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Climate chaos, mass extinction, the collapse of civilization: So what if we’re doomed?

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In the winter of 2013, I drove up California’s Central Valley to Stockton, to interview Cambodian parents who’d lost children in one of the nation’s many mass school shootings. A local man named Patrick Purdy had parked his station wagon behind an elementary school, set it on fire with a Molotov cocktail, and, as curious children ran toward him, shot them with an assault rifle. Purdy killed five children and wounded nearly 30. All of the dead were Cambodian or Vietnamese. The parents had survived war, genocide and refugee camps, only to have their children murdered in America.

The shooting took place in 1989, 24 years before I visited, but one mother wept so hard during her interview, it seemed no time had passed for her. I had spent much of my early career as a foreign correspondent, speaking to men, women and children in places torn up by war or political violence. And though I’d left the last of these assignments, in Afghanistan, more than a year earlier, the stark irony of the Stockton shooting brought back a familiar, low-register pain. I wrapped up the interviews and headed back to Orange County, south of Los Angeles, dragging the day behind me like a chain. I had a small apartment near the coast, and in the mornings I would run along the Bolsa Chica wetlands, where a pumpjack groaned in its lonesome, eternal way and a pair of kestrels hunted the brush from a cluster of palm trees. Some mornings, a pair of Blackhawk helicopters would fly by, thundering over the surf. We’re still at war, they’d whisper. Do not doubt it.

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In this state of mind, a few days after the Stockton trip, I came across the work of Paul Kingsnorth, a British writer who called himself a “recovering environmentalist.” He was one of the founders of the Dark Mountain Project, a movement of philosophers, writers and artists that had emerged from the 2008 economic crisis, and he believed the planet was experiencing an “ecocide that nobody seems able to prevent.” Ecocide — the total destruction of our home — seemed inevitable to them, and to me, given the things I’d seen and any number of ongoing catastrophes: mass extinction, climate chaos, flooded coasts, mega-drought; oceans turning to acid, permafrost to muck. We humans are a disastrous species, as bad for the Earth as a meteor strike, and the realization of this had established in me a new kind of sadness, a mixture of guilt and mourning for a loss yet to come. Kingsnorth was one of the few people who seemed to voice a similar pain, and I began following his writing. I eventually moved to Colorado, and, not long after, saw that Kingsnorth was hosting a retreat in the Spanish Pyrenees, for “grief in the age of ecocide.” I immediately signed up. Now that my pain had been named, I wanted to understand what to do with it.

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