“From this moment on, knowing what is happening to the planet, to what do I devote my life?“
Answers will vary, of course. Some, perhaps most affluent people, will opt for hedonistic denial--continue pursuing their private dreams of bigger houses, luxury vacations, large SUVs, exciting new career possibilities, idyllic vacations, happy children, and so forth. Like drunken passengers on a cruise ship on the Niagara River, they will continue to drink, dance, and laugh, ignoring the roaring around the bend, until the boat tips over the precipice.
A vast number of others, at the poorer end of the spectrum, will be too preoccupied with daily survival in an increasingly violent and hostile world to give much thought to anything beyond getting through the day. Those few of us who strive to remain aware and not escape into denial face a yawning vortex of despair as everything--starting with climate--goes from bad to worse with each passing day, week, and year. So how can we keep our balance on this thin line between denial and despair? In a world without hope, or where hope is increasingly elusive, to what do we devote our lives?
Some have already opted for despair. For example, Roy Scranton, an English professor I recently heard at a bookstore, has published a self-indulgent collection of his own essays, entitled We're Doomed--Now what? For him, and for other writers like him, despair is chic. I obligingly purchased his book, only to find that he had recycled many of his earlier academic essays that had nothing to do with climate change, and that when he focused on his presumed topic, he knew nothing more about climate change than I do, but enjoyed wallowing in despair. When I asked him if he had heard of permaculture, he shrugged off the question--how could I possibly be so naive as to offer alternatives to total despair?
Dahr Jamail's own response to his question is far more nuanced, although he admits that he must reformulate it from day to day, fending off the vortex of despair as he goes. And that is simply to devote his life to doing good, which in his own case as a journalist and activist, means exposing the cruelty and mendacity of the powerful, and faithfully describing what he sees and what he is told by researchers, in order--against all odds--to awaken his readers to reality.
My own response, likewise, varies from day to day. But it is rooted in my cultivation of the Dharma--the ongoing awareness of impermanence, interbeing, and oneness. One practice I find very useful is what Buddhists call "The Five Remembrances"--five inescapable realities of life that most of us prefer not to think about. By deliberately calling them up, as a meditation practice, we familiarize ourselves with them, and they are less threatening to our equanimity, which in turn is a prerequisite to our generic daily agenda: being well, doing good work, and keeping in touch. The five remembrances are as follows (as rendered by Thich Nhat Hanh)
1. I am of the nature to get sick; there is no way to avoid getting sick.
2. I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to avoid growing old.
3. I am of the nature to die; there is no way to avoid dying.
4. I am of the nature to lose everything I cherish; there is no way to avoid losing everything.
5. My actions are my only true possession; by my actions shall I live.
On days when I feel overwhelmed with grief and rage for what we are doing, in our ignorance, greed, and denial, to our unique and magnificent living planet, I modify the first four remembrances by adding in the larger extensions of the first-person subject, as follows:
1. "I (and my community, and Gaia) am of the nature to get sick; there is no way to avoid getting sick..."
--and so forth. The effect of this practice, sincerely applied as often as necessary, is to restore my equanimity once again, so I can resume my Dharma quest to grow gardens, grow community, and grow awareness--to practice Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share, and to learn Gaia, teach Gaia, heal Gaia, and create Gaia--up to my last breath, no matter what happens.