“Seriousness, like life, is a thought … and this thought creates a feeling. And if you create the feeling of seriousness, then you are in a very serious state …
“You are very liable to have stress, strain, sickness and unhappiness and jealousy and everything else … Now, seriousness doesn’t help you do anything in life, but destroy yourself.” — Sydney Banks
In hindsight, I don’t think I quite knew what was coming.
For many years, I cared about climate change. Probably since before Al Gore’s first movie put to rest much of the misinformation that had been flying around for years about global heating, and that was, honestly, pretty confusing.
“An Inconvenient Truth,” released in 2006, explained the fluctuations in temperature that would come with heating — not just more heat, but also, more severe cold as the jet stream became unstable. Gore graphed the changing and erratic weather and explained that, although year-by-year temperatures went up and down, they were now going up, up and up, the smaller zigzags in degrees like a stair step toward a hot house Earth.
I wrote a children’s book called Weird Weather* about global warming, but mostly, I got on with my life. I was in my twenties then. Adventure was calling! I lost the manuscript for Weird Weather somewhere, between computer and house changes over the ensuing decades.
I observed, from a distance, the news media endlessly not reporting on climate — not with the kind of seriousness one would assume the issue warrants. This, as well as the slow moving nature of the climate crisis lulled me, and so many of us, to sleep.
When Barack Obama was elected President here, he pursued serious climate agreements with the international community. Like others, I assumed these world leaders were addressing climate responsibly. These were people who could see the big picture, and actually make a huge difference, people who were supposed to handle such things. I had the vague thought, like many others, that human compassion and ingenuity would prevail. We would rise to the occasion and figure out a way, somehow.
I had the vague thought, like many others, that human compassion and ingenuity would prevail. We would rise to the occasion and figure out a way, somehow.
When Donald Trump won the presidency in the United States in 2016, so many issues exploded as “unfinished business” in the U.S. — from women’s rights to gay and transgendered rights, to white supremacy, to Nazism to freedom of the press and care for Mother Earth. We faced unbridled, almost vicious attacks on ecological protections across the board by a greedy, lying grifter, hotel and land developer, and mafia-esque ally of the fossil fuel industry.
Most of us were blindsided. And horrified. I joined protests, and organized some myself. I marched for climate, for women, for the release of Trump’s tax returns, for democracy. I donated to the indigenous protesters at Standing Rock, to Democrats who could win, and to voting rights organizations.
Finally, after three years of chaos, my political brain was scattered in a thousand directions. I decided to settle, and focus on just one issue. I chose climate. It seemed to me that if we did not address the likely end of a habitable Earth for humans and most species, we would be lucky to have the space and time to address any issues at all.
In early 2019, I joined the advocacy group Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL). CCL lobbies Congresspeople — and works globally — for a carbon tax that would put proceeds directly back into the pockets of working Americans. This seemed brilliant. CCL was polite and respectful, well organized and tenacious. I immediately committed myself to gathering endorsement letters from local influencers and traveling to Washington DC in the summer with my CCL chapter.
But before that, however, in spring of 2019, I traveled to Kauai with my husband. We had reunited after nearly two years of separation. We were now in our favorite place on this green planet, re-newly in love. Kauai was and always is paradise, a jagged, breathtaking emerald swath of nature’s tropical bounty.
Despite the Narcissist/Sociopath-in-Office, I felt happy. I could focus. I attended my local CCL meeting via Zoom while there. But mostly, we sought out beaches and hikes and relaxed. And then, out of the blue, I received a text from an old friend. The text included a link — to Jem Bendell’s now viral paper, “Deep Adaptation,” written at the University of Cumbria.
What can I tell you about this paper? It is 35 pages long, including extensive footnotes. It is about climate, but not so much about climate science (though there’s all of that). The paper is more about the state of Earth now, how far gone we are, and how hard it is for humans to wrap their minds around the probable demise of the planet, or rather, of a fully habitable planet and the systems we rely on.
Bendell referenced, as his foundation, the multiple “feedback loops” of global heating humans, by their emissions, are releasing around the globe. A warming planet releases more greenhouse gases from its natural systems, and thereby heats even faster.
I followed up my reading of Bendell with my own research, as a former investigative journalist. Melting ice and snow releases methane from the permafrost; and now methane, a gas with 20 to 100 times the heating capacity of CO2, is “leaking” out of earth and seas in arctic regions. A darkening Arctic (because of the disappearance of white snow and ice) absorbs more heat, an effect known as “albedo.” There was more … about the oceans and forests: their capacities for absorbing anymore CO2 dwindling rapidly — eventually oceans, even rainforests, will turn on us, and heat us, too.
But really, we have turned on ourselves.
Bendell encouraged us to consider if, in fact, we are already doomed* — if, at least to “collapse” of our societies as they are structured. The greed, or perhaps habitual momentum toward growth and acquisition of some of us was trumping the hopeful, selfless environmental activism of others, and a haze of slightly manic denial had settled in for most of us — including many climate experts and journalists. [*Editorial note: Bendell does not predict human extinction in his paper, but concludes extinction is “possible.” He predicts “collapse” as inevitable and “catastrophe” as probable. His most recent and very important analysis of methane releasing feedback loops can be found here.]
Bendell has been attacked for this paper and its “doomsday” hypothesis by both the Right now, and the Left, but I trusted something about his voice. It was his tone: gentle but quite serious, even sad — the reluctant, loving tone of someone sharing a beloved’s death with a family member. Bendell didn’t relish saying this. He just felt he had to.
Maybe, he wrote, we could turn to the great spiritual mystics of the ages for help. His greatest concern by far was with our psychology, our well-being. How would we face all of this? Could we avert a fascist or authoritarian reponse? What could we turn to to do so? How would we manage?
I put the paper, which I had printed out, away.
Kauai was still deep, deep green, and so very beautiful.
I spent several days simply in sadness. I enjoyed the island, the beaches, the seemingly eternal and impenetrable jungle running riot over Kauai’s folding cliffs, but all from within a wash of grief.
How did we come to this idiotic, absurd, horrific place in which humans were self-extinguishing, dragging millions, if not billions of species along with us?
Later, after coming home, anxiety and urgency and even anger arose. How could this be? How did we come to this idiotic, absurd, horrific place in which humans were self-extinguishing, dragging millions, if not billions of species along with us?
Something switched on in me. Was it good? Was it bad? All I know is that it was.
I would have to stop this, I determined, with Mother Bear ferocity. Such travesty must end.
In my personal spiritual communities, sadness, anger, grief or despair over the climate crisis was nowhere in sight. When I turned to them for comfort, for guidance, even a sane way through, I found none.
They too, I realized, believed what I had believed — that if we raise our consciousness enough, or if we raise the consciousness of others enough, somehow, magically, all will be well. Looking out at greater society, I also realized very few us knew, actually, really knew the climate science. Less so for many in spiritual groups, where the focus is often exclusively on our inner worlds.
For a few weeks, I wandered around in a grief state, mingled with ongoing shock and a sense of cognitive dissonance, as “normal” life went on around me … not knowing what to do, nor how to think about it all, not knowing even how to live anymore.
In April, Extinction Rebellion’s (XR’s) massive week of nonviolent uprising to demand action on climate in London, and across the UK, began to hit my social media feed — not the mainstream news, mind you, but there it was. This was it, I thought. They understood!
There was no time to waste, if any time at all. What do you do for a dying planet, the source of Life for everyone? What do you do for your children, who will need good food; healthy, fertile earth; safe and clean water? You put your own damn body on the line, that’s what you do. You do whatever you can.
Images of mothers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts gluing themselves to trucks and clambering atop airplanes evoked my cheers of support and tearful gratitude. I could see hope in a global movement of ordinary people rising up for sanity.
“We still do have power,” I thought. We must use it.
Before the end of the XR Week of Rebellion, I had co-founded the first Santa Cruz Extinction Rebellion chapter. With a rapidly growing group, we organized huge marches for climate strike days called by Greta Thunberg, our own, local young people, and Fridays for Future. We organized civil disobedience actions at shopping malls and downtown. We made the news and local headlines. People got arrested, on purpose. I explored Permaculture and re-wilding and helped lead a 100+ person civil “disco-bedience” protest at Chase Bank, the world’s number one funder of fossil fuels.
And yet, at the back of my mind, and in the minds of many of my knowledgeable new activist friends, was the sinking feeling: it was all likely too little, too late. National Geographic reported giant glaciers calving and plunging into arctic seas — “too big to fail” but not rescued by world leaders like global financial institutions — while multinational oil companies salivated to send massive ships into newly broken open seas for further drilling.
At least in the United States, much of our culture has either devolved into or simply followed an original, colonial and highly individualistic bent into utter obnoxiousness and — as if toddlers — people here are emotionally protesting wearing masks, and getting vaccinated for COVID rather than face the serious and enormous global threats which menace all of us, together.
Our individualism and selfishness — maybe our basic insecurity— and that of a growing portion of the world, contribute to an overall momentum of consumerism I cannot actually imagine people en masse giving up. Will we give up our new cars, our huge trucks (in the US), our sense of entitlement to private property — stolen from indigenous people — and doing whatever the hell we want with it?
We heat up the air with outdoor, gas heaters so we can dine al fresco on a cool night. We sit idling in our cars, releasing GHGs, too distracted by our petty daily activities to even turn off our engines when we do not need them. Our cities and homes burn lights through the night, as if some other planet, as abundant as ours, is waiting eagerly in the wings to come and replace this one for us. In Palm Springs and Las Vegas, we use scarce water resources to “mist” patios and courtyards and restaurants so we can stay at the perfect human temperature in places where, perhaps, we should not even live.
Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, wants to move us — some of us, at least — to Mars. Will these billionaires and trillionaires who wield influence be able or willing to slow down, even stop, the endless quest for more, more, more and new “technologies”? Can they focus instead on how we could restore soil health (drawing down loads of CO2), restore wilderness and re-forest so we can preserve the gorgeous and astounding livable planet we already have?
New technologies demand resources. These resources come from Earth, from open pit mines and from burning fossil fuels to produce energy needed for manufacturing. Mass production, even for the sake of solving the climate crisis, even of solar panels, creates toxic waste and destroys ecosystems, killing off species by the minute.
We lose almost 250 species per day from this Earth, now. Insects and bird populations have plummeted by up to 70 percent in some areas. Along the entire coastline of my state and most of the West Coast, we have lost our kelp beds. They are 90 percent gone, along with sea stars (star fish), abalone and more … And yet, we shop, we build, we “dream big,” design and make and produce and, of course, we sell, sell, sell.
The question is, I guess, can the voraciousness of the human ego be finally stilled at this time — this painfully crucial time on Earth? Or are we just too selfish? Maybe we are not evil, really, just bound to our habits. Lazy. Maybe overwhelmed and distracted. Maybe too afraid to look up.
I have to include myself and my family as trapped in the web of consumerism we have woven. I try my best to not buy plastic, to ride my bike, to remember my reusable grocery bags, to compost, to garden, to turn off lights and heat, but in the end, I am intrinsically part of a society that relies on “endless growth” as its central organizing principle. We will need huge pressure from people around the world, and bold, creative, wise leadership at national and global levels to right this foundering vessel, if it can still be righted.
I consider our normally teeming shopping malls, our international business flights, private jets, tons of plastic waste, disposable everything (from Swiffer cloths to makeup remover tissues to tiny, sanitizer gel containers) and, always, the “macho” pickups and SUVs that dominate U.S. freeways. More so, I consider the surreal terrain of the Far Right today that denies climate science, lauds individualism and has made the right to create, sell, purchase and dispose of anything, and to have any kind of job, doing anything as some kind of sacred entitlement, blessed by Jesus Christ himself.
To be frank, I am pessimistic. … Indeed, I have despaired.
But this is not the end of my story.
It took me well over a year to come to terms with my “new” knowledge — the probable end of life on Earth, as we know it. Finally, in bits and pieces, I began to find a little light for myself again.
I wish I could say this was all in a simple change of mind. It wasn’t. In the U.S., I and many millions of others worked very, very hard to defeat Donald Trump and replace him with someone relatively sane, but still, a neoliberal, “endless growth” capitalist.
At the very least, my feeling and that of many was: At least under Biden, we would not be forced to live under a regime of political cruelty and chaos as the natural world too, devolved into chaos. A compassionate and capable government could help direct resources, welcome climate refugees, assist other countries, help make everything work on some level — even as we see systems and neighborhoods and regions collapse around us.
So, that was a relief. A huge relief. But more than this, or along with this, I came to personal, spiritual terms with the climate crisis too.
Acceptance, they say, is the last stage of grief. I began to accept more deeply that we would begin to see collapse. Indeed, terrible wildfires ravaged the Western United States before the 2020 election — unlike any we have ever seen, threatening my own home and community. For days, we lived under blood red skies, ashes falling upon us like rain.
Insurance companies have cancelled homeowner’s policies here en masse. Or else, premiums have tripled. Most recently, the zigzagging jet stream sent snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures into Texas, one of our southernmost states. Howling, demon, “Derecho” winds over the summer ripped through Iowa, flattening 14 million acres of farmland. The climate crisis, and our slow collapse is here.
And yet, by some miracle — and I still believe in miracles, actually — we may find a harmonious way to survive, even to thrive, as our systems falter around us.
Somehow, I feel better about all this — whatever happens.
So, how did I shift my attitude? Actually, it feels to me like some of the beliefs I held prior to learning so much about climate have finally deepened for me. They were easier to blithely believe and hold onto when I did not think climate chaos would descend upon us in my lifetime, or my children’s. When I realized the late stage of crisis we are in, I had to ask myself if I really believed these spiritual truths; if I felt them; if I knew them.
I turned back to my spiritual communities and spiritual studies.
I found and connected with others in the “Three Principles” world familiar with Jem Bendell, or otherwise tuned into climate, and species extinction. I became friends with a young woman who also told me she had been looking for spiritual “leaders” on climate, and all the issues threatening to overtake and undermine — if not destroy — U.S. democracy and human rights.
I told her: “We will have to be the leaders” and in that moment, I saw it was true.
We accepted our fate. This meant letting go of some of the anger I held against “spiritual” people seemingly ignoring climate; and giving them the room and innocence to be as uninformed as I had been. It meant diving deeper into the constant spiritual truths which had helped me in other areas of my life, while not disengaging from the reality of the world we share, which affects others, and impacts us all.
Earth, after all, is a speck, an atom within a speck, really, in the swirling, unfathomable entity we call “universe,” and now, even “polyverse.” If life on Earth falters, the universe goes on. Life, God, Mind is so vast as to be beyond all measure and comprehension. Even if all species die here, Life IS.
There is great sadness, tremendous tragedy, in the loss of biodiversity, in the loss of the unique beauty and intelligence of each insect, fish, amphibian and furry mammal that disappears — and, of course, in the loss and suffering of humans.
Yet and still, the energy of life, even as “forms” die or transform, does not find a part of itself missing. Once, my first, very important spiritual teacher, Sydney Banks, was asked a question about reincarnation and “would we come back to Earth?” Surprising me, Mr. Banks said: “Why would it be Earth?”
So, Life is much larger than what we experience here. In total, it cannot be hurt. We do not have that kind of power. We are not, in the end, more powerful than God.
These thoughts used to comfort me before I understood the nature and pace of the climate crisis, and it took almost two years to realize these truths more fundamentally for myself within my growing understanding of the crisis.
It is still very sad and very, very troubling that our children, and their children face a probable world of continuing collapse, extreme weather events, fires and possible — or probable — catastrophe. Many in the equatorial belt, or “Global South,” will face starvation (and many already are) unless wealthier nations commit to helping people in the most impacted areas: Africa, Central America, Southeast Asia.
For me, it is dance upon a razor’s edge, living in this time, in both the world of the formless and the form. Sydney Banks, my first important spiritual teacher, spoke often of the unity of both of these worlds — without one, the other does not exist.
For me, it is dance upon a razor’s edge, living in this time, in both the world of the formless and the form. Sydney Banks, my first important spiritual teacher, spoke often of the unity of both of these worlds — without one, the other does not exist.
And, of course, we all will die, all forms of life have their time on Earth and perish. Even inanimate forms of life change and erode. Can we face both this temporality and even the absurdity and horror of what we ourselves are doing to life on Earth and still remain grounded in the mystery that is Life — including and beyond all life forms?
If you identify with what comes and goes, you will be unhappy. If you identify with what is permanent and always there, you are happiness itself.
It is in this connection to Life or God or the Isness that we still and always can find joy and inspiration. This is where I have finally landed, again.
Grace, for me, is still here, and grace brings guidance. Even in the midst of crisis and calamity, grace can lead us along, if we listen and feel for grace. Will it be toward activism? Toward mitigating our own consumption? Toward climate and environmental justice? Toward social justice? Toward being an eco-role-model for others? (And I have found you cannot do it all!)
Will it be toward building community, and engaging in Permaculture, or helping to transform agriculture where you live? Toward helping others mentally and spiritually through all of this? I do not know, but I do know that wisdom knows neither rules nor bounds.
A couple other realizations helped me lighten up about “the end of the world.”
For a while, I was incredibly angry at the global fossil fuel industry (ExxonMobile and Shell, among others) and right wing “think tanks” like the Heartland Institute — which I call the “Heartless Institute” — for spending millions of dollars over the last few decades producing “science” designed to undermine the hard and earnest work of real biologists and real climate scientists, as well as fomenting conspiracy theories about an “Agenda 21” and “socialist” actors bent on forcing everyone on Earth into gray pajamas forever, under cover of a fake “climate emergency.” Indeed, these deeply cynical shenanigans deserve our righteous anger, for they have delayed serious action on climate to the point of the mass extinction of so many species on Earth, including, quite possibly, our own. I cannot think of a higher, or worse crime against humanity than this.
As I settled into the reality of the crisis, I also expanded my view of humanity. I saw that, as a whole, we were all part of the madness.
But as I settled into the reality of the crisis, I also expanded my view of humanity. I saw that, as a whole, we were all part of the madness. Humans, though we all likely emerged from Africa, have split from one another, exploited one another, become disconnected from natural systems and become greedy and obsessive about money, power and profit. Perhaps this was inevitable. At any rate, so it is.
So many native cultures remain deeply connected to Earth in a profound and spiritual way, and we would do well now to listen to, respect and follow the voices of indigenous leaders.
Nonetheless, my insight was that humanity was a whole. And while anger and outrage is sometimes a path of right action, to hold this in my heart long term would only serve to corrode my own spirit.
I offer no apologies for having felt sad, angry, urgent, confused and distressed about climate, nor about Donald Trump. Too many of us have been in denial and “spiritual bypass.” There is a time for seriousness, but as Mr. Banks has said — and he was right — in the end, too much seriousness will destroy you.
Now, in the midst of our climate crisis, I am oddly happier than I have ever been.
In early 2020, I made a prayer to bring the spiritual more fully back into my life, to regain balance this way. I reached out to old colleagues, as I said, and found new ones — ready to work with me to address the great concerns of Earth, and of humans within our actual, physical context at this time. And I continued to work politically, to elect Joe Biden, as well as progressive Democrats across the U.S.
Incidentally, or perhaps, importantly, I have brought my concerns to the most “enlightened” teacher I know today. Gangaji is my second, very important spiritual teacher; and I spoke with her about climate after reading Bendell’s paper. I told her: “It is probably too late … but I think we can face it.”
“Yes, we can,” she said.
I have also spoken twice with Gangaji — about the 2016 and 2020 elections, as Donald Trump came to power, and then intimated his intent to hold power at any cost.
Gangaji said two things. First, she encouraged my activism against Trump and then, in 2020, she said: “Civilizations have collapsed before. … At least we have each other.”
All of this combined over time, and not as quickly as I would like, to help ground me in the present as I continue to do what I can, in my own, unique way, toward helping with climate, extinction and social and racial equity issues.
My husband and I are learning Permaculture and hope to create a food forest in our hometown that somehow involves the larger community. I spend more time with my daughters, my cat and dog, and beautifying my home and garden in a “second-hand” way. Now that Trump is gone (let us pray!) and I have re-invited spirituality more fully back into my heart, my mind has settled and I am blessed with comrades willing to shine our lights into the darkness of the future together.
And, I work to elect more progressives and Democrats. I push Democrats to be more progressive. I am working on several spiritual-social justice programs. I continue to support climate movements from CCL to Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement and Fridays for Future. And I am helping others find their way through programs launched from my own spiritual and psychological practice — bringing the spiritual and “political” worlds together.
After all, we are lucky if we are not, as Gangaji often says, “running from bombs, or shootings or rape.” We are blessed with great, even unfathomable privilege, so many of us.
Humanity has suffered tremendously throughout our global history, and as I write today, children are starving in Yemen, bombs are killing civilians in Syria, North Koreans are starving and terrified for the sake of another narcissistic and sociopathic tyrant. The Global South is already experiencing the worst effects of global heating while those of us in the Global North can still pretend the crisis is not quite “here.”
If you are someone who can read these words with a sense of immediate comfort and safety in your world — fed, sheltered, warm and clothed — there is much for you to celebrate, and much to be grateful for.
And there is also much work to be done.
Ami Chen Mills-Naim is an author, a spiritual-psychological teacher, and an activist. Visit her at www.AmiChen.com. Her “Wisdom School: Love in Action,” on finding peace of mind and right action in the midst of a troubled world begins April 17. More information on the Wisdom School here.
*“Weird Weather” was about a young girl who realizes the weather in her hometown is getting more and more bizarre. She receives messages from the trees who guide her to “Mr. Big,” the man who owns the big factory in town and who is, apparently, terrified to die. She goes to find him and imparts to him the lessons she has learned from the trees.