Once you've accepted that Planet Earth has entered a Sixth Great Extinction – one that's irreversible and that will consume most, if not all, species, including our own – the question becomes: What now? Where does this leave you? And what do you do with the time remaining?
Most people, of course, haven't accepted that we're already well into a major extinction event. They prefer either to remain in complete denial or to pretend to themselves that human ingenuity and technology will somehow ride to the rescue. (In fact, more technology almost invariably goes hand-in-hand with more destruction.)
But for those of us who do understand that the facts are undeniable, it's time to discuss where we go from here. So, what are some of the things we need to consider?
First, it's helpful to have some idea of what to expect in the years and decades ahead. Granted we're in uncharted territory. No one knows exactly what's going to happen as billions of tons of methane (40 times more potent than CO2) that have been stored under arctic ice for millions of years are rapidly released into the atmosphere. Or precisely how the global economic system will collapse as fresh water becomes ever scarcer, crops fail, people starve, and more wars break out. Or which of the numerous possible epidemics and contagions will actually break out across the globe.
We don't know how these and dozens of other factors will unfold; all we know is that they will happen – along with many more things we never predicted or contemplated.
But there's certainly a growing consensus of things we can be reasonably sure of. And one of the people who has laid these out most clearly is Professor Guy McPherson, who has outlined for us here some of what we can expect on the climate side of things over the next 30 years. (He updates his assessment every few weeks on his blog at Nature Bats Last, so it's worth visiting his site regularly.)
How this will affect you emotionally
As much as we need to understand the external events that are happening around the world, we also need to be aware of and understand our own internal reactions and feelings.
That's where it becomes helpful to check out the work of Carolyn Baker, a professor of psychology and history and a practicing psychotherapist, who has perhaps the best understanding of how to relate to the horror of what we humans have unleashed upon the rest of creation.
A great place to begin is with a 30-minute video conversation Baker recently had with Andrew Harvey of the Institute for Sacred Activism. She begins with a summary of what's happening to the planet, largely based on Guy McPherson's work, and goes on to discuss how we can "begin to come to terms with how we're going to meet this emotionally and spiritually."
First, she says, we have to be able to recognize and express our own grief over what's transpiring. Only when you've opened yourself to that can you tap into your own true strength.
"If you're not in grief and heartbroken, you're not really even alive. But being shattered opens you to a whole new level of love."
For Baker and Harvey, this centers on our need to behave with "good manners toward all species."
... especially that we make it easier on other species. That we should be decent. Are you going to go out in the savage unconscious way that we have done all of this, that has caused all of this? Or are we, in the final snapshot of our shadow, going to claim our light and then work from that with dignity, decency, compassion, and a passion to make it as easy as possible for each other? And especially for the animal race that we have so horribly abused?
If you have any dignity left, if you have any authentic spirituality, what other position could you take?
Harvey waxes quite poetic when he talks about turning despair into action, and of his belief that the death that's transpiring must lead to a rebirth in whatever form. But he never loses sight of the reality that we are almost certainly heading irrevocably into terrible times:
"Near Term Extinction looks very likely. But ... it may be that God's plan for the birth of the divine human is that it takes place in the ultimate death – as the final response of the divine in us to the losing of everything. What an amazing paradox. And when you embrace it, it doesn't lead to despair; it leads to liberation.
"... This is the time when you have to find out who you really are. join with others and act wisely from sacred consciousness to make sure that if humans are going to go extinct and take a great deal of nature with them, then there will be those on Earth who will be lifting a glass to the Beloved and saying 'I love you whatever happens and I'm going to serve you whatever happens.'"
Those of us who are in the trenches every day rescuing, campaigning, teaching, studying and doing all we can to make life a bit better for our fellow animals may feel we don't need these exhortations. But it's good to know, regardless, that we're not alone and that there's a growing community of people who share our awareness of what's happening. The only authentic spirituality is a way of living that focuses on doing everything we can for ALL species.
Most of all, though, I was taken by how, for Baker and Harvey, the only "authentic spirituality" is a way of living that focuses on doing everything we can for ALL species. Most other discussions about Near Term Extinction are all about us humans – like what to do when Miami Beach goes underwater, or how the drought in the Southwest is going to affect food prices. But isn't it precisely this level of self-orientation and self-importance that's led to all the destruction that we now face?
So when we talk about "authentic spirituality", we're not talking about how to help ourselves or humankind just generally, but about how we can make things a little easier for all those innocent creatures whose lives our species has wrecked.
Right now, a separation is taking place. Over the coming decades, as the chaos increases, you can expect to see a clear division begin to emerge between, on the one hand, those people whose principal concern is themselves, and, on the other hand, the few who care about the rest of creation and what we can do for those whom, as Andrew Harvey puts it, "we have so horribly abused."
More basically, perhaps, it's a separation between two aspects of our own humanity: our selfish and increasingly destructive nature, and what you might call a more developed or spiritual consciousness.
For reasons we've discussed before, we humans like to see ourselves as being exceptional, superior and "spiritual". We have aspirations to be more than "the animals", but we have become, instead, the most violent, bloodthirsty, destructive animals ever to roam the planet. Godzilla has nothing on Joe Blow.
Even so, there have always been a precious few among us whose instinct is to reach out in kindness and compassion. These are people with the capacity to transcend our destructive nature and to tap into what really could be called a spiritual consciousness. Such a consciousness has nothing to do with belief systems, religions or self-improvement practices, however worthwhile any of those may be. Rather, it is to be found in simple kindness toward others – in treating others, ALL others, as we would want to be treated in their place. It's the knowledge that those of us who care about our fellow animals are part of a single, emerging, collective consciousness.
It is, in fact, nothing more nor less than the age-old Golden Rule, which tells us that as we sow, so shall we reap. It's the knowledge that we are all ONE – each of us an aspect of the greater whole. All potentially part of a single, emerging, collective consciousness.
And that means that whatever we're doing to each other, to the other animals, and to the planet that nourishes us, we're doing to ourselves. When we're destroying our fellow creatures, we're destroying ourselves. And when we're nurturing life, we're becoming more alive ourselves.
The separation, then, will be between those who spend these coming years caring for the rest of creation in the best way they can, and those who don't. It will be between those who reach out and show compassion for what's happening to those whom "we have so horribly abused", and those who don't.
Will the outcome for Planet Earth be any different as a result? Maybe not in terms of stopping the overall destruction. But it will certainly make a difference in the lives of those whose lives we can still touch.
And maybe, at least for those who live in the understanding that we are all part of one whole – all part of a greater consciousness – then the death of this world can perhaps be part of the birth of something else.
But that would be for a future discussion . . .