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After the Fires

Will this moment’s challenges—and those unknown still to come—help our civilization move past an obsession with material prosperity?

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
October 22, 2020
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

This past year has taught us how hard it is to face a future of grief, how easy it is to hide ourselves in patterns of denial, how we long for everything to “return to normal,” even if “normal” is what caused this primal imbalance. But when you experience a month under wildfire evacuation warning, with a few bags packed, somehow you are reduced to essentials, to the values that support you rather than the possessions that burden you. Of course, this is not the same as subsistence farmers whose crops fail from climate change, who pack their few possessions and head first to the slums in the cities before becoming refugees. But it is a lesson in care and community and a sense of belonging.

The road to the beach was open today, after weeks of being the firebreak for the coastal wildfire that threatened our small community. Walking early, watching the breakers rolling in from across the Pacific, a solitary pelican diving for fish, I was alone on the beach, deeply reassured after weeks of turmoil. Even though I could still see smoke rising from the embers of the fire in the hills I could sense another rhythm, one that does not belong to anxiety and stress. The rise and fall of the tide, the simple beauty of the pelican, here was a sense of belonging that spoke to me.

Pandemic and then fires, storms and floods elsewhere in the country, as if a thread is being pulled at the fabric of our lives. Is this what it means to live at the end of an era? Not a revolution, imagining a better future, but part of an unraveling—what happens when a civilization begins to die, when nature becomes unbalanced, the web of life stretched to breaking. Our society more divided, economic inequality and poverty increasing, people caught in conspiracy theories as they fear a world they cannot understand or control. We do not know how it will unfold; our computer models cannot predict the future. All we can know is the radical uncertainty of this moment in time.

The pandemic has forced us to confront our vulnerability, our own physical health and the fragility of an economic system that is so easily threatened by the breath of a virus. The fear of those who are confronting this illness is real, as is the anxiety of those living paycheck to paycheck, having to choose between paying the rent or buying groceries. And in the world’s more impoverished communities the danger is amplified: The poor are even more destitute, the rickshaw driver without customers has nothing with which to feed his family.

How many decades will it take for our civilization to die, for its obsession with material prosperity to finally fade away?

But this pandemic has also triggered a collective anxiety, one that can be felt even out here on the coast, where my only companions are the ocean and the pelican. This is the anxiety that comes from the deep wisdom of the collective psyche, that knows our civilization is coming to an end, that it has passed its sell-by date, and that none of our oracles understands what comes next.

Just as a forest is connected by an underground fungal network, enabling individual trees to communicate with each other, and can warn each other of danger by releasing chemicals into the air, so are we all connected together deep within, sharing the wisdom and knowing of the earth, our common home. This network is sending us warning signs, that our present way of life is not only unsustainable, but over. Even when this pandemic comes to an end, we cannot afford to “return to normal” for very long. Sadly much of the response in America has been to become even more divided, seeking refuge in blaming and tribalism, making the simple precaution of wearing a mask a political, ideological statement. But for how long will we be able to cover our primal anxiety with divisiveness and denial? What will it take for us to face the facts of our shared existence with the earth, that we are all a part of one living system?

This year I have added two words to my vocabulary: omnicide and collapsology. The year that began with the fires searing Australia evoked the word “omnicide,” “the killing of everything,” which according to Danielle Celermajer, professor of sociology at the University of Sydney, describes a crime “we have previously been unable to witness because we have never imagined it.” It was visible in the billions of dead animals across Australia. And that was before the pandemic scorched our world with sickness and economic distress.

More recently I have learned about collapsology, the study of the end of the world as we know it. Echoed in Greta Thunberg’s simple refrain, “our house is on fire,” collapsology describes the collapse of our industrial society caused by climate crisis and unsustainable economic growth. The theory of collapsology emerged in France and was popularized with the publication of Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens’ How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times. Today 71% of Italians and 65% of French people agree with the statement that “civilization as we know it will collapse in the years to come.”

After weeks of smoke-filled skies this primal insecurity seems more tangible, less just a theory. And it brings to the surface a simple question, how do we live in this time of unraveling, of a great dying, when our society seems more divided, when we are surrounded by the miasma of fake news and social media distortions? What are the values we need to walk together into this future?

The coming years will be turbulent and demanding. This summer’s unprecedented fires together with the pandemic have been a foretaste. So many lives lost to COVID-19, homes destroyed by the fires, millions of acres burned. Out here our small coastal community has held together, our local café making free pizzas for the firefighters, just as we have provided free food for those affected by the virus. How it will be in the years and decades to come we do not know. But we have already experienced the value of community, helping each other in simple, ordinary ways. In the future generosity may be more valuable than stockpiling food, kindness to others more potent than force.

A British alternative to collapsology can be seen in the transition network that began in the small rural U.K. town of Totnes, Devon, and has spread to over 50 countries, focusing on creating a caring culture, encouraging communities to come together to imagine a sustainable future, a future we would want to inhabit in which we feel connected to each other and to the earth. This is what I experienced during the wildfire, simple gratitude to the firefighters risking their lives, but also feeling connected to the land that was burning as well as to our threatened community. Something so simple, known to our ancestors who lived in villages or smallholdings, working the land, aware of all the plants and the trees, before progress came and drew them into cities and factories.

Both the pandemic and the wildfires were caused by an imbalance in nature, the pandemic by wildlife habitat destruction, the wildfires by unseasonable dry lightning and warmer, dryer conditions making the land combust. The most basic question is how to return to a place of balance, something I could feel on my morning walk beside the ocean, where the tide washed away my footprints, leaving the sand seemingly untouched. Will we have to wait centuries before a new civilization is born from the ashes, one that is not built upon violence against nature, extraction, and pollution, but once again recognizes the earth as an organic, interdependent living being to which we belong?

These are the seeds of hope we can hold in this present time, ways to walk together with the earth. They point to what can be born after the burning. It tells a story that echoes deep within the body and soul and gives us meaning for a future that stretches seven generations or more. At this present moment when our attention in the United States is caught up in the upcoming election, “the most important in a generation,” it can be helpful to recognize a longer future, one that looks past the myth of continued economic growth even as it is aware of what is happening around us, food lines growing, racial and social injustice. How many decades will it take for our civilization to die, for its obsession with material prosperity to finally fade away?

Walking on the beach, with the sound of the waves crashing, I felt another reality that belongs to the earth, ancient beyond our understanding. With all of my senses I tried to reconnect with this story, as it was in the beginning, before we thought ourselves separate from nature and lost our way.

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Ph.D., is a Sufi teacher and author. He has recently released a podcast, Stories for a Living Future. You can listen to it here and wherever podcasts are found.