But first: Collectively? Systemically? Culturally? Surely not. We humans are ingenious are we not? We humans will continue on, will we not? We’re not about to die out – surely not?
Well, indications are strong that we may be on the road to doing so. There has been talk of the Sixth Mass Extinction for some time now. Little do many of us humans realise that we are on that extinction list.
This blogpiece will not traverse the evidence for suggesting we are facing extinction. The possibility has been, briefly, discussed elsewhere on this blogsite.
Rather, this blogpiece accepts the likelihood of extinction, or at least a collapse of our ecological/social/economic/cultural systems. This blogpiece asks the question that arises from that acceptance: Can we face our collective death with dignity and grace?
The seeds of an answer to that question can be found in the ways in which we face our individual deaths in our present (western-styled) culture. And the quick answer to that is: not very well.
We live, by and large, in a death-phobic culture. Our medicalisation of death has conditioned us to want to prolong life, rather than accept the reality of death and thus die with dignity and grace.
In his excellent book about death and dying (Die Wise1), Stephen Jenkinson writes in one poignant passage about More Time. He writes of the assertion that palliative care and the medical system provides us with more time to live. In reality, however, Jenkinson claims that “More Time almost always means more dying.”
Our Way of Life Must Die
Our current (western-styled) lifestyle, and the systems we create to support that lifestyle, are unsustainable, violent, and human-centred. This cannot continue. We have already over-shot the environmental limits. Climate change is but the latest symptom of that overshoot.
Yet, we are still acting as if our lifestyles can continue. Furthermore, any alternative solutions that are being offered are simply attempts to prolong our lifestyles, albeit with supposedly sustainable, green, or socially just technologies.
If, then, we are facing environmental and social collapse, and our present attitudes and behaviours are geared towards either a) denying our coming cultural death, or b) attempting to prolong our lifestyles by various fixes and solutions, then we are not approaching this death in a wise manner.
Can we discover ways to approach our cultural death that are wise? Can we learn to collapse with dignity and grace?
It is a big ask.
Our systems are old and are dying. Vanessa Machado de Oliveira2 refers to modernity as being unable to teach us how to allow it (modernity) to die. She notes that “most people will not voluntarily part with harmful habits of being that are extremely pleasurable.”
She then goes on to explore ways of:
“…acting with compassion to assist systems to die with grace, and to support people in the process of letting go – even when they are holding on for dear life to what has already gone.”
Perhaps the first step is to honestly face our present (cultural) fear of death. Should we learn to accept death as part of life, rather than attempting to make more time to prolong dying?
Maybe then we will be able to face collapse wisely and to act compassionately.
1. Stephen Jenkinson, Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 20152. Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, Hospicing Modernity, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2021. (Review forthcoming)