Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Coping With Our Demise - by Tim Murray

Looking past this toppled tree, the woods are full of bare branches.
These pictures were taken last week, at the Kay Environmental Center, a park in Chester, New Jersey.
From a distance the crowns of tall trees surrounding the former summer home are badly thin.  Rather than turning fall color, upon inspection there is incontrovertible evidence that a wide variety of leaves are damaged which, as everyone hardly anyone knows, is a result of exposure to air pollution.
Above are maple and below, oak.
Even very few of those people who do realize industrial civilization is a trainwreck about to happen - from overpopulation, peak oil, and catastrophic climate change accelerating far beyond model predictions - are aware that the ecosystem is collapsing at astonishing speed.  Trees are dying at a drastic rate, and their shelter and habitat are the foundation of most terrestrial life.
Toxic ozone is strangling the life from them, exactly as ocean acidification is snuffing out coral reefs, the nurseries of the sea.
The foreknowledge that we humans, the inheritors of such pulchritudinous magnificence, are rendering this precious planet a desolate wasteland is a terrible burden.  For those who have perceived the abyss, there is much agonized soul-searching.
I had never hiked the trails at the Kay Center, and did not realize how lovely the steep hike down the mossy banks to the Black River once was.  With his kind permission, I'm going to reproduce an essay written by Tim Murray, which elucidates the sort of thoughts that are likely to emerge when one contemplates the death of Nature.  If you look carefully at the pictures from my walk interspersed with his words, you will see pine trees with no needles, trunks with fungal cankers as lethal as cancerous tumors, splitting bark and holes from rotting interiors, and the snaky trunks of indigenous mountain laurel with hardly any leaves remaining on what must originally have been the mounds of a glossy green understory.
Coping With Our Demise

“Many clever men like you have trusted to civilization. Many clever Babylonians, many clever Egyptians, many clever men at the end of Rome. Can you tell me, in a world that is flagrant with the failures of civilisation, what there is particularly immortal about yours?” 
G. K. ChestertonThe Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)
Once I believed that there was a solution. Once I believed that there was a realistic chance that our civilization could and would be saved. But now I see that our predicament is much worse than I had imagined, and the solution more radical and urgent than practical possibility allows. While I remain committed to population stabilization and reduction,  I no longer see it is as the magic bullet. There can be no "sustainable" population for an industrial society, any more than there could be a sustainable population level for the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. Eventually, those few of us who have the misfortune to survive the “Coming Chaos” that Peter Goodchild has warned about will come to acknowledge that. But in the meantime, we will busy ourselves with distractions (classic displacement behaviour). 
We will try to make our cabins watertight, or fashion lifeboats from the floating furniture we appropriate, or from the planks we desperately try to strip from the deck. We will talk about another green 'stimulus' package, another round of quantitative easing, a reform of the banking system, a steady-state economy, ditching capitalism, pushing for tighter borders, promoting family planning, fostering human rights, advancing women's rights, demanding more education for women, more 'sustainable' development for failed states and poorer regions, more renewable energy sources, more tech fixes, geothermal engineering and on and on. And we will keep on "trading turds" as Kurt Dahl so aptly put it, as long as the grid holds up and our electronic ping-pong chats can persist.  Until finally, one of us will shout, "Abandon ship!", and we will realize that the game is up.
The ship of industrialism is going down, and it is going to take greens, liberal Democrats, steady-staters, socialists, feminists and immigration-reformers like me down with it----not to mention a shit-load of non-human species that are sucked down in the vortex. As we thrash about in the icy waters, we will realize that all along, we have been marking time. Trying to deflect our attention from the subconscious understanding that we were not getting at the root of our difficulties. Not facing up to the awful truth. Then, like all drowning victims, will experience the euphoria of release, a pleasant reconciliation with our fate. At last we will realize that our death and the death of our civilization and our species is inevitable, and that it is not such a big deal in the grand scheme of things.
I remember reading a book by Ernest Becker about denial the year after I left Simon Fraser University, where he lectured. He argued that while denial of death allowed us to function in everyday life, it prevented us from self-understanding, and this denial has led to much evil.  In fact, our civilization ultimately rests upon our fear of death. We fill our days with make-work projects and distractions that will keep gloomy thoughts at bay. Anything to avoid coming to terms with our mortality.
Reflecting upon his hypothesis now, one must recognize its irony. The denial of death has created a civilization of death, one that makes war on nature and consumes its own underpinnings in the mad belief that by accumulating  more and more we can fill in the vacuum and settle our anxieties.
My mother had a near-death experience in 1938 long before the phrase entered our vocabulary. She died while giving birth to her first child, my oldest brother, but was revived. She reported the incident to me when I was eight years old as she was cutting my hair in the kitchen. She explained that she could see her body below as people worked on her, and then she left the room, travelled down the hall and saw her parents in the waiting room. She left the hospital and floated over the city until she passed over Burrard Inlet (in Vancouver) . At that point she suddenly thought, "If I don't get back, my baby will die." So she returned.
After she recounted her story, Mom picked up a clump of my fallen hair in her hand and offered it to me, asking, "Do you mind if I toss this into the stove?" "No", I quickly replied. She then responded, "That is exactly how you will feel about your body when you die. You will look down upon it like it is a shell, a coat that you take off when you leave a cold day and come inside where it is warm and cosy and friends await you. The colour of your skin, the language you speak, will be like that coat you shed, and for the first time the people you meet inside the house will see you as you really are, and you will see them as they really are. There will be no outward appearances to hide behind. No one will judge you by what kind of coat you once wore. All of that is superficial. It will be like living in a spiritual nudist camp, and you will feel very relaxed."
I am neither a mystic nor a prisoner of a rigid scientific world-view.  I have no idea whether there is a post-corporeal existence or whether a near-death experience is merely the chemical reactions of a dying brain. That is not the point. The point is that when I held my Mom died in my arms forty-one years later, she died with a smile on her face. After her NDE--real or hallucinatory-- she had no fear of death. She believed that she was going to a pleasant place, what Icelanders like her mother long called "The Blue Lake". But in the meantime, she didn't fret about "the end", and instead focused on the life she was living.
That is how my brother eventually came to feel as he was dying with terminal cancer. He took each second, each minute of pleasure, and extended it into an eternity. When he peeled an orange, he peeled it slowly, taking note of how beautifully constructed it was, how fresh it smelled and how each section of it would be held in his mouth and savoured. When he saw a sunset, he watched it from beginning to end, and kept its image in his brain until he fell asleep.
And when his wife enveloped him in her arms, or caressed him, or held his hand between hers, he tried to imagine that her embrace and affections would last forever. Until one night, his last night, he announced quietly, "I hope that I do not wake up tomorrow". And he didn't. Death was his release. Death was his friend. At some point, it can be ours too, when our time comes, as it must.

We can keep on fighting, but we have to take time to smell the roses, and be mindful of the wonderful moments that often go unnoticed as we pass them by. That is all we can count on. Those moments... and if you believe that there is a life beyond this one, then take it as a bonus.

Tim Murray

September 24, 2011

I, alas, don't believe there is a life after this one, but Tim is right.  We have to carpe diem.
Today I was with a little boy who is fascinated, as they all are, with dinosaurs.
And I thought about how ridiculous it is that humans, who are supposed to be so smart, aren't even going to last as long as they did.
It's kind of crazy when you consider that in the long period that dinosaurs dominated life on earth, no species emerged that could write, or paint.
We rose to such pinnacles of creativity so quickly, and now we are smashing everything, including the countless plants and animals that evolved before we did.
Today it was over 70 degrees, we've had no frost, and yet no one seems to wonder why the leaves are tattered and spotted.
Everywhere, the leaves turning brown, shriveling up, and are falling on the ground, skipping the entire autumn display of color.
It was a very pleasant walk anyway.
Since I had never been there before, it wasn't quite as depressing as witnessing the decline.
Although of course, I could tell that it was once verdant, and I know that bark isn't supposed to be fractured.
By the time I reached the river, the only sound was the rushing water.
I didn't see a soul the entire time.
Apparently, it's possible to travel this path uninterrupted for miles and end up at Willowwood in Pottersville.
I would like to go back and walk further, but it was getting late, so I turned around after following the river for a bit.
I have never met Tim, who lives in Canada.
I have only met him, and a handful of others, ironically enough, connected through high technology, who possess an astute and piercing sense of the tragedy unfolding because of our lack of self restraint.
These stone steps lead to a dam.
The water spilling over it makes quite a roar.
On the far side is an old, abandoned structure.
Only the stones remain.
It seems impossible that it was so laboriously constructed, far from any road.
It's beautifully romantic...Look what we can build without using the fuel that is destroying life itself.


  1. Wonderful words; fantastic fotos!

  2. This is very great.... Gail, thank you so much for posting this.

  3. Very moving Gail, thanks for posting it (his text, your text, and your photos).

    I think that what we'll end up with is whatever level of human civilisation the landscape can support. That's what happened in the past, to other civilisations. In some cases they disappeared completely and left a landscape devoid of humans. In others the civilisation collapsed back to whatever could survive in the degraded landscape. I doubt that will include a global civilisation of 7 billion people.


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