What Does It Mean to “Hospice Earth”?

“Hospice”; an AI painting by Midjourney, based on my own prompt

In his new book I Want a Better Catastrophe, Andrew Boyd describes “12 characters in search of an apocalypse“, and provides a flowchart explaining how each of these 12 collapsnik ‘archetypes’ would answer a series of questions about how to respond to, and cope with, the realization of the accelerating collapse of our global ecosystems (along with our unsustainable now-global economy).

Eight “ecological thinkers” representing eight of those archetypes are interviewed in the book, and Andrew has provided these remarkable quotes to summarize their thinking:

  • Robin Wall Kimmerer — “How can I be a good ancestor?”
  • adrienne maree brown — “How do we fall as if we were holding a child on our chest?”
  • Jamey Hecht — “Witness the whole human story through tragic eyes.”
  • Joanna Macy — “Be of service not knowing whether you’re a hospice worker or a midwife.”
  • Gopal Dayaneni — “We’re going to suffer, so let’s distribute that suffering equitably.”
  • Meg Wheatley — “Give in without giving up.”
  • Tim DeChristopher — “It’s too late—which means there’s more to fight for than ever.”
  • Guy McPherson — “If we’re the last of our species, let’s act like the best of our species.”

The flowchart has two ‘exits’. The first asserts hopefully that collapse can be mitigated or averted or at least slowed down and made less awful (as Andrew puts it, we have a choice between a “better catastrophe and a worse one”). The second exit concludes that it cannot. There is some nuance between the two: One can privately, quietly acknowledge that our situation is hopeless, and still “act as if” it weren’t. I think an increasing number of people are at that stage, for a number of reasons.

For those who have moved beyond hope, and acknowledged that human civilization on this planet is reached its inevitable “Endgame”, Andrew uses the phrase “Hospice Earth”. He defines this as the idea “that at the end of the world we’re all in hospice together, both to and for each other — [and this] becomes strangely comforting”, and cites Jamey Hecht as saying it “enjoins us to take care of each other as things fall apart, and to continue to honor the beauty and nobility of life even as the sun sets on our species”.

Joanna Macy, who seems most associated with the hospice metaphor (neither a Google search nor ChatGPT could identify the term’s originator), told Andrew that the purpose of her work is now to try to ensure “that when things come apart, we will not turn on each other”.

Beyond that, the book is silent as to what ‘hospicing Earth’ entails. And so, it appears, is the web.

When I first saw the term, I interpreted the word hospice as a verb, not as a noun. So — What does it mean to hospice Earth?

To hospice means to care for someone who has ceased treatment for an advanced or incurable ailment, primarily by making them comfortable and helping to relieve their pain and suffering as they die, and not doing ‘interventions’ that don’t reduce pain and suffering. To some extent, it means just being with them.

I have no idea what it would mean to ‘hospice Earth’ — our whole planet and every creature and object in it. It’s one of those nice warm fuzzy expressions that could mean just about anything.

My sense is we don’t actually want to hospice anyone, when it comes right down to it. It’s a huge and thankless and depressing responsibility. You can quickly burn out dealing with those whose situation is hopeless and who are going to die soon anyway. I have enormous admiration for the people I’ve met who do this work, and who refuse to let it harden their hearts.

Hospice is something that, in most non-industrial cultures, has always been done by entire communities, sharing and holding that heavy responsibility collectively. In most of our cultures, we have forgotten what it even means to be part of a real community. A place where everyone succeeds or everyone fails. A place where you learn to love people you really don’t like. A place where your individual ‘rights’ are subordinated to the needs and preferences of the collective. In our modern cult of individuality and personal success and failure, who would even tolerate that, let alone live in accordance with it?

And how are we to know how to hospice for the more-than-human world, when our species has shown itself both inept and uninterested in hospicing even humans outside our immediate small circles? We no longer have any sense of connection with, and true reverence for, the more-than-human world, and we think we’re going to suddenly reverse the imminent extinction of a million species and care for them the way we care for select other humans? Not to mention ‘caring’ for future generations whose inheritance we have so witlessly squandered.

We are not to blame — no one is to blame — for any of this callousness, ignorance and ineptitude. It’s how we’ve been conditioned, all doing our best to get by with the cards dealt to us, eight billion of us whose struggles have collectively produced the catastrophe we are now in the midst of, a catastrophe that is accelerating and is totally beyond our control. But I think to suggest that we might have the competence to hospice our entire planet is just hubris.

Some have suggested it might even be better, more compassionate, to accelerate civilization’s collapse so that the suffering and misery associated with it ends sooner and the healing begins faster.

So I’m afraid I don’t want a ‘better catastrophe’. I don’t want any catastrophe, but I know it’s coming, and that I will be pretty much useless to help with the critical skills that communities (if they re-emerge) will need to cope with it, before the final stages of collapse undo everything any of us has tried to do.

If I were more competent, less lazy, and a faster learner, I would do what Derek Jensen is doing — I’d find some local ecological atrocity (a no-longer-useful dam, a horribly polluted waterway), figure out how to decommission or clean it, and roll up my sleeves and get to work. Actually improving the local ecology in some meaningful, if temporary, way. It’s not impossible that I might still do so. But probably not. The waterway, like everything else, is fucked anyway in the long run. The ‘patient’ is going to die soon anyway. I’d make a lousy hospice worker.

Guy McPherson wants us to “be the best of our species”, to go out with a bang. Sounds good. But I have exactly the same problem with that good intention as I do with the intention to hospice the planet. We’re just not up to the job. We do what we’re conditioned to do, and that is going to fall short of any of the high bars we set for ourselves. We’re just going to have to settle for the ultimate low bar, the one we can achieve — to be able to say we tried our best.

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6 Responses to What Does It Mean to “Hospice Earth”?

  1. Brutus says:

    I don’t have the patience to study the overcomplicated flowchart. True enough that at this point in history (as every other) constraints narrow available options. Is Boyd’s formalization of those options accurate? Don’t care.

    I also use the term endgame on occasion to position ourselves in the flow, but that’s only a vague admission that, well, doom is nigh (timing and timescale still up for grabs). How we face the last, final test will indeed define us (to no one in particular), but considering the extraordinary difficulty of the prospect and the demonstrated unwillingness to even care for each other under fortuitous conditions, my expectation is that humans will in aggregate fail the test abysmally. Individuals may fare differently, and I hope to be among those who go out with some measure of grace.

  2. willem says:

    Industrial Society will most certainly pass on, but the human race as a whole will likely survive. Many great civilizations preceded Industrial Civilization, and most of these will still be possible again.

    We can “hospice” the Industrial Age, but the task for the human race is different. Society needs to conduct itself like a family whose income is being cut to perhaps 5% or 10% of what it is accustomed to. Consider what the absolute essentials are that we want to try to take into that future with us. I think my primary nominees would be public sanitation, some minimum level of lighting, and the printed word (or whatever equivalent our post-modern society can support).

    The transition will be hugely challenging, and many or even most will not survive. But enough of us will. For those born into it, the new world need not be a bad place to live, but for those alive or born into the transition, there will no doubt be much suffering. So our hospicing task will be to ease the transition into post-modernity as much as possible for a society that will be largely incapable of adapting to living any other way.

  3. Kevin Hester says:

    It’s no coincidence that more and more people who study the extinction and climate crises are coming to the same conclusions.
    I admire your courage sir.
    I first wrote about being in “Hospice” four years ago. I broadly accepted our predicament a decade ago.
    My last decade of existence has revolved around that perspective.

  4. Eric Lilius says:

    I and others have been working for a couple of years with the book “Hospicing Modernity: Facing Humanity’s Wrongs and the Implications for Social Activism” by Vanessa Machado de Oliviera (aka Vanessa Andreotti). Sample here: https://decolonialfuturesnet.files.wordpress.com/2021/10/hospicing-modernity-sample-1.pdf.
    A review here: https://www.rainbowjuice.org/2022/06/hospicing-modernity-book-review.html
    One quickly realizes that this is a workbook. which Vanessa has distilled her life and from the collaborative work of the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective https://decolonialfutures.net/

    I came to this life changing book through Dougald Hine, first through references to the book in a podcast that he and Ed Gillespie started in 2020 titled The Great Humbling and later as a participant in his Homeward Bound course offered through The School called Home. https://aschoolcalledhome.org
    Dougald has recently published At Work in the Ruins
    Finding Our Place in the Time of Science, Climate Change, Pandemics and All Other Emergencies
    Preview here: https://www.google.ca/books/edition/At_Work_in_the_Ruins/-cGnEAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover
    His starting title was “Why I am no Longer Talking About Climate Change”
    Vanessa Andreotti’s and the Collective’s work and influence are referenced in the book.
    At the end of this week The Stoa has arranged to have Dougald in conversation with Stephen Jenkinson, Bayo Akomolafe and Vanessa Andreotti, All of whom have influenced his recent thinking . Register here: https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJ0kcOChrTIjGdIC9SNO-EzTZd0kUt63V16Z

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Hi Eric: I’m familiar with Dougald’s work (I actually met and talked with him back in the days of Dark Mountain), and subscribe to The Stoa, and am following the work he (and others like Rhyd Wildermuth) are doing.

    My concern is the kind of distancing of ourselves from the collapse of our civilization that is increasingly being used. The term “modernity” I find highly problematic. It is not some ‘other’ that is collapsing — it is our homogenized global culture, our worldview, our way of being in the world. Vanessa’s book (I’ve read only reviews and excerpts) is just too blame-y for my liking, as if “modernity” were some kind of global cancer that has victimized us. The book claims that “modernity” has “conditioned” us, which makes no sense to me at all. It’s a false personification. We have conditioned each other to get to where we’ve arrived. No one or personified “ism” is to blame for that. We didn’t “go wrong” at some point. This is just how our species evolved.

    To me, accepting that is essential to any kind of real appreciation of our predicament. So we stop trying to “heal” ourselves from who we really are, and instead acknowledge that this is who we really are, without judging it as good or bad, or avoidable.

  6. Ray says:

    “Hospice Earth”? Flowchart?
    There is no limit to new terms and ideas to deal (entertain ourselves?) with our inevitable future.
    We humans are really creative with the invention of all kinds of linguistic products to deal with an unbearable reality. No matter how many desperate word salad attempts we make to find a way out of our predicament, it’s not going to work. We are just not up to the task and we were never meant to be able to make a difference (otherwise we would have done that long ago and not wait until disaster is at the front door).
    We’re just along for the ride, all 8 billion of us. Accept or don’t accept your fate, callous nature just doesn’t give a damn one way or the other.

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