Ecosystem Collapse: A Clarion Call For A New Way of Being Human



It’s been three and a half years since I began talking about, blogging about, and working for action on, climate change. It took me a while to call myself a “climate activist” but it’s a label that I now wear proudly, although I am starting to prefer the term “fossil fuel abolitionist”.  Like the abolitionists who worked to abolish the slave trade, climate activists/fossil fuel abolitionists are up against an entrenched economic system that has no intention of changing, and those who profit from the status quo are willing to fight change with any means necessary. But all of us in the industrial world, and others around the world as well, benefit from the cheap and plentiful fossil fuel party we’ve been on for the last hundred and fifty years. As Canadian journalist and author Andrew Nikiforuk points out in his new book, Energy Slaves, those of us in North America and Europe behave like slaveholders of old in the way we use energy. Like Caribbean plantation owners, we live lives of extraordinary extravagance, and – like those same plantation owners – we feel entitled to our way of  life; like slaveholders of a bygone era, we turn a blind eye to the horrors that our lifestyle requires. Nikiforuk argues that the price of our “energy slaves” (fossil fuels) is getting higher and higher, both extrinsically and intrinsically. Nikiforuk’s book is a clarion call for a new and radical emancipation movement to free us from our enslavement to dirty energy (slavery, it turns out, is a two-way street).

As the IUCN video above outlines – note that it’s three years old, and the stats have only gotten worse – the news about the state of the world’s ecosystems, the ones that humans and all other species require for life, is dire. People who have devoted their lives to studying these things tell us that the ocean has absorbed so much carbon dioxide it is on the verge of becoming too acidic to sustain shellfish and coral life; methane releases in the arctic are climbing as the permafrost melts (remember methane is a greenhouse gas that has 21 times more heat-trapping ability in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide); 75% of genetic diversity in agricultural crops has been lost, and over 70% of the world’s fisheries are fully, or over, exploited.

Need I go on? The signs are clear – humanity, as a species, is staring catastrophe in the face.  Or rather, catastrophe is staring us in the face while we are busy averting our eyes, fixating on something – anything – else. How about, oh, I don’t know, shopping, our waistlines, sex, reality television…fill in the blanks (perhaps blogging about climate change, or Facebook)! When I began my journey as a climate activist back in October of 2009, I believed that if people just understood the enormity of the consequences for our children and the planet if we don’t act to decrease our greenhouse gas emissions, they would take action; I saw my job as “shaking people awake”. Three and a half years later, I have learned that this is not the case; the warning signs are everywhere, and every day that passes the signs are getting harder and harder to ignore (see “Runaway” video below). Although increasing numbers of people around the globe are becoming active in the fight to preserve a stable climate, the overwhelming majority of people have not yet been moved to get involved in staving off climate catastrophe or the looming mass extinction event. I have struggled with this truth – most of these people choosing not to act are good people, who love their children and grandchildren as much as I do my kids; and yet they choose the “blue pill” of unconsciousness and apathy rather than the “red pill” of awakening and action, to use a metaphor from The Matrix. Even those of us who choose the red pill, and who can see the writing on the wall, may feel that the odds are so stacked against us in this struggle for sanity and against all-consuming greed that the fight is futile. Recognition of the horror of the abyss we are digging for ourselves can be overwhelming.

Edvard Munch's The Scream (in public domain)
Edvard Munch’s The Scream

There are days on my journey as a climate activist that I feel (and possibly look!) like the human in this famous painting. The news is really that bad. And yet, like the humans on the runaway train in Cordell Barker’s animation (below) we, collectively, are partying on, wasting the time and resources that could be put to use changing the trajectory of the climate “train”. If you want to know just how bad, watch Dr. Guy McPherson’s talk at last November’s Bluegrass Bioneers conference (click here). I’ve hesitated to post the video on 350orbust because the last thing I have wanted to do is overwhelm my readers and plunge them into despair about our situation; there are already too many people who are paralyzed into inaction by the enormity of what we are facing.  But there’s no avoiding it; every single sign in the biosphere is screaming “stop” to our fossil-fueled madness, and yet we carry recklessly on.



Even as I write these words tears come to my eyes; I want my children to live in a world with a stable climate something like I inherited, with food security and a secure political environment.  I want there to be wild places for them to go, where the whales and the eagles thrive and the fish are abundant, where the hand of humans hasn’t disturbed nature. But it turns out, I can’t promise them that, no matter how much or how loudly I ring the climate alarm bell. Collectively we, the human species, are entering a “dark night of the soul”. For those not familiar with the term, medieval Spanish mystic St John of the Cross wrote a poem using that term to describe the soul’s difficult separation from, and journey towards, God.  Whether or not the language of God resonates with you, there is no denying that humans are about to be plunged into a darkness of our own making, and in that hardship will be offered the seeds of our “salvation”, that we become nurturers of the earth and “all our relations” rather than destroyers. St John of the Cross’s imagery describes a maturation process which includes growing in the ability to love; one just needs to look around at the world to know we are failing miserably to manifest love for our fellow human beings and the creatures we share the planet with. Greed, lust for the almighty dollar, has overcome love and we are descending into collective suicidal madness.

So, what now? There are people much more thoughtful and well-educated than me who are articulating responses to this crisis, working through despair towards a response that rejects the mindset and lifestyle which have got us to this point and is congruent with the new values humans will need to embrace. Dr Guy McPherson, who unflinchingly looks climate and economic catastrophe in the eyes, writes in a blog post entitled “only love remains”:

Our knowledge of DNA informs us that the odds against any one of us being here are greater than the odds against being a particular grain of sand on all the world’s beaches. Indeed, the odds are much greater than that: they exceed the odds of being a single atom plucked from the entire universe. As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins says, “In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I that are privileged to be here, privileged with eyes to see where we are and brains to wonder why.”

The privilege to be here, on this life-giving planet at this astonishing time in human history, is sufficient to inspire awe in the most uncaring of individuals. At this late juncture in the age of industry, at the dawn of our day on Earth, we still have love: love for each other, love for our children and grandchildren, love for nature. One could argue it is all we have left.

We all have a part to play in the mystery unfolding around us; just because it’s a bit part (because they all are!) doesn’t make it unimportant. Lately, I’ve been embracing the “Eat, Pray, Love” mantra as my response to the craziness, although “Breathe” should be in there as well. And by “eat” I mean local organic nonGMO – there’s no room for Monsanto in the new world. Namaste.



More links:

Learning From Dogs: Going Beyond The Self

Dear Guy McPherson, What The Heck?

The New Climate State: Climate Change And The Deadly Extremes That Have Been Hitting The Northern Hemisphere

Wrecking This Place Down: How Do We Protect Our Children In An Age of Environmental Crisis?

Sandra Steingraber is a mother, a biologist, a cancer-survivor, and the author of several books on the dangers we are facing from the environmental toxins that surround us. Her most recent book, “Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in An Age Of Environmental Crisis” is a call to action – Steingraber says it’s time for parents to protect our children from harm and to plan for their future.

When the air, food and water surrounding my kids is filled with toxic chemicals and I can’t prevent them from entering the bodies of my kids, I’m really not their protector anymore. And when climate change threatens to destabilize the planetary ecology on which my children’s future depends, I can’t plan for their future.”

Steingraber puts out a call for parents to become fossil fuel abolitionists, in the same way that abolitionists called for the end to slavery during 19th Century America. Although fossil fuels drive our economy in much the same way that slavery drove the economy at that time, it’s time for parents to actively fight for the greater good of society. Our children are part of the ecosystem of the planet, and if we continue down the path of fossil fuel addiction, their well-being will be sacrificed on the altar of the economy.  No responsible parent would willingly choose to put the profits of the oil, coal, and gas companies ahead of their children’s future.

Psychologists have identified “Well-Informed Futility Syndrome”, when people are presented with the facts of a large, multi-faceted problem like climate change and rather than being moved to action they feel intolerable guilt and fear that cause either a paralysis of action or a denial of the problem. The way out of Well-Informed Futility Syndrome, it turns out, is not to ask people to make small inconsequential changes, but to present a solution that is as big as the problem.  In terms of the climate crisis, this requires admission of the fact that “business as usual” can’t continue, and we need a whole new redesign of the way we as a society do things. Steingraber says it’s time to call on parents to be heroes, starting with forceful engagement in the climate debate. She deliberately doesn’t provide a blueprint for how to respond because everyone’s skill set and temperament are different. Instead, she poses the question to each parent out there: “What response to this crisis do your temperament and skill set provide?” It is time to for each of us to speak out of identities that we already have.

My experience, two years after being moved to action on this issue precisely for the reasons that Steingraber identifies – to protect my children from harm and plan for their future – is that action is so much more fulfilling and life-giving than sitting on the sidelines with overwhelming fear and guilt. And, as Steingraber points out, it is parents responding to a threat that gives children hope, even if the threat is large.

One of the ways I’ve responded to the climate crisis is by becoming involved in Citizens Climate Lobby, whose purpose is to create the political will for a stable climate and to empower individuals to have breakthroughs in exercising their personal and political power. To learn more about CCL, feel free to contact me at, or check out these links:

Citizens Climate Lobby

Citizens Climate Lobby (Canada)

To listen to a half hour interview with Ms. Steingraber on CBC Radio’s The Current last Friday, click here.

Here is a trailer for a documentary based on a previous book of Steingraber’s, Living Downstream:


More links:

Living Downstream