The Sword of Damocles is Falling

It’s the last day of April, 2022 and Summer in the Northern Hemisphere is quickly approaching.  With it, heatwaves, hurricanes, fires and the La Nina driven mega-drought will continue their onslaught. The melt season in the Arctic is just getting started, with the possibility of a new low reminding us again of the inevitability of a blue ocean event. Siberian fires are burning out of control due to Russian firefighters being sent to Ukraine to commit genocide.  Nuclear war is being openly discussed in the mainstream media. India is suffering through its earliest and longest Spring heatwave in 122 years. Lake Mead in the Western US, the source of water for millions, is going bone dry.

Methane has peaked for the year at around 1911 ppb, up a record 19 ppb over last year. Meanwhile, CO2 just surpassed 422 ppm for the first time in a daily NOAA reading (this happened on April 26, for the mathematically minded, too bad it wasn’t April 22), a level that hasn’t been seen in over 4 million years. And then there’s this stunning headline from yesterday in The Guardian, “Global heating risks most cataclysmic extinction of marine life in 250 million years.” Digging in, there are dozens of other stories to look at, from the insect apocalypse and crop failures to floods in Eastern Australia and South Africa to famine in West Africa to a global pandemic (did you forget about that?). But you get the point, this is not going to end well for humanity or the planet. We are living every day with growing existential threats, as pretty much everything falls to sh*t, everywhere, all at once.

Buddhism describes compassion as the heart that trembles in the face of suffering. It is the willingness to bear the pain and suffering of others and to selflessly help alleviate this condition wherever it appears.

I am not compassionate. I am selfish and entitled. I have a stocked refrigerator and pantry, comfortable home and a gas guzzling car waiting to transport me to wherever I feel like going in the moment. I have two children and four grandchildren, that’s six more humans on the planet (all of whom I love, of course) with their first-world carbon footprints. I eat at local restaurants and enjoy local parks several times a week. My smart phone, my Netflix/Amazon/Hulu subscriptions that I watch on my smart TV, and my computer keep me entertained. I can avoid the contradictions by a quick click over to a 1980’s sitcom or funny video about cats. I have been living like a King my whole life.  And so have you.

We in the first world have been living like Kings for generations, with the Sword of Damocles hanging in plain view. Humanity didn’t blow up the planet in nuclear holocaust in the 1950’s or 60’s.  We didn’t all die from cancer due to nuclear plant meltdowns or from scalding solar radiation after the ozone was depleted. Humanity survived lead paint and leaded gasoline, oil spills, air pollution, acid rain, rivers on fire and DDT.  Our comfort endured through the Savings and Loan scandal, as well as various housing bubbles, depressions, recessions and financial crashes.  We made it through world wars, regional wars, political divisions, nationalism, fascism and genocide. We survived the atom bomb being dropped.  Twice. But now the rope has been cut and the sword is falling full speed at all of us.

Climate change, with all of its feedback loops and tipping points already set in motion, is not a human construct. It is not something we can just stop doing by changing our habits, laws or political systems. It is not a chemical or a bomb or a currency. Climate change is not a new policy or social order. Climate change is a falling sword and gravity is one of the fundamental forces shaping the universe. It comes down to simple physics.

The great 20-th century poet Dylan Thomas brilliantly described our impossible relationship to the natural world in this verse:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The sixth great extinction is a physical process, we can’t change it any more than we can change the course of nature through the seasons. All of the yelling, screaming and protesting we do won’t change the fortune of one single flower. It’s Spring in the Northern Hemisphere and a brutal summer lies ahead. The flowers will bloom and fade. All that’s left is to bear witness as best we can.

I tell myself that the three pillars of compassion I preach — service, generosity and kindness — are good enough. They are ways of being in the world that directly helps others with their pain and suffering as doom mounts — a triad to manifest compassion as directed action. But right now I don’t feel compassionate. It’s fake. At this moment I hate humanity.

I hate what we’ve done to this beautiful planet, the nature we’ve destroyed in the name of materialism and comfort. I hate that the beauty humanity has produced in its arts, science, literature and culture is not sufficient to cover up the ugliness in its politics, exploitation and consumerism. I hate that the wisdom of homo sapiens was not wise enough to overcome the selfish greed that evolution imbued in every cell of every one of us. I hate that I am no better than this.

I am ready for a planet rid of humanity.

This sad sphere that we have willfully ruined through generations of walking in our genetic footprint is in its final days. The pain and suffering ahead will dwarf anything humanity has experienced in its long ugly past. There are nearly 8 billion of us suffering together on the planet today, but there is no Buddha, no Christ, no Mohammed, no Krishna, no Avengers and no Davos-elite to save us. There is no master plan behind the chaotic mess befalling us. There is only that damn sword accelerating towards us and nothing we can do to stop it.

These sorts of essays are supposed to end with hope, or at the very least some sort of call to action. I should be telling you what you can do to make a difference.  But I’ve come up empty. You can’t make a difference any more. The choice I’ve made for today is to donate several hours of time to a local non-profit whose cause is one I support, schlepping boxes and setting up tables. It’s just a matter of passing the time in a way that makes me feel like I’m compassionate, like I’m a good person doing good deeds. In truth, it’s just another way for me to be selfish.

In just a few short years none of this will be here. Society will crumble, civilization will collapse and the sixth great mass extinction will take its course. I only hope that on the other side of this catastrophic collapse, nothing like humanity ever evolves again on this tired and abused space rock.

Eliot Jacobson, Ph.D.

Retired professor of mathematics and computer science, retired casino consultant, now a full time volunteer, husband and grandfather. Know-it-all doomer. Born in the year 316 ppm CO2.

29 thoughts on “The Sword of Damocles is Falling

  • April 30, 2022 at 7:18 am
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    Thank you, for telling it like it is.

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    • April 30, 2022 at 12:32 pm
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      Sorry but this is just how old people think. I’m 24 and I agree but the unfortunate truth is that a lot of us are still going to be around. This is what happens when you spend too much time in isolation or when you don’t look to the younger generations. No one talks to us, no one listens, you’ve all decided to give up and give away your power. Good riddance then – if you don’t want a role in this world then we don’t need you.

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      • April 30, 2022 at 1:16 pm
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        That’s just it—you’re *not* going to be around. I’m 42. I’m not going to be around. No one talks to you? No one listens to you?

        Brother or sister, join the club. No one listened to us either. And, no one listened to all the lone wolf prior generational voices who shouted into the void that we were headed towards disaster.

        Do you know what happened to people who complained about, for example, companies dumping chemicals? They literally became pariahs—if they were lucky—sometimes they were killed in “accidents.” People tried and people died from trying.

        To try to pin this one generation is a cop-out. The problem is much bigger than a single generation. The problem lies deep in our brains and in our tendencies as human beings to destroy the natural earth around us—which is our only home.

        We’re a fluke. The fact that we exist is a fluke. And, instead of spending every moment as sentient space dust enraptured and savoring the beautiful planet around us—we’ve instead sought to destroy it and thus destroy ourselves.

        There are some who believe that this is truly the Original Sin that is referenced in so many religions. And, that we’ve missed the opportunity to live in paradisal Edenic harmony with each other and all the beings around us—due to a mechanism in our brains that has sees everything else around it—mistakenly—as the other.

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        • April 30, 2022 at 1:40 pm
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          This. So much this. The entire article and replies, but most of all this. Thank you andromeda.

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        • April 30, 2022 at 2:44 pm
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          I am exhausted by youngsters who think they’re different or know something about the world we don’t. Dismissing our generation’s activism is arrogant and ignorant — that’s exactly why I listed all the disasters we stopped from happening, without which these youngsters would not be here to whine about us. But for us who fought the environmental, anti-war and social battles 50+ years ago, the planet would not exist today to be in this even more dire state. It’s the anthropic principle — but for existing, we cannot ask the questions we ask or blame the ones we blame. It’s a challenging idea to get across to people who did not live through that history.

          It’s worth noting that we had the same attitude towards the older generation when we were young — but then, they stopped Hitler, Stalin & Mussolini and built the infrastructure (roads/water/electric/sewer) that made everything possible that’s come from that.

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        • April 30, 2022 at 2:54 pm
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          Thank you andromeda. I’m in my 70s and no one listened to the many of my generation either. Those of us who read The Population Bomb and limited our family sizes, protested against dams in Tasmania’s pristine wilderness and bloated energy consumption, housing and roads covering agricultural land, old forest logging … the list goes on… have been ignored. It’s a human problem that can’t be solved. The paradox of a rational species continuing to act irrationally as the sword of Damocles falls.

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  • April 30, 2022 at 8:44 am
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    Eliot, this is really kick-ass!
    I just read it aloud to my beloved bride and mission partner, Connie, and we both loved it!
    Thanks, brother!
    ~ Michael
    P.S. I added you to the top of recommended blogs on my resources page: https://postdoom.com/resources/

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  • April 30, 2022 at 9:31 am
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    You’re just going to casually accuse a nation of genocide without even pretending to site a source?

    Please make a convincing case that the conflict in Ukraine is a genocide. I am willing to be convinced.

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  • April 30, 2022 at 10:09 am
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    Beautiful thing to come from selfishness!

    I’m wondering why I don’t have the same feeling you say you have. I don’t think I hate humanity, but can’t say why. I count it as a piece of good luck, part of the huge portion of dumb ass good luck that has been my life to present. As an overall stance I still like Peter Melton’s metaphor: we’re all invited to the party and everyone has to choose and live with how they show up.

    It matters to me how I show up and worth the work to figure it out. What else is there to do?

    You help me in my head. Thanks for these essays.

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  • April 30, 2022 at 2:32 pm
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    ‘I hate that the wisdom of homo sapiens was not powerful enough to overcome the selfish greed that evolution imbued in every cell of every one of us’. I think I can say why I don’t hate humanity. If we evolved to be what we are, why blame ourselves? Evolution also gave us our capacity for service, generosity, and kindness. I keep hearing a line from Herb’s limerick ‘We Didn’t Fuck It Up’:

    Beasts of whatever IQ
    Get born and die, eat, shit and screw;
    Don’t blame me or you
    For extinction’s snafu:
    We just did what animals do.

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    • April 30, 2022 at 2:42 pm
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      Right — or from the Books of Bokonon:

      Tiger got to hunt,
      Bird got to fly;
      Man got to sit and wonder, “Why, why, why?”

      Tiger got to sleep,
      Bird got to land;
      Man got to tell himself he understand.

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      • May 1, 2022 at 8:48 am
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        Beautifully written. Pessimism is warranted when we are literally living through multiple world-ending scenarios all day once.
        We get to watch the end of the show, what an interesting and horrific time to exist. Thanks for your writing.

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  • April 30, 2022 at 7:57 pm
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    Worth the price of the paper it was written on! No seriously, I really appreciate your writing, I think we’re all going through some necessarily intense emotions as we process.

    I hope when my end comes I’ll be in a state of gratitude and not one of anger or resentment, and I hope the same for you professor.

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  • April 30, 2022 at 8:57 pm
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    A sad and pessimistic essay. Perhaps we will have a miracle. Perhaps
    clean energy will sweep the market, as gas prices sky rocket. Perhaps
    our young people will finally take to the streets and shut down the schools,
    teaching them nothing about the climate emergency. Perhaps Joe Manchin
    will experience a conscience for the first time. Perhaps the next greatest
    generation will find its purpose.

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    • May 12, 2022 at 6:20 pm
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      Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a miracle.

      I think of it this way: If the doctor tells me that I have Stage 4 cancer and another doctor gives me a second opinion with the same prognosis, I will not count on hope, prayers or miracles. That’s denial of reality.

      I don’t like our prognosis, but I am resigned to this reality.

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  • May 1, 2022 at 5:11 am
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    Great post, thank you for sharing! As for the ending, I think hope is a disease. Hope is why we haven’t done anything until now — hoping it will get better, hoping somebody will save us, hell, just hoping that the people doing the work that allows us to stock our fridges, heat our homes, and drive our cars, will continue in the face of calamity. What will happen when enough people get the message that this isn’t the sort of disaster we can swoop in and avert in the final moments?

    What I *want* to happen is that we all come together, give up our delusions about the necessity of profit, economic activity, growth, all of it, and find some way to live consciously and compassionately in a world we helped destroy. In practice, I find that living consciously is an enormous challenge in its own right and that giving up those delusions doesn’t render their ubiquity irrelevant.

    Hope aside, I’ll offer a bit of faith in closing: I have faith that in many places and times, on Earth and across the universe, conscious beings have experienced the beauty and unity of this great cosmic drama. You named a few — Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna — but there are many more besides. Countless others have had glimpses of reality that energize and ease their path through our confusion.

    Awareness is a process, like the planet herself, or the stars in the sky. For this reason I must disagree with you on one point: I want humanity to endure. And when we go, I want new consciousness to arise one day and take up the mantle of discovering what this whole thing is about. This rock has suffered cosmic abuse far worse than humanity is capable of generating, and yet life refused to stop. So too have we refused to stop — to a catastrophic end, no doubt, but the programming that got us here didn’t magically fall away with the entry of consciousness. Not for most of us, anyway.

    It’s enough for me if I can live a bit more consciously and compassionately each day. I have faith that devotion to this cause leaves me better prepared to help those who don’t see what’s coming and those who have long suffered our selfishness and hubris. It won’t be enough to “save the world,” certainly, but that was never my responsibility — and it has never needed saving, anyway.

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  • May 2, 2022 at 10:20 am
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    It seems like the only thing first worlders know how to share as civilization starts to unravel is blame. Not the planet, not mutual respect, but blame. It is psychologically easy to accept as the biosphere is being pushed to its limit and we wake up (some faster than others) to the fact that our ways of life are unsustainable that those not benefitting from but affected by our and our forefathers choices are deserving of their fate. And you might not get any pushback in the echo chambers you frequent, but it’s an evil thing to say.

    Industrial civilization has depending of super exploitation from the beginning for both the accumulation that allowed it to develop and the inputs it needed.

    There have been others on this planet just trying to continue their ways of life that have worked for thousands of years. Life may not have been easy, but they made it work.

    It’s not genocide by suicide, it’s suicide by genocide. The first world was well aware of the negative effects that their pollution would have on others, they just seemed to think they could rein it in before they were as affected.

    And now after a centuries long plunder of the planet, where they dehumanized others, suddenly we’re all equally to blame.

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    • May 2, 2022 at 11:27 am
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      I have no issue at all with your expressing yourself here in the comments and I appreciate much of what you say — but this is not a “free speech” zone, this is my blog. If you’re going to call something I said “evil” then please don’t visit again. Thanks.

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  • May 3, 2022 at 3:58 pm
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    “….It’s fake. At this moment I hate humanity…..”

    Yep, I’m feeling that these days too. Just not all the time. Watching the humans accelerate towards their own death in a futile hubris in response to the war in Ukraine, the falling harvest reports coming in, whilst still having to earn some money, working the treadmill even though I’m self employed, is mind-numbingly depressing at the moment. Part of me wants collapse to happen just so that the lie will end! Knowing the truth about our predicament hurts far less than living the lie that contributes to that predicament.

    But tomorrow I will tend my allotment, and plant potatoes again at the community garden. Even knowing that there will be a significant chance this year that the seeds we plant might not actually thrive, it’s still the right thing to do.

    I’ve noticed that nature is going into overdrive this spring – the birds are laying more eggs, the blossoms on the trees seem particularly intense, the flowers are doing well, which I suspect means Mother Nature knows of the pain to come, as it’s been noticed before that nature “overproduces” just before a hard time, to ensure more of their species survive. We’ll see in the autumn by the amount of fruit I harvest locally for jam making, if the fruit trees and bushes make it that far.

    The 5 stages of climate grief, it’s not a one-way trip. We can swing between anger, despair and acceptance and back again multiple times a year, it’s okay to do that. I’ll Just leave out the bargaining and hopium stages!

    I have to remind myself of Neil Gaiman’s advice
    https://youtu.be/QmlOu9qyvfE
    “make good art” come what may, or as I refer to it, “do more art” – of which your blog comes under. I always look forward to your blog posts, alongside Tim Watkins’ Consciousness of Sheep:
    https://consciousnessofsheep.co.uk/2022/04/25/walking-backward-into-the-storm/
    so please keep writing 🙂
    I also consider gardening as a form of art.

    For as Paul Kingsnorth points out, it won’t be the politicians that save us*, it won’t be the scientists, mathematicians, priests and psychologists that will save the species (if it’s worth saving*) – it will be the artists, the peoples on the margins of society both geographically and economically, the loners, the gardeners, the unheard none-tillers of land, the indegineous peoples, and perhaps even the collapse-aware. If Homo Sapiens are fated to have any kind of future on this planet, then any future uncivilisation will come from those minds, not from the kinds that lead us now.

    *which at the moment, I feel like our species is not worth saving!

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  • May 4, 2022 at 9:24 am
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    What do you think young people can do? I am 25. I will likely have to keep living through some of the worst of this.

    I love your ethos overall, do good, but what else can I do? I dislike just idly waiting. I grow my own food, trying to be as self-sufficient as possible, just nothing feels like it’s enough.

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    • May 4, 2022 at 11:23 am
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      You are right that nothing feels like it’s enough, because nothing is enough. Climate grief in young people (and people of all ages) is a real thing. I deal with it by doing what I can to be of service — I find that volunteerism goes a long way to getting me through the day. I have also participated in various groups that address these things head-on and help me get through some of the tough moments.

      This article came out just yesterday. Maybe it can offer some guidance.

      https://www.wired.com/story/generation-dread-britt-wray-climate-change/

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  • May 10, 2022 at 2:05 pm
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    Dear Eliot. I have been an activist for over 30 years ( mainly for Greenpeace) but I also played a small role in the very beginning days of XR. After actions all over the planet I have come to the same conclusion you have. I made this conclusion some 5 years ago. I visited many COP’s , did so many actions on sea and land I could write a book about it.. I met prof. Rockström and understood we passed to many tipping points. I too am a ordained monk in the zen tradition. I gave up being active. I now openly talk to trees in my park and connect with the neighborhood crows. Every time I connect with Mother I say “sorry”, though I have nothing to be sorry about. Like I said, I fought at the front, and many times at life’s risk. I observe now, I breathe. I am 58 years old and I must say: I never “was in it” for us.. But always for Mother, in all Her holy forms.. I feel peace in the Not Knowing and acceptance that I am a passing consiousness, trapped beteeen memories and expectations and emotions, writing his own small story on the big canvas of Consiousness. So after years of Climate anger and anxiety I have now reached the point of the observing ape filled with acceptation of what is to come. No fear. No birth. No death.. Or like Thay said:” A cloud never dies” . Thank you for these words that describe exactly how I feel. Be good… greeting Robert, Amsterdam

    Reply

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