest be damned, dammed, including the life-giving waters from which we sprang. Now we are seeing, as McPherson’s website warns us like a siren screaming in the night that Nature really does Bat Last. That we pay a price for imagining ourselves as separate from all else. And that the price may be the ultimate price any species can pay: extinction.
            This makes me cry in the night. This has given me an intense pain in my soul. It has even forced me to reconsider writing this, or thinking about this anymore at all. It is too depressing; too cataclysmic; too destructive of everything and everyone I value. But in the end, I have to conclude that we cannot keep burying our heads in the sand. In the end, we are obligated—even “knowing” that it is futile—to keep trying to know, to ameliorate the situation to whatever extent we can. We have to keep trying to delay the worst effects, by working to browbeat or persuade or legislate or shame others into seeing the truth: the entire human project is in grave peril. Anything we can do to help save something, to delay the worst effects, as Wadhams says, until some solution, some miracle might be found, is worth doing, even if the odds of its working are miniscule. It is still worth doing. For it is no more than what we do daily anyway, in the face of our certain knowledge that we will die.
            Guy McPherson himself has come to this conclusion. After being viciously attacked for years, and seeing the sad effects his message has on people’s hopes, he has modified it: Keep doing what you love to do, he now counsels. Keep loving. Even if the worst happens, at least you will have done your best to create something of value in the world.
            I don’t know what else to say. I apologize if this is too disturbing. I apologize if it leaves you depressed or hopeless. All I can offer is the truth as it’s gathered at the website (which in turn has gathered it from the most reliable sources available) noted above. And the idea, too, that we really do not know the future, cannot predict it no matter how gifted our instruments, how clever our algorithms. We simply cannot ever know for sure what emergent evolution will come up with, what the universe itself will come up with. All we can do is trust that existence involves more than what our little brains can comprehend, and that in that enormous potential inherent in every inch of space lies the something that somehow, for untold billions of years, has been able to go on. And will continue.

Lawrence DiStasi