Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Elizabeth West: Living Like It Matters — Silver Linings in the Very Dark Cloud of Climate Catastrophe

Death offers wise and consoling advice if you have the courage to listen.

We actually do not have all the time in the world, so I am going to be bold.  What you do after you finish reading this is your business and ultimately, that is exactly as it should be. We may all be facets of a larger Oneness, tiny sparks of the Divine dwelling in human form, but for the moment—allowing the potential truth of a larger connection–we are very clearly individuals, each with our own experience and outlook. We have our own ways of coping and to some extent, each of us charts a unique course through this life. We are often granted some choice about how we live and how we die, though most of us vastly prefer to focus on the former.

Even there, we tend to let life happen, getting pulled from one urgency to another amusement without full consciousness of how we spend the time. “Where did the time go?” is a plaintive query, often-expressed. “Time flies!” When you are having fun, when you are busy, when you aren’t fully present.  Life happens to us  more often than most of us would like to admit.  But still, we can always meet it–our life—where we find it today and choose differently how we experience the flow of time, how we interact with the circumstances we have been given and crafted for ourselves.  Such is the beauty of being alive.

As for dying—it is arguably the biggest taboo in first world cultures.  Whereas nearly every shamanic tradition teaches students the imperative of carrying death close by at all times, we’re not so comfortable dealing with it in the West, and thus we lose out on a lot of life.  Without death whispering in our ear, reminding us that our time is finite, it is easy to just let life happen. And then, time flies and we don’t know where it went.

Never has it been more urgent to consider how we live and how we die.  We have—as individuals and a species–made serial choices about how we live, many of them unconscious and often without all the facts. But the sorrowful reality is that in a world of cause and effect, those choices have led us right up to where we are today, at least waist-deep in the sixth mass extinction. We stand right at the edge of the end of much that we have known and taken for granted.  It is my sense that most of us understand this in our bones, in our old reptilian brains, in what remains of our intuitive connection to the rest of life here on Earth. And, we are–in larger numbers–beginning to pay intellectual homage to the facts. They are overwhelming and increasingly hard to ignore.

So, on the one hand, there are more and more people acknowledging that we are pretty thoroughly screwed, that time has run out and there is no change we can make big enough to avert disaster. On the other, while there is clearly a lot of fear and grief out in the world, plenty of panic and the kinds of behaviors that arise in reaction to dire threat, these expressions tend not to be connected consciously to climate catastrophe. Projected on to anything but the mess we’ve made and don’t have the will to fix, we get pretty excited about protecting ourselves from taxes, Mexicans, Venezuelans, Cuban crickets, Palestinian children with rocks, vaccinations, as well as people who don’t vaccinate their kids, and of course Donald Trump and his gang of feckless thugs. The list goes on.  Add your own favorites. Anything but the big kahuna. The final finale. Anything we think we might actually be able to solve, change, neutralize. Our frailty is exposed here, and by avoiding consciousness of the imminence of catastrophe, we miss out on the chance to live as fully as we can, while we can.

No one knows for sure how long we have.  No one ever does, but we try to make reasonable assumptions and operate from there.  Estimates for the timing of civilization’s demise now range from a pessimistic year or two to an optimistic eighty or so, though nearly every day a new and often ‘shocking’ study announces that planetary degradation is happening much faster than previously predicted. From what I can glean, ten years might be a fair guess.  Not so long. And for some, the wild and so-called ‘natural disasters’ have already come calling. Maria in Puerto Rico, Paradise and the Polar Vortex have all claimed plenty of lives, thrown countless others into chaos. If I am wrong and the Arctic starts to freeze over again, the rain fills shrunken aquifers in the Central Valley of California, the oceans recede a few feet and vulnerable islands are reclaimed—well, then, I am in error and will gladly suffer the ridicule.  But if I, and many others better qualified to make the assessment, are not wrong, we don’t have that much time left to consider: how do I want to live? And…possibly more helpful: how do I want to die?

Last week, I attended an informal gathering at a friend’s house in Berkeley, just ahead of a KPFA- sponsored talk on climate change by Dahr Jamail and Antonia Juhasz entitled ‘Is Our Earth in Hospice Mode?’  Joined only by our understanding of where the Earth is heading, everyone there was ‘post acceptance,’ far along the path of their own personal climate collapse journey. It bears noting that although some of these people would probably describe themselves as ‘doomers,’ I haven’t been in a room with as much joy, gratitude and laughter in a long time.

After sharing a potluck meal, we sat in a circle and talked about living and dying.  Not surprisingly, each of us had thought about how we wanted to engage with the time remaining, the time, however long or short, between now and ‘then.’  As we took turns talking, it emerged that some of us are focused on cultivating gratitude and looking for joy in the gifts of each day, each breath, each connection.  Others are prioritizing ways to be of service or finding the right means to stand in solidarity with the Earth. Checking items off bucket lists came up a number of times.  A few of us spoke of having work and family obligations that keep us simply putting one foot in front of the other, caught between an old paradigm and the gnawing awareness that it is not sustainable.  Predictably, being with loved ones and in nature were critical to many in the room.

Then we turned to our impending deaths, to our considerations of the manner and timing of our departure from this life.  It was a conversation far outside the bounds of normalcy, a discussion that could only happen in such extraordinary times. Listening to fifteen relative strangers lay bare how they imagine they will face their final days or hours was a profound experience.  The range of responses was broad, from a plan to hole up with a rifle to protect the last food and water, to a desire to choose a moment and check out intentionally before personal control has been completely forfeited. Some of us admitted to stashing Nembutal while others have caches of rice and dried beans and bottled water.

One young person spoke of his ‘kit,’ which includes plenty of candy bars and tequila, along with a solar charger so he can spend his last days able to look at photos of family, friends and happier times.  Pure comfort. Another man, who acknowledged that he had not been able to delve into this question before, found himself in tears. He remembered the transcendent beauty of the time he spent, years ago, with a woman he loved, helping her to live while she died, laughing and crying together, enlivened and awake, during her last months.  He knew then that this was what he wanted to do with his grandchildren, all the way up until the last breath.

Despite what might seem to be a macabre topic, there was no despair in the room.  In fact, I think it safe to say that we all experienced some lightening, some lifting of mental weights, some new space cleared for joy. The opportunity to be totally honest with other human beings about something so important, so deeply personal and yet so widely silenced by our society was both freeing and energizing.  Overall, none of us want to die, but we are facing head-on the likelihood that we will.  Before our time, as it were.

A friend and I had already been conducting an exploration of our own death-desires over the past few months, meeting every couple of weeks to map out possible scenarios and trying to understand how we would ideally respond to each one.  In the end, the ‘plans’ are loose and full of holes; too many variables to account for. But the process has been illuminating, allowing each of us to become clearer about our values and the things we want to remember when crisis arrives.  Just for illustration, I honed in on my truth that if given the option, I want to go out sharing with others, vulnerable and possibly a lot sooner, rather than sequestered and parsing out sardines and peanuts in order to eek out a few more days or weeks for myself and my family.  Since I have no idea what adventures lie ahead, I may or may not end up being able to act upon this, but I feel immensely more at ease, having gone to the mat with my survival instincts to see just how powerful they are. My friend’s truths are very different to mine in content, but he too was able to identify some of who he really wants to be in a time of crisis, as well as the challenges he faces in doing so. Knowledge in this case may not be power, per se, but it is unquestionably empowering.   

Because I—and most of us– live within the duality of current reality, largely unchanged, and the foreknowledge, at some level, of massive tumult, this exercise often felt a bit surreal.  My life proceeds much as it has, yet death is now firmly ensconced on my left shoulder and for that, I am grateful. It speaks to me: don’t miss a moment, choose the life you really want while you have the chance, don’t waste time on things you know don’t really matter. Having a framework for how I want to approach my death frees me up to live more authentically and with greater integrity and intention so long as am granted to live.  I am, paradoxically, more here since I have let myself contemplate the time when it will no longer be so. 

Each of us must navigate the uncertainty and upheavals ahead in our own way, following our personal compass. But for anyone who has reached a point of acceptance that their days are numbered, whether it be as a result of climate collapse, political chaos and war, or just the relentless advance of years, two big questions inevitably arise. How shall I live what is left?  And, how do I want to die when the time comes? My experience, which echoes wisdom handed down through most mystical traditions, suggests that attending to the latter first provides essential guidance for understanding the former. My life—whatever remains of it—is inestimably richer for having taken the time to investigate how I want it to end. I find that I’m living bigger and bolder, not holding back, not waiting for some mythical time in the future when perhaps it will be easier to do so.  I want to live as I want to die, sharing with others despite the risks. In all honesty, I feel some trepidation writing this piece, speaking openly about death-designing to an anonymous audience. I am fairly sure that it will disturb more than a few who read it, and yet the old fears that would have stayed my hand in the past now seem less needful than the impulse to connect honestly as time grows shorter.

Clearly, there can be no one right way to live in these times; the waters are uncharted.  We will do what works for us. Denial, grief, gratitude, hope, anger, depression, action—who is to say which of these each of us must traverse, for how long and in what order?  But I share a fragment of my journey simply as an invitation: if it feels right to you, consider diving deeply into the truth of our collective and individual realities, facing your mortality and that of those you love. Death offers wise and consoling advice if you have the courage to listen.  And that courage is quite likely to be rewarded with a life more precious, richer, and ironically, that much harder to bid farewell.

Is it worth it?  I can’t answer for anyone other than myself, but we can probably agree that this situation seriously sucks. Given what is, and what almost certainly lies ahead, I find myself heartened and even hopeful, not about the quantity of my life, but about the quality of it. I feel very fortunate to have found this small silver lining, the goad I needed to finally be here now.  


Elizabeth West has a lifelong interest in revolution, and in exploring the interstices where love, truth, imagination and courage meet, sometimes igniting wild transformation. Her political writing has appeared in CounterPunch and Dissident Voice. 

First published in Common Dreams. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Each of us must navigate the uncertainty and upheavals ahead in our own way, following our personal compass. (Photo: via Earth Island Journal)

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