Death Becomes Us

Every Friday, Atmos editor-in-chief William Defebaugh reflects on the week in climate and culture, sharing stories of insight and inspiration.

words by william defebaugh

photograph by rishabh malik

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One million plant and animal species are now at the risk of extinction, according to a dire new report released by the United Nations this week. Compiled by 150 experts and approximately 15,000 scientific, government, and indigenous sources, it’s the most comprehensive study of its kind to date, and its findings are grim. In what is being called an “unprecedented” decline at the hands of humans, the average abundance of flora and fauna has fallen by 20 percent in almost all land habitats. This news came in contrast to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech on the same day, which outlined the Trump administration’s Arctic policy with no mention of the phrase “climate change.”

The gravity of such large-scale extinction at our own hands—both of other species and our own—is somewhat unfathomable, which is perhaps why so many are continuing to go about their everyday lives in the face of ecocide. But ignoring the inevitably of death is nothing new, at least in Western cultures where it’s considered taboo to even talk about—or at least, it was. The Global Wellness Institute has identified a new trend called the “death wellness movement,” in which experts and spiritual leaders confront anxiety about eternal rest, and midwives are swapped for death doulas in an effort to prepare people to accept their own finality. “Everything around dying is getting radically rethought,” notes the GWI.

 

Speaking of radical rethinking, more and more it seems that the leaders of the climate rebellion are kids. Since 16-year-old activist and Nobel peace prize nominee Greta Thunberg demanded that global leaders stop “behaving like children” and focus on climate change, thousands of kids around the world have started frequently skipping school in protest. A recent study in Nature Climate Change found that teaching kids about climate change in school significantly increased their parents’ concern as well. In June, a collective of young Americans will take the country to court in a historic trial, arguing that “through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.”

 

Others are fighting for their lives in more immediate terms. Thousands of small farmers in India have committed suicide in the last four years, largely because of crippling debt, fluctuations in crop and input prices, and back- to-back extreme droughts. In the second installment of her “Adapting to the Anthropocene” story in our first issue, Janice Cantieri follows Appala Venkatesh and his fellow farmers in Telangana who are using low-cost, innovative greenhouses to adapt to the changing climate.

 

What’s not changing fast enough is the fashion industry, as outlined in a new report from the Global Fashion Agenda. While sustainability has become a trendy word in the industry, it’s mainly being put into practice by emerging brands who have the opportunity to create their processes from the ground up. For larger corporations (with even larger influence), progress is slowing by as much as one third. At fashion’s biggest night of the year, the Met Gala, the only environmental statement to be made came from long-time eco activist and supermodel Gisele, who wore a sustainable dress designed by Dior.

 

Perhaps looking death squarely in the face is precisely what’s required here—or at least, the expiration of outdated and irresponsible ways of thinking. According to Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services chair Sir Robert Watson, “The [UN] Report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global.” What is death if not a radical transformation?

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