A few weeks ago, I took many things for granted. That I could go out in the morning and sit in a café for hours, to work or read a book. That I could take a train to Brighton, or Williamstown, and walk along the beach. That I could have spicy Sichuan food, or beer and chips, or a pizza for dinner. Or invite as many friends over as I wanted, for no reason.
I reacted to Covid-19 in three phases. First came smugness, with a touch of denial. I’ve worked in global catastrophic risk for years, this is a mild crisis, why the panic? Then came anger and sadness. The government is taking away my freedom, who made those decisions, on what basis? Finally, I experienced calm acceptance. Things have changed, life continues, though different in its daily form.
A few years ago, I took many things for granted. That there would be fish in the sea forever, and polar bears, and coral reefs. That, forty years from now, Miami, Mumbai and Guangzhou would be dry land, and I could go visit, if I wanted to. That I could live in blissful ignorance of peak oil, rainforest destruction, and the structure of electric grids. That I could focus on writing or teaching, then expect a peaceful retirement as new generations continued.
That world is gone, but I have not yet found a sense of calm acceptance.
On January 9, 2019, I saw this photograph in my Facebook Feed.
The facial expression of this man, and with the caption underneath, made me pause. We have associated success with economic growth, and let our happiness depend on it. Whoever attached their identity to this paradigm will experience loss when considering climate change and its impact, including on the shrinking economy. We do not like to experience loss. Hence, denial.
The middle-aged white man faces the prospect of deep sadness: for we were probably closest to living a perfect life, and so, our dreams might have been crushed most. This comes with enormous emotional burden. Yet how ill-equipped are we to deal with this sadness.
I learned about this phenomenon during a cross-cultural training session: women typically fare better in difficult situations than men. A simple reason to this: most men in leadership positions have never encountered genuine hardships or setbacks. Sure, they worked hard, and didn’t get to their position without efforts and focus. But if they made it, it’s because they passed every obstacle. Success defines their sense of identity
Not so women, used to countless micro-aggressions, endless exposure to unconscious bias. Women do no better than their male counterparts in difficult cross-cultural situations. But setbacks are part of their identity. So, when a negotiation collapses, when hostile behavior starts out of nowhere, when everything falls apart, they can step back, reflect, and try again. Not so male leaders: whatever behaviour has led them to success, they continue. When it stops working, they don’t know what to do. Some experience complete breakdown.
The new ‘white man’s burden’ is this unexpressed sadness. That the world we inherited, the world that we continued building, is dead. That whatever behaviour has led to success up until now no longer works. That we’re at risk of complete breakdown. That we’re stuck in denial.
My hope for Covid-19 is, it is shrinking the economy. It is forcing us to stop and pause. It is causing sadness and suffering. And so, there is hope that it will accelerate the mourning process we need.
Mindless consumerism is joyful. I like to go to cafes, I like to take a train to the beach, eat spicy Sichuan Food or beer and chips or pizza, and invite friends over for drinks and dinner. This was the attraction of Australia: good weather, wealth and a relaxed lifestyle.
In a chapter of Crowd and Power, Elias Canetti talks about the various forms that human groups can take. He describes what he calls ‘multiplication packs’: groups geared towards production, agricultural collectives amassing corn, wheat, rice, and rejoicing in the harvest. He describes, also, different types of group: what he calls the ‘funeral pack’. They come together to lament the passing of a fellow human – and in that shared sense of extreme loss, find a sense of unity.
We have organized our societies around economic growth: multiplication of resources. Maybe, we need to shift this, and bring back the tragic sense of funeral packs. Have an Easter moment of collective loss, in which we can find a new basis for unity.
It’s a cool morning of June 2019. I’m sitting at a long table underneath a metal awning in the highlands of Bali. I have joined a ‘creative retreat’ organised by my friends of the School of Slow Media. I just spent the night sleeping in a freezing tent, with two sweaters and a coat. I am having breakfast now, and my friend Ai is sitting next to me.
I tell Ai about a figure I encountered during my spiritual exercises: Joseph of Arimathea. When Christ dies on the cross, as Peter hides and Mary laments, Joseph goes to Pontius Pilate, asking for permission to take down the body of Jesus, and give him burial. Joseph is a practical man. The savior is dead, now there is a body on a cross, and that body must be moved, embalmed, buried. There are concrete steps to take: buy the myrrh and frankincense, buy the shroud, find the tomb, get an authorization from Pilate, find someone to take down the body, embalm it, shroud it, place it in the tomb, close the tomb. Joseph of Arimathea is at the centre of Easter, the shadow figure of Holy Saturday. Not the lamentation of death, not the joyful hope of the empty tomb, but the down-to-earth, pragmatic efforts of burial.
‘I identify with Joseph’, I told Ai, ‘and I think, I’d like to think more about him. I think our times need this figure.’ Then Ai draws a diagram on a napkin, and starts explaining to me: ‘in a paradigm shift, composting work is necessary. Something dies, something emerges. And part of what needs to happen is, elements of the previous paradigm must be broken down, so they can be used in the new.’ We talk for a while about composting, recycling, beetles. And mourning.
Mourning is a process of decomposition. Things used to go together: a face, a voice, an emotion, an organization, a house, a relationship. Dreams, hopes, projections. No more – we must undo those associations. In the same way, when a certain system falls apart – like the civilization we built on a mistaken belief that there would be cheap energy forever, and a stable climate – we must take it apart, so that its elements are available again, to build something new.
Last year, when a new government was elected in Australia, whose leader denied climate change, I experienced a deep sense of anger and sadness. The mourning process was starting.
I tried sharing an invitation, to come together in mourning: mourning for the world that was, for a world where we could imagine a stable climate, and calmly project ourselves into the future, without fear of apocalypse. What I was proposing was not a plan, not a solution: just a moment of collection, to welcome and share the sense of sadness, embrace the mourning process, in the hope that we could come out the other end, with calm presence, and build something new. Bury the dreams of the past, so that new dreams can come.
The Gospel doesn’t tell us what happens to Joseph of Arimathea, beyond his contribution to the Easter mystery. Tradition, however, offers a story. Joseph held a cup that received the blood of Christ on the cross. After placing Jesus in the tomb, Joseph leaves Jerusalem. He travels North, all the way to the distant Isle of Britain, where he lived and died in peace, hiding his treasure with him. Yet to future generations, pragmatic Joseph bequeathed a dream, the Quest for the Holy Grail: a promise of eternal life, an inspiration to virtue, the leaven of a new fellowship.