Learning How to Live in the Anthropocene

Ecstasy and grief at the end of an era.

“Nothing else in the world thinks it can go on, not a thing, but we’re quite adamant that we can go on. And that’s why we can’t.” – Stephen Jenkinson

I LOVE being a documentary filmmaker. This includes the discussions that accompany every screening. I always wonder which type of questions I will receive, which can usually be divided into three types: the pontificator (wants to hear themselves speak), the soapboxer (has a specific agenda), and if you’re lucky, an actual person who asks a question.

Recently, during the release of my short film ‘Reactor‘, about post-tsunami Japan and the on-going Fukushima crisis, I’ve noticed a trend. My film explores what it means to react in a time like today, amid unprecedented calamities unfolding almost daily. In this particular instance, I shared the extent of the radiation leaking into the sea and the possibility of full nuclear meltdown.

I can always feel the room get heavier. And then, half-heartedly, someone volleys the inevitable question into the air: “Is it too late?”

I know what they mean, whether in regards to Fukushima or climate change, species extinction, peak oil, economic collapse, et al. But they are not looking for a rational, fact-laden answer. Instead, they are pondering the existential question “Are we going to die?”

§

MOST PEOPLE in the dominant culture will tell you they don’t fear their own death. “I just don’t want it to be painful,” they’ll say. “Quicker the better.” Yet beneath the nonchalant acceptance, there’s an undeniable belief of invincibility.

That is true for me. The limitation of the ego is fundamentally rooted in being. It cannot fathom non-being. This truth is further complicated by the unquestioned war on aging. Disease and death must be fought. And the fallen must be hidden as quickly as possible from the battlefield. (I had never even seen a body until I was 30, when my former partner’s father passed away in his bed – and I’m not atypical).

At the cultural level, this manifests as the unshakable faith that technology can save us from ourselves. Charles Eisenstein writes:

“Today, painfully, we are becoming aware of the folly of the delusion that we can, with clever enough technological solutions, avoid the consequences of what we do to the world. The pretence of separation is increasingly difficult to maintain. We are learning that we are not separate from Nature, and that it bears a wholeness that we ignore at our peril.”

By all serious accounts, it is already too late.

Roy Scanton, a US veteran writing in his powerful piece ‘Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene‘:

“We have passed the point of no return. From the point of view of policy experts, climate scientists and national security officials, the question is no longer whether global warming exists or how we might stop it, but how we are going to deal with it.”

The term Anthropocene refers to the era of humanity as a geological force. The author predicts a future that mirrors what he saw in war-torn Baghdad: riots, warlords, anarchy. And eventually, in the face of total biosphere collapse, the end of human civilization.

“The human psyche naturally rebels against the idea of its end. Likewise, civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today — it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent.”

His diagnosis is stark: “If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.”

§

IT’S HARD not to feel there’s a fundamental flaw in the human animal. How else to explain the destruction unleashed upon the rest of creation? Secretly, you might even feel justified in agreeing we should die. Death is punishment for the sins of our civilization.

Why does this argument automatically follow? The interpretation is based upon two fundamental assertions that are so ingrained, they are almost impossible to see from within the culture:

  1. all human cultures have always shared the same affliction as the dominant culture
  2. death can only be a punishment

The first assertion, that all human cultures share the same affliction is based upon one who has been conditioned by the dominant culture and cannot perceive it could be any other way. This masks a deep self-loathing that emerges as apathy, cynicism, and even anger. Civilization was a huge mistake.

The second assertion is based upon the culture’s own phobia of death. We have failed. The voice says. We deserve to die. Cynicism gives way to despair and debilitating sadness. The only remaining path is how to rearrange the chairs on the ship as it goes down.

I submit to you there is a middle way.

§

“Cultures are created and destroyed in ecstasy – and for every moment in between is nothing that keeps a world alive aside from the breath of ecstatics,” writes Peter Kingsley, in his book ‘A Story Waiting to Pierce You‘.

“Civilizations never just happen. They are brought into existence quite consciously, with unbelievable compassion and determination, from another world. Then the job of people experienced in ecstasy is to prepare the soil for them; carefully sow and plant them; care for them; watch them grow.

And each culture is just like a tree whose essence and whole potential are already contained in the seed. Nothing during the course of a civilization is ever discovered, or invented, or created, which was not already present in that seed.”

He continues:

“The simple truth is that every single civilization, including the western world, was brought into being from a sacred place to serve a sacred purpose. And when that purpose is forgotten, when its original alignment gets lost, when the fundamental balance and harmony of its existence become disrupted beyond a certain point, then nature has her way.

This is the mystery of birth and death not only for humans, but for cultures too. And for thousands of years it has been understood that, just as civilizations have to come to an end, there can even be times of global extinctions. But always there are people who know how to gather the essence of life and hold it safely, protect it and nurture it until the next seeding.

The question ‘is it too late?’ bears little resemblance to this expanded territory.

Instead, here are the questions I ask myself today:

Can I acknowledge that which the culture gave me and grieve that which it did not? Can I bear witness to her ending, even if she grips and claws her way down, terror stark upon her face? And can I plant the seeds of sanity, however that may look to me, as I work for a day the rest of us will never see?

You might wonder whether or not it’s possible to grapple with questions as formidable as these. Until you realize, that’s exactly what your ancestors did for you, before the swoon of civilization swept the indigenousness from the previously unbroken spiral of memory.

The future will not resemble the past. Nor should it – because there is no past that is passed. And there is no future that is not influenced by your actions now.

Earlier, Roy Scanton wrote that our challenge in the age of the Anthropocene is learning how to die. I submit the real challenge is, and has always been, remembering how to live.

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  • River Rose

    To remember is to re-create, so let’s remember how to live, yes? Put all the members of our memory back together, and make anew our concept of a human life– re-create it into recreation, of course.

  • Little Miami River Lady

    It’s encoded in our DNA … It is there, far back in the recesses of our ego that time has warped by the past and the future that we refuse to develop. Thank you for the article. It resonates deep and makes me remember what it is that we are here to do.

  • Jasmina

    Beautiful to read. Thank you.

  • Dan Kelly

    Nice article and really on the money. In my mind the biggest challenge is demonstrating to the masses that our current trajectory is but one story in a universe of many. Our dominant culture might ignore the limits of our finite ecosystem and predominantly ascribe value to money – but over history there have been many cultures that have sought more balanced approaches and lived good lives. Our toughest task isn’t re-envisioning a new human story, but – as you say Ian – remembering some of our old ones.

  • Scott Crofford

    I’d like to address one thought, are we stuck as we are because of where we began, or are we stuck because we hold on to where we began? I might challenge that if you rely on remembering you are anchored into the old ways of thinking, if you seek to learn how to live perhaps we can find a new way? Where we begin is an important part of what we are, but perhaps like a tree we can grow beyond what our center would allow.

  • Zamir

    A beautiful article Ian, offering me some great insights. Your perspective on death is beautifully counterpointed by the words of the mystics. Rumi is a beautiful example:

    I died as a mineral and became a plant,
    I died as plant and rose to animal,
    I died as animal and I was Man.
    Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
    Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
    With angels blest; but even from angelhood
    I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
    When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,
    I shall become what no mind e’er conceived.
    Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence
    Proclaims in organ tones, ‘To Him we shall return.’

    It has always been shared that learning to die is the manner in which we learn to most fully embrace life. I feel that what you are saying is the same thing, that in remembering how to live, we are learning how to die, and more specifically, what we are dying to. When death is knocking at the door so prominently, there is a wisdom in noble surrender, that it may lead us to greater life. Indeed, I trust that this is so.

  • http://ianmack.com/ Ian MacKenzie

    good question – though the nuance i’m suggesting is that there is no “old” way – just ways that are more anchored in the continuation of life. the dominant culture is now re-membering, but at the expense of itself.

  • http://ianmack.com/ Ian MacKenzie

    beautiful – thank you zamir.

  • http://meganhollingsworth.com/ Megan Hollingsworth

    yes yes yes, we are learning how to live. Ian let’s talk. this matter of right relationship with death and birth is precisely what i am working on at extinction witness. i am with you, one of the ecstatics you speak of. lots of love, thank you, megan

  • http://meganhollingsworth.com/ Megan Hollingsworth

    the center knows no limits, no bounds. it is the channel and it works so long as it is open.

  • Scott Crofford

    Not quite what I meant by center Megan. Words have multiple meanings but sometimes they must be narrowed in a specific use to make a specific point. It is the miracle and sin of words that they are incomplete and can mean so many things to so many people. One cannot cut through the noise without a sharper edge, sometimes the words must be very specific so that that what follows may be broader.

    I was referring to how some trees of very advanced age end up physically hollow in the center. In essence the growth of the tree has become such that the tree itself remembers its original form, but is no longer physically bound to it, and no longer limited by its original form. That hollow center also allows room for new life, in the case of trees it can be a home for other animals.

    Your point is quite valid, just not to what I was trying to say.

  • Scott Crofford

    I agree with you there. This kind of cultural and spiritual change is a form of death as it is abandonment of the creature we once were much in the way a child is replaced by the adult he or she becomes. It is a death we cannot fear because it will bring us a greater potential for life than we can possibly imagine with the eyes we have now.

  • http://meganhollingsworth.com/ Megan Hollingsworth

    thank you for this clarification, Scott. i see. you speak to knowing the self to forget the self. i thank you. i started this poem a couple of weeks ago and it came through to form with your insight here. so here is to you. here, i speak to what that hollowness allows room for: Love. the open channel is so small in youth that appears solid and this is ok because the bark (resistance) is so thin as to allow love in from outside. enjoy, love m http://meganhollingsworth.com/?p=1267

  • http://thinkahol.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/a-philosophical-orientation-toward-solving-our-collective-problems-as-a-species/ thinkahol

    i wouldn’t be so dismissive of technology considering exponential trends. This is a quickest most accessible primer on it that i’ve found:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQ35zNlyG-o&list=PLFFZ_3hm5dZcgN7noug53sAQj4oSDEEfp&index=11

    But he assumes a harder separation between human and artificial intelligence than seems likely to me.

  • Lindsay Wilsonq

    Beautiful article and writing ~ I especially appreciate this sentence ~ “…before the swoon of civilization swept the indigenousness from the previously unbroken spiral of memory…”

    While living in the Blue Ridge Mountains…I would go into Asheville and stay for a bit here and there. I met a woman studying ‘incubation’ with Peter Kingsley (a practice from ancient Greece ~ Asklepion dream and divination temples)… Her work really resonated with me as I had been doing dream-work for some time and this fell right in place with practices I had been developing…

    I think it is key for us to integrate ourselves and discover whole minds and psyches… Of course, when our minds are broken…how do we know what whole is? I think surrender is needed and the proper rememberences will arise… With a whole mind and psyche…we can work with the world instead of against it and ourselves.

  • sara

    `beautifully spoken, @ianmack:disqus.

  • Scott Crofford

    Thank you for sharing that.

  • Edward Kirby

    “IT’S HARD not to feel there’s a fundamental flaw in the human animal. How else to explain the destruction unleashed upon the rest of creation?”

    I’d go further than that and say that perhaps there’s a fundamental flaw in *intelligent life*. Why else would we kill ourselves as we are on the verge (geologically speaking) of leaving our mother planet to colonize the universe?

    It may just be that the universe provides life with a 1-2 punch that is impossible to overcome:

    1) the evolutionary process that applies to all exobiology in the universe as much as it does here (ensuring that intelligent life out there is just as blood-thirsty and inhumane as we are), and

    2) the need for newly emergent intelligent life to control fire (and burn things; putting carbon into the atmosphere).

    There may be a reason we haven’t had any aliens visiting us yet… they don’t exist.

  • Laura

    Thanks for this article. These are THE questions for me. Paradoxically, learning how to die will teach us how to live. I am far from knowing how to die, but I do know ecstasy, I do know the imperative to “gather the essence of life and hold it safely,” and I know that both the ecstasy and the essence-gathering translate into “sowing the seeds of sanity,” which I hope I am doing, daily. Reading this cheers me on. Thanks again.

  • http://www.ecentialcenter.com Faye

    I just stumbled upon your site, Ian, and I love what you’re doing and saying. I too am on a quest of understanding, and through my own personal experiences have come to some startling conclusions about who we are, why and how it is that we’re here.

    I look forward to more of your work.

  • J D

    Deus Ex Machina went out with the Enlightenment.
    The next stage of evolutionary consciousness is our
    emerging cultural meme of having awakened and grown up.
    Will a tipping point truly usher in a healing hierarchy,
    replacing the dominant one which many of us are serving today?