“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.