Learning How to Live in the Anthropocene: Ecstasy and grief at the end of an era


“Nothing else in the world thinks it can go on, not a thing, but we’re quite adamant that we can go on. And that’s why we can’t.” – Stephen Jenkinson

I LOVE being a documentary filmmaker. This includes the discussions that accompany every screening. I always wonder which type of questions I will receive, which can usually be divided into three types: the pontificator (wants to hear themselves speak), the soapboxer (has a specific agenda), and if you’re lucky, an actual person who asks a question.

Recently, during the release of my short film ‘Reactor‘, about post-tsunami Japan and the on-going Fukushima crisis, I’ve noticed a trend. My film explores what it means to react in a time like today, amid unprecedented calamities unfolding almost daily. In this particular instance, I shared the extent of the radiation leaking into the sea and the possibility of full nuclear meltdown.

I can always feel the room get heavier. And then, half-heartedly, someone volleys the inevitable question into the air: “Is it too late?”

I know what they mean, whether in regards to Fukushima or climate change, species extinction, peak oil, economic collapse, et al. But they are not looking for a rational, fact-laden answer. Instead, they are pondering the existential question “Are we going to die?”

MOST PEOPLE in the dominant culture will tell you they don’t fear their own death. “I just don’t want it to be painful,” they’ll say. “Quicker the better.” Yet beneath the nonchalant acceptance, there’s an undeniable belief of invincibility.

That is true for me. The limitation of the ego is fundamentally rooted in being. It cannot fathom non-being. This truth is further complicated by the unquestioned war on aging. Disease and death must be fought. And the fallen must be hidden as quickly as possible from the battlefield. (I had never even seen a body until I was 30, when my former partner’s father passed away in his bed – and I’m not atypical).

At the cultural level, this manifests as the unshakable faith that technology can save us from ourselves. Charles Eisenstein writes:

“Today, painfully, we are becoming aware of the folly of the delusion that we can, with clever enough technological solutions, avoid the consequences of what we do to the world. The pretence of separation is increasingly difficult to maintain. We are learning that we are not separate from Nature, and that it bears a wholeness that we ignore at our peril.”

By all serious accounts, it is already too late.

Roy Scanton, a US veteran writing in his powerful piece ‘Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene‘:

“We have passed the point of no return. From the point of view of policy experts, climate scientists and national security officials, the question is no longer whether global warming exists or how we might stop it, but how we are going to deal with it.”

The term Anthropocene refers to the era of humanity as a geological force. The author predicts a future that mirrors what he saw in war-torn Baghdad: riots, warlords, anarchy. And eventually, in the face of total biosphere collapse, the end of human civilization.

“The human psyche naturally rebels against the idea of its end. Likewise, civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today — it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent.”

His diagnosis is stark: “If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.”

IT’S HARD not to feel there’s a fundamental flaw in the human animal. How else to explain the destruction unleashed upon the rest of creation? Secretly, you might even feel justified in agreeing we should die. Death is punishment for the sins of our civilization.

Why does this argument automatically follow? The interpretation is based upon two fundamental assertions that are so ingrained, they are almost impossible to see from within the culture:

  1. all human cultures have always shared the same affliction as the dominant culture
  2. death can only be a punishment

The first assertion, that all human cultures share the same affliction is based upon one who has been conditioned by the dominant culture and cannot perceive it could be any other way. This masks a deep self-loathing that emerges as apathy, cynicism, and even anger. Civilization was a huge mistake.

The second assertion is based upon the culture’s own phobia of death. We have failed. The voice says. We deserve to die. Cynicism gives way to despair and debilitating sadness. The only remaining path is how to rearrange the chairs on the ship as it goes down.

I submit to you there is a middle way.

“Cultures are created and destroyed in ecstasy – and for every moment in between is nothing that keeps a world alive aside from the breath of ecstatics,” writes Peter Kingsley, in his book ‘A Story Waiting to Pierce You‘.

“Civilizations never just happen. They are brought into existence quite consciously, with unbelievable compassion and determination, from another world. Then the job of people experienced in ecstasy is to prepare the soil for them; carefully sow and plant them; care for them; watch them grow.

And each culture is just like a tree whose essence and whole potential are already contained in the seed. Nothing during the course of a civilization is ever discovered, or invented, or created, which was not already present in that seed.”

He continues:

“The simple truth is that every single civilization, including the western world, was brought into being from a sacred place to serve a sacred purpose. And when that purpose is forgotten, when its original alignment gets lost, when the fundamental balance and harmony of its existence become disrupted beyond a certain point, then nature has her way.

This is the mystery of birth and death not only for humans, but for cultures too. And for thousands of years it has been understood that, just as civilizations have to come to and end, there can even be times of global extinctions. But always there are people who know how to gather the essence of life and hold it safely, protect it and nurture it until the next seeding.

The question ‘is it too late?’ bears little resemblance to this expanded territory.

Instead, here are the questions I ask myself today:

Can I acknowledge that which the culture gave me and grieve that which it did not? Can I bear witness to her ending, even if she grips and claws her way down, terror stark upon her face? And can I plant the seeds of sanity, however that may look to me, as I work for a day the rest of us will never see?

You might wonder whether or not it’s possible to grapple with questions as formidable as these. Until you realize, that’s exactly what your ancestors did for you, before the swoon of civilization swept the indigenousness from the previously unbroken spiral of memory.

The future will not resemble the past. Nor should it – because there is no past that is passed. And there is no future that is not influenced by your actions now.

Earlier, Roy Scanton wrote that our challenge in the age of the Anthropocene is learning how to die. I submit the real challenge is, and has always been, remembering how to live.