It’s always a troubling experience to realize that your life sucks, but it’s also a helpful one, because that realization makes it possible to change. If the things that make your life suck are a matter of personal choices, once you grasp this, you can make different choices. If the things that make your life suck are a matter of social, cultural, or political factors—for example, the dismal quality of US public schooling or the problematic nature of the mandatory two-income family—you have two ways of taking action: you can change your own relationship to those factors (by considering the possibility of homeschooling your kids, for example, and assessing whether your family will benefit if one of its adult members leaves paid employment for the household economy) and you can also help bring about change on the larger scale (by lobbying your state legislators to support homeschooling as an option, for example, and being encouraging to other people who choose to move into the household economy and defending them against bullies who think they ought to tell everyone else what to do).
More than sudden illness, what has been shocking is the speed with which power sheds the polite fictions of a stable democratic order. The logic of crisis always serves to excuse the deepening of control. The terrible irony is that a virus – a scientific quandary, questionably neither dead nor alive – has become the occasion for managing life itself.
But life cannot be contained or managed so easily. For each new technological ploy, there are the kids who defeat it. For each new zone of abandonment, there are those in revolt. For each measure of distance imposed, there are new forms of conviviality. Not to mention all those everyday acts of courage and compassion, as communities around the world care for themselves amid failing healthcare systems. Ensuring that the elderly are checked up on, that people have enough to eat, that there is still a communal fabric even as governments seek to tear it further – these are the small triumphs of decaying circumstances.
Power’s hold over us is equally demonstrated by emergent forms of social control and by the utter disregard with which they cast aside our lives. Our inability to survive outside their broken system is rapidly being confronted by our dwindling chances of surviving within it. To resist their control has become inseparable from the urgent need to care for one another. How to treat illness, how to care for the vulnerable, how to overcome isolation, how to reinvent presence, how to live with dignity and perhaps how to die with it. These are among the revolutionary questions of our times.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, a school of psychologists known as transactional analysts came up with a narrative approach to neurosis and personality disorders. The very simple version of the story is that they found that people with psychological problems were living out self-defeating scripts: narratives of which the patients themselves were not conscious, but which exerted a potent gravitational attraction on their interactions with other people. If the patients became conscious of the scripts they were acting out, the spell was broken and they could learn less dysfunctional ways of facing life. Transactional analysis fell out of favor once the pharmaceutical industry got its present stranglehold over the healing professions, but its findings remain telling testimony of the power of narrative to shape values and goals in its own image.
The climate crisis is an existential one, threatening the future of humanity. The best thing one can do for children today is not to buy them a fancy education or top up their trust fund. Rather, it is to drop everything in order to try and slow the climate crisis and adapt societies to the difficulties ahead. So the fourth step you could take is to quit. Because our jobs are not as important as the climate crisis. Key leaders in the movement quit their jobs to join in full-time. Andrew Medhurst, quit his job in the City of London and ended up finance director for Extinction Rebellion. Alison Green quit her job as a Pro Vice Chancellor of a university to join the rebellion. Since then she set up Transition Lab to develop the policies for transformation. Another option is to go part-time, to find more time for the climate cause. Thanks to the flexibility of the University of Cumbria, that is what I did, so I could launch the Deep Adaptation Forum for people to prepare both practically and emotionally for breakdowns in our way of life. It is rapidly becoming a gathering place for people who wish to rebel just enough to help their professions adapt deeply and fairly to the troubles ahead.
Executives in the private, government and charity sectors all face growing frustration at the clear net impotence of our actions on climate change. This ‘stasis anxiety’ will grow as the news on extreme weather and the latest science becomes more worrying. Extinction Rebellion call on “everybody now” to act with urgency. As protests unfold in cities around the world, it is time to consider joining an executive rebellion on climate change.
As a fan of life, I would prefer humans and other life forms avoid extinction in the near term. As a rational conservation biologist, I know better than to rely on my beliefs rather than evidence regarding the Sixth Mass Extinction and abrupt, irreversible climate change. In contrast to my evidentiary approach, most humans prefer fantasy over evidence. As one consequence, it is small wonder we have arrived at the edge of extinction.
Because major stock-market corrections typically occur during September and October, we might lose habitat for Homo sapiens this autumn as a result on reduced industrial activity. I am not predicting such a financial catastrophe, although I would not be surprised if such an overdue event materializes (on the other hand, I am surprised we made it this long without a notable financial correction). A rapid release of methane from the Arctic Ocean would also destroy habitat for humans as the Arctic ice continues its rapid disintegration. Ditto for a disruption in the ability to grow and store grains at scale as a result of abrupt climate change. Any of these three events, and probably others, will alter the climate sufficiently to cause our extinction in the near future.
Another alternative future is plausible. The sociopaths who pull the strings of empire might further elucidate ongoing, global militarism to the point that even Americans recognize a world war is occurring. Such an approach has been deemed perennially reasonable by said sociopaths and largely ignored by the dumbed-down masses.
I am often asked where and how to live in the face of the information I present. Although I am disinclined to tell others what to do, I am living with extreme urgency and with the pursuit of meaning in my life.