What If We Are Out of Time: A sobering view of activism in the age of extinction

Dahr Jamail will be at the Lensic tomorrow night and so today we offer a preview of his thinking on activism in the age of extinction. It is not an easy read, but for those who want to face reality honestly, it is an important, moving, and illuminating perspective.As species die off rapidly it is undeniable that we have entered the age of extinction, we must prevent human extinction.

This post draws heavily from the work of  Dahr Jamail & Barbara Cecil whose article, Rethink Activism in the Face of Biological Collapse, was published in Truthout on March 4. If you find this post compelling, Jamail will be speaking at the Lensic tomorrow.  I highly recommend your attending if you can still get tickets. This article is an apt follow up to the post Retake published last week on the Anthropocene era and how mankind’s abuse of the earth and our spawning population have have put us into the age of extinction.. Click here to review that post.

Jamail and Cecil begin on this bleak note. “This is a hard piece to write, partly because we, too, are baffled. Environmental collapse, coupled with living in the sixth mass extinction, are new territory. We are still in the process of confronting the reality of living with the prospect of an unlivable planet…. As the unthinkable settles in our skin, the question of what to do follows closely. What is activism in the context of collapse? Professor of sustainability leadership and founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) at the University of Cumbria (UK) Jem Bendell’s definition of collapse is useful: “the uneven ending of our current means of sustenance, shelter, security … and identity.” Bendell isn’t the first to warn of collapse — NASA warned of it five years ago. Anyone who takes in the realities of our times will need to find their own relationship to the hard truths about converging environmental, financial, political and social unraveling. There are billions on the planet who are already experiencing the full direct effects of this right now. Forty percent of the human population of the planet is already affected by water scarcity. Humans have annihilated 60 percent of all animal life on the planet since 1970.”

Jamail and Cecil go on to offer three alternative approaches to activism in the face of the reality they describe:

  1. Intensified effort to fix the mess;
  2. Mitigation of inevitable suffering;
  3. Deep adaptation, essentially accepting the inevitable and preparing for life in a very harsh reality

I think most people likely are currently operating under # 1 and the authors point to the value of intensified efforts to fix the mess, as this generates hope, energy, and organization that can at some point be galvanized to focus on mitigation efforts. The article specifically points to the Green New Deal as a ‘fix this mess’ effort that is generating enthusiasm and building momentum for working on climate change.

But Jamail and Cecil also point out that a fixation on climate change and expecting to find ways to “fix the mess” may keep us from devoting enough time, thinking and resources to prepare for what they view as inevitable consequences from advancing climate catastrophes.  The authors fear that by holding on to hope for too long, we may not devote sufficient time, thought and resources to anticipating the dire consequences that are by now almost inevitable. For example, they point to the massive refugee evacuations resulting from catastrophic climate collapse in developing countries and the need of more affluent countries to plan together for how best to address this eventuality. If the US feels besieged or invaded by the five thousand refugees currently at our southern border, how will we react if there are a million?  With so many in our country entrenched in America First, how do we prepare for such a huge cultural shift to empathy and sacrifice.  And we have not devoted time to think about and resources to prepare for for a scale of migration.how can do anything more than warehouse these refugees,  And so the authors feel it is critical that an international effort be simultaneously focused on planning to mitigate the inevitable suffering.

To try to summarize what Jamail and Cecil write about mitigation could not possibly do them justice, as there focus is not on numbers and dollars but on people and situations. I offer just one passage:

Stellar examples of this are found in the regenerative agriculture movement. A farmer in drought-stricken Australia told us about the macadamia farm his family owned. He remembers his mother saying, “We’ll plant ’til we can’t.” That day came, so they decided to give farming a go in New South Wales. He described digging a posthole three feet deep recently. At the bottom of the hole was more dust. He and his family are joining fourth generation farmers who are jettisoning traditional farming practices that further deplete the parched earth. He uses no chemicals, rotates stock every three or four days, and is building every condition for the native grasses to thrive once again. Neighboring farms are “destocking” (i.e. slaughtering) sheep and cattle as feed disappears. Food supplies are dwindling for people and animals alike. But he will plant ’til he can’t. When asked about his motivation to persist in such difficult and heartbreaking work, he said it was for love of the land, but most importantly, love for his children. He wants to provide a safe refuge for them for as long as possible.”

I’ll be honest. I almost stopped reading the rest of the article at this point..I was starting to cry as I couldn’t help but imagine my kids or their kids having traveled thousands of miles in hopes of finding arable land, only to wind up digging three foot holes and finding only dust. That is an excruciating image to hold in your head, to imagine this young family as they look at each other knowingly, as another door closes..The authors underscored the gravity of our situation, citing a growing consensus among scientists that at least a 3 degree Celsius increase in temperature is inevitable and so efforts to fix this mess are not likely to have the wished for impact. The 5-6 situations examined by Jamail and Cecil put humanity into the reality of what we very likely face if mitigation is the best we can do.

And in shifting from consideration mitigation activism, move on to discuss deep adaptation. They begin with a quote from Czech dissident Václav Havel.

Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well,” Czech dissident, writer and statesman Václav Havel said, “but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.”

Jamail and Cecil then go on to provide concrete examples of how one might reach some kind of life in the face of virtual extinction, concluding with:

Way upstream of all these noble stories is a subtle and profound kind of activism that could permeate every action we choose to take, on any tier. Author and teacher Joanna Macy, who is a scholar of Buddhism, systems thinking and deep ecology describes an activist as “anyone who does something for more than personal advantage.” The implications of generous action begin to tip a massive scale away from the pervasive greed and self-centeredness that fuels the root causes of this sixth mass extinction. In fact, we belong to a complex and wondrous net of life, characterized by balance, natural limits and respect.  What if, in the time we have left, we can simply remember this? “

Jamail and Cecil recite a few more examples of how others wrestle with the conundrum of knowing in your heart that quite likely it is now too late, but still finding nobility in resisting. “Even though we know how advanced the demise is, there are things we all need to do, to be able to live with ourselves, to galvanize in ourselves the ferocity to live in these times, to feel the oneness that pervades in these events.”

This is a profoundly sobering piece, but it is so beautifully written and so unflinching in examining where we are. For me, I am still living in hope that if enough people can work together, we may be able to fix this mess or at the very least, mitigate the possible impact significantly. And there is nobility in that. But the other outgrowth of considering how we are nearing the end of our rope, is an impatience with our national and state leadership. We are not going to address the significance of this crisis with modest incremental change and we are not going to make the needed changes when the wise fools who got us in this mess dismiss those with the courage and imagination to dream a Green New Deal and then ask that all join in the work of fleshing it out into a viable plan.


I’ll close with this. We are days away from the press conference and a Governor’s speech gleefully celebrating the signing of SB 489 and our glorious and bold RPS, an RPS that measures how much energy we use, but ignores entirely the wanton fracking operations throughout our state. How do you celebrate a bill largely written by and for a utility monopoly?  How do you celebrate an RPS when you also do nothing to slow the ongoing rape of our state by fracking operations. It doesn’t matter if we reduce our state’s use of fracked energy if we are continuously increasing our export of fracked oil and gas. And so after the 489 backslapping and high fives end I hope we can begin to assemble an environmental and social justice alliance ready to tackle the real challenge: a 100% transition to renewables in NM where our invaluable coal remains forever in the ground. On a national level, just one of our five elected representatives has agreed to sponsor the GND. And so with the adult in the room fiddling, we turn to the youth whose skin is in the game.  Please join our Santa Fe students on Friday as they strike for their futures.

We will address this contradiction and the lack of vision and will of our Democratic leadership Thursday when we present a couple of ideas that are truly bold and well beyond the scope of current leadership.

I highly recommend reviewing the entire article.  Click here to read the entire Jamail and Cecil essay and if you can. join Roxanne and I at the Lensic tomorrow night.

In solidarity,

Paul & Roxanne

2 thoughts on “What If We Are Out of Time: A sobering view of activism in the age of extinction

  1. As of late you have brought up much needed important articles/information. I thank you both for all the work you do. In 1986 I first experience the human might and ability to contaminate vast ecosystems. It took me years to put words to that experience. The ecosystem I am referring is the third largest watershed in the Americas which I used to sail as a child and teenager. In 1986, after 20 years I visited and saw its contaminated waters and coast. Recently I learned that the Guarani Aquifer which lies underneath it and which may be one of the largest aquifers in the planet is routinely being contaminated with glyphosate and more.
    Yes, the knowledge/information provided in their article changes everything and we must all think carefully about how to use our time and energy in the age of rapid ecological degradation. In One Strange Rock 8 astronauts and Will Smith narrate the story of life on our ‘rock’ as they put it.
    eduardo

  2. Pingback: A Look Back at the Final Week of the Roundhouse Session & an URGENT Action Alert Call the Governor About…. | Retake Our Democracy

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