How to Live in a Dying World


So on Monday I wrote about Seth Godin’s distinction between problems and boundary conditions (problems have solutions, problems with no solutions are boundary conditions you have to live with) and asked what it implied if certain large-scale global problems were, in fact, boundary conditions.

On Tuesday I wrote about the specific boundary condition of human aging, and whether knowing we might not be able to do our best work in the future should affect the work we try to do now.

Today I want to share what I learned from two books I read last week: Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End and Roy Scranton’s We’re Doomed. Now What?

Because in addition to researching the human aging process for NEXT BOOK, I’ve also been researching the planet’s aging process, specifically vis a vis the anthropocene and climate change.

And before you’re all “well, the planet wouldn’t have aged if humans hadn’t ruined it,” well, yes and no. It’s clear that humans have drastically affected the planet and are rapidly accelerating the rate at which it might become uninhabitable. It’s also clear that — and I figured this one out in second grade, the very first time we did Earth Day at school — even if every human only created one tiny piece of non-biodegradable trash in their lifetimes, something as large as the palm of your hand, the earth would still eventually be covered in garbage. This was my version of Thomasina’s second-law-of-thermodynamics discovery in Arcadia, aka “the moment I realized the world had been dying since before I was even born.”

If you still aren’t convinced, here’s a song by George Hrab and Phil Plait that explains how our planet’s death is a mathematical inevitability:

So. We’re all older than we’ve ever been and now we’re even older, to quote another group of musicians, and we are all going to die.

Also the whole earth is going to die.

Interestingly, both Atul Gawande and Roy Scranton offer the same advice:

Focus on what makes life worth living. Do that. Avoid activities or interventions that take away from that.

This advice holds up a little better in Gawande’s book than it does in Scranton’s; Gawande is coming from the perspective of a surgeon who has seen many patients through the dying process, and his suggestion that people accept death and create a hospice plan that allows them to remain at home and participate in life for as long as possible, vs. refuse to accept death and endure ever-more-expensive interventions that might postpone the end of life while significantly reducing its quality, makes sense on the individual level.*

Scranton also advises us to accept both our own death and our planet’s death, and to use our remaining time on this earth to “reflect consciously on the ways we make life meaningful — on how we decide what is good, what our goals are, what’s worth living or dying for, and what we do every day, day to day, and how we do it.”

For example: he understands that every plane flight kills the planet a little faster, but he also values building a relationship between his daughter and her grandparents.

To which I respond: this advice is all very well and good right now, if you’re a person who has access to plane flights and daughters and grandparents. It’s going to get a lot trickier as resources become more and more depleted. We’re already in a situation where someone’s good day means someone else’s bad one, and I do not see the entire world joining forces to accept the earth’s death while forging new communities with people who need spaces to live, food to eat, etc. because those people’s former homes were the first parts of the globe to become completely uninhabitable.

Plus there are going to be a lot of people who are going to want to fight for the planet even as other people and corporations work to deplete it, and there’s going to be even more fighting once we realize we lost the fight, everything from wars to last-ditch “what if we blast a hole in the moon to change the earth’s orbit” kind of things, because that’s just how people are.**

Anyway. I have to wrap this up because it’s time to move on to Billfold work, even though there’s no way to wrap this particular discussion up and never has been.

But I highly recommend Being Mortal, if you’re the type of person who asks yourself both what makes a good life and what makes a good death.

Unfortunately, I doubt that the earth’s death process will be “good.”

*I know that the hospice system is not always what it should be, and some people who want hospice are not able to access it.

**Now I’m really curious about whether it would be possible to mitigate the effects of climate change by changing the earth’s orbit, though I don’t think blasting a hole in the moon is the way to do it.

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