A Ship of Fools in a sea of melting ice

Ship of Fools woodcut

Humanity merrily sails along, getting and spending, oblivious of impending climate catastrophe.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ever since I recently learned that Arctic sea ice is expected to disappear in summer in a mere four years my inner alarm bells have been ringing. It wasn’t supposed to happen so soon!

I had hoped we could change course and avoid the disappearance of ice caps and glaciers along with the inundation of islands and coastal cities.

One recent evening, standing in Whole Foods, the nice cashier asked how I was doing, and I shared with her something of the ache and grief and confusion I was experiencing. All of this was before I started reading Bill McKibben’s book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

I was a couple of years behind, focusing on other things — things “green,” but not paying close attention to the astonishing rapidity with which our planet’s climate has already shifted off its familiar course. Perhaps I had one foot in denial.

But, with the news of the summer sea ice, I was suddenly in free fall, both feet heading for Eaarth, the name McKibben has given to our already radically altered world.

Polar bears on ice rafts

Anyway, there I am in Whole Foods, talking with the cashier about Arctic sea ice in summer. And she said something about how sad it will be not to have polar bears outside of zoos. Between us we shared an image of polar bears standing on little, melting, raft-like fragments of ice.

And that’s when I said that the polar bears are the least of my worries. “Don’t get me wrong,” I said. “I love polar bears. But this meltdown means much worse havoc than that.”

I’m not a climatologist, but I’ve read enough about what’s happening to our climate system to realize most Americans probably have very little sense of what risks we’re facing, and what losses are already mounting. And I know just enough biology and ecology to realize that polar bears are but one of many thousands of species at risk. And there is also the global food supply, the risk of global famine. And what will we do with the climate refugees?

It is not inconceivable that civilization, or even our own species, is at risk. Certainly there is the danger of wars and political chaos. Have we not yet learned how profoundly interconnected and how fragile everything is?

I was horrified by what I’m calling the Climate Emergency even when I thought I’d not see any of the worst parts of it. It horrified me that our present mode of culture and civilization would (or could) wreak havoc on future generations. All my life I’ve steeped and stewed in the eco-ethos. Even thinking in terms of the impact of our lives on “the seventh generation” seemed too narrow and selfish. What about the eighth, the ninth!?

The most painful and difficult part of the inner journey I’ve been on in recent weeks, since learning about the Arctic ice, has been the stunned gradual acceptance of the fact that it is possible that we’ve already set in motion a series of self-reinforcing “positive feedback loops” which scientists call “runaway” climate change.

That’s when Earth systems have crossed a tipping point, beyond which it becomes difficult to imagine even the possibility of a new Eaarth, a changed, less hospitable world.

Hospice Earth

I began to entertain science-fiction nightmares of the sort I have called the “Hospice Earth Scenario,” but which perhaps should be called Eaaarth, with three A’s.

This is my worst nightmare, a world in which the only torches to be passed, or gifts to be given, are the comfort we can offer one another as our own species and countless thousands of others perish forever.

As much as my own inevitable, eventual death is painful to accept, the Earth Hospice Scenario is a hundred fold worse to imagine.

It is the possibility of giving to others, of passing the generational torch which “bends toward justice,” which forms the warp and woof of my soul. I was born into a cultural milieu which celebrated and nurtured great hopes and dreams.

Fortunately, for many of us, the voices of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King still echo in our minds with a call for justice for future generations. E.F. Schumacher, Rachel Carson, John Muir and Aldo Leopold also inspire us to believe that we might move our cultural trajectory from its eco-cidal course and even heal our most basic of relationships, that with the biosphere.

Hearing these voices, we know ourselves to be carriers of this torch, holders of the essential dream. Economic, social, environmental and ecological justice become one in our hearts, like the strands woven into a rope. It is one rope.

These intertwined, interwoven fibers are The Gift which provides grounding and meaning in our lives, which make our personal sufferings tolerable by embedding them in a fabric of our fundamental togetherness, compassion and,  yes, generosity. Personal losses and death are bearable on Earth because Earth endures and the torch is passed.

I’m going to assume that there is the possibility of avoiding the worst case scenario, of going on giving — and thus living. Really living. But such a victory cannot be won easily and the stakes could not be higher.

Into the lifeboat

Suppose we were all togethe r on a large ship, one big ship. This is not a raft of ice. We’re going to have to consider some hard choices. The ship is taking on water. It is too heavy. Things must be thrown overboard. Quickly.

Our physical culture, pretty much all of it, is rooted in fossil fuels.

Suppose we were all together in a large house. The foundations are rotten, the posts and beams must be replaced. The roof and floor joists are strained to breaking. The roof leaks. Is that an earthquake?

We simply cannot replace the energy we use now with harmless renewables. Our physical culture and its economy will use a great deal less energy in the future than we use today because of this. If we are lucky. If we bend toward justice.

Suppose we were all together on a difficult journey.

Never before has the world needed our Gift as it does now.

— J. River Martin, Transition Voice

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  1. David says

    I’d love to know what others are doing as far as community is concerned surrounding this situation. I’ve read books from kuntsler, heinberg, etc. and none seem to have much of a path to follow concerning the creation of similarly minded community. I live in San Diego presently and have been sorely disappointed with the understanding of the situation here and the inability of folks to get past their issues and on towards the type of community we’ll need. Several of these books mention SD by name as a bad place to be when the shit hits the fan, I may just have to leave. Any comments/suggestions on these points?

  2. James R. Martin says

    Hi David –

    I think you’re onto something absolutely crucial. The challenges we’re facing as we face and seek to respond to the climate emergency are not so much about individuals or families … or nations. The locus and scale of the response we can most benefit from is the community.

    If we’re going to build (or re-build, or retrofit) a physical culture that depends upon and uses a much lower quantity of fossil fuels, we’re going to have to do that in neighborhoods, at the neighborhood scale. Mostly. Towns and cities and nations … are built of neighborhoods. So we’d better get to know and care about and for our neighbors, and cooperate and collaborate with them to re-design and re-build a world that can work–world that doesn’t depend on mass destruction to be sustained.

    Nationally and internationally scaled political organizing and action is necessary and urgent, but no more urgent than neighborhood organizing and action.

    The ecovillage concept and model is my primary inspiration in what I’m saying above. And I think new ecovillages are probably easier to create than retrofitted suburban or urban neighborhoods–because the hurdle of convicing your neighbors to change can be avoided.

    The biggest hurdle I see is creating a new pattern or system of inertia. In physics, “Inertia is the resistance of any physical object to a change in its state of motion or rest, or the tendency of an object to resist any change in its motion.” [Wikipedia] It applies to social systems just as much as it does to billard balls or automobiles. That’s why I advocate for creating, and nurturing, and sustaining community on the basis of caring for earth and one another. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anything else deserving the name, “community”. So it’s one of those words that gets a lot of abuse.

    Anyway, I honestly think the most important and valuable micro- or sub- movement in the world today is the ecovillage movement. These are “living labortories” for creating, nurturing and sustaining community which nurtures and cares for life. Like any movement, the ecovillage movement is evolving, and it is evolving to include many variations, from new rural ecovillges to retrofitted suburban and urban ones. But they are all on a “human scale” — even when embedded in a city of millions! Fortunately, these emerging communities can be found in most regions of the world, though they aren’t always called “ecovillage”. Sometimes their called “low impact community”.

    The Fellowship for Intentional Community ( http://www.ic.org ) is a good source for info on such communities. And there’s is also the Global Ecovillage Network, with its many regional chapters or networking hubs.

    Yes magazine is sometimes a good source for info on interesting retrofitting type neighborhood projects, too.

  3. says

    Any article on climate change that does not at least mention GEOENGINEERING is not addressing the whole issue. As any Google News search will reveal, GEOENGINEERING is a reality. Some people believe it is only in the experimental stage and may be used to counteract climate change. Others believe large scale GEOENGINEERING has been conducted in secret for over a decade for intentional climate modification for political, economic, and military ends (aka WEATHER WARFARE). Some of us believe that intentionally tampering with the climate/weather is one of the major causes of climate change. After all, WATER is the most significant greenhouse gas… therefore any climate or weather modification program — or even unintentional stuff like legitimate persistent contrails — that changes the behavior of WATER in the atmosphere will have a massive impact on climate change. This reality is totally absent from the mainstream dialogue on climate change and from the transition community’s approach as well. 60% of Americans don’t trust the mainstream media, so why do so many smart people regurgitate the MSM story on climate change without acknowledging the many other factors at play in addition to greenhouse gasses. We may trigger a methane hydrate release feedback loop, but it won’t be solely due to fossil fuel emissions. While you’re at it, why not address suppressed “FREE” energy technologies. If we’re really going to evolve past fossil fuels and artificial scarcity, we will need to access ALL alternative energy technologies including those much more efficient than solar, wind, hydro, etc. HINT: Planet Earth is a perpetual motion machine generating a massive electromagnetic field called a geodynamo. Tap into that and fossil fuels won’t be able to compete.

  4. James R. Martin says

    Max: “Any article on climate change that does not at least mention GEOENGINEERING is not addressing the whole issue.”

    It would obviously be impossible to address “the whole issue” of the climate crisis (emergency) in one short article. That said, I do believe geoengineering is probably going to become a big topic very soon, as there appears to be a growing movement advocating for “geo-engineering” interventions in the Arctic region–intended to prevent massive methane releases there.

    As for the “mainstream” media (a.k.a., corporate media), my view is that most of it serves as smoke screen, distraction and disinformational propaganda for, shall we say, “monied interests”. Most of it doesn’t deserve to be called journalism, which is a respectable field when honestly practiced. And while many good sources of information and journalism do exist on the internet, the internet is flooded with a virtual tsunami of paranoid pscychosis and delusional fantasies. Also caught in the wave are honest speculative musings presented as fact despite the lack of sufficient verifiable evidence.

    It is difficult–or impossible–to be certain about the claims made by believers in “chemtrails” (ostensibly covert geoengineering operations), suppressed “free energy” technology and the like. But most educated people are going to require a high bar of evidence before taking this kind of thing seriously. As they should.

    Yesterday evening I began writing another article which does make significant mention of geo-engineering (so-called). But my new article addresses the possible future implementation of such interventions. I’m not convinced by the claims I’ve seen concerning alleged covert geoengineering activities.

  5. Fran says

    The earth is not at risk – we are, along with a heartbreaking number of other species. I cannot bring my heart to break for the loss of the human species – not when it would mean a time of quiet healing for the earth and the species that remain. If we are wiped out by the loss of habitat, water, food – how can that be a bad thing for the earth and the species that survive? Without humans, the sea will lose its acidity, the air will come back to balance, the animals and birds and sea creatures will thrive, the earth will green again. It might take a thousand years but what is that to the great mother? Without humans no animal will cry for its baby from the lonely pain of a sow stall, no baby chick will be minced alive without ever having lived, no whale will be trapped in a net while its family hover, helpless, no dog will be bred to fight to the death, struggling on in pain for love of its “master”. Perhaps other species will arise in time to take over the mantle of dominance, but nature will quietly breathe and the laws of cause and effect will manage that future species, just as we have managed our own extinction inevitably from our actions. Should we just give up and let it happen? I dont feel so – it seems to me that we have a responsibility to make our demise as painless as possible for the species and environment we have damaged. We have a responsibility to keep learning and striving to rise above our base human selves, for as long as we are able. Why? That is, for me a great mystery. All I can say is it feels right to do so – and perhaps the reason is one we are just too small to see. We are an energy that is as much a part of the earth we are destroying as it is the great universe beyond our capacity to imagine, and we are blind to anything more profound than our own flawed view of this world. We are as much “nature” as the trees we cut down and kill and our foolish errors and hubris appear to be inevitable steps to our extinction. Or at least they are the pathway we have chosen for that purpose. It will feel like catastrophe, and I will grieve for the pain of the innocent, but I will not mourn the passing of my species.

  6. James R. Martin says

    Thanks Fran.

    I’m not convinced that the core of the problem is “human nature” — which I put in quotes not as a quote of yourself but because the phrase is so often used to explain why we’re in this mess. Anyway, I don’t think we’re a “flawed species,” as some put it. I think, instead, we live within a profoundly flawed culture. Some say the culture is flawed as a result of “human nature” — our biological nature as a species. But I think there is sufficient reason to think otherwise.

    The dominant human culture on Earth, today, is a dominator culture, a culture of “haves” dominating “have nots,” of taking and exploiting rather than sharing and cooperating. So, naturally, it looks like we’re the dominant species. A species that dominates. But not all cultures or individual human beings are of that culture. Other cultures have existed which were not dominator cultures. Not everyone wants to play that game. So it is possible for us to culturally evolve beyond the dominator culture.

    That’s why I would mourn the passing of my species. We figure a misbehaving teenager will grow out of it, will evolve. Why should we not encourage the same possibility in the human? We just need to grow up as a species — culturally. Biological evolution is but part of what evolves on Earth.

  7. Fran says

    Hi James. The “why” is so interesting to me. As I said, we are as “natural” as any other part of earth, and therefore it seem to me that both our existance and our actions have a purpose that is negative now but could be positive in the long run. You know how things can seem totally bonkers but then it all makes perfect sense once you get a missing piece of information? We seem totally bonkers for that reason I think. I dont think we are “flawed” in the usual sense, but its very hard to see why we came along and what useful purpose we are serving. For example, our need to build stuff seems manic – we keep doing it even when we dont need any more stuff, and when seems a really stupid and harmful thing to do. It seems bonkers, but its an ingrained, driving purpose so its clearly meant to be, and how good if we knew why. With the wisdom of a billion years and the ability to see across the multiverse, it might be possible for some wise species to look back at us and say, Oh, THATS what humans were here for!!! How remarkable – becuase the sea was highly acidic just when the ocean currents stopped and the earth tipped into an ice age, the conditions were perfect for xxxxx species to come into being, and how good that there was that soup of plastic in all the oceans and all that concrete across the land, becuase it is exactly what xxxx needed to survive on during their early evolution stages. Just look at xxxxx – what a beautiful energy, how gentle are their souls, how harmonious that small universe is now. What a good thing we had the humans – amazing that they came along just at the right time, and created exactlythe right environment for xxxx. Or alternatively, amazing that xxxx came along just at the right time, and could use all the debris left behind by humans. Either way, its Nature’s breath at work.

    OK, so maybe this is a fairy tale, but its better than the alternative – that humans “own” the world and can trash it if we like and then move to the moon and start again! As to being flawed, we still havent figured out the “reason” for the rise or fall of the dinosaurs, and all they did was grow. I think it all makes perfect sense – we are just not able to see it. Does it need to spell the end of the human species? I think so, but then I am a tiny eye staring blindly into an infinite space. How wonderful if, in fact, the human species is able to get its act together – maybe we really do have the capacity to evolve, use up all the soup and the concrete to survive our self inflicted ice age, figure out that we have learnt enough about creation from our time of building physical stuff and move on to creating sounds that bring the earth into a new and even more beautiful harmony – maybe we are actually xxxxxx ourselves? All in divine right order…..

  8. James R. Martin says


    ” … our need to build stuff seems manic – we keep doing it even when we dont need any more stuff, and when seems a really stupid and harmful thing to do.”

    This is the crucial part of what you just said, in my view. Why? Why are we manic about what we call “production”? Why do we amass more and more and yet more stuff and environmental modifications?
    Some will say that the answer to these questions is primarily genetic/biological. I would argue that it is primarily cultural/psychological. The answer is probably a combination of the two, but I want to emphasize the cultural/psychologial — both because it seems the better explanation and because the cultural/psychological seems to me the more readily changable of the two. And I’d not like to advocate for genetically modifying the human animal. (I don’t even like it when folks do that with salmon!)

    I think the most important and interesting living question in our world today is How can we tranform human culture and psychology such that the human animal need not engage in such absurdly “manic” “productivity”? And I put “manic” in quotes because I’m quoting your word for it. And I put “productivity” in quotes–sometimes these are called scare quotes–because there is no rational basis for conceiving of such manic manipulation of our environment as “productive,” or as “progress”.

    Manic overproduction is a sign of psychopathology. It is the whole culture that is mentally deranged. So what are we going to do about it? That’s the question. And the answer cannot be to the effect: Well, I can’t say our destruction of the biosphere is a bad thing” — something a friend told me. He figures maybe it’s just as well if the human (etc.) perishes, ’cause nature is always doing that. And we’re natural…. And so on. But, upon close inspection, one can perform this same operation about anything anyone values. And the result is called “value nihilism” in philosophy circles. And that’s not pretty.

    Ultimately, I think, we’re talking about an ethico-aesthetic crisis of the human soul on Earth. (In Earth, really, but why pick nits?) Ask yourself, Why love? Why care? Why give? The only good answer is … “Because it is beautiful to do so.” To say, “Because it is the “right” thing to do” falls short of human beauty. The evolutionary leap we need to make as a species is Beauty.

    I think we might just pull it off — in the nick of time. By the skin of our teeth.

  9. Fran says

    I am not a values nihilist by any means; if the human species destroys itself it is because we have not succeeded in learning how not to do so. I would like nothing more than for humanity to become my species xxx. But I hover near the brink of your friend’s view becuase I wonder if we are following this path for a purpose that does require our extinction, or near extinction. I certainly believe we have an intrinsic, deep instinct that some call love or beauty or “the right thing” – I call it oneness, and love in its purest form. As you say (and Im stealing it!), we are experiencing an ethico-aesthetic crisis of the human soul. A lot of beauty is coming from our attempts to overcome this crisis – perhaps that is a purpose on its own. For me, the reason I dont just throw up my hands and vote to send humanity headlong into hell is becuase our headlong flight will cause so much collateral damage along the way to our earth and its inhabitants. I have a theory that I dont often express becuase it is met with blank looks. I think we have the evolution process back to front. I dont mean we havent evolved from other animals, but I dont think evolution is a straight line. In all my study and meditation, the “higher mind” is expressed as things like “peaceful”, “accepting” and “detatched” and “living in this moment”. It seems to me that this is what human beings are evolving AWAY from. If you look at the path we have taken, these attributes have become more diluted with each step away from our beginnings. If I could choose enlightenment in the next life could I do better than a tree? Is there any way of knowing that a tree is unknowing/disconnected from enlightenment? We know nothing of their world – it is only recently that we have learnt plants actually make a sound from their roots below ground. Are they talkingphilosophy? Off topic, I apologise, but perhaps an explanation of sorts for the reason I would not mourn the human species – I dont believe we are the only path to universal consciousness.

  10. Karen says

    Thank you for this article. After a day (week, month, years) speaking with close friends, family members and new acquaintances and realizing that hardly anyone I know thinks about any of this stuff…I read this with relief and didn’t feel quite so alone. Our transition town movement here is limping along and my little local food grocery store can’t make a profit b/c, according to my small biz advisor, I need cheaper inventory. sigh. Maybe a support group for those willing to face these realities is in order. I appreciated the comments of the others as well. Thank you for helping me feel a little less isolated…and a little less crazy. Wish I could invite you over for a cup of coffee and a nice, long chat. best, Karen

  11. James R. Martin says

    Thanks for the appreciation, Karen! And thanks for helping me to feel a little less isolated. The support group is a great idea.

    [I tried several times to post a longer response, with links, but it failed to post each time. This is sort of a test to see if the links or the length of my post had anything to do with the failure of the sytem.]

    • Karen says

      Thanks for your reply and for the link. It took me a minute to get through but I found Ms. Macy interesting and insightful. If you still have the other post and links feel free to email me directly at karen@delocalfoodexchange.com. I appreciate the time you took to put that together! I just feel so grateful that I find “preparing” for our future worthwhile and even enjoyable. Things like having fun with my son, planting perennial food, building community, watching my 3 laying hens, and researching a honey bee hive that I hope is in my near future are what bring me joy. I try to reconcile that with trying to not scare my 6 year old to death and not putting too much reality based posting on my business facebook page. I wish I could just be myself with folks without it seeming to freak them out or even offend them. I wonder why it is the only choice for some of us to see and face the obvious while for others denial is so easy. How can they not feel the sense of urgency?? As sad as I am, I am grateful that I “woke up” and at least can feel like I tried to help.

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