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.