Looking into the Abyss

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(A kind of update from my last blog “The Hopium of the Bamboo Toothbrush”)

The last two months has, for me, been characterised by huge amounts of research, a wide range of conversations, and deep inner reflection about the climate and ecological catastrophe we now face.  And because I’ve been thinking about these things, I have experienced too the subsequent roller-coaster of deep emotions, including the most profound grief I have ever felt.

I have looked into the abyss.

The most recent part of that journey was a 4-day programme led Professor Jem Bendell at the University of Cumbria.  The theme of the course was “Leadership in the Climate Crisis”.  This was a profound and very connected four days, in the company of 25 loving and conscious human beings.

I was the only person who doesn’t work in the field professionally.

My fellow explorers were academics in sustainable development (do you get the irony in that term?), leaders in NGO’s tackling the crisis, educators on food security, permaculture and re-wilding, CSR professionals in businesses, political activists, and the like.  Several people in the group gave up their normal jobs a year ago, and now focus full time on growing the Extinction Rebellion movement, as well as being spokespeople for that group.

Jem himself is sometimes referred to as the “Rockstar of the Doomosphere”.

His paper “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy” was published in July 2018, and has since been downloaded half a million times.  (It is believed that this is the widest readership in history for an academic paper!)


Jem himself is extremely warm and personable, and I think one of the smartest minds I’ve ever met.  He has spent the last five years struggling with how best to respond to what he knows, and how to communicate that to a wider audience.  He now only spends about a quarter of his time being an academic professor in sustainable development, and most of his time helping to create a Deep Adaptation Community.  One could say his journey has become more spiritual in nature over the past couple of years – more about being one of many leaders in the quest to help bring about a true shift in human consciousness.

My take on Jem Bendell’s core question right now is:

“How can we love each other, and the planet, through the collapse that is now surely coming?”

Not everyone believes we should be completely forthright with the general public about the depths of our crisis, including many of those in our Government.

Because it’s far too late to do anything to mitigate the crisis.

Far too late to avoid a global environmental, ecological and economic catastrophe.

This may go some way to explaining why the general public is still not being told the truth by Governments around the world.

It may go some way to explaining why many of the super-rich have already set up lavish underground ‘doomsday bunkers’ where they and their families can bug out when the shit hits the fan.

It may go some way to explaining why Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are so obsessed with leaving this planet completely and setting up house on Mars.

Off the Cliff

Dahr Jamail, author of “The End of Ice” summarises the recent climate science in a brilliant essay called “Dancing with Grief”, which you can find on www.resilience.org under the July 2019 Uncertain Future Forum

  • 2018 was the fourth warmest year ever recorded, with the only warmer years being 2015, 2016, and 2017. We are currently in the middle of what is on track to be the warmest decade since record keeping began.
  • We are now in the sixth mass extinction event in our planet’s history, this one caused by industrial civilization. Compared to the Permian mass extinction event 252 million years ago (in which 90 percent of life on Earth was annihilated), carbon dioxide is being injected into the atmosphere ten times faster and the extinction rate is already faster. That last fact was underscored by the conclusion of a recent United Nations report that at least one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction.
  • Global tropical rainforests, which are critical to biodiversity, are already so degraded that they now release more carbon annually than all the traffic in the United States. In 2010, a drought in the Amazon rainforest released as much carbon dioxide as the total annual emissions of Russia and China combined. At some point in the not-so-distant future, the Amazon rainforest will regularly emit more carbon than it absorbs…yet another critical tipping point for Earth. All of this on top of the fact that Earth is losing a stunning 1.5 acres of rainforest every second.
  • The oceans have absorbed 93 percent of all the heat humans have added to the atmosphere since the 1970s. If the oceans had not absorbed all the heat we’ve produced since 1955, global atmospheric temperatures would be nearly 54°C hotter (97°F) than they are today. Today’s average carbon dioxide level of 415 parts per million (ppm) is already in accordance with the conditions that can bring about a steady-state temperature 7°C (12.6°F) higher. The oceans are now, literally, overheating—as well as deoxygenating and acidifying.
  • Insects are essential for the proper functioning of all of Earth’s ecosystems, as they are pollinators, food for other creatures, and recyclers of nutrients. Without insects, humans cannot survive. We are currently losing 2.4 percent of global insect biomass annually.
  • The glaciers in Alaska alone are losing an estimated 75 billion tons of ice every year. The oceans, which absorb over 90 percent of the excess heat trapped by greenhouses gases in the atmosphere, are warming and acidifying, melting the polar ice caps and resulting in rising sea levels and oxygen-starved ocean dead zones. We await a 50-gigaton burp, or “pulse,” of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost beneath the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, which will release about 2/3 of the total carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial era.
  • Some 150 to 250 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal are going extinct every 24 hours, 1000 times the “natural” or “background” rate. This pace of extinction is greater than anything the world has experienced since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
  • The UN and the World Health Organisation warn that there is increasing risks of multiple breadbasket failure under 1.5 and 2 degrees C global warming.  The WHO warns that, due to soil depletion, we have 40 – 60 harvests left before soil degrades to the point where we cannot grow crops at all.
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s worst-case scenario is a 4–5°C increase over pre-industrial temperatures by 2100. This would be catastrophic, and humans will not survive that.  But the IPCC is always super-cautious and conservative…
  • The International Energy Agency has stated that preserving our current economic paradigm guarantees a 6°C rise in the Earth’s average temperature before 2050. Analysts at fossil fuel giants Shell and BP expect the globe to be 5°C warmer by mid-century.

Jamail notes that “it is easy to be critical of the climate crisis deniers of the political right. Yet there is a soft-denialism across much of the political left as well.

The reality is, no government on Earth is currently willing to take the dramatic measures necessary that might begin to mitigate what is coming our way.

Had governments responded accordingly to the threat over the last few decades, perhaps a degree or two of warming could have been shaved off the worst-case projections. But that window has long since passed.

Meanwhile, the business-as-usual economic paradigm continues, and it, too, shows no indication of changing in the radical way necessary.

Hopes spring eternal that the Green New Deal, or reducing carbon emissions, or the Green Party, or geo-engineering might save us. Yet none of these take into account that we are already off the cliff. Every single one of them is an attempt to try to fix something that is unfixable.

A sober reading of the latest climate change science indicates that we are now genuinely in free fall, and are in a non-linear situation of climactic disruptions, runaway feedback loops, and their effects. We are locked on a course towards uncontrollable levels of climate disruption, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease, and war.  Hundreds of thousands of people are dying already right now as a direct result of climate change, extreme weather events, crop failures and rises in sea-levels.

There can no longer be any question that life as we know it, at least for those of us in the privileged West, is now ending.”

So, how do we cope with this information?

How to be?  What I’m learning:

Lean into the grief (at least temporarily), rather than rush about in the desperate need to take some action, any action.

I’m starting to see that there’s something incredibly hopeful on the other side of this grief – but we have to really feel the grief first.

As Jamail says, it helps enormously to seek out community – people with whom we can process the deep grief, including the sadness, rage, numbness, despair, and every other emotion that arose. And to listen, and hold each other in love and acceptance of ‘what is’.

It has helped to re-connect with nature.  Jamail recommends asking this question each day:  “What should I do today to serve the planet and all her species?”

Jamail observes “No matter how bleak the future appears, the answers to that question mean that we will always have meaningful ‘work’ to do.”

For me, it no longer makes sense to keep running from one action to the next – whether it’s meeting with my local MP, or ‘rising up’ with the Extinction Rebellion events taking place all over the UK (and increasingly, elsewhere in the world), or hosting zoom calls with other groups, as I have been doing.  It all just feels like hopium to me.

I also find Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation 4 R’s helpful – and it was incredibly rich to explore these on my recent course:

What is it that we most value (to keep) and why? How?

What must we give up in order not to make matters worse?
(Maybe it’s an enforced letting-go of things that didn’t make us happy anyway.)

What is it we can bring back that’s already been lost?

Reconciliation / Reconnection
What can I do to make peace with/and to love and support others to lessen suffering? How can I live with love, joy and peace?

Each of us is guided in a different way, and that’s perfect.

There is a place in all of us.  Home.  Connection.  Love.  Peace. Wisdom.  It helps to be still, and get quiet, and to listen.

I was struck by reading these words referenced by Jamail from a wise old Native American chief:

“When you are in doubt, be still, and wait; when doubt no longer exists for you, then go forward with courage,” Chief White Eagle said. “So long as mists envelop you, be still; be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists, as it surely will. Then act with courage.”

I don’t know yet exactly what this will look like for me… but I’m getting clearer that it won’t be to do with mitigation, with trying to scramble back up the cliff.

It won’t be business-as-usual-except-a-bit-greener.

It may look more like the title of Charles Eisenstein’s wonderful book:

“The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible”.

It may look more like what we all want in the end, climate crisis or no, navigating towards a ‘good death’.

Leaving a legacy that says:

“Yes, we should have woken up sooner.  But at least we woke up in the end.  And we did that with grace, generosity and love”


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3 thoughts on “Looking into the Abyss

  1. Lindsey says:

    Reading this with tears pouring down my face,

  2. Mo Harford says:

    Its hard to find words to express how sad I am for what is to come. Not for me, I’ve had the benefits that this planetary rape has afforded, but for my children and my grandchildren. Today I walked though Sutton Park, a beautiful rich green space and I saw a little girl on a scooter, she was about 2 yrs old. I realised that by the time she’s my age, the soil probably won’t be good enough to grow food. She will probably not live to and old age and all I wanted to say was, I’m sorry. I’m sorry we didn’t see this sooner, I’m sorry I didn’t do more to stop it the I did see it.

  3. Martin Palethorpe says:

    Hi Kim, thanks for sharing this with us, and for being so straight yet compassionate.

    I read Jem’s paper back in March and have been trying to make sense of it ever since. To make sense of what it means for me.
    It’s hard- facing the reality, then working out what is meaningful to do with each day – life as usual, save the world, or just enjoy every day.

    I’d love to hear where you end up as things settle for you. X