Global Warming: A Threat to Humanity?

Interview with Carolyn Baker

For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins.

— Encyclical Letter of the Holy Father Francis on Care of our Common Home, June 2015

The recent intervention by Pope Francis into the debate over climate change has once again put this pressing issue back into the public eye. His intervention merely confirms the warnings given by so many climate scientists that humanity is tobogganing towards disaster with eyes wide shut.

The Environmental Protection Agency in the United States recently issued some pretty dire warnings that existing greenhouse gas emissions are going to cause major climate change with considerable consequences for the planet. Even if all C02 emission stopped tomorrow, there would still be all sorts of extreme weather that will present major challenges in the form of drought and serious sea level rise. The EPA report notes the tremendous cost in terms of damage to the U.S. environment, people’s health, the country’s infrastructure and to coastal properties.

It posits two scenarios; one where no action is taken and we get over 2C or more of global warming by 2100 which it acknowledges would be disastrous for the environment and humanity:

Unmitigated climate change is projected to profoundly affect human health, the U.S. economy, and the environment. The CIRA analyses demonstrate substantial and far-reaching changes over the course of the 21st century— and particularly at the end of the century—with negative consequences for a large majority of the impact sectors.

The other scenario is that of coordinated action across the planet that could potentially keep global warming below 2C.

The report concludes with a call for coordinated action across the planet to keep global warming below 2C. It points out the myriad of benefits to the U.S if greenhouse gas emissions can be limited and eventually reduced through a reduction of fossil fuel use, energy conservation measures and a huge increase in renewables.

The conclusions of the EPA report are supported by the Pope’s call for action on climate change which will be welcomed by ordinary people around the world. However, corporate politicians of all stripes and colours continue to pay lip service to catastrophic climate change and continue to push for the interests of the oil and gas conglomerates.

It is clear that the capitalist class across the globe do not have the intention of stopping catastrophic climate change. The pursuit of hydraulic fracking, tar sands, nuclear energy, geo-engineering all reveal how the capitalist system is blind to the pursuit of profit at all costs. We cannot place any faith in corporate politicians to help ordinary people cope with the effects of climate change as it gets worse and worse.

I spoke with Carolyn Baker about the issues raised by runaway climate change and the challenges that face the living planet and humanity. Carolyn Baker PhD, is the author of Love In The Age Of Ecological Apocalypse: The Relationships We Need To Thrive (2015) as well as Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths For Turbulent Times (2013).

Dylan Murphy: What led to your interest in the issues of climate change and the collapse of human civilization?

Carolyn Baker: In the year 2000 I began researching current events more deeply than I ever had before. That year I met Mike Ruppert and became a subscriber of his From The Wilderness newsletter. About two years later, Mike asked me to begin writing articles for the site. I continued to research 9/11, Peak Oil, global economic collapse, issues around the Iraq War, and much more. At that point climate change was not high on my list of concerns. However, in 2007, I watched the documentary “What A Way To Go: Life At The End Of Empire” which revealed to me the dire nature of climate change and its ramifications. Nevertheless, it was not until 2013 that I understood that catastrophic climate change is the most lethal threat posed to life on Earth. Although I had known Guy McPherson through researching the collapse of industrial civilization, it was not until that year that I became familiar with his research on climate change and fully understood its implications.

I can’t tell you specifically what led me to begin researching collapse deeply other than in the early years of this century, I was teaching college courses in US history, and the dramatic historical events of the moment drew me in and compelled me to look deeper into the rabbit hole.

With both the issues of collapse and catastrophic climate change, my background as a psychotherapist in private practice in the 1980s and 90s incited deep curiosity in me about how human beings were going to deal emotionally and spiritually with these issues. I was steeped in information about collapse and climate change, but the emotional and spiritual implications were not being addressed anywhere. As a result, in 2009, I published Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilizations Collapse. I doubted that the book would go anywhere, but it was very well received, and in 2011, I published Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition (2011), and I continued writing books on collapse such as Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths For Turbulent Times (2013) and Love In The Age of Ecological Apocalypse: Cultivating The Relationships We Need To Thrive (2015) These books have been very well received because most collapse-aware and climate change-aware individuals are seeking the kinds of tools and inspiration these works offer.

DM: Why do you think that humanity is threatened with near term extinction?

CB: It is not only myself or Guy McPherson who deduces that humanity is threatened with extinction. The “E” word is dominating much of the news on climate in the present moment, and, in fact, it is impossible to have an intelligent discussion of climate change without the “E” word emerging. Last year, Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Great Extinction: An Unnatural History was a best-seller. As I write the answers to your questions, the BBC has just published “Earth Entering New Extinction Phase.” Other researchers in addition to Guy McPherson are also sounding dire warnings of impending extinction if humanity continues its industrially civilized trajectory. And just this past week, Pope Francis released his monumentally important Encyclical in which he essentially stated that it is our moral obligation to dismantle industrial civilization if we wish to avoid imminent extinction.

DM: Why do you think so many people are unwilling to engage with the issue of near-term human extinction?

CB: Well, as you know, last year Guy McPherson and I penned Extinction Dialogs: How To Live With Death In Mind. Our book is a marriage of scientific documentation of catastrophic climate change and a host of suggestions about how to respond emotionally and spiritually. One reason we insisted on the subtitle, “How to live with death in mind” is that we are adamant about the need for human beings to confront their own mortality. Our very unwillingness to do this is a principle reason for our destruction of the ecosystems. We have never learned that without those systems, we die.

Only mature adults can look squarely at their mortality and metabolize the reality that one day, they are going to die. We live in a culture of two year-olds that has little capacity to confront any issues more than superficially. One reason for this is that modern culture is so profoundly estranged from its indigenous roots. Our indigenous ancestors were part of cultures that took great care to initiate their young into the mysteries of the universe. This always involved an ordeal—a brush with death that compelled the young person to 1) Come to terms with his/her mortality, 2) Caused him/her to reach deep down into the psyche and bring forth the resources necessary to meet and complete the ordeal. As a result,the young man or woman returned to the community with a new found maturity because he or she had to cross the threshold from childhood to adulthood.

In modern culture, we have no sacred initiatory practices; we have only profane ones such as gang initiations and teen pregnancy—both of which are bogus, ineffectual initiations and actually exacerbate im-maturity and prolong a childlike world view steeped in notions of invincibility, false heroism, and consumerism. We are socialized not to become mature men and women but to become consumers. Our consumeristic/puerile perspective profoundly prevents us from dealing with what I call “The Big Five”: Love, death, suffering, the sacred, and eternity.

Another reason we cannot deal with the reality of extinction is that we have not learned how to grieve losses of any kind. We avoid both grief and death like the plague. After all, we live in a smiley-faced culture that constantly emphasizes “be happy” and tells us that we will be if we consume enough toys or meet Mr. or Miss Right.

A major focus of my work at the moment is conscious grieving. As people have safe and supportive places to name and express their grief—whether it be grief about personal losses or grief about a dying planet, they mature in depth of the psyche and inner wisdom and are much more capable of confronting the most consequential loss of all, extinction. Grieving together also strengthens bonds between people and provides an unbreakable link in a community of grievers—both during the grieving and after.

DM: What keeps you going on a daily basis in face of the many grave problems facing the living planet?

CB: What keeps me going is my passion for the work I’m doing which is making a difference in the lives of many collapse-aware and extinction-aware people. All of my books, including my sections of Extinction Dialogs offer tools for navigating this daunting time of endings. I also offer life coaching for people who often have absolutely no one to talk with about these topics and who seek emotional and spiritual support as they confront collapse and extinction.

I also allow myself to grieve the losses I see every day—the loss of miles of ice at the poles, the loss of some 200 species per day, the loss of precious resources like water, land, and food production. Much of my spiritual practice is allowing my heart to be broken open so that I can demonstrate more compassion, more service, more love in the world. Spiritual practice is enormously important to me. I have practised a particular form of meditation for 36 years. I also spend a great deal of time in nature communing with trees, flowers, rocks, streams, birds, and land. I do whatever I can to practice good manners toward them and make their demise easier.

DM: What can or should activists do in the face of government indifference to catastrophic climate change?

CB: I believe that activists must first realize that they cannot save the planet and that catastrophic climate change is irreversible. Governments will remain indifferent because it is not in their interests to address climate change. Climate change can only by slowed by the collapse of industrial civilization, and what politician will run on that platform? That said, however, there is much that we can do, some of which I have just mentioned, to live in a manner that reduces our footprint in the immediate world around us. This morning I read an article about a non-profit group in Africa that teaches poachers how to stop poaching and start learning and practising sustainable farming. Will this reverse catastrophic climate change? Of course not, but it may allow some animals to prevail who would not otherwise been able to do so.

I believe that we must be engaged in service in the world and be about expressing radical empathy in a narcissistic, entitled culture.

Moreover, we need to temper the fires of activism with the waters of grief. Alongside our passionate struggles for climate and environmental justice, we must also allow ourselves to grieve. At the same time that we are engaged in doing, we must be engaged in feeling. Again, this underscores the importance of conscious grief work. Contrary to the notion that grieving is just a passive response to our daunting future, grieving opens our hearts and bonds us to the Earth, to each other, and to parts of ourselves that we may have disowned as a result of cultural shaming. Grieving is the ultimate tonic for passionate activism.

Because we feel the pain of the injustices we are fighting to right, we can act more emphatically and more effectively. Without the waters of grief—engaging only in the fires of activism, we quickly burn out. By drinking the tears of the world, our hearts remain open and soft, and our radical empathy transmits healing medicine to the wounds with which we are engaging—a concept I outlined in my recent article, “Turning To The Dark Side: Grieve, Heal, and Commit To The Earth Community.”

One reason for our rape, pillage, and plunder of this planet is our delusion that we are separate from it. As a result of our disconnection from indigenous wisdom, we have come to believe that all aspects of Earth are “things” to be possessed, rather than beings with which to have an intimate relationship. What if, in fact, the Earth itself is asking us to grieve its losses? What if we are the bearers of tears for the planet that we have helped destroy? What if our connection with Earth is so intimate that we are being called by Earth to mourn for its demise and our own?

In addition, we must begin dealing with the personal and collective human shadow that has led to our cataclysmic predicament. This fall, my next book Dark Gold: The Human Shadow And The Global Crisis is being published by Tayen Lane which also published Extinction Dialogs. The purpose of this book is to help the reader understand the shadow, how it operates in the individual and in the collective, and how we can heal it. A wonderful video by Andrew Harvey, “How Dark Is The Shadow?” to which I refer in the book introduces the shadow’s influence in our world and our lives and offers suggestions for healing it.

DM: What is the best antidote to despair?

CB: The best antidote for despair is conscious grieving and surrender to what is. Despair is a natural human response to the predicament in which we find ourselves with catastrophic climate change and near-term human extinction, but despair is also one of the last hold-outs of the human ego. Despair says, “I’ve lost all hope; there’s nothing I can do,” and what’s really true is that that is probably the most realistic perspective we can have regarding near-term extinction. In 2014 I penned an article entitled, “When Surrender Means Not Giving Up,” in which I talked about the power of surrender, and no, “power of surrender” is not an oxymoron.

As we confront catastrophic climate change which is likely to result in near-term human extinction, we must ask if we are willing to put love into action, even if we don’t survive. Can we move beyond a triumphalist agenda? Accepting the possibility of near-term extinction is an agony, but an agony that liberates the spiritual warrior in the powers of truth and love in order to discover the diamond hidden in the darkness that cannot be discovered in relentless fighting in order to “overcome.” The diamond can only be acquired by surrendering the need for anyone or anything to survive, even oneself. In the words of Andrew Harvey this is “a glorious and terrible adventure, but it is the antidote to despair.”

What we need now is not heroic victory but, again in Andrew’s words, an “astringent maturity,” an entirely new level of adulthood that acts in ways that bring forth optimum joy, optimum healing, and optimum beauty which will leave seeds for whatever life might remain as most species on the planet face their demise. The sacred inspiration we require results not from false hope or finding solutions, but from a state of active being in which we voluntarily enrol in radical psychological and spiritual training. If we haven’t registered for this psycho-spiritual apprenticeship, then we will persevere in our triumphalist agenda and inadvertently perpetuate despair.

Rather, it is time to “lean into the Anthropocene” as I note in the article and embrace the spiritual and emotional journey of surrendering to our demise. The hospice model may be useful as we use it to not only prepare for the future, but to paradoxically become more alive in the present—perhaps more alive than we have ever been.

DM: How can ordinary people prepare themselves for the demise of many species on Earth, including our own?

CB: Much of what I have stated in this interview elucidates what I believe we must do to prepare. I would also add that one of our most challenging tasks is to practice holding what we know about the future alongside being fully present in the now. Many people that I work with in my life coaching practice are consumed with the future. Often, they spend hours a day online gathering more information about the severity of our predicament. Sometimes it is as if reading one more titbit of information validates for them that they are not crazy as they attempt to navigate what feels like a schizophrenic existence in a world where they have few or no people to discuss any of this information with.

Frequently, people who are aware of near-term extinction become obsessed with the future and grow increasingly passive about the present. In fact, some have even stated to me, “If we’re all going to die in a couple of decades or sooner, why hang around? Why not just end it right now?” My answer is that this moment is all we have. Yes, we must “live with death in mind,” but a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. From the hospice perspective, living with death in mind also means that we have the opportunity to cherish, savour, and suck the marrow out of every moment of our living existence on a level we have never experienced. We understand that every encounter with every living being in the moment is inestimably precious. We slow down and drink in joy, beauty, and the nuances of every relationship in our lives. This is primarily what my book Love In The Age of Ecological Apocalypse is about. Everyone and everything in our lives is part of a complex relationship of beings and molecules that are not separate but inextricably connected.

Living with life, as well as death in mind, means that we revel in beauty and joy. We create beauty, and we drink it in, in the form of art, music, poetry, and story. In addition, our hospice condition compels us to fall back in love with the Earth, or perhaps fall in love with it for the very first time. I use the term “Earth eroticism”to capture the delirious enchantment we must experience as we reconnect with this planet in the very moments when it and we are dying.

This week, Pope Francis released his stunning Encyclical on the environment. While I am not a fan of organized religion, I am in awe of his unvarnished candor and his courage to state what no world leader has had the temerity to declare. As I sit with this stunning Encyclical, I am aware of two pillars of Earth justice in the church who may be dancing somewhere in the ethers. One would be St. Francis whose tradition Pope Francis took vows to uphold, and the other is Thomas Berry, the priest who fell so deeply in love with the Earth that he stopped calling himself a theologian and began calling himself a geo-logian. Berry famously said that “The Earth is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

This “communion of subjects” is now to be wildly loved and cherished as we and it slip away. Our work is loving the world, and the poet Mary Oliver calls us to this joyous task in her poem, “The Messenger.”

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird — equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect?
Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium. The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes, a mouth with which to give shouts of joy to the moth
and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam, telling them all,
over and over, how it is that we live forever.

Ophelia Murphy is a political activist and writer studying literature at university. Dylan Murphy is a trade union activist and historian. Read other articles by Ophelia Murphy and Dylan Murphy.