Eliot Jacobson is a retired professor of mathematics and computer science who regularly appears on our Twitter feed discussing the climate crisis. He sends tweets under the grim title, ‘Your “moment of doom” for the day’. These channel the latest news on rapidly rising carbon emissions and temperatures, catastrophic examples of extreme weather, and so on. It’s depressing fare, and Jacobson is candid about the level of anguish he feels:
‘I woke up feeling angry at about 2:30 AM this morning.
‘It’s easy to find something wrong with just about anything I look at. It’s all projection. I’ve been writing and deleting Tweets, but I still feel angry.
‘I’m angry that there’s very little I can do and there’s no way out.’
In a blog post, he wrote:
‘This sadness is so overwhelming, so all-consuming, that it takes my breath away. The things I do to cope with the weight of it all are mere distractions from this sadness. Volunteer for a few hours, then sadness. Go for a walk, then sadness. Listen to music, read, visit websites, then sadness. Visit with friends or family, then sadness. Sadness returns every time I have a moment to reflect on the predicament of the present moment.’
I’m no stranger to this emotional roller-coaster. 1988 was the big year for me, when NASA scientist James Hansen told the world we were heading for disaster. I had no difficulty believing him.
It seemed inconceivable to me that the profit motive driving global industry could be restrained, let alone reversed, in time. I was then working as a marketing manager for British Telecom in the West End of London where I set up a Green Initiatives Group. Small changes were made, but they were just window dressing – deeper changes impacting profit were completely unthinkable. It seemed obvious to me that this fundamentalist corporate resistance must, sooner or later, lead to disaster.
I first protested for action on climate change with Friends of the Earth on the streets of central London in October 1989. I was 27 when I started campaigning; I’m now 61. I’ve thought a lot, worried a lot, talked a lot, read a lot, and written a lot about these issues for three and a half decades, more than half my life.
It seems absolutely incredible to me – by which I mean it seems something that I honestly would not have believed was possible – that what seemed like an urgent crisis to me in the late 1980s can still seem like ‘hype’, a ‘liberal tax scam’, an ‘oligarch plot’ and ‘bourgeois hysteria’ to large numbers of people in 2023. In the 1980s, we said things would change when there were ‘bodies in the streets’ – but the bodies are all around us now, and there is still no sign of meaningful change.
I say all this to make clear that I am in no way complacent about, or indifferent to, the looming climate catastrophe (it seems absurd to even describe it as ‘looming’). My comments below are not intended to detract from the vital need to take immediate action; they are addressed to the despair that I know many people, like Jacobson, are feeling.
You, Me And The Mysterium Tremendum
After everything I have myself suffered, it seems to me that we have two main tasks at the present time: first, to do everything in our power to avert the terrifying crisis threatening us with extinction. Second, to do everything we can to transform the fear and suffering of our predicament into love and bliss.
The first of these is new. The second may sound preposterous, even annoying, but it has actually always been the great human task.
Many activists devoted to action, to change, despise the very idea that our own happiness should be any kind of concern. The suggestion is dismissed as self-indulgent ‘navel gazing’. We have to dispense with all such ‘sentimentality’ and focus on ‘hard politics’. We have to plunge into the darkness of realpolitik and fight for our lives. It’s going to be bruising, to hurt – forget all kitten-cuddling ideas about ‘love’ and feeling good. And how on earth can you feel ‘bliss’ when the world is falling apart? Such nonsense!
As so often, the anger is rooted in fear – the fear that such concerns will divert energy and attention away from what really matters. The counter-argument is that not giving a damn about personal feelings, about our needs as human beings in this short life, is actually one of the key factors that got us into this fine mess in the first place. (See my Cogitation: ‘Our Indifference To Ourselves’ – Beyond The ‘Virtue’ Of Self-Sacrifice – Parts 1 and 2)
Just as I can’t understand how so many people can fail to see the truth of the existential crisis we’re facing, I can’t understand how people can feel so absolutely certain about the significance, the meaning, of this crisis that they fall into absolute despair.
First of all, we need to remember that despair is a function of mind; it is not something mandated by Existence. As Thoreau noted, we have a choice:
‘However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.’ (Thoreau, ‘Walden’, Oxford University Press, 1997, p.292)
This has been as true for everyone in human history facing death from illness, starvation, genocide, as it is for all of us now, facing extinction.
I find the universe so mysterious, so fundamentally Unknown, and even Unknowable, that I cannot establish a solid base of existential certainty that allows me to be confidently desperate about even this situation.
Of course, climate collapse is terrible for us – I don’t want to die, you don’t want to die; we don’t want so-called human ‘civilisation’ to disappear. But we all do have to die and the deeper significance of even a disaster on this scale is fundamentally unknown.
We are a miniscule part of billions of years of existence involving 200 billion galaxies each containing 200 billion stars, and who knows how many planets, swirling over distances that completely defy imagination – all of it emerging out of the mysterium tremendum, the how and why of Existence (we can’t say Creation; we don’t even know if it has a beginning or an end).
This immensity of space and time has led to this moment that stands before us. Here we are! Everything in this cosmos has led us here. We can’t just blame politicians, corporate executives and their journalistic enablers – the universe made them as they are and this is what the universe has given us to deal with.
Who are we to break down in despair as if we were certain about the final meaning of what is happening? What do we really know about anything? Do we really know enough to find a solid position from which we can cast judgement even on the extinction of human life, or even of all life, on this planet?
In November, spiritual writer Steve Taylor posted a poem, ‘Being Watched by The Moon’, on Facebook. Taylor wrote of our cosmic near neighbour:
‘Then I noticed a look of concern on her face.
There was a glint of disapproval, a hint of dismay
in her gaze, as it followed me home
as if she was witnessing an accident, or a crime.
Had I done something wrong? I wondered.
Had I injured or offended someone?
Had I gone astray, and lost the meaning of my life?
But then I looked closer, and realised:
she wasn’t just watching me.
She was watching the whole world.’
A glint of ‘concern’, ‘disapproval’ and ‘dismay’, as if ‘witnessing an accident, or a crime’? Is this really the most likely reaction of the Moon? After all, she has seen a lot – she’s around 4.5 billion years old, about the same age as the Earth. Human beings have been around for just 2.8 million years, and in our problematic modern form for just 200,000 years. The Sun formed about 4.6 billion years ago from an enormous molecular cloud that gave birth to numerous other stars. Our star has about 5 billion years of life left; she’s in her prime. The universe itself is about 13.8 billion years old – at least in this cycle, if it is a cycle. We don’t know where all this comes from, what it means, what lies at the base of it all.
Worst case scenarios suggest that human-induced climate change might devastate most animal and plant species to such an extent that it could take five million years for life to recover. But 5 million years is a blink of the cosmic eye to old-timers like the Moon, Earth and Sun whose memories stretch back, not millions, but billions of years. And if things don’t work out here post-climate collapse, maybe they’ll go better among the billions and billions of stars out there – that’s a lot of stars, a lot of possibility. From this perspective, one might surmise that human despair at the prospect of human extinction is one more manifestation of an egotism that causes us to vastly overestimate our own importance.
Might it alter our despairing perspective to consider that the enlightened mystics might be right in declaring that, not just plants and animals, but the entire universe is alive? We think life arises miraculously, ‘accidentally’ (what on earth does that mean?), Lazarus-like, from dead matter. But atoms are pretty lively phenomena; they are whizzing flea circuses of jumping sub-atomic particles, quantum waves and other forms of energy. Might we one day conclude that what we call life arises from these subtler forms of life? Is energy in some sense life?
And might our despair be leavened by the possibility, as mystics also insist, that, not just human beings, but the entire cosmos is conscious? What would it mean, if it turns out that even rocks are consciousness in a kind of coma; that evolution is ultimately a process of consciousness awakening from the slumber (not the death) of matter?
If everything is alive and everything is conscious, then even human beings are unable to inflict any real damage – a manifestation of eternal life rises and falls, comes and goes, but the ocean of living consciousness continues completely unharmed.
The universe seems to consist of objects, of material ‘things’. But that is not all: these rocks, animals, planets and stars appear in the something that is no-thing that we call space. Likewise, our awareness also provides an internal space in which sense perceptions, thoughts and emotions can appear and be known. We assume the universe is material and yet awareness seems non-material, seems entirely other than that which is material. Is it possible that external space and the internal space of awareness are related? Could they actually be the same phenomenon? We tend to see our internal space as an epiphenomenon of the brain, but is external space an epiphenomenon of matter?
Could the mystics even be right when they insist that awareness evolves in the universe by moving from ageing bodies to new ones? Westerners find this a childishly obvious example of wishful thinking. But does that make it untrue? Do we imagine that Buddha, Bodhidharma, Nagarjuna, Lao tse and all other enlightened humans were inventing when they made this claim over and over again? Could they even be right in arguing that consciousness moves from old, exhausted planets to fresh, new planets better suited to the continued evolution of consciousness?
If that sounds ludicrous, is it any crazier than the idea that the universe suddenly emerged from nothingness – nothing, nothing, nothing, then, Bang! – or that it has somehow always existed? These appear to be the only two possibilities, and yet both seem totally nonsensical to us. If the only logical possibilities seem impossible, how can we so confidently root our despair in our clearly inadequate human capacity for logic?
I controversially suggested our task was to find bliss in the face of looming extinction. Is that possible? Is it moral even to try in the face of so much suffering?
Seasoned meditators tell us that the mysterious awareness perceiving these words is inherently blissful. Not just pleasurable, mind you – ecstatic. We are told the bliss is already there, is always there; that it is the very nature of awareness. The idea is captured in the Sanskrit epithet ‘satchitananda’, or ‘reality, consciousness, bliss’ – existence is aware and awareness is blissful.
This sounds counter-intuitive standing at a bus stop on a rainy Monday morning commute to work. We are here, we are aware, thank you very much, and we are emphatically not beaming with delight.
There are two possible explanations for this contradiction: either all the enlightened mystics were talking nonsense, or we are not in fact here, not in fact aware, and are therefore not able to experience the bliss that is here.
But if we’re not here, where on earth are we?
We are physically here, of course, but our minds are not in the present; they are in the past and in the future. Because the past and future do not exist, because they are mere ideas in the mind, when we are thinking we are absent; we are not truly here.
There are times when I sit in meditation for an hour when thoughts finally drop away; thoughts by which I am otherwise unceasingly plagued by day and night (dreams are thinking in pictures). When thoughts drop away, even for a moment, something very subtle, but very powerful slips through. In my experience, it emerges like a wispy strand of pink candy floss spinning out from some completely unknown depth and melting into my heart (my ‘dantian’ and ‘lower dantian’, in the terminology of Qigong). The melting is experienced as a sweetness, a delight, that glows with unconditional love for everyone and everything.
It is clear, sitting alone in a room, that this loving bliss is uncaused. I may have been as miserable as sin about the state of the world before slumping down to watch my thoughts and feelings – nothing in my world has objectively changed in that hour. In fact, as all the mystics insist, this loving delight has not been caused; it has simply been unveiled, revealed.
Thought is the veil. This is why we can’t feel the bliss of existence: it is hidden from us by layer upon layer of thought, rather like the multiple layers of cloud that typically greet solemn holidaymakers returning to Britain.
Human beings are the only animal that can become lost in the unreal world of mentation. All the virtuous, politically correct and well-intentioned thought by which we have always hoped to make the world a better place – the whole, misguided 17th and 18th century dream of the European ‘Enlightenment’ – has combined with all other thoughts to form an almost impenetrable barrier between us and the real source of civilisation, of personal and global salvation, within us.
The truth is that we have destroyed our planet and become almost completely estranged from the inherent bliss of being because we have sought civilisation and happiness in our heads. In reality, true civilisation – not the ability to build machines to pyrrhically ‘conquer’ nature, other animals and humans – is found when we transcend thought and connect deeply and often with our hearts.
‘The Best People In The World’ – Actual Human Civilisation
The very idea of technological ‘progress’ implies some kind of ‘Manifest Destiny’. It is our ‘destiny’ – the natural path of any ‘advanced’ civilisation on any planet – to develop ever more powerful technology, that we might one day voyage across the cosmic ocean just as we once voyaged across the water and air of our home planet.
But this may be wrong. It may be that the right option is to journey inwards in an exploration of being, of consciousness, to an unimagined brave new world of love and bliss.
Perhaps we don’t hear anything from highly technological ‘civilisations’ out there in the cosmos because the whole effort is a suicidal wrong turn that leads to near-instant decline and extinction. The cosmos may nevertheless be teeming with genuinely civilised beings who have gone in a very different direction.
After all, even on our planet, there have been examples of authentically civilised humans – people who live in their hearts rather than in their heads, who are free of our obsessive thinking. They appear to have rooted their daily lives in the kind of love and bliss that we in the West can only find in meditation.
In his book, ‘The Conquest of Paradise’, writer and ecologist Kirkpatrick Sale described the low-tech, Taino society encountered by the Spanish conquistadors in 1492:
‘So little a part did violence play in their system that they seem, remarkably, to have been a society without war (at least we know of no war music or signals or artifacts, and no evidence of intertribal combats) and even without overt conflict (Las Casas reports that no Spaniard ever saw two Tainos fighting).’ (Kirkpatrick Sale, ‘The Conquest of Paradise’, Papermac, 1992, p.99)
But the lack of violence was only one aspect of the Tainos’ towering civilisation:
‘And here we come to what was obviously the Tainos’ outstanding cultural achievement, a proficiency in the social arts that led those who first met them to comment unfailingly on their friendliness, their warmth, their openness, and above all – so striking to those of an acquisitive culture – their generosity.’ (p.99)
Even Admiral Cristobal Colon (‘Christopher Columbus’ in old money), the man who brought death and disaster to the lives of the Taino, recorded in his journal:
‘They are the best people in the world and above all the gentlest. They became so much our friends that it was a marvel… They traded and gave everything they had, with good will.’ (pp.99-100)
‘I sent the ship’s boat ashore for water, and they very willingly showed my people where the water was, and they themselves carried the full barrels to the boat, and took great delight in pleasing us. They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal.’
‘They love their neighbours as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing.’ (p.100)
Sale wrote poignantly:
‘It is to be regretted that the Admiral, unable to see past their nakedness, as it were, knew not the real virtues of the people he confronted. For the Tainos’ lives were in many ways as idyllic as their surroundings, into which they fit with such skill and comfort. They were well fed and well housed, without poverty or serious disease. They enjoyed considerable leisure, given over to dancing, singing, ballgames, and sex, and expressed themselves artistically in basketry, woodworking, pottery, and jewellery. They lived in general harmony and peace, without greed or covetousness or theft.’ (pp.100-101)
American geographical scholar Carl Sauer concluded:
‘…the tropical idyll of the accounts of Columbus… was largely true’. (p.101)
The Tainos were human beings who lived in their hearts, not in their heads. They had no august universities packed with thinkers, philosophers and other half-crazed intellectuals; no 24/7 outpourings of media pollution – they lived in the bliss of awareness unclouded by obsessive thought.
As for us! By painful contrast, in his book, ‘Impact of Western Man’, historian William Woodruff commented on the society from which Colon had sailed:
‘No civilization prior to the European had occasion to believe in the systematic material progress of the whole human race; no civilization placed such stress upon the quantity rather than the quality of life; no civilization drove itself so relentlessly to an ever-receding goal; no civilization was so passion-charged to replace what is with what could be; no civilization had striven as the West has done to direct the world according to its will; no civilization has known so few moments of peace and tranquillity.’ (Sale, ibid, p.91, my emphasis)
To live in the head, to sacrifice the moment for the future, to prioritise the ‘serious’, ‘important’ work of the greedy, plotting mind over the bliss of the heart is to build a self-destructive, doomed version of fake ‘civilisation’.
Or consider the experience of the Mexican anthropologist Miguel Covarrubias on visiting the island of Bali in 1938. Covarrubias wrote:
‘No other race gives the impression of living in such close touch with nature, creates such a complete feeling of harmony between the people and the surroundings… The Balinese belong in their environment in the same way that a humming-bird or an orchid belongs in a Central American jungle.’ (Miguel Covarrubias, ‘Island of Bali’, KPI, 1986, p.11)
‘A man is assisted by his neighbours in every task he cannot perform alone; they help him willingly and as a matter of duty, not expecting any reward other than the knowledge that, were they in his case, he would help in the same manner’. (p.14)
The result, Covarrubias wrote, was a village system which operated as ‘a closely unified organism in which the communal policy is harmony and cooperation – a system that works to everybody’s advantage’. (p.15)
In the late 1990s, I worked with the Swedish ecologist and activist Helena Norberg-Hodge who lived for many years among the people of Ladakh on the Tibetan plateau of Northern India. In her book ‘Ancient Futures’, Norberg-Hodge wrote of how she was bewildered by the strange fact that the Ladakhis were always smiling:
‘At first I couldn’t believe that the Ladakhis could be as happy as they appeared. It took me a long time to accept that the smiles I saw were real. Then, in my second year there, while at a wedding, I sat back and observed the guests enjoying themselves. Suddenly I heard myself saying, “Aha, they really are that happy”. Only then did I recognize that I had been walking around with cultural blinders on, convinced that the Ladakhis could not be as happy as they seemed. Hidden behind the jokes and laughter had to be the same frustration, jealousy, and inadequacy as in my own society. In fact, without knowing it, I had been assuming that there were no significant cultural differences in the human potential for happiness. It was a surprise for me to realize that I had been making such unconscious assumptions, and as a result I think I became more open to experiencing what was really there.’ (Helena Norberg-Hodge, ‘Ancient Futures – Learning From Ladakh,’ Sierra, 1992, p.84)
As amongst the Tainos, fighting in traditional Ladakhi society was unknown, disputes were settled quickly and peaceably, and when one person had a problem the entire community did its best to help:
‘In traditional Ladakh, aggression of any sort is exceptionally rare: rare enough to say that it is virtually non-existent… Even arguments are rare. I have hardly ever seen anything more than mild disagreement in the traditional villages—certainly nothing compared with what you find in the West.’ (p.46)
‘I have never met people who seem so healthy emotionally, so secure, as the Ladakhis.’ (p.85)
These societies that seem so ‘primitive’ and ‘uncivilised’ to goal-oriented, power-obsessed, head-trapped Europeans, were actually exemplars of authentic human civilisation.
I am not suggesting that we can become like the Tainos, Balinese and Ladakhis. If we are too high-tech primitive to save ourselves from climate disaster, we can obviously not hope to create that kind of paradise on earth.
What I am suggesting, though, is that the existence of these societies powerfully supports the contention of the mystics: that awareness unclouded by obsessive thinking is indeed in the nature of bliss and love. I am suggesting that such low-tech civilisations may exist in abundance, undetected, on other planets that will of course continue to thrive no matter what happens on our planet. I am also suggesting that you and I can create a little patch of this paradise in our own hearts.
Perhaps in our world as it is, genuinely civilised, loving societies are doomed to be destroyed by brutal, head-trapped, Western-style societies. But you and I still have the freedom, even in the face of this wider brutality, even in the face of environmental catastrophe, to live a life overflowing with love and bliss. Maybe that is all that is possible for us, and maybe that is enough.
David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org