The recognition is finally dawning on people that Planet Earth is in deep trouble.
In terms of the well-known five stages of trying to cope with one’s impending demise, we seem to be moving, as a society, from Stage One: Denial, to Stage Two: Anger.
Sure, there’s still plenty of denial to go round, but the general mood is less “let’s pretend that nothing’s happening” and more “things are getting bad, so let’s find an enemy and take it out on them.”
The anger stage is every bit as dangerous as denial. Rather than coming together to deal with the reality of what’s going to be transpiring in the years ahead, we’ve moved into the early phases of rampant ethnic hatred, and into the grip of fear that splits us apart into factions and tribes and belief systems.
The anger stage is only just beginning, and we should expect some very ugly behavior before it’s over.In the anger stage, we admit that the situation exists, but we try to put the cause of the problem outside of ourselves and insist that it’s the fault of those bad people over there.
Those people, we tell ourselves, aren’t like us. Just as, in the face of an economic depression, the Nazi leaders told their people that their troubles were the fault of those “subhuman” Jews and Gypsies, so now, in the face of an existential threat that can no longer be denied, we tell ourselves that our troubles are the fault of Mexican “rapists”, Muslims, the police, black people, white people, homosexuals, anyone trying to take away our guns, and whomever else we can get away with blaming.
This anger stage is only just beginning, so we should expect some very ugly behavior – possibly the ugliest in our history – before it’s over.
In an opinion piece in The New York Times, “We’re Doomed. Now What?”, philosopher Roy Scranton argues that “accepting the fatality of our situation isn’t nihilism, but rather the necessary first step in forging a new way of life.” And yes, accepting the fatality of our situation is certainly the first step to dealing constructively with what’s happening. But if we are indeed only just entering the second stage of relating to the unfolding mass extinction, then beyond Anger we still have two more stages to go – Bargaining and Depression – before we’re going to be able to accept what we’ve wrought upon ourselves and the planet.
(And since the five stages don’t necessarily unfold in an orderly sequence, there can be plenty of overlap. So denial, for example, can rear its head again at any moment.)
The Bargaining stage will probably involve behavior like frantic, last-minute efforts to stop pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, cutting down the forests, mining the oceans, and overpopulating the planet with our own species. But bargaining with nature isn’t going to work, either. It will be too little too late. And so we’ll then move on to the fourth stage, Depression and a sense of overall helplessness, before being able to come to any true Acceptance of what it is that we humans have wrought upon the planet and what it tells us about our own nature.
The empathy they experience is a consciousness that reaches beyond our own kind to embrace the greater community of life. Not everyone, however, is absorbed in the endless drama of the human condition. There’s a segment of the population, albeit a small one, that has been relatively free of the denial and anger that are gripping our species. These people are driven less by personal fears and anxieties and what’s going to happen to them personally, and more by the empathy they experience with all the other living creatures of the planet and by what they can do to relieve the suffering we humans have caused them.
This empathy is a consciousness that reaches out beyond concern for ourselves and our own kind, and embraces the greater community of life. Call it a higher, more expansive, perhaps more evolved consciousness. Whatever you call it, it seems to be largely missing from the majority of our species.
And so, over the coming years, there will be an increasing separation between the majority, who are driven mostly by fear and self-concern, and this small minority for whom empathy and the nurturing of life in all its forms is their guiding star.
At a time when destruction is in the ascendant, this smaller network of people will not necessarily be able to turn the situation around. Almost certainly it will not. But empathy and compassion are not measured by what they accomplish. Acts of kindness are an end in themselves. They are a light in the darkness, and the triumph of love over fear.