“Everyone says climate is the most important issue of all, and yet they just carry on as before. I don’t understand that. Because if the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions. To me that is black or white. There are no gray areas when it comes to survival. Either we go on as a civilization or we don’t. We have to change.”
– Greta Thunberg, 15-year-old climate activist, self-identified as autistic, speaking at the UN Climate Summit in Poland, December, 2018.
The insight came swiftly, undeniable and overwhelming, like the fire storm that devoured Paradise. Instant and devastating. The impact and understanding immediate.
I had been reeling from the news of the last years regarding climate disruption, wars, famine, hate crimes, the desperation of migrants and refugees, and the incomprehensible chaos and brutishness of our current president – as have we all – and also from a series of events which I had met individually and, without realizing it, had compartmentalized in order to respond from an open an unimpeded heart.
But coming home after many days away to phone messages from two different women who could not speak coherently because they had broken into sobs, I was alerted to the grief that they were carrying for all of us which could not be contained in a personal story. I knew then these are not merely difficult times. And even this might not have been sufficient to alert me to the extremity of the critical shift in our weather, external and internal, had not another message been left from a friend whose daughter had just been killed by the Thousand Oaks shooter and another from a relative on her way to the Pittsburgh synagogue where there had just been a massacre.
On Friday November 13, 2015, I had stayed up all night emailing with a friend in Paris as she hid in her apartment after the bombings which had just occurred in her neighborhood. And in the last year, I had been advising several friends and colleagues who are offering trauma counseling and community support to the Parkland survivors and their families as well as to students and faculty in Pine Ridge who were trying to meet a rash of suicides and attempted suicides in teenagers and younger children. There were also three deaths of young people close to me in the last month. A startling number of friends and acquaintances, formerly competent and active people, have been unable to function for long periods of time due to disabling depression, anxiety, and despair; I do not know if they will recover. Two members of our small, well-educated and trained community are homeless, unable to find work or permanent housing with friends or relatives. An alarming percentage of friends’ children are suffering from addiction, schizophrenia, depression, and are in danger of committing suicide. Two women will meet with me this week to explore writing about living with wary children (plural) suffering mental illness while another friend called to ask for prayers for yet another young man incarcerated in a mental hospital. One of our Daré (community healing circles) members reports monthly on the condition of two sons in and out of mental hospitals over the last ten years. There has been more mental illness and addiction in my extended family than I had ever conceived possible when I was young and more children in my kinship network suffering from conditions that range between high functioning Asperger’s syndrome and extreme autism requiring full time care.
At night, I dream the anguished cries of polar bears, grizzlies, fur seals, whales, wolves, elephants, giraffes, lions, whose habitats are overrun, toxic and gravely dangerous, who cannot live a moment without fear of the next action by the ravenous two-leggeds who hunt or gawk, who pollute, destroy, and dominate. Though I had to evacuate for a week because of the firestorm threat to Topanga, my discomfort did not compare to the death in the Woolsey fire of two of our very, very few mountain lions when 85% of the wild mountain park that was their territory burned. Meanwhile, the rangers cautioned us not to put out water or food because “the animals are resourceful” even though there is no water to be found in this drought which caused the fires. Simultaneously, the Camp Fire changed everything as people were vaporized or cremated in a fire that was hotter than any natural fire we have known. A filmmaker friend who traveled to Chico and Paradise found people gathering – Climate Uprising – to face the climate crisis even while sifting through the ashes for signs of their loved ones and trying to imagine how to survive and rebuild. The probability that there was and may continue to be a release of radiation from the toxic and radioactive super site at the old Rocketdyne lab in Simi Valley is democratically experienced by all beings which means the remaining mountain lions and all the flora and fauna and human beings, myself, my children, my friends included within a hundred miles.
What was my realization? Here it is:
We are all going extinct.
The animals know this and now all humans know this as well. Sensing the imminent death of all species, the cellular understanding of our common fate is making us ill. Our nervous and physical systems cannot bear this terrible knowledge. The growing understanding of the reality of the human caused 6th Extinction is resulting in Extinction Illness.
Contemplating the extent and pervasiveness of despair and violence across the globe, the increasing aberrance of human and non-human behavior, I see that all humans and non-humans know this, all human people and all beings, animals, trees, birds, insects, fish, know this. And all of us are being driven to some form of madness, pain, or dysfunction. For the animals, Bear, Wolf, Elephant, Whale this results in unavoidable and unmediated terror. We humans know, with or without awareness, that we are responsible. And so, we, entirely crazed, become a species that commits ecocide even as we die of it. The different signs and symptoms are ubiquitous and no one is escaping it.
We know we are going extinct. We know this consciously and/or unconsciously. Each person on the planet knows this. Extinction is upon us and no one is immune to it. All beings sense our/their imminent death. Not only their individual deaths, but far worse, the death of their species. An unbearable thought. And beyond that, the death of all species ….
My father, writer Arnold Posy, feared for the death of his people. He wrote in Yiddish and mourned its death and everything that would mean, the end of a culture which was held together for hundreds of years by language. I lived every day with his grief as the truth of the Holocaust descended upon him. He had escaped the Czarist army and made his way to England, because he knew how Jews fared when conscripted and also, he was not a man who could take up a gun. His brother came to the foot of his bed one night, his uniform torn and stained with mud, his head bandaged and bloody, his body broken and exuding the patina of death. “Look, Aria, what the Cossacks have done to me,” the ghost said and disappeared. Weeks later, a letter came to London detailing his death in the army. My father knew that had he not escaped, he would also have died by fragging but he could not bear the reality that his family of twelve children and numerous aunts, uncles, cousins, had perished in mass graves, save him, the youngest, and his sister the oldest, twenty years between them.
We lived with these deaths though my father’s personal sorrow was mostly silenced by the greater wail of the Holocaust. In 1945, at age 9, I learned of the atom bomb and sensed that I would also mourn other incomprehensible tragedies. When my father died in 1987 when I was fifty, I knew that I would be carrying not the death of a people but the death of all peoples, human and non-human alike, the death of the planet, of Earth, of the future, of all life.
It is possible that Extinction Illness is the root of all contemporary mental, physical, and spiritual diseases. Extinction Illness, the essential cellular knowledge and terror that one’s life, one’s people’s lives, all life is threatened, that lineage is disappearing, that we, all, may well become extinct within a very short period of time, that the future will be eradicated.
The fire of knowing sweeps down upon us like a tornado and there is no place to run. There is no escape. And worse, we do not get to live our ordinary lives until the moment of Extinction. Much suffering is inevitable before our demise in whichever way it will come to any one of us.
An inevitable prelude arises: Extinction illness – our bodies, minds, souls reeling with the terrible reality of what we have done, are doing. Extinction is our fault.
Whether or not we ‘believe’ the scientists who say climate change is Anthropocene Climate Disruption, meaning we are the cause, we know extinction and our role in it, consciously and unconsciously. Even those who don’t consciously know or accept the reality of the 6th Extinction or Climate Change or Disruption or recognize the consequences of the bleaching of the barrier reefs, the glaciers and poles melting, the acidification of the oceans, the extreme weather shifts, deadly floods, year-long and increasingly intense fire seasons, wind tornadoes and fire tornadoes, the insect apocalypse, the collapse of fisheries, deforestation, desertification and 17,000 species threatened at this time, they know. The unconscious knows. The soul knows. The connected life system knows even if the individual isn’t consciously aware. He/she/they were born into the network of all life and Life knows too. As Ubuntu teaches, “I am because you are,” which now we must rephrase: I will not be because you will not be. I will not be if you will not be.
Extinction illness. A world condition and a world affliction. Perhaps this systemic affliction is at the root of all our current global plagues, diseases, and illnesses.
As I write this to you, my heart beat is irregular and pounding. I know the reality of all of this in my body. We each know this differently. I know it through hartzveitig– the pain of extreme grief and despair, the anguish of the broken heart. There is no physical medical cause for my body’s agitation; there is only this physical manifestation of hartzveitig. It could be any symptom. It could be any of the conditions or situations mentioned in the beginning of this desperate exhortation to sanity and change. It could be a heart attack, intractable depression, inconsolable grief, addictions of every sort, splitting, compulsions, denial, extreme greed and territoriality, violent rages, derangement, uncontrollable aggression, murder, urges to suicide, even, paradoxically, paralleling the host of auto-immune responses, deliberate acts of ecocide. It could be any of these arbitrary or happenstance physical or mental manifestations of the same illness which we mistake for symptoms and treat uselessly, as we often treat symptoms without seeking the essential core.
As there is no pharmaceutical for Extinction, there is none for Extinction Illness. There is no anti-biotic, no anti-depressant or anti-psychotic, no sedative, no bone marrow transplant, no chemotherapy, rodenticide, no pesticide, no radiation therapy. To the contrary, this list makes it clear that these conventional medicinals are the poisons which accelerate the condition. There is no personal healing for these conditions and treating or focusing on the symptoms is counter-productive and exacerbates our common jeopardy.
Here we are. We are all suffering a life-threatening illness for which there is no discoverable cure. How shall we meet it?
For a period of time, we may be able to bear the symptoms or pretend that they are part of the natural order of disease to be treated conventionally. Over time, this blind recourse will be seen to be self-serving and futile. Like any being with a life-threatening illness, we suffer it and respond in a thousand different ways before we ultimately succumb.
However, in rare cases we can transform our fate through deep listening to what the body and soul need to reverse the death process and enter life. Healing our lives and preparing for good deaths is the same action. Can we heal ourselves, our planet? Can we desist from doing so much harm? There is no medicine, no medical procedure that will heal Extinction except ….
The only healing for Extinction, and so Extinction IIlness, as they are entirely intertwined, is stopping Extinction.
When one is suffering a life-threatening illness, one is called to look beyond the physical manifestation to see the root cause and determine what one can do to change one’s life and, hopefully, extend, even save it. As it happens, the particular symptoms we have, the particular affliction, often point the way to the healing action we are to take. This implies that each of us suffering distinctly gets to add exactly what is needed to the complex whole. Though this way of proceeding is not part of conventional western medicine, it is still a deep response among many people who search to find meaning and purpose in a healing path. Cure is instant but healing is a life-long practice.
Learning I had cancer at age forty, I understood I had to change my life in every way to create health. I had to leave a relatively secure teaching life for the unknown, risking my income, leaving friends, community, comfort and a four-bedroom house and pool in the suburbs to live in Topanga, a rural canyon in California in a two-room broken down cottage at the end of a dirt road to which I had to bring water and other basic amenities. My value system was undergoing an extreme reset. It was excruciatingly difficult to strip away socialization, conventional assumptions about the good life and everyone’s advice to remain safe, but I knew my life depended on the shift. Struggling and afraid, I turned inward to create a relationship with the natural world. Cancer striking at age forty brought a dark time, but the activity of healing brought light. Not everyone can leave our urban centers, but we can transform them so that we are all living less desperate and disconnected lives. We can find the necessary ways to restore and co-exist in different degrees with the wild everywhere. However, to really live once again with the natural world and the wild on their own terms means to strip away almost everything and begin again. And only when we do so will we be in the right mind to begin to contemplate what is next and how to proceed on behalf of a future for all beings, including ourselves.
In the mid-seventies, a man suffering cancer said to me, “Cancer is the answer.” He had changed his life drastically from a deadly regime to life-giving ways that entirely invigorated him and it seemed was also going to extend his life significantly.
And so, given that we are all suffering this life-threatening condition which manifests in the deterioration of the natural world and in concomitant individual, social, political, global catastrophes, and given that a multitude of climate scientists, specialists of Earth medicine, asserted on October 7, 2018, through the release of a UN climate assessment report that we have only twelve years to lower the carbon level or all life as we know it is done for – all life – then we have less than twelve years to reverse this diagnosis. How, then, shall we live to promote health? How will we change our lives drastically enough to save Life itself?
Well, we will have to love life, won’t we? We will have to love life, the natural world, value beauty and the wild nature above all else, won’t we?
And here’s the rub: in order to save our lives, we have to save everyone’s life, human and non-human, because Extinction Illness tells us that we cannot survive alone as the life force and life cycles depend absolutely on diversity and the abundance of all the life forms.
In modern days, when a plague or virus affects a large population or is highly contagious and uncontrollable, all health and medical resources are directed toward healing and containment. But in this instance, medical, psychological, and health personnel have not considered it their duty, let alone their primary responsibility to make the diagnosis and find the causes of Extinction and Extinction Illness in our lives and respond accordingly. It is urgent that we do so. The ultimate meanings of “Physician heal thyself,” coupled with, “First do no harm.”
So much more can and must be said and explored about this, but first we must take in the reality of the illness, its multiple forms and manifestations, the ways it masks ordinary diseases, and the truth that there are no easy cures or even opiates to dull the pain. First, we must recognize our condition and then admit we have caused this crisis, that we continue to create it. We are responsible. It is a consequence of our willful and/or oblivious initiation of an auto-immune disease, simultaneously homicide and ecocide.
Extinction Illness: an affliction and an alert. In 1977, cancer alerted me to Imperialism and its affects: a rogue cell invades a territory, reproduces itself without assuming any useful functions to sustain the whole, uses up all the available resources and pollutes the site until everything, itself included, dies. I had to know it in my body in order to understand its grave harm in the world. Extinction Illness alerts us to the dire effects of our predatory nature. Extinction Illness is an iconic auto-immune disease: the species attacks itself and all life is threatened.
But deep self-scrutiny of the illness and its causes can reveal, as is the case, again, with other life-threatening illnesses, which paths lead to healing and the restoration of vitality. There are old medicines and medicine ways that can be revived. Indigenous peoples whose ways and culture are not responsible for this tragedy, though they suffer it, know something of the values, approaches, lived ways that can mitigate what is otherwise our grim fate. Deep immersion in and attention to and unconditional love of the natural world are necessary pathways. There are other ways we can find but none will be effective unless we willingly, ruthlessly and essentially change our lives.
The only healing for Extinction Illness is changing our lives to stop Extinction.
The only healing for Extinction Illness is changing our lives to stop Extinction.