MAY/ JUNE POST: IT’S GOOD TO THINK THE WORST

A few decades ago, even a few years ago, to say that “the end is near” marked you as an unstable person. A melodramatic alarmist, if not a lunatic. But with the political/ environmental crises compounding at a frenetic pace, that is far from true today.

Put your ear to the ground, you will hear on a somewhat regular basis – “Hey! This sucker may be going down!” — and the occasional climate-change analyst now leaving the “may be” out of it.

In “Facing Extinction,” environmental journalist Catherine Ingram is one of those saying we’ve passed the point of no return…. Well, she adds this caveat: There is never such a thing as 100 percent no hope, but if someone is diagnosed with fourth stage pancreatic cancer, he’d be well advised to get his affairs in order. Then, like a good hospice director, she lays out the human race’s terminal condition, letting the details speak for themselves.

But first she makes it clear that she intends this bad news only for those who are ready to hear it; i.e., those who have passed through the denial stage; those, for example, who have accepted that technology cannot reverse the damage that technology has already wrought, even should the current political/ economic powers-that-be put their every thought and every dollar to that end.

It is most assuredly not intended for the millions of grown-up children who are hoping for a rescue from above, in the likes of a space station on Mars, or in the positive thinking hopium that “religious and new age thought leaders are making millions peddling.” The manipulation of spiritual peddlers obviously angers Ingram, although she understands the need of the manipulated to buy in. From such brutal news, she would leave them to their delusion of choice.

Quite early on, however, she says that if you’ve read even this far, you aren’t one of those. She advises those of us who cannot escape into denial, to become entirely hope-free. “Clinging to hope when there’s no longer anything to be done, when the course cannot be changed,” she says, “makes hope itself a burden.”

She believes that unloading that burden is a necessary step in preparing oneself for the meaning life can still have, even with the extinction of the human species staring us in the face.

Ingram says that she never wanted to write this essay, to be a bad news voice in the wilderness, so to speak. But she knew it was something that she would like to have read, as a person looking for the comforting presence of a like-minded soul who dares to tell it like it is.

The cold comfort of hard truth, she’s talking about. The real truth is always hard or why would it be so esteemed on the one hand and resisted on the other. The battle is ever-present to ignore it, suppress it, forget it, refute it, soften it, and so on. It is baseline human nature not be up to the demands of the truth. But if we should rise to the challenge, say, through hard work or the school of hard knocks, the cold comfort of the truth is that only the truth can carry us forward.

Henry Thoreau said it this way: “What we crave is reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats, feel the cold in our extremities.”

He can go forward from there. He can then say, “if we are alive, let us go about our business.” Wide awake, he means. Aware that the night is coming. Aware that at some point his business will be to grieve the deaths of those he loves, and then to die himself.

In Albert Camus’ “The Stranger,” Meursault, in prison, every morning has to examine thoroughly the possibility that his reprieve from execution doesn’t come, before he can then engage the possibility that it may. Unless human heights and depths have no significance, it’s good to think the worst. The worst is always somewhere, somehow part of the total picture, of which we are also part. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for you.” Willy-nilly, in its own time, the worst will come. To deny it, suppress it, forget it, etc. because you are not experiencing it right now is to live a flat life. To be an escapist.

In “The Stranger,” I found the same cold comfort I had found – going all the way back to high school — in books like “1984” and “Brave New World”; and soon thereafter in end-of-the world movies like “On the Beach” and “Dr. Strangelove”; and somewhat later in the songs of Leonard Cohen, particularly in “The Future.” (“I’ve seen the future, brother; it is murder.”)

Societies, countries, races, worlds – they die too. This is not heaven that we’re living in here. Not even almost heaven. Cormac McCarthy’s powerful, dystopic novel, “The Road” (2006), was probably the bleakest (and paradoxically the most inspirational) vision of the future I’ve encountered thus far. Written from the perspective of a father and son struggling against all odds to survive in a post apocalypse world, it’s the only novel I’ve ever read in one sitting.

Was it comforting? Yes. Some of us get comfort from kick-ass truth the way others get comfort from romantic dreams.

Is Ingram’s essay similarly comforting? Yes. In the beginning it was, and through the core of it. She doesn’t take long to knock you in the head. “For much of my life,” she says, alert to the scientific papers on climate change, “I assumed we might last another hundred years. Now I suspect we are facing extinction in the near future.”

Oh dear! Not only is the apocalypse inevitable, it is right around the corner. I had been banking on that same hundred-year buffer zone. I’d been assuming that the real shit wouldn’t hit the real fan until I’d been long dead, and my children and grandchildren had been also long dead.

But no. The end of future is sitting in the driveway right now, piling out of the car. We’d better start talking about it, Ingram says. We’d better start getting our act together. Not because it’s now or never, but because it’s already over, but for this little bitty thin slice of human life that’s left.

Too bad about the last few paragraphs of her essay, though — the getting-our-act-together-in-the-face-of-annihilation part. My shit detector starts beeping right away when she says that in the end days human consciousness will be tested as never before. (Well, yeah.) This will require, Ingram posits, an intensified alertness to the present moment.

Hmm. Very Zen, I guess. “All we’ve ever got is the present anyway” — that kind of thinking. I remember that the father and son in “The Road” were intensely alert to the present moment, especially to the possible nearby presence of cannibals.

Ingram must be thinking here of the early end days (like right now), where there’s an elite class that has been thus far sheltered from the worst. She recommends “that those who know” start working right now towards facing their fate with dignity. She suggests that “we take this opportunity … to join support groups that share our willingness to see what is; to practice kindness and forgiveness; to refuse to be dominated by the enveloping corruption.”

By now my back is now definitely up. Early end days, or late, here is a rather bucolic, new age-y view of human extinction. “To refuse to be dominated by the enveloping corruption!” Does Ingram really believe there will be a privileged class of people who will live for a significant period of time above the panic of the rapidly dying human race.

For as strong as she is in detailing every possible angle of the god-awful irreversible situation that we’re in (for that part, you may want to read the Ingram essay for yourself; find it linked to James Kunstler’s webpage, at Kunstler.com.), she is pathetically weak in her suggestions of how to respond to it. For a person self-proclaimed as not in denial, she paints a rather enlightened la-la land for the end-days, recommending that we “direct our awareness many times throughout the day to all the little things for which we are grateful.”

For a few minutes I try to give her the benefit of the doubt, thinking perhaps here is a temporary mental lapse under the pressure of the immensity of her thesis. But it keeps getting worse. “Pace your intake of climate news,” she advises…. “Enjoy the precious time that is left.”

As for dark visions of the coming end, “it is best to not entertain them.” … “This is now the time to give yourself over to what you love.”… “Make your moments sparkle within the experience of your own senses, and direct your attention to anything that gladdens your heart. Live your bucket list now.”

Yie, yie, yie. “Make my moments sparkle…. Live my bucket list now!?”

Well, this one good thing, at least. Re-evaluating the whole essay in light of this absurd ending, I’ll take a pass for now on the human extinction thing. A big die-off, yes — most of us, probably everybody in the rich countries, will be swept away in the chaos. But there’ll be survivors, little pockets of poor people – tough, close-to-the-earth people, on mountaintops and in secluded valleys — used to living on next to nothing. And maybe the son of that father in “The Road.”

Call them the meek who will inherit the earth. I begin to better understand that beatitude.

I can imagine their distant descendants, centuries from now — when the planet has rebalanced itself and there are no longer billions of human beings overrunning it — digging up a city or two, just like we have dug up ancient cities ourselves. Finding, say, a copy of Thoreau’s “Walden,” or a biography of Mother Teresa, in the midst of millions and millions of smart phones; maybe also happening onto an armed military drone, a weapon or two of mass destruction, a torture chamber, and so forth; wondering who were these strange people that lost their way. What did they stand for? Where did they think they were going? How did they become so confused, on the one hand, when they knew so much on the other?

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