What makes life truly worth living (in the face of Death)?

Update: This article was written a couple of years ago, before the Covid pandemic. This situation has brought home to many more people the stark awareness that our civilization is breaking down on multiple fronts.

The questions posed in this article are even more relevant now. Climate change has not gone away, social inequalities are even more glaring than usual, and fear of the unknown future and resultant insecurity has scientists scrambling to find the “solution”.

But there is no vaccine for the wicked and interdependent problems we are facing as a civilization. We are facing multiple existential risks to our very survival. How we show up now and how we answer the questions posed in this article will determine the quality of life we will be able to enjoy in the short term, and hopefully pass on to future generations.

The following quote is taken from the book “ Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande. The 4 questions he asks were meant to facilitate a frank and open conversation between a doctor and his terminally ill patient.

I want to suggest that these are questions each of us should contemplate well before we find ourselves or someone we love in the extremity of a life-threatening illness.

They are also absolutely vital questions for humanity at this point in the history of our civilization and its potential demise from the terminal illness called global warming (and the malignant growth economy that is causing it).

How would you answer these questions?

What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?

In Vancouver, British Columbia where I live, the sky is obliterated again today by smoke from hundreds of wildfires burning across the province (summer 2018). The air quality here is the worst we’ve ever experienced— 10 on a scale of 1–10: “High Risk”. Some communities are on evacuation alert. People are advised to stay indoors and do nothing too physically active.

It’s affecting everyone’s mood- there’s a heavy, dark energy in the air. Is this the new normal? The new Reality?

The gravity of the situation is hard to ignore. This morning on my Facebook news feed every other story, it seems, contains dire warnings about what we are facing as a civilization. We are fast approaching the point of no return, where nothing we do can reverse the damage or stem the the exponential growth of the symptoms - more floods, more fires, more species loss, drought, displaced populations/refugees and war.

It’s not just an abnormally warm summer. What then? Have we been handed a terminal diagnosis? How much longer do we have? Do we want to know the answer to that question?

The truth is no one knows the answer. Even the most experienced oncologist can’t say for certain how much time his patient has left- and this is a moral question, not a scientific one.

What do we value and what are we willing to do to preserve it? Are we willing to make the necessary sacrifices that may or may not save us? Or will the power of denial continue to rule, making us believe that if we can bring our technological savvy to bear, if we innovate as we have always done, we can solve this. And so we continue with “business as usual”.

This is like a terminally ill cancer patient believing that the life support system keeping him alive will do so long enough, until a cure can be found. Or maybe he can be frozen until science comes up with a cure.

We have such faith in “Science” — yet we ignore the warnings of legions of reputable climate scientists, or skew the data to fit our desire to continue as we have done at any cost. Meanwhile our quality of life is diminished- especially of we are poor or marginalized in other ways. But even the rich cannot breathe this polluted air and thrive.

What are your fears and hopes?

If I were given a terminal diagnosis, how would I answer this question? Is the answer the same for humanity at this juncture? What am I most afraid of?

First of all, I would experience normal fear and dread of the enormity of the news and the consequences for my life. No one wants to hear this news- the news that from this point on, nothing will be the same. That the world as you know it is coming to an end. An end that always feels premature. You haven’t had time to make peace with yourself. You have left so many things undone.

Some doctors even refuse to tell their patient that this is the conclusion they’ve arrived at after all their tests and scans. They don’t want the patient to give up hope for a solution- as far fetched as it may be.

Where is “hope” to be found in this global climate situation? What does hope actually do for you? Doesn’t it make you passive- expecting a “deus ex machina” to swoop down and save the day? Doesn’t this allow us to continue as we have been? Consuming, despoiling our natural resources for short-term gratification of our every desire? As Jem Bendell says - there’s no one coming . . . we have to find our way through this without heroes who have all the answers. We’ve never faced anything remotely like this before in human history. Humanity has never before been handed a terminal diagnosis.

Or are we more cynical? Well, if I’ve only got a year, I’m going to have one hell of a party as I go down with the ship? Check off everything on my bucket list and to hell with the cost!

If we can’t count on technology as we have in the past, what hope is there? To even entertain the idea that we can’t fix this through technological innovation creates enormous fear, even despair. . . what’s the point?

But I maintain along with Charles Eisenstein that unless we come to the point of despair, we will not have the humility to be open to other possibilities. Possibilities that may seem entirely foreign to the way we’ve been conditioned to approach our problems in the past. Reading Eisenstein’s book, Climate, A New Story has given me, not hope, but courage. Courage to look at the reality we face without flinching, and persevere in doing what I can to help regenerate the living planet we depend on for Life- ours and that of all other beings .

What are the other, deeper solutions that we haven’t seen because we are too focused on the “known”, and will keep trying the same solutions over and over even though they are making our condition worse? What kind of world do we want to live in? What are the necessary, basic conditions for Life and healthy ecosystems?

What are the trade-offs you are willing to make?

An “Inconvenient Truth” means we will have to make sacrifices in order to make the changes necessary to stop the disease of infinite growth on a finite planet.

There is a lot of fear around losing what we have; the assumption being that life will be worse if we have to give up our cars, our electronics, our constant replacement of anything out-dated or unfashionable. Not to mention the story we’re sold in the advertising media, and to which most aspire: that happiness lies in a bigger house with a huge walk-in closet, a Ferrari in the garage, maybe a sailboat and yearly travel to 5 star resorts in warmer climes.

But might a simpler life not be more rewarding? I live in a fairly populous city- Vancouver, BC- with good public transit, bike lanes and several car sharing options. I have no car and I don’t miss it. I’ve lived in my neighbourhood for almost 20 years and I’ve put down roots here. Everything I need is within a few minutes walk. I love walking to the cafe and the grocery store- every time I go out the door, I meet folks I know on the street and we often stop to chat.

I live in a rental building- in what is essentially one large room with a bathroom. It’s enough for me. I’m nearing 70 years of age. I have no dependents and currently have no “significant other”. Instead I’m surrounded by neighbours I call my friends . . . I know they are there for me if I need them.

In my almost 70 years, I’ve had the privilege to travel more than most folks. I’ve been to Europe several times, to Hawaii many times, to Mexico twice, and Bali. But I’ve chosen not to fly anymore. I haven’t been on an airplane for about 7 years. I rarely feel the need to “get away” but a break is often necessary for reflection and mental health. A couple of years ago, I took a “staycation” in my city for my birthday one year. Booked myself into a fancy hotel, relaxed by the pool with my book, walked to nearby restaurants for dinner and took long walks in Stanley Park - Vancouver’s famous jewel right on the doorstep of the hotel. Many travel around the world just to see the natural beauty of this city. Why leave?

Another year I went by ferry to one of the gulf islands near Vancouver, which is a major travel destination for people from Europe and the USA. I stayed in a beautiful airbnb for 10 days, walked the trails, and visited friends who live there. I meditated, read and reflected on life. I slowed down. It was so much simpler and more relaxing than the modern version of long-distance travel involving luggage, taxis, airport waiting rooms, often delayed flights, bad food, . . . and it cost so much less.

I read a lot, but don’t buy books anymore - the public library is right around the corner.

I admit to having difficulty letting go of the habit of buying new clothes and I do still fall down on that score. But I’m also a member of several groups that support a zero-waste, local lifestyle. BUNZ is a local community trading app I use quite often, where I can post items I no longer need and find things I do need offered in trade. There’s also a local Buy Nothing group in my neighbourhood where folks will offer things they no longer need to the community for free, rather than dispose of it irresponsibly or have it sitting around taking up space.

None of these practices is onerous- it’s a matter of honestly asking oneself- what is enough? How can I make my life simpler? How can I contribute what I have to something greater than my own personal desire for more . . . If everyone made only one or two of the above changes, we would be on the road to a healthier system.

Think carefully about how you’ve been living your life. What gives you joy? Where can you be of service? How do you want to be remembered? What positive actions can you take in the time left- however long or short? ( And truthfully, none of us ever knows how much time we have . . . why not start to ask ourselves these questions now, before it’s too late?)

What is the course of action that best serves this understanding?

I’m extremely fortunate to have inherited money. I am one of the very privileged few. I did nothing to earn this money, nor do I feel entitled to it. But I’m not trying to use that money to get more money or more stuff for myself. I long ago divested myself from the stock market. I’ve moved most of my funds into a regional credit union that supports local businesses.

It’s my goal to steward those funds in order to create social impact in my neighborhood through making available my time, energy and financial resources to build resilience and sovereignty in the local food economy - starting with our collaborative garden project on the small property I bought in 2010 across the street from where I live. We’ve been working together for 3 (now 5) years on that project and the positive impact on the community has been astounding.

So many connections made working in the garden on a Sunday afternoon. Neighbours I’ve had for years, but never met, stop to tell us how beautiful the garden is and how much they appreciate being able to spend time there. We’re constantly honing our gardening skills and knowledge of plants- cultivated and native. We have a hand-watering team of neighbours who love the garden and are invested in seeing it thrive. We hold events in the garden- long table dinners, film nights, music events. I get more joy from doing this than anything I might do for myself with the money. It’s healing to the soul and spirit.

Now we’re imagining together the possibility of developing the site into an innovative, modular biophilic building- with co-living in tiny homes for our community, climate controlled indoor agriculture and a local food & ideas hub. It’s a big undertaking that will take years to complete, even if we are able to navigate all the normal hurdles. Never mind factoring in the possible breakdown of society as we know it. It will require a level of dedication and commitment that only comes from love.

Does it make sense to start a project like this now when we’ve been handed this collective terminal diagnosis? Things are already going awry- we’re expecting another summer of serious fires in BC and Washington state. Another financial meltdown is a real concern. Where will the money come from? Should we perhaps not just continue with the garden? Is there a better way to use our resources? Even if we succeed in building it, will Vancouver be habitable in 10 years? Or less?

I don’t have the answers, but it’s vital to ask the questions. I remind myself that it must be about the process, not the goal. That it’s about how we live, not how long. Quality of life comes from healthy relationships and actions that move us closer to the world we want to live in. So we go on, one step at a time, remembering to be grateful for what we have for as long as it lasts.

Community activator, gardener, core contributor at Living Systems Network and coFood Vancouver