Embracing Extinction and Stubborn Optimism

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by Matthew Streit

Recorded by author

Author’s note:  The use of “we” and “our” in this essay refers to humans living in the Western Hemisphere’s industrial growth society who have been embracing what Joanna Macy calls the “business as usual” approach to daily life. I recognize that there are people on the planet who are living with a larger awareness of humanity’s ancestry and inheritance, and the precariousness of human life. 

Instead of despairing and fearing the future, we can embrace all possible future outcomes.. …even embrace our extinction.

The future is uncertain.  There are many possible scenarios for our planet and species.  Climate change could lead to human civilization falling apart.  Our planet could become mostly uninhabitable.  Artificial intelligence could take over.  The human race could face extinction in the not-too-distant future.  Even if these outcomes don’t happen, our future way of life will likely be very different from today.  And yet, realizing this doesn’t prevent us from doing helpful actions right now.  Instead of despairing and fearing the future, we can embrace all possible future outcomes.  We can even embrace our extinction.  This radical acceptance frees us to act.  We can protect and restore our planet because it’s the natural and appropriate thing to do, regardless of what happens in the future.

In a Tricycle Magazine article entitled “Embracing Extinction,” Stephen Batchelor describes how embracing our extinction can release us from the fear of extinction (Batchelor, 2020).  We normally don’t like to talk about our own death or the death of our species.  We’ve been told that morbid thoughts lead to despair and hopelessness.  But facing the fact that we will all die and opening to our fears about death can help us appreciate life that much more.  Awareness of our actual situation helps motivate us to act for the benefit of all beings.  We can help make the situation better, even if we don’t achieve our desired outcomes.  This freedom of acting without the need for results can bring peace to our frustrating, chaotic lives.

We can have hope and optimism for the future, but we also need to face what is happening now and act now.

The idea of hope is fine, but too much hope can pull us out of the present.  There’s nothing wrong with having hope for a better future, but ultimately we act now, in each moment.  If we’re just hoping for things to get better in the future, we’re not facing what is happening right now.  We may be missing out on an opportunity to work now for the benefit of our world.  There needs to be a balance.  We can have hope and optimism for the future, but we also need to face what is happening now and act now.

We can accept the eventual extinction of our species, just like we can accept our own future death.  The timescales are different, but both our species and our own body will die sometime in the future.  We often distract ourselves and ignore this inevitability, but realizing what life truly entails can lead to immense gratitude for this moment.  Stephen Batchelor describes the wonder that arises when we embrace our extinction.

Just as death focuses attention on what matters most for you as an individual, extinction focuses attention on what matters most for us as a species.  In embracing extinction, we become intensely conscious that we are complex thinking, feeling, sensing, caring creatures who emerged from millions of years of evolution by natural selection.  For self-aware animals like you and me, to contemplate extinction can open up an astonished, quasi-religious wonder at the grandeur of being alive at all. (Batchelor, 2020)

It is astonishing that we are alive.  Whatever happens in the future, we are alive now.  Billions of years have led to our lives right here and now.  Unfortunately, our current human actions are causing widespread, irreparable harm to our world in a geologic snap of our fingers.

We are at a crossroads for the human species.

And yet, what an important time to be alive!  We are at a crossroads for the human species.  We can help protect our fellow humans and our world instead of living in ignorance and inaction.  Joanna Macy has worked tirelessly for social justice for over seven decades.  Joanna’s activism didn’t always have the desired outcomes she wanted, but Joanna still views human life at this time as an amazing opportunity.

And who would not want to be here at this time?  I would hate to miss out on this!  I sometimes imagine Buddha-fields out there in the universe with long lines of people applying to be born on Earth now to take part in this evolutionary moment. (Macy, 2020, p. 360)

…we can play our role now in this drama of human life with dignity and compassion.

This is a special time to be alive.  We can fully face our troubling environmental possibilities and do our best to live in harmony with our world.  Our actions may not lead to the outcomes we desire, but that doesn’t change the value of the work itself. Regardless of what happens decades, centuries, and millennia from today, we can play our role now in this drama of human life with dignity and compassion.

In the book The Future We Choose, Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac describe how we can shift our environmental perspective from one of helplessness to one of helpful action.  In their “Stubborn Optimism” chapter, they weave together ideas similar to those of Joanna Macy and Stephen Batchelor.

When it comes to climate change, the vast majority of us have a learned reaction of helplessness.  We see the direction the world is headed, and we throw up our hands.  Yes, we think, it’s terrible, but it’s so complex and so big and so overwhelming.  We can’t do anything to stop it.

This learned reaction is not only untrue, it’s fundamentally irresponsible.  If you want to help address climate change, you have to teach yourself a different response…

You are not powerless.  In fact, every action is suffused with meaning, and you are part of the greatest chapter of human achievement in history.  Make this your mental mantra.  Take notice of how your mind tries to insist on your helplessness in the face of the challenge and refuses to accept it.  Notice it, and refute it.  It will not take long for your thought patterns to change. (Figueres & Rivett-Carnac, 2020, pp. 42-43)

Even though our helpful actions may not be enough to stop the catastrophic effects of climate change, it is still true that our actions make a difference.  Climate change is not an either/or scenario.  Different levels of devastation will happen.  We can do our best to lessen that harm.

Even though the situation is serious, we can act with stubborn optimism.

Our helpful actions can also inspire others.  We don’t need to get preachy and judgmental when we see others not doing their part.  Instead, we can be role models in the face of these great challenges.  We show our concern for the planet through our actions.  And when we help our world, we don’t have to be overburdened and grim.  Even though the situation is serious, we can act with stubborn optimism.  Figueres and Rivett-Carnac describe how stubborn optimism “drives your desire to engage, to contribute, to make a difference.  It makes you jump out of bed in the morning because you feel challenged and hopeful at the same time.  It calls you to that which is emerging and makes you want to be an active part of change” (Figueres & Rivett-Carnac, 2020, p. 46).  This stubborn optimism is not something only a few of us have.  Stubborn optimism can be practiced and cultivated by all of us.

Stubborn optimism is not deluded and unrealistic.  We fully see what is happening to our planet.  Our head is not in the sand.  We know that climate change is happening and that climate change will continue to get worse.  But we don’t have to give into despair.  We don’t have to be tied to the results and outcomes of our actions.  We don’t need praise or superficial successes.  Our motivations are deeper and more sustainable than that.  We are working for the value of the work itself.  We are working for ourselves, our neighbors, the world, and future generations.

We can speak truth to power, while we also listen to and work together with people who have different perspectives.

Just because we are taking personal responsibility to protect our planet doesn’t mean that we can’t also hold others’ and our  government’s feet to the fire.  But we can do this with wisdom and compassion.  We can demand action from our governments and nonviolently protest.  We can work for environmental justice in a wise, compassionate way.  We can speak truth to power, while we also listen to and work together with people who have different perspectives.  That’s how real change happens.  That’s how we make situations better and not worse.  Figueres and Rivett-Carnac describe how we can use our own unique talents and circumstances as we face these daunting social and environmental challenges.

We need both systematic transformation and individual behavioral changes.  One without the other will not get us to the necessary scale of change at the necessary pace.  We all sit at various points of society: members of families, community leaders, CEOs, policy makers.  No matter where you sit, we all can and must exercise that responsibility in favor of the common good.  No one is irrelevant. (Figueres & Rivett-Carnac, 2020, p. 54)

All of us can help with this critical endeavor.  We can use our skills, talents, and occupations to fight for the protection of our planet and to work for economic and social justice.  We can act with wisdom, compassion, selflessness, and optimism.  Yet if we want these wholesome qualities to stay with us when times get tough, we need to cultivate and practice using these qualities.

It’s ironic how many of our current solutions for our environmental crisis are actually practices our ancestors had figured out long ago.

It’s ironic how many of our current solutions for our environmental crisis are actually practices our ancestors had figured out long ago.  Local, organic agriculture, simplistic living, and sustainability initiatives have surfaced in the last few decades, but our ancestors used these practices for millennia before we “discovered” them.  Countless wise teachings of the past have pointed to harmonious ways of life, but generations of us have ignored what our ancestors had to say.  Joanna Macy and Molly Brown remind us of this ancient wisdom in Coming Back to Life.

The view of reality offered by systems science and deep ecology is remarkably convergent with ancient teachings of our planet’s people.  At the same time that we are rediscovering the process nature of our works as a dynamically interrelated whole, our appreciation deepens for how spiritual traditions from East and West, North and South, have carried this understanding through the ages.  … Perhaps only we who are shaped by the Industrial Growth Society have forgotten our embeddedness in a larger, living whole. (Macy & Brown, 2014, p. 46)

Wisdom and harmonious ways of life are not isolated to any specific religion.  Most religions, including and especially indigenous traditions, guide us toward selfless, wholesome actions that benefit our world and all of humanity.  We can rediscover and practice what these ancestral teachings are pointing to, while we also filter out the warped messages of those using religion and ancient wisdom for their own selfish and financial benefit.

Deep down, we know what needs to be done.

We can open our eyes and see what is actually happening to our planet.  We can learn about less examined problems and rethink commonly held beliefs about what is “good” for our world.  Most of this learning is remembering what we already know deep in our hearts.  Deep down, we know what needs to be done.  We just get distracted and forgetful.  It doesn’t help that our consumer society encourages us to live out of selfishness and distraction.  But we can do better.  We can slow down and wake up to reality.  We can live in harmony with our planet and we can act for the benefit of all beings.


Batchelor, S. (2020). Embracing Extinction. Tricycle Magazine.
Figueres, C. and Rivett-Carnac, T. (2020). The Future We Choose: Surviving the
Climate Crisis. Knopf.
Macy, J. (2020). A Wild Love for the World: Joanna Macy and the Work of Our Time.
Macy, J., & Brown, M. (2014). Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work
That Reconnects. New Society Publishers.


Recorded by Rebecca Selove


Matt Streit is a Zen priest-in-training at Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.  Matt teaches middle school for Minneapolis Public Schools, and he is a certified facilitator with Joanna Macy’s “Work That Reconnects” network.  Matt lives in Minneapolis and is a single father of two amazing children.  He enjoys coaching his sons’ sports teams and camping at Minnesota state parks.

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