I will never forget one hot summer day when I was about eight years old, and a Monarch butterfly took it into its head to land on my arm and delicately lick up my sweat with its long, probing tongue.
I froze, wanting the Monarch to stay with me as long as possible, and watched with total fascination and delight as it balanced on my warm brown skin and enjoyed the salty treat I had to offer.
Eventually, with a graceful swish of its elegant wings, it rose up in the air and twirled off to land on a nearby stand of sweet-smelling pink milkweed flowers.
I felt blessed by the encounter, and ever after, when I see a Monarch I approach cautiously and respectfully proffer my arm, hoping to feel again the light touch of those fragile black legs and tiny tongue.
My childhood connection with Monarchs came to mind this week as I read the deeply disturbing news that “the number of monarch butterflies that completed an annual migration to their winter home in a Mexican forest sank this year to its lowest level in at least two decades, due mostly to extreme weather and changed farming practices in North America.”
Mexican conservation authorities report that “The area of forest occupied by the butterflies, once as high at 50 acres, dwindled to 2.94 acres in the annual census conducted in December,” which is “a 59 percent decline from the 7.14 acres of butterflies measured in December 2011.”
So now, along with the bats and the goldfinches and so many other species that I have known and loved in my 50 years on the planet, I must bid farewell to the Monarch butterflies too?
Trying to find a way to cope with the pervasive sense of grief I feel on a daily basis, I turned this week to the works of Carolyn Baker, who has self-published two books that have been striking a chord with thousands of people.
In 2009, she published Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse, followed in 2011 by Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition.
Baker comes out of a psychology background, having served as a consulting psychotherapist for many years, but she draws on a wide range of sources that I too have been poring over in recent years, from Joanna Macy to Derrick Jensen to James Lovelock and many more. Andrew Harvey, author of two books on “spiritual activism,” wrote the forward to her second book.
What all these folks have in common is the strong, level-headed recognition that human civilization is headed for a collapse.
The butterflies and the bats may be going first into the void, but we will not be far behind.
The current noise and controversy over questions like “to frack or not to frack,” “to build wind turbine generators or deep-sea oil rigs in the Arctic,” or “to erect solar arrays or thousand-mile oil pipelines” are just that—so much noise, which obscures our ability to focus on what is driving the debate on all these issues: the fact that our planet cannot and will not support 7 billion people at current levels of consumption.
The eminent eco-scientist James Lovelock, who, with Lynne Margulis, developed the theory of Earth as a complex living system he calls Gaia, has just published what may be his final book (he was born in 1919, making him now just seven years short of 100 years old).
Grimly titled The Vanishing Face of Gaia, Lovelock sadly predicts that global heating will force the die-off of much of humanity, and a retreat of the survivors to “lifeboat” places on the planet that will remain habitable on a subsistence basis for those able to live close to the land.
Lovelock uses the metaphor of disease to describe what is happening to our planet these days. This passage is worth quoting in full:
“When we are first infected by fatal disease organisms, they grow in our bodies without our noticing. We call this the incubation period, and it can be as long as several weeks. Then at some stage in their growth, or in our bodily reaction to it, we feel unwell, with fever and pain. Soon, a matter of hours with the most virulent influenza, homeostasis starts to fail and we collapse and die. This is when physicians speak of massive organ failure. In the whole course of fatal disease there is no tipping point but instead a downslide that starts imperceptibly and then grows ever steeper until we fall.
“We became the Earth’s infection a long and uncertain time ago when we first used fire and tools purposefully. But it was not until about two hundred years ago that the long incubation period ended and the Industrial Revolution began; then the infection of the Earth became irreversible….
“The disease that afflicts the Earth is not just climate change—manifest by drought, heat, and an ever-rising sea. Added to this there is the changing chemistry of the air and the oceans, and the way the sea grows acidic. Then there is the shortage of food for all consumers of the animal kingdom. As important is the loss of that vital biodiversity that enables the working of an ecosystem. All these affect the working of the Earth’s operating system and are the consequences of too many people. Individuals occasionally suffer a disease called polycythanemia, an overpopulation of red blood cells. By analogy, Gaia’s illness could be called polyanthroponemia, where humans overpopulate until they do more harm than good” (232-33).
Lovelock sees the demise of the current terrestrial epoch as inevitable. But he also reminds us that Gaia is a tough old planet, who has survived many other total collapses of biodiversity in her past. “After every one of these catastrophes Gaia recovered, taking her own time—sometimes as long as millions of years,” Lovelock says. “During these periods of convalescence there was always somewhere on Earth a refuge for living organisms, a place where the climate and the chemistry still favored life. And so it surely will be when polyanthroponemia resolves” (235).
Lovelock faults our human tribalism and the selfish, competitive shortsightedness of a predator species for our current predicament, quoting the biologist E.O. Wilson, who said towards the end of his life, “How unfortunate that the Earth’s first intelligent social animal is a tribal carnivore” (239).
This is “our agonizing condition,” Lovelock says; “we have the intelligence to begin to expand our minds to understand life, the universe and ourselves; we can communicate and exchange our deep thoughts and keep them outside our minds as a permanent record. We have all this but are quite unable to live with one another or with our living planet. Our inherited urge to be fruitful and multiply and to ensure that our own tribe rules the Earth thwarts our best intentions” (240).
Lovelock ends his book by looking ahead to a mythical time in the future, when the survivors of the collapse of human civilization “evolve to become as beneficial a part of Gaia as were the photosynthesizers and the methanogens,” who “might serve within her as our brains do in each of us. We would be an important part of what had become in effect an intelligent planet better able to sustain habitability” (248).
It is our duty, he says, as human beings living through these great Transition Times to ensure that enough of us survive to pass on our genes to the future, in the hopes that future iterations of human beings will overcome our tribalism and selfishness and put our remarkable creative intelligence to work for the good of the planet and all her denizens.
The question becomes then, what should we be doing now to prepare for the future that awaits?
This is where Carolyn Baker’s work becomes so important. Navigating the Coming Chaos is nothing less than a workbook for inner and outer transition where the focus is on strengthening one’s resilience and connection with a sense of purpose and meaning in a world gone increasingly mad.
“I am not a survivalist,” Baker says. “I have never believed that the prime objective in preparing for the Long Emergency is to remain alive. None of us is enthusiastic about death, but we will all die. To deny this fact and focus primarily on survival is to embrace the heroic perspective and, in my opinion, to miss the point….
“I believe that navigating a collapsing world will entail constant observation of various forms of death—the death of infrastructure, the death of abundance, the increasing absence of goods and services that we now take for granted, the death of institutions, the disappearance of employment and shelter, the increased scarcity of food and water, the death of landscapes and yes, the literal deaths of people and animals. The collapse of industrial civilization and the lifestyle it has provided is a catastrophic death of a paradigm and a way of life. While we may look ahead to the ultimate blessings unleashed by this death, it will nevertheless be traumatic to live through the magnitude of losses it will manifest.
“If, however, we can begin now to make friends with death, as the Buddhist tradition has taught for thousands of years, we may be better prepared emotionally and spiritually to navigate a civilization dying on myriad levels….
“Simply put, the essential question is not: How can I survive the collapse of industrial civilization? But rather: Why am I here, right now, in this place, at this time, experiencing the end of the world as I and my species have known it? (166).
Much of Baker’s book, like Starhawk’s most recent book The Empowerment Manual, is dedicated to prompting self-reflection leading to the recognition of what we are here on this Earth to do—and how we can successfully work with other awakened humans to accomplish our purpose.
The biggest challenge seems to be how to learn to work together harmoniously with each other and with the other living elements of our planetary home.
For me, it seems clear that what I need to be doing now is to rekindle the instinctive sense of kinship I had with the natural world as a little girl; to find ways to become a channel for the love I felt, and still feel, for the gaudy Monarch butterflies who sailed regally through the fields of my childhood.
Sooner or later I will be following them into oblivion. But let it not be before I’ve had a chance to do my utmost to wake up my fellow travelers on this planet to the state of emergency we now face, and to help create the community structures that will enable at least a critical few of us to survive into the distant future.