4- Preserving The Biosphere

Life-affirming death awareness may be a necessary precondition for preserving the biosphere

Developing a culture of life-affirming death awareness may well be key to saving a biosphere that has never been so threatened in modern history.

Global warming, biodiversity loss, water aquifer depletion, ocean pollution, the disappearance of the coral reef, chemical contamination, desertification and ozone layer depletion are each enormous problems in and of themselves. What is particularly troubling, however, is the potential interaction between them in coming years. Humanity does not face merely local "environmental" problems as it has in the past. Today, for the first time, it is the global systems that support human life on this earth that are under assault.

No rational non-expert can reasonably doubt that the most urgent and serious action is called for. The best minds that our generation has devoted to studying these issues have, after the many years of study necessary to have an informed opinion, been nearly unanimous in warning that urgent action is needed. It is primarily the uninformed, such as politicians and policy ideologues with little grasp of the complex scientific issues involved, who have cast doubt on the seriousness of the threat to our biosphere.

It is not only that present expert predictions of possible future consequences are chilling: a rise in ocean levels wiping out vast numbers of coastal communities, particularly in poor Third World countries; mass migrations; droughts, famine and disease. It is that the experts admit that we have no real way of predicting how much havoc will be caused, and no idea if and when we might reach a point where remedial action is impossible.

And there is a final, and perhaps most chilling aspect to this crisis: those in the developed world who are causing it are not yet suffering from it. As a result, while they need to dramatically reduce their consumption for global warming and other biospheric threats to be contained, they are not simply failing to act. They continue to make the situation even worse - even as people around the world seek to emulate the lifestyles that wealthy societies promote thorugh the entertainment they sell.

There are many things that must be done if our slow attack on our own biosphere is to be reversed, but this above all: we must mobilize massive investments in energy efficiency on the level that we once invested in fighting World War II. And, as in World War II, these investments which will initially require lowered consumption throughout American society, although they would eventually produce a new wave of economic growth. And, if the biosphere is to be saved, such a shift from consumption to investment must begin with the United States which, with 3% of the world's population, consumes over 30% of the world's resources.

If America's leaders were to address the issue with the urgency it deserves, they would take for granted that we need to raise fuel efficiency standards to at least an average 40 miles to the gallon, develop a crash program to insulate every home and office building in America, and make massive investments in not only developing but diffusing renewable energy technologies into every corner of our economy and society. Rather than debating whether we need such policies, sane political discussion would focus on how to achieve them.

It is common to hear from opinion-makers beginning with the current occupant of the White House that reducing consumption to become more energy efficient is "unrealistic," and/or economically harmful, and that we instead can and should find "technical fixes" to the problem.

But even if the most dramatic "technical fix" we can imagine can be found, such as how to run our autos on hydrogen rather  than gasoline, we will still need massive investment at the cost of consumption to diffuse them throughout our society.

We have already, after all, discovered "technical fixes" that can make a major contribution to reducing global warming, such as hybrid cars that get 30-40 miles to the gallon.

But, in a society burdened by the highest public and private levels of debt in the post-war era, and an Administration focused on war in Iraq and obtaining support from corporations and the wealthy by cutting their taxes, the investments and regulations needed to convert our auto fleet to hybrid technologies have barely begun to materialize. No U.S. politician dare calls for actions which would actually reduce global warming because it would require calling for World War II levels of investment and national sacrifice, and they assume they would be punished - by potential donors, and by a public not yet ready to sacrifice - for doing so.

Given this reality, it may well be that either the biospheric problem cannot be solved, or that it will take a major loss of life before serious action will be taken. (Even the 1999 Kyoto Treaty, which the present Administration has rejected, was more symbolic than real. Even had all developed nations signed and implemented it, it would have only slightly reduced the overall rate at which global CO2 emissions have been growing.)

Facing death in a way that affirms life is one of the few consciousness shifts that can be imagined that might help avoid this dire scenario. Societies over-consume in large part as part of a cutoff, defended lifestyle that has its origin in our desire to deny our death-pain. They neglect the wellbeing of their descendants because they live emotionally as if they will have no descendants.

If large numbers of Americans in general, and baby-boomers in particular, were to develop a life-affirming death awareness, it might help create the consciousness- shift necessary to save the biosphere. We might learn to stop blocking out information we do not want to hear- in this case the ways in which we are endangering all future life. And we might connect with the part of us that is willing to sacrifice some of what we have so that our grandchildren and their children can live. Parents and grandparents do this, after all, on a daily basis for their own families. A life-affirming death awareness, combined with an understanding of the biospheric crisis, could extend these behaviors outward to all society.

In the end, it comes down to what we value. Death teaches us to value experience over the possessions that we cannot take with us, the long-lasting well-being of our descendants over the temporary pleasures of the marketplace, and contributing to the great cause of saving humanity over improving our golf game or redecorating our expensive home. And above all, a life-affirming death awareness motivates us to create the only real "immortality project" that exists in our tragic world: being remembered well by all those who will follow us. ( Concern For Future Generations .)

It would be a brave prophet who would predict that large numbers of Americans and the rest of the world will come to face death in a way that affirms life in coming years. But it may be even more naive to suggest that we need not try.

It may be unrealistic to hope that American and world society can develop a life-affirming death awareness that can shift consciousness sufficiently to save the biosphere and guarantee humanity's future. But it may be even more unrealistic to rely on incremental change and hope that we can be saved without such a transformation in consciousness.