I cringe at the thought of being cursed by future generations for not doing enough to stem the environmental degradation of our planet. My hope is they’ll just call me stupid and refrain from searing a big X—a token of eternal shame—upon any trace of my existence.
My instinct is to defend myself, saying “I cared, I worried, I recycled, and over the past nine years I’ve driven my 2010 four-cylinder Toyota Rav4 just 4,500 miles a year, only a third of the national average.”
What would my descendants, inheritors of the wreckage of 80 or 800 years hence, likely say about this sort of defense? “It’s pathetic,” I imagine them decreeing. “Your defense is all about you! You’re trying to look innocent in your own eyes. Your feelings for us are superficial. You don’t understand that our suffering is your fate, too. We’re all in this together—your death will not save you. Our relationship transcends time and place, past and future. Your eternity passes through our pain.”
Well, damn, did I just channel those words? Here I am writing this down, spooked at the thought it’s true. Will my spirit be obliged to hang around for millennia to observe and feel what my descendants are enduring? Please sweep this thought away in a Texas tornado!
Should I just plead ignorance? I’m no expert on spiritual matters, and my alleged fellowship with future beings and this notion of being sandblasted alongside them in a Florida mega-storm seems like one of those mystical puzzlers.
Okay, I’m reflecting on it, and I concede that a spiritual connection to future generations is plausible. Many of us—me, as well—believe that we have spiritual connections to loved ones, alive or deceased. I anticipate being reunited with deceased parents, a spouse, relatives, and dear souls who have shared my life. I don’t want my sweet memories of others to become wisps of nothingness. Emotionally, I’m bound to my ancestors and contemporaries, so it makes sense that future generations will be bound to me—in love or in scorn.
If some spiritual connection to future humanity is indeed reality, then how do I feel it, how do I know it? I try to have compassion for myself and others—and often do. Why can’t I have more sensitivity for future generations? That would certainly make me more proactive in pressing for climate action. How can I bring urgency, compassion, intelligence, and power to the task?
With this in mind, I’ve been reading a copy of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (Tim Duggan Books, New York, 2019). The author, David Wallace-Wells, is a writer and editor at New York magazine. His book, tells the story of our emerging planetary nightmare, with its cascading chaos, perverse complexity, and unrelenting feedback loops. Our plight, as you know, involves dying oceans, melting glaciers, droughts, wildfires, deforestations, torrential rains, floods, crop losses, heat deaths, destabilizing mental health, wildlife extinctions, unbreathable air, and economic collapse. This book is beautifully written and, while grim, avoids succumbing to hopelessness and fatalism.
I’m urging people to read the book, especially the first half. Doing so will test your emotional strength, your ability to avoid being overwhelmed or terrorized, and your credentials as a bona fide human being. As you read it, you’ll be able to monitor within yourself any feelings associated with resistance, denial, fear, or any unwillingness to activate your heroic potential. The resolve that arises from reading the book reveals the quality of one’s goodness and the depth of one’s humanity. It can inspire us to be greater than we previously imagined possible.
Wallace-Wells, the author, says as much nearly halfway through the book (p. 138): “If you have made it this far, you are a brave reader.” You might by then be shell-shocked, too. Watch for the tendency, as you read it, for your mind to zone out from the bombardment of jolting feedback loops—a stupefying catalog of mutually reinforcing disorder and disintegration—that chronicles our collapsing systems.
Any one of the book’s 12 chapters, the author notes, contains “enough horror to induce a panic attack …” He also writes that the extent of environmental degradation depends on the political response to the crisis. Yes, politics is certainly at play. But I think it’s also helpful to say that the outcome depends on the psychological response to this global emergency. Let me now explain.
On my website, I’ve written previously about climate change. I claimed that people are not so much in denial as they are blocked, through inner resistance, from mobilizing their better self. I wrote that when we accept the momentous truth of climate change, we either have to respond appropriately with behaviors that address the issue or else we sink into a self-limiting condition that involves guilt, passivity, fearfulness, cynicism, and despair. Our greatest fear is in letting go of the old limited sense of self with which we identify. Why is this?
It feels that in order to become wise and powerful, we lose our precious sense of being who we are. We feel a risk of becoming a stranger to ourselves. Indeed, psychological or spiritual growth induces resistance, and the process can feel like self-abandonment. However, the process only really involves casting aside familiar associations and identifications of the self-limiting or negative variety.
Yes, feeling too small, as if we can’t possibly be even bit actors on the world stage, is one aspect of the problem. We aren’t getting our head around the idea of being a powerful self who stands fearlessly for truth, virtue, and rational action. Even if we conceive of being such a person, we don’t see a way to make it happen. That’s largely because our inner conflict—primarily the battle between our inner critic and our inner passivity—keeps us tied in emotional knots. When we study this conflict as it pertains to us personally, we’re able to escape the self-sabotage arising from conflict and to fulfill our potential.
The other problem is our difficulty feeling emotional connection to succeeding generations. We can feel connection to our family circle and our tribal or national group. We can feel emotional stirrings for people who are starving or homeless. But such feelings tend to evaporate the further out we try to push them. Many of us can barely feel compassion for flood victims in Oklahoma or Arkansas, let alone posterity’s faceless multitudes.
I understand this. Even when thinking of a loved one, alive or dead, I need to single out the memory of her and visualize her before I can appreciate her intrinsic value and beautiful distinctiveness. We’ve all had such moments of connection, and we know how rich they are.
To connect emotionally with future multitudes involves awakening the best in ourselves. Doing so, we’re acting on our own behalf as much as for others. We want to experience the flowering of our humanity. This present moment in time, on the apex of climate disaster, provides an opportunity for us to grow, as if the future is now moving backward to help us in the present.
We can start by putting aside our self-centeredness, enlisting our imagination, opening our heart, sensing a future collective or individual mind, and wanting to connect across time. It’s not as if we’re trying to teleport our presence or connect telepathically. No, we’re just trying to activate our humanity. I’m a better person for trying to empathize in this way.
Rather than be passive, I want robust feelings to power good intentions. Now my consciousness is more sensitive to our dire circumstances, and I’m more aligned with making sacrifices that reduce our carbon footprint.
I have endeavored over many years to grow psychologically, and over time my capacity to appreciate the profound richness of life has deepened. Wave after wave of this richness can crash upon us when psyche is cleansed of negativity. As we sense this richness, we begin to understand or appreciate what would be lost—all the life that would wither—if climate change were to worsen beyond redemption.
We can get a sense of this loss if we’re not afraid to feel it. I, for one, will take in all I can of this awareness. The purpose is not to grieve or to feel hopeless. I want to know whatever I can manage of truth and reality because doing so will make me stronger. It won’t crush me. I can handle it. Connected in this way to reality, I’m inspired to do more to heal our planet.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.