The Pain of Caring Too Much about the Earth's Death

Earth Meanders, A series of personal Earth essays by Dr. Glen Barry (~2/month) October 11, 2007

I am unwilling and unable to sit by stoically and impassively as the Earth, her creatures and humanity suffer and die; no matter how much it hurts emotionally, and you should not either.

The Earth is dying and it makes me feel sad. Not just a bit tense or melancholy; but deeply and profoundly anguished, depressed, and angry. Humanity had so much potential that has been wasted. Our self consciousness, opposable thumbs, upright walking and ability for limited rationality has lead to great triumphs in philosophy, art, sport and leisure. But alas other aspects of our animalistic nature; libido, insatiable appetite, and desire to dominate, have won out.

This week a leading scientist reported what many of us already knew and intuited: that climate change has already surpassed critical thresholds that ensure it will be dangerous and deadly. Increasingly humanity is called upon to come to terms with the fact that our habitat and societies are almost certainly going to fail. I believe that seeing clearly the Earth’s looming demise accounts for much of my and others' emotional pain.

We are witnessing a political, social, economic and ecological failure of unprecedented magnitude as the Earth is poised upon global ecological collapse. It is unsettling to know that your species is not going to make it. I believe strongly that we must continue our efforts to halt ecological collapse, by urgently pursuing policies such as ending the use of coal and ancient forest logging. And we must prepare our families and communities to pursue self-reliance, as we return to the land for a final stand.

Yet, how does one continue living and working with the certain knowledge that a time of extreme suffering, death, and the possible end of being is at hand?

I am suffering. I am told this means I am alive. But this is gut-wrenchingly intense. Anguish that makes you question where you are going, where you are and where you have been; feeling as if your brain is exploding, your skin drying up and falling off. Unable to think clearly or maintain relationships as you continually ponder creation is nearing an end, it could be avoided, and few care.

To be a bright green political ecologist is to feel emotional pain from cut land, trashed oceans, toxic waters and a disintegrating atmosphere. Thinking about ecological crises full-time for 20 years has made my psyche tawdry and torn. Sure I have a useful insight or campaign success now and again, but does it really matter? These achievements have been made at such expense to my personal well-being that I am beginning to wonder whether it has been, and is, worth it.

And then I remember what is at stake. Climate change is not about on average being 2C warmer. It is about whole countries and regions not having food and water, about an end to ecosystems and agriculture, about enormous and continuous floods and droughts, and so much more. Climate change is about death, destruction and mayhem for billions, maybe for all.

One can reasonably disagree upon tax rates and numerous other contemporary issues. But how can one willfully not engage with the remarkably well documented issue of looming planetary death? There are not two sides to the climate change "debate". One is in denial, the other experiencing truthful, immobilizing pain.

Maybe the movement would be better off without my apocalyptic truth-telling. Perhaps if I stopped; my wrenching, exhausting nightmares would end. Does doom and gloom -- even if 100% truthful -- stymie or inspire adequate responses? How does one know the Earth and humanity are close to self-immolation and still make small talk and maintain personal relations with those that are willingly ignorant on the topic?

Yes, I am wound up tight and right at the breaking point. And my ego is bruised after being so naïve as to think that a well informed, intentioned and motivated person could make any real difference in the situation. I am nearing exhaustion after giving all I have in 100+ hour work weeks to help save the Earth; prepare my house, land and family for an imminent ecological and social collapse; while having to deal with ridicule and abandonment for seeing so clearly what the future holds. Why do it? Why not just live for the moment and damn the Earth and humanity's future?

It is because the strongest biological instinct is a species' sense of self-protection and desire for our children to carry on after us. Humans are animals. Those trained to be touch with the very earliest hominid impulses must protect all the life with who we share the Earth, because we understand their existence provides habitat that makes our existence possible, and because they have an inherent right to be as well. Instead of saber tooth tigers, we need to protect ourselves from an economy run-amok, collapsing ecosystems and the mayhem this will release.

Any thinking, caring person must now be in great pain as they are born into and live within the epic end of human and Earthly history. It is a burden to be an aware, thinking person -- noticing the change in seasonality, declining birds and wildlife, and knowing there is no reason to rejoice that temperatures in Wisconsin were recently 30 degrees above normal. And it is excruciatingly difficult to take action upon this truthful knowledge.

How few are able to overcome their conditioning as children to identify, witness to, and act upon the truths that economic growth, human populations and their combined consumption are a cancer upon the Earth; that Gaia, that gives us life and is thus godlike, is dying; and that all of us -- rich and poor, black and white, educated and ignorant are all careening towards a painful, long drawn out death for ourselves, families, communities, sister species and shared Earth.

Maybe it all comes down to a fear of death. Consciously I do not give it much thought, but who does not worry about their mortality? I have had readers express that ecological collapse, akin to all life dying at once, is more desirable than making necessary personal and societal changes necessary to save creation. Many have allowed religion and capitalist dogma to overwrite their biological instinct to live in a manner that perpetuates their species.

We had our chance to reform industrial technological society over the past 30 years, and now it is irredeemable. There is still hope that industrial society will collapse, and the necessity of right sizing human endeavors realized, prior to the biosphere becoming non-functional and unable to recover, and human death numbering in billions. There is still hope that groups of enlightened Earth lovers will ride out the collapse and reconstitute humanity living within nature. But there is no longer hope that it will be achieved easily, painlessly and without profound conflict and turmoil.

The path to global ecological sustainability exists: fewer babies, less consumption, ending practices like the use of coal and ancient forest logging. To see it clearly, yet know that ignorance and denial hide it to most, is utterly devastating. Yet I refuse to give up. The stakes are too important. It is in my genes and encoded instinct to fight to protect my species, habitat and planet; even if it is tough and causes me to feel emotional pain. Bold ideas that would solve the climate and ecological crises are out there, but people are unwilling to change. They must be compelled to do so.

And this is the core of my sadness -- this beautiful magnificent Earth and all its bright and brilliant creatures including human good works are going to needlessly end because of greed, vanity and intransigence. I may not be a particularly good person -- like most, with many flaws -- but I feel fully and strongly; yearn for truth, knowledge, and justice; and constantly try to better myself and my world.

I think you should allow yourself to feel the Earth's pain strongly as well, and use it as motivation for personal and planetary healing. Yet make sure that after you feel the pain, you move on, for your and Gaia's benefit. Maybe writing this essay will help me do so too.

Dr. Barry is founder and President of Ecological Internet; provider of the largest, most used environmental portals on the Internet including the Climate Ark at and http://www.EcoEarth.Info/ . Earth Meanders is a series of ecological essays that are written entirely in his personal capacity. This essay may be reprinted granted it is properly credited to Dr. Barry and with a link to Earth Meanders. Emailed responses are public record and will be posted on the web site unless otherwise requested.


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