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“Die Early and Often”: Being Attis in the Anthropocene

“We are not going to be saved.”

From John Halstead

“The Awakening” by J. Seward Johnson, Jr. (National Harbor, Maryland)

In yesterday’s post, “‘What If It’s Already Too Late?’: Being an Activist in the Anthropocene”, I faced the fact that we are … well, f**ked.  Our civilization is rushing toward its inevitable end.  And it’s going to take out a big part of the biosphere with it.

Cap and trade is not going to save us.  Renewable energy is not going to save us.  Nuclear energy is not going to save us.  Carbon capture is not going to save use.  The politicians are not going to save us.  The scientists are not going to save us.  The activists are not going to save us.

We are not going to be saved.

For so many reasons, we are going to fail … and fail badly.

Once we come to terms with that fact, the question becomes …

So What Do We Do Now?

“The real question is what is the social role of one who understands that all this will end?”

— Vinay Gupta, “Death and the Human Condition” in Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times

What does socially responsible acceptance look like?

Well, let’s start with what it doesn’t look like …

I know it doesn’t look like throwing up our hands and doing nothing.

But I also don’t think it looks like more “expressive hobbyists” marching on weekends, rallying in front of empty government buildings with the hope of influencing lawmakers, and getting arrested for blocking traffic hundreds of miles away from the thing being protested–what Sophia Burns calls “catharsis politics”. (Been there, done that!)

I also don’t think it looks like more of the circle-jerk that is activist networking, where people from one activist organization agree to attend the events of another group with the expectation that the latter will reciprocate by attending the events of the former, thus creating the “comical scenario [where] 20 different organizations ‘endorse’ an event at which only 40 people show up”. (Been there, done that too!)

But I don’t think it looks like communist “base-building” either, at least not if it’s done with the ulterior motive of fostering an increasingly improbable proletariat revolution.  Even if the revolution were going to happen, it would be too little too late.

And I’m sure it doesn’t looks like endless quibbling over trivial details of Leftist political theory with online frenemies, alienating naïve progressives with superior cynicism, or sending passionate manifestos, heavy laden with Marxist jargon, into the etheric echo chamber. (See “Your Politics Are Boring as Fuck” by Nadia C.)

I think maybe it does look like building what Dr. Bones calls a “leftism with benefits”, acquiring land, skills, and resources to improve the lives of the exploited and oppressed in the here and now, while also creating spaces to which people can retreat to when as the shit hits the fan.  I think maybe it does look like building refuges, as Peter Kingsnorth suggests, for human and other-than-human life:

“Maybe you can buy up some land and rewild it; maybe you can let your garden run free; maybe you can work for a conservation group or set one up yourself; maybe you can put your body in the way of a bulldozer; maybe you can use your skills to prevent the destruction of yet another wild place …

“Ask yourself: what power do you have to preserve what is of value—creatures, skills, things, places? Can you work, with others or alone, to create places or networks that act as refuges from the unfolding storm?”

— Paul Kingsnorth, “Dark Ecology”

This is a rational response to impending disaster.  A compassionate response.  A good response.  One that has the virtue of at least reducing some of the suffering that will attend the end of the world.

But I’ll be honest.  I want something more than pragmatism.  It’s not enough to keep me going.  I want something more from the end of the world.

I want transformation.

And for that, I have to turn to religion.

We Are the Dying God

“Isis and Osiris” by Susan Seddon-Boulet

“I will go down to self-annihilation and Eternal Death;
Lest the Last Judgement come and find me unannihilate,
And I be seiz’d and giv’n into the hands of my own Selfhood.”

— William Blake, “Milton’s Journey to Eternal Death”

One of the things that drew me to Neo-Paganism was the myth of the Dying God.  There are several examples of dying gods in ancient pagan sources: Egyptian Osiris, Canaanite Ba’al, Babylonian Tammuz, Greek Dionysus … and Phrygian Attis, who sacrificed himself to the Great Mother goddess Cybele and was reborn as a pine tree.

“They say that the Mother of the Gods seeing Attis lying by the river Gallus fell in love with him, took him, crowned him with her cap of stars … He fell in love with a nymph and left the mother to live with her. For this, the Mother of the Gods made Attis go mad and cut off his genital organs … and then return to dwell with her.

“Now the Mother of the Gods is the principle that generates life; that is why she is called Mother.  Attis is the creator of all things which are born and die … For Gallus signifies the … Milky Way, the point at which body subject to passion begins. … Attis loved a nymph: the nymphs preside over generation … But since the process of generation must be stopped somewhere … the creator who makes these things casts away his generative powers into creation and is joined to the Gods again.  Now these things never happened, but always are. … Thus, as the myth is in accord with the cosmos, we for that reason keep a festival imitating the cosmos, for how could we obtain a higher order?”

— Sallustius, “On the Gods and The World”, IV

In the rites of Attis, celebrated the week of the spring equinox, a pine tree was cut down and carried in a procession to the temple with lamentations.  His devotees would whip themselves and sprinkle the altars and effigy of Attis with their own blood. Those who were to be dedicated as priests of the Cybele performed self-castrations.  And on the third day, the equinox, the people celebrated the Hilaria (Rejoicing), when Attis is reborn–to begin the cycle all over again.

The details of the Dying God myth very with time and place, but the Dying God archetype transcends the local instances of the myth. James Frazer and Robert Graves articulated the outline of the archetype in modern times.  From these classicists, contemporary Neo-Paganism adopted the myth of the Dying God and gave it religious expression in the form of the Wheel of the Year.

The Wheel can be understood as the life cycle of the Dying God mapped onto the solar year.  Not just the life of the Dying God, though. The Wheel of the Year represents the cycle of his relationship to the undying Goddess in her triune form of mother-lover-slayer.  (Note: The genders of these deities can be interchangeable or altogether optional.) Starhawk explains the relationship of the Dying God and the Goddess in this way:

“The Goddess is the Encircler, the Ground of Being; the God is That-Which-Is-Brought-Forth, her mirror image, her other pole. She is the earth; He is the grain. She is the all encompassing sky; He is the sun, her fireball. She is the Wheel; He is the traveler. He is the sacrifice of life to death that life may go on. She is the Mother and Destroyer; He is all that is born and is destroyed.”

— Starhawk, The Spiral Dance

The myth of the Dying God teaches us about the meaning of death and the power of surrender.  It’s natural to want to live forever, but we are destined to die.  Death is part of the cycle of life, and nothing dies in vain. No matter or energy is lost. The movement of the Wheel–the Spiral Dance of the Goddess–sanctifies death, making it holy.

The myth of the Dying God and its embodiment in Neo-Pagan ritual has the potential to foster a transformation of consciousness toward death.  In Neo-Pagan ritual, we become the Dying God and symbolically enact a voluntary offering of our transient self to the Goddess who is the Great Cosmic Round.

“Ritualistic and mythical identification with the sacrificing God honors the life spark, even in death, and prepares to give way gracefully to new life, when the time comes for each of us to die. Waxing and waning, birth and death, take place within the human psyche and life cycle. Each is to be welcomed in its proper time and season, because life is a process of constant change. … The God is that force within us that chooses to surrender itself to the cycle, to ride the Wheel.”

— Starhawk, The Spiral Dance

By identifying with the Dying God, we renounce the need for control and permanence, for the sake of meaning and transformation.  As Joseph Campbell explained,

“When the will of the individual to his own immortality has been extinguished—as it is in rites such as these—through an effective realization of the immortality of being itself and of its play through all things, he is united with that being, in experience, in a stunning crisis of release from the psychology of … mortality.”

— Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology

This means more than merely accepting our fate.  It means shifting from an egocentric perspective, in which death is the ultimate evil, to a cosmic perspective, in which death is part of the cycle of life.  Rather than raging against the dying of the light, we surrender to the Wheel, and in surrendering, we are transformed.  This transformation brings no apotheosis, no individual immortality, but it enables us to realize the meaning of our lives as part of a greater whole which transcends us.

“The whole point of these esoteric ceremonies, rituals, prayers, etc., was to accept the death of the separate-self sense and thus rise to an identity or communion with the Great Goddess. This was a self-sacrifice, which allowed the individual to transcend the self.”

— Ken Wilber, Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution

Learning How to Die

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Illustration by Kent Williams, for the graphic novel, The Fountain, by Darren Aronofsky

“The ceaseless labour of your life is to build the house of death.”

— Michel de Montaigne

If we are to be the Dying God, then our job is to die.  According to Joseph Campbell,

“When our day is come for the victory of death, death closes in; there is nothing we can do, except be crucified–and resurrected; dismembered totally, and then reborn.”

— Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

But we actually do have a choice.  We can accept our fate and be willing sacrifices.  Or we can rage against the dying of the light and go out in a blaze of glory.  But there are costs if we choose the latter course.  As Starhawk explains,

“The God chooses to sacrifice [Himself] in order to remain within the orbit of the Goddess, within the cycle of the natural world, and within the ecstatic, primal union that creates the world. Were He to cling to any point on the wheel and refuse to give way to change, the cycle would stop; He would fall out of orbit and lose all. Harmony would be destroyed; union would be broken. He would not be preserving Himself; He would be denying his true self. His deepest passion, his very nature.”

— Starhawk, The Spiral Dance

Collectively, our society is in denial, and the costs of our denial are all around us: in the wrecking of the biosphere, in the extinction of millions of other species, in the poisoning of the soil, the water, and the air.

How do we return to the orbit of the Goddess?  How do we surrender to the Wheel?

Roy Scranton, author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, writes that, if we want to know how to live in the Anthropocene, we need to “learn how to die”.  We need to find what Isabella Stengers and Phillipe Pignarre call “a modus moriendi“.  We need to learn how to die well.

Scranton’s suggestion for dying well is reinvesting in the humanities, relearning the art of bookmaking, and trying to preserve the best of our cultural heritage:

“If being human is to mean anything at all in the Anthropocene, if we are going to refuse to let ourselves sink into the futility of life without memory, then we must not lose our few thousand years of hard-won knowledge, accumulated at great cost and against great odds.”

— Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization

But how do we choose?  How do we decide what to preserve?  What if we end up preserving the very parts of our civilization which caused all of this to happen in the first place?

And isn’t Scranton’s prescription just another “immortality project”.  Are we really embracing the death of civilization if we are still trying to preserve its best parts for posterity?

Becoming Compost

Donna Haraway, author of Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, has a different idea:

Be compost.

Rather than humanities, Haraway writes of “humusities” or the “human as humus”.  Rather than humanism (or post-humanism), she advocates a multi-species “compostism”:

“Critters are at stake in each other in every mixing and turning of the terran compost pile. We are compost, not posthuman; we inhabit the humusities, not the humanities. Philosophically and materially, I am a compostist, not a posthumanist. Critters—human and not—become-with each other, compose and decompose each other, in every scale and register of time and stuff in sympoietic tangling, in ecological evolutionary developmental earthly worlding and unworlding.”

This kind of cryptic language is characteristic of Haraway.  (She calls it “tentacular” thinking.  Imagine literary tentacles reach everywhere, grasping here and there, creating temporary webs of significance.)  Haraway experiments with words and phrases as a way of grasping at a different mode of being (or “worlding”), one which de-centers the human.  (This de-centering is reflected in Haraway’s substitution of the term “Chthulucene” for “Anthropocene”.)

Haraway calls this new mode of being “sympoiesis”, which means “making with”, as in making our world with other species:

“Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing. … earthlings are never alone. That is the radical implication of sympoiesis. Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems. It is a word for worlding-with, in company.”

“The more one looks, the more the name of the game of living and dying on earth is a convoluted multispecies affair that goes by the name of symbiosis, the yoking together of companion species, at table together.”

In the face of civilizational collapse and mass extinction, Haraway rejects both hope in “technotheocratic geoengineering fixes” and “wallowing in despair”.  Instead, she urges us to “stay with the trouble”, to

“collect up the trash of the Anthropocene, the exterminism of the Capitalocene, and chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener, make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents, and futures.”

One way to do this, according to Haraway, is to “make kin” with the other-than-human beings with whom we constitute the compost piles of the earth.

Making kin means seeing our kind “as humus, rather than as human or nonhuman”.  It means recognizing that “all earthlings are kin in the deepest sense … All critters share a common ‘flesh'”.  It means

“learning again, or for the first time, how to become less deadly, more response-able, more attuned, more capable of surprise, more able to practice the arts of living and dying well in multispecies symbiosis, sympoiesis, and symanimagenesis on a damaged planet …”

Roy Scranton seems to come to the same conclusion at the end of his second book We’re Doomed. Now What?:

“The dire and seemingly unsolvable fact of climate change—just like the unsolvable fact of our own morality—doesn’t signify the end of ethical thought but its beginning, for it’s only in recognizing the fact that our lives are limited, complicit, imperfect, and interdependent that we begin to understand what it means to live together in this world.”

— Roy Scranton, “Raising a Daughter in a Doomed World”

Haraway admits this won’t be easy.  Multi-species sympoiesis isn’t something that can be “donned like a magic cape”, she says.

But we can begin by thinking ourselves beyond our egocentricism and anthropocentricism and into relationship with the more-than-human world.  Haraway calls this “thinking with”.  Other writers have attempted to think-with the other-than-human.  Aldo Leopold’s “thinking like a mountain”, comes to mind, as does Robinson Jeffers “inhumanism”:

We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

— Robinson Jeffers, “Carmel Point”

Writing more prosaically, Roy Scranton explains what we need is a radical shift of perspective:

“We need to learn to see not just with Western eyes but with Islamic eyes and Inuit eyes, not just with human eyes but with golden-cheeked warbler eyes, coho salmon eyes, and polar bear eyes, and not even just with eyes at all but with the wild, barely articulate being of clouds and seas and rocks and trees and stars.”

— Roy Scranton, “We’re Doomed. Now What?”, New York Times, Dec. 21, 2015

Science Fiction or Speculative Fabulation?

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Make Kin, Not Babies

“It is through stories that we weave reality.”

“Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto”

I began this essay with references to contemporary apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic science fiction, weaved in the ancient/modern myth of Attis/the Dying God, and now I return to science fiction, or what filmmaker Fabrizio Terranova calls “speculative fabulation”:

“A type of narration that enables one to unfold new worlds through arousing an appetite for what’s possible (what could or could have taken place). It is not just about understanding a totally new creation. The remarkable difference is that it is about placing lures susceptible of bringing forth today possibilities that were already in situations.”

Haraway’s “Camille Stories: Children of Compost” is an example of this kind of writing.  It tells the story of people living in a time of ongoing extinction due to climate change, the effects of which last for centuries.  The Children of Compost form communities of a few hundred people who migrate to damaged places and develop transformative practices for intentional kin making and work sympoietically to heal (and be healed by) kin in those places. This means intentionally reducing human numbers, while increasing the flourishing of all the species who inhabit a place.

In the Compost communities, children are rare, but precious.  When a decision is made to bring a new human infant into being, an other-than-human animal or plant symbiont is chosen for the child from among species who are threatened with extinction.  At birth, a few genes and a few microorganisms of the symbiont are added to the human child’s body.  The human child’s formative years are spent learning how to nurture the symbiont species, as well as the other species on whom the symbiont depends.

This commitment to symbiosis binds five generations of humans.  The Camille Stories relate the stories of five generations of Camilles, living between 2025 and 2425 in a part of West Virginia devastated by mountaintop removal. The Camilles are bound symbiotically to the Monarch butterflies, who migrate between Mexico and Canada, and work sympoietically to promote their flourishing. Storytelling is central to this work, as Haraway explains:

“compostists soon found that storytelling was the most powerful practice for comforting, inspiring, remembering, warning, nurturing compassion, mourning, and becoming-with each other in their differences, hopes, and terrors.”

But despite the deepening of the symbiotic bond and sympoietic practices over three generations, the fourth Camille is faced with the loss of monarch migrations, along with the loss of 50 percent of all species planet-wide.  Camille 4 must prepare Camille 5 for a new role, as a “Speaker for the Dead”, one who will remember, mourn, and “represence” the monarch, as a form of sympoeisis with the dead (what Haraway calls “symanimagenesis”).  Haraway leaves undetermined the question of the future of the Children of Compost and the possibility of a multi-species flourishing.  Rather than imagining a utopia, she “stays with the trouble”.

Haraway’s Children of Compost remind me of the resistance community at the end of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, living in the ashes of nuclear holocaust.  Except instead of preserving books, the literary legacy of humanity (like Roy Scranton suggests), the Children of Compost preserve the Book of Nature and the genetic legacy of the more-than-human biosphere. Instead of individuals passively memorizing stories from books, the compostists engage in storytelling, an active and communal process in which the “text” is always evolving.  Instead of preservation being solely a matter of the mind, the Children of Compost do the work of healing with their bodies and with their hearts, as well as their minds.  And instead of the image of the phoenix, which concludes Fahrenheit 451, Haraway offers the model of compost.

Last Words: “Die Early and Often”

How many nights must it take
one such as me to learn
that we aren’t, after all, made
from that bird that flies out of its ashes,
that for us
as we go up in flames, our one work
is
to open ourselves, to be
the flames?

— Galway Kinnell, “Another Night in the Ruins”

“‘Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar … Thou canst blind; but I can then grope. Thou canst consume; but I can then be ashes.'”

— Herman Melville, Moby Dick

At the end of the world, we are called be the flames … to be the ashes … to be compost … to be the Dying God.

This isn’t a very hopeful response, I know.  But as Robinson Jeffers wrote,

“Hope is not for the wise.”

It’s not exactly a hopeless response either, though.  It’s a kind of hopeful hopelessness or hopeless hopefulness.

“Hopelessness is the limit and beginning of a new kind of hope. You have to keep going–not to achieve dreams of beautiful mountaintop forests, but because life is more powerful than death. Hopelessness makes possible new hope, a faith in the basic tissue of life that is stronger than any disaster.”

— poet and Radio Free Iraq host, Naseer Hassan, as quoted by Roy Scranton in “Back to Baghdad: Life in the City of Doom”

If we are doomed–and we are–we must find a way between hope and despair.  Both hope and despair are products of our belief in the myth of progress and the myth of the individual.

We need different stories, different myths.

The Dark Mountain Project is one group of artists and storytellers who are trying to tell different stories,

“to paint a picture of homo sapiens which a being from another world or, better, a being from our own–a blue whale, an albatross, a mountain hare–might recognise as something approaching a truth. It sets out to tug our attention away from ourselves and turn it outwards; to uncentre our minds. It is writing, in short, which puts civilisation–and us–into perspective.”

“Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto”

Others are doing this as well. Haraway’s “Children of Compost” is one example.  The Neo-Pagan myth of the Dying God, as told by Miles Batty, is another.  And it’s not just writers who participate in storytelling, though.  Poets, musicians, filmmakers and other artists also contribute.  Examples of contemporary kin-making and dying-well include:

Haraway herself draws from a multiplicity of media beyond books, including music, anime, and even video games.  For example, she writes about her experience playing Never Alone, a video game created in collaboration Alaska Native community members.  In the game, the player moves between Iñupiaq girl named Nuna and her Arctic fox companion as they leave Nuna’s home village to discover the source of an unprecedented blizzard and restore balance to nature.

Haraway writes that she “dies early and often” in the game.  I don’t think I’m reading too much into Haraway’s phrasing (is such a thing even possible?) to hear an echo of the political slogan “vote early and often”.  To “die early and often” echoes the advice of religious sages from many different religions to “die before you die”.  To “die early and often” means to walk the path of the Dying God.

To “die early” means to face our death, both personal and collective, the death of the myth of individuality and the death of the myth of human progress. It means to face our fate before it arrives on our doorstep.

Vinay Gupta is a contributor to the Dark Mountain Project and a kapalika, a member of the ascetic sect of Shiva devotees who traditionally carried empty human skulls as begging bowls. Gupta writes that one of the functions of the kapalika:

“is to strip away the lies about death, the mythology and the avoidance, and to spread hope by a simple fact: the avoidance of the truth of death is worse than death itself. Death cannot be avoided, but its avoidance can be avoided.”

— Vinay Gupta, “Death and the Human Condition” in Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times

To “die often” means creating “new practices of imagination, resistance, revolt, repair, and mourning, and of living and dying well” (Haraway) and creative rituals of kin-making to embody our new stories and myths. John Seed and Joanna Macy’s “Council of All Beings” might be one example of such practices and rituals. There is much work to be done to translate these new stories and myths into practices of living and dying well in the Anthropocene.

I imagine such practices would yield practical goods, much like a “leftism with benefits”, but in a more-than-human dimension: multispecies mutual aid, if you will.  (Not a new idea, actually. Kropotkin’s conception of mutual aid was inspired by interspecies cooperation.)

Since we must walk the Dying God’s path, we should do so together, sympoietically, with our human-kin, yes, but also with all the other earth-kin with whom we are doomed to die.  “Living-with was the only possible way to live-well,” writes Haraway.  So too, dying-with is the only possible way to die well.

Sometimes this seems like an inadequate response, too little too late, and I have to remind myself that I’m not trying to save the world anymore–I’m trying to “stay with the trouble.”

We are doomed to walk the path of the Dying God.  We must do so not in the hope of survival or salvation.  Our job is not to survive … or even to birth a new world.  Our job is to die … to die well, to die-with, to die early and often, to die in such a way that the “ash heap of history” might become the compost pile of the Goddess.


Selected Readings

Bill McKIbben, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”, Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012

Brad Werner, “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”, presented at American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2012

The Dark Mountain Project, Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilized Times (2017)

David Wallace-Wells, “The Uninhabitable Earth”, New York Magazine, July 9, 2017

Donna Haraway, “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene”

–, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016)

Erza Klein, “7 reasons America will fail on climate change”, Vox, June 5, 2014

John Michael Greer, Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead (2016)

–, The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age (2008)

Jonathan Mingle, “Scientists Ask Blunt Question on Everyone’s Mind”Slate, Dec. 7, 2012

Nafeez Ahmed, “Scientists Warn the UN of Capitalism’s Imminent Demise”, Motherboard, August 27, 2018

Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2008)

–, “How science is telling us all to revolt”, New Statesman, Oct. 29, 2013

Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, “Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto”, 2009

Paul Kingsnorth, “Dark Ecology”, Orion Magazine

–, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist”, Orion Magazine

–, “Why I stopped believing in environmentalism and started the Dark Mountain Project”, The Guardian, Apr. 29, 2010

Robert Puckett, “Plucking the Golden Bough: James Frazer’s Metamyth in Modern Neopaganism”

Roy Scranton, Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene”, New York Times, Nov. 10, 2013

–, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (2015)

–, “Anthropocene City: Houston as Hyperobject”, Mustarinda Magazine

–, We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change (2018)

Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Goddess (1979/1999)


John Halstead

halsteadJohn Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and here at Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.


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41 Comments »

  1. I understand the urge to sink into historic myth, but isn’t the better response to try to help at least some of humanity survive? Work to make information about techniques for subsistence living and ground-up science accessible. Help the young think about — or move to — Alaska, and northern Canada, and Antarctica. Try to prepare them for the realities of violence in a desperately overcrowded world. Suggest social structures that might be beneficial. That sort of thing.

    Liked by 2 people

      • It’s not humanity that’s the problem. We’ve been around hundreds of thousands of years. It’s this omnicidal culture/economy.

        Don’t let them fool us into opposing ourselves. Make humanity great again.

        Liked by 3 people

      • I think the work you outline here and the sources given, if studied profoundly–nay, religiously–will perhaps void us of the baggage of our modern culture. Like Inanna passing through the Gates of Death. Hey, at least it’s worth a shot…

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      • Humanity IS the problem, Shaun. The existence of noble, courageous individuals who can create achingly beautiful art and fight the most horrific circumstances does not, unfortunately, change the fact that the whole of human history is the collective activity of finding a new area, filling it with offspring by exhausting its resources, and then expanding into another area to do the same. This has happened tens of thousands of times, and the only difference now is that the expansion has reached its absolute end (unless the jawdroppingly stupid idea of doing the same to other planets is able to come about before all of us are dead).

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      • To speak of humanity as if all humans have behaved the same way in relation to earth and fellow living creatures overlooks the fact that there have been, and continue to be, small tribal cultures that have lived in harmony with their surroundings for 1000s of years. There is not one humanity so let’s not judge all peoples of the Earth by the most dominant and destructive ones.

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    • We can teach them all these strategies, yes, but there are two things we can never give them: 1) the weapons to carry out 2) mass slaughter for the sake of survival. All of that, and still survive? No, that path has already been taken. John spells it out beautifully above.

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  2. Powerful stuff. I’m in agreement that we need to learn to live toward death and toward becoming compost and this is something that we need new myths and stories to teach us. Creating new myths (as opposed to simply fictions) is difficult work but, with the guidance of the gods and spirits, must be done.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Let’s not name this time the Anthropocene. Let us refuse to accept that term. We don’t deserve it. Would we have named the Tertiary after the asteroid or comet that killed the dinosaurs? But it goes deeper than that – it exaggerates our own importance to ourselves. We will run out of cheap energy, and civilization as we know it will die, including most economic systems. It’s going to happen, and our numbers will likely decrease drastically. The ones that will survive are those who are prepared to survive.

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  4. I still cannot accept abandoning others to die, even if we teach them to die well. Something bothers me about that approach: Say this approach is successful after a time, inevitable even, and most people adopt it. Say some do not. You know there will be survivors by whatever means, and you know they will once more repopulate the Earth. If we are truly to become part of the Cycle of the Goddess, we must think of them, too. They are likely to repeat the whole mess again. I love the myth of the Dying God, it is SO important, but beyond these gender dualities lies a more infinite truth, I wager: The Non-/All-Gendered Universe. It is perhaps indifferent and too vast to give a damn, but… What can we see looking back from that vantage point? Who has seen this far?

    I’m rambling…

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  5. This is an excellent article–knowing that other people have reached these same conclusions helps me feel less isolated. I see that you are also a Shaper in an Earthseed group, so my question for you is this: how do you reconcile Earthseed’s Destiny with the reality of peak oil and what you’ve written here about the need for humanity to (re)learn how to die well? To me, that concept and the Destiny of Earthseed seem incompatible (and I can get behind what Earthseed says up to the point of the Destiny). Do you consider “(re)learning how to die well and live within the cycle of life/death” to be a replacement for the Destiny?

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    • Ray, I’m glad you brought Earthseed up, because I’ve been thinking about the Destiny of Earthseed a lot lately. I wonder if Butler would have included it had she been writing a couple of decades later.

      The way I have reconciled the Destiny with ecology in the past is this: Humans are Earthseed, but not exclusively. The Book of the Living says that the Destiny of Earthseed Is to take root among the stars … to live and to thrive on new earths … to become new beings.” And while it says “We are Earthseed”, it also says “Earthseed is all that spreads Earthlife to new earths.” So I take that “we” to be an expansive and inclusive “we” that includes all of Earthlife.

      But to tell the truth, the Destiny now seems to me to be part and parcel of the myth of progress. I would like to see the 3rd tenet of Earthseed changed from the Destiny to “Shape Self”:

      1. God is Change.
      2. Shape God.
      3. Shape Self.

      But I know that at least half the people drawn to Earthseed and drawn by the Destiny. It’s something I hope to write about on the Earthseed blog soon (godischange.org).

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  6. Powerful words, a lifetime (or many lifetimes) of intuitive thought. A 93 year old zen master once said to me – “Thinking always manifests the human world. “No thinking” – the place between thoughts where we experience all as one – manifests God/Goddess/Buddha/Gaia… the human paradox.

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  7. What does it mean to ‘die early and die often?’ To me that would mean to die to my identifications by questioning; to understand that who I believe myself to be is entirely constructed. Who am I without the story of me? Love.

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  8. If as a species we were in an end-times, Xenogenesis-level situation, then I would fully support this spiritual project of de-centering humanity from the locus of our moral and aesthetic worldview. But to be frank, that seems way premature. This perspective sounds like jumping out of a skyscraper because the building will someday gradually crumble.
    This is certainly not a nihilistic take on the problem and I don’t object to it per se. But aren’t you going a little fast from “nuclear waste is a problem and wind power isn’t strong enough” to “We should stop trying to save each other and rebuild our spiritual lives in anticipation of the extinction of the species”?

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    • Look at it this way. On a long enough timeline, the extinction of the species is probably inevitable, right? So why continue building our culture around the false belief that we are exempt from the laws of nature (and the fact of death)?

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    • Reading between the lines, I am picking up on a faith in technology progress on your part, which I don’t share. If you’re interested, there’s a great book out: The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann, which I think addresses the different assumptions behind our respective perspectives on the present state of things. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/220698/the-wizard-and-the-prophet-by-charles-c-mann/9780307961693/

      I’m working on a review of it to publish here soon.

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      • I read The Wizard and the Prophet; it was amazing! And I do think it highlights well some of the different assumptions behind our perspectives. I would add that your perspective seems to be giving up on both perspectives. That’s the part I’m especially inclined to disagree with.

        To your other point, I agree that it is, in a way, naive or short-sighted to “continue building our culture around the false belief that we are exempt from the laws of nature and the fact of death.” That’s a solid point. My concern is that the spiritual project you’ve outlined here takes the mortality of the species as a reason for giving up on the moral value of individual humans. The impulse to rage against the dying of the light may seem naive, but its motivated by the desire for humans to live good and happy lives, and I’m sympathetic to that motivation.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You may recall there was a third perspective in the book, addressed in the beginning and end, that of Lynn Margulis. She believes that both Vogt and Borlaug were wrong and basically we’re fucked. When I read the book, I was definitely on the side of the prophets, but Margulis’ perspective kept nagging at the corners of my mind. Now, I think she’s right.

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  9. Been looking for Camille and the compost children, but to no avail. Is it a book or in a book or what? Sounds like something I’d like to read. Thanks.

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  10. We can be sure that some part of humanity, perhaps some highly privileged technocratic elite with vast resources obtained by fair means or foul will preserve themselves while the rest of the world’s civilizations go to a very earthly hell. We are still looking at a timeline of many centuries before the whole earth is largely ecologically uninhabitable, (compared to mere decades before all of us individually become compost). Thats a lot of time for much unprecedented social chaos and political change.
    I predict what is going to ‘die’ is liberalism and democracy, not literally everything but just everything we value. The future you predict will suit some people very nicely. Some of the Alt Right types for example, and those who have long been planning to survive the ‘ Tribulation’
    I’m afraid the logic of the situation does not suggest the world’s future lies in democracy and liberalism but almost inevitably in ever more permutations of fascism until freedom belongs only to the privileged elite, the designated survivors. As you say, maybe this was the plan all along.

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  11. Yeah, right… the article started very well but ended in a heap of useless, arty sheit. The only thing that really depresses me about this article is its acceptance of acceptance.
    Don’t accept your uselessness, people, or you are being as anthropocentric as the average science denier. Sure, we are probably cactus as a species, but the smaller lifeforms of the biosphere still have a chance. Don’t bloody give up now while every focussed action we take can still save species.

    Build a garden, become one with the ants and the worms, but don’t forget that every minute of the day the fossil fuel industry is expanding and we are the ones who can stop it. As a person who has already stopped over 14 coal trains and been part of an action that closed down the World’s biggest export coal port for a day, I can tell you first hand how possible it is to do.

    Do you think the fossil fuel production and distribution network was designed to be proofed against determined protest? No way. It is utterly vulnerable to even totally peaceful activists on a mission to save life. So don’t fall for the waffle and self indulgence of “it’s too late for us so we may as well just give up”, because that just makes us even worse than we were in our most destructive form.

    Go and look at @Shut It Down – Climate Direct Action .., @Lock the Gate Alliance Inc .., @Climate Disobedience Center .., @Frontline Action on Coal etc… There are plenty of people in the World who are trying to make things right by hazarding their own lives and freedom. Give me a single good reason why someone who gets this article wouldn’t do it too. Go out and make a change, wherever you are, and if you are on the East Coast of Australia, come to this. https://www.facebook.com/events/464118520677780/

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    • You may be right about the article being arty sheit, but I want to be clear that I’m not giving up or encouraging others to give up. But I do think we need to reconsider what is possible and redefine what success means under the circumstances. I would like to see more people engaged in direct action, especially if it results in concrete, visible benefits to vulnerable human and other-than-human populations, and I still advocate for the same (See “An Open Letter to My Activist Friends” at https://praywithyourfeet.org/2018/08/24/an-open-letter-to-my-activist-friends/). But I don’t believe the global capitalist system, or even just the fossil fuel industry, is “vulnerable” by any means. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of the work you and others have done. (I’ve been a part of similar actions.) But I think we have to be realistic about what we can do. Blockading a coal port for a day, while awesome, will have a negligible impact on the industry, and it’s just not sustainable with the current levels of engagement.

      Like

  12. Book with trees as characters in novel by Richard Powers

    Many articles and reviews of his latest novel. Highly recommend this work. Here are just a couple of the articles.

    From The Guardian: Interview
    Richard Powers: ‘We’re completely alienated from everything else alive’

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/16/richard-powers-interview-overstory

    From Bookpage Richard Powers:
    The biggest questions in literature
    https://bookpage.com/interviews/22518-richard-powers

    The article begins with

    “To what degree (if any) do you consider your work to be a moral or didactic project? Am I mistaken in feeling that The Overstory isn’t just a novel, but maybe a blueprint for being inducted into the “shimmering council” of the trees—something like a viable evangelism? Or does this idea just piss you off?”

    Powers responds

    “Goodness—what better way to start an interview than plunging into one of the most highly charged questions in the history of literature! Centuries of great writers have filled volumes exploring the proper position of the literary author along the spectrum of moral detachment and commitment. In the mid-19th century, the warring camps had their spokespeople in Tolstoy, who advocated for fiction that would raise consciousness and make readers into better people, and in Flaubert, who preached a moral detachment, urging writers to be like a remote, objective, hands-off God—“present everywhere and visible nowhere.”

    In the last century, when I was growing up, the American version of this war was playing out between John Gardner and Gore Vidal. Vidal was the champion of aesthetic, belletristic freedom—the author who was above the fray, committed only to the free play of exploration and possibility. Gardner, in his controversial and influential book On Moral Fiction, wrote that fiction ought “to test human values, not for the purpose of preaching or peddling a particular ideology, but in a truly honest and open-minded effort to find out which best promotes human fulfillment.” Here’s the interesting thing: Don’t both these positions sound attractive and defensible?

    If I were to name the prevailing aesthetic of the present concerning literary fiction, I’d say it leans toward the belletristic. Moral passion hasn’t been cool for some time; much better to gird yourself in irony and fatalistic detachment. Or to put it more sympathetically, contemporary literary fiction strives for the dialogical, where the conflicting moral positions of all the characters in the story are both defensible and flawed. But look at the standout books—the great war novels and postcolonial novels and novels of politics, social showdown and human abuse—and you’ll see a different story. These books know what’s wrong with the world and what it would take to better minister to the human condition………..

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  13. Your previous article about how fucked we all are was good. But I feel like this one went completely in the wrong direction. Just because mass extinction, resource wars, environmental collapse, and massive amounts of death will happen, does not mean we can’t do things to minimise the damage. Humankind may go completely extinct. Or it might not. We need to do everything PRACTICAL we can to preserve nature, spread socialist values, destroy capitalism, and support technologies that will sustain and regenerate nature. Positive change may not significantly happen until white people start to die in front of the masses but when we get to that point we need to be helping encourage that positive change. Switch your house to a green electricity company, get everyone around you to do the same. Start convincing people that capitalism is evil. Now is not the time to give up and turn to religion and literature. Do that on your deathbed. You’re still alive. Save the animals and plants that you can.

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