This is a Facing the Truth episode, and I ask you to do me the favor of listening to it even though it may make you feel sad, uncomfortable, or even fearful. This is the practice of Facing the Truth: Taking the time to face and absorb what is going on in our climate and ecological crisis. To let it touch you, affect you, and inform you. We should be gentle with ourselves we do this; a little Facing the Truth can go a long way. My next episode will focus on something you can do to both Stay Strong and Take Action, so in the meantime know that you are doing something extremely important and valuable simply by listening.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Living in an Anthropotragedy
Stepping Out of Our Usual Perspective
A Way to Perceive Our Anthropotragedy
Expanding Our Imaginations


Living in an Anthropotragedy

When we step back and look honestly at humanity, it’s clear we are living in the midst of an unfolding tragedy of our own making. I suggest we create a word for it, “anthropotragedy, “anthropo” being a prefix meaning “pertaining to human beings.”[i]

According to, “tragedy” can be either:

  1. a lamentable, dreadful, or fatal event or affair; calamity; disaster.
  2. a dramatic composition, often in verse, dealing with a serious or somber theme, typically involving a great person destined to experience downfall or utter destruction, as through a character flaw or conflict with some overpowering force, [such] as fate or an unyielding society.[ii]

So, my definition of anthropotragedy would be: The lamentable, preventable, disastrous downfall and utter destruction of humanity through our own actions.

Sometimes we use the word “tragic” to describe something that happened by chance and is truly awful, but it’s also used to describe a terrible situation that was, theoretically, preventable. It didn’t have to be thus. Something is classically tragic when a possibility of great potential is ruined or squandered because of a character flaw in the protagonist or in the people opposed to them. Thus anthropotragedy; humanity is capable of so much good, but our greed is our undoing.

Stepping Out of Our Usual Perspective

Most of the time we miss the forest for the trees. We’re unaware of our anthropotragedy because we’re focused on jobs, economies, politics, and all the rest. It’s only when we manage to step back and take a larger perspective that the tragedy of our situation becomes clear. Taking that larger perspective isn’t just a matter of including more information, though; it requires us to look at our world from the perspective of someone who is standing outside it in space or time.

For example, the other day I saw a comic in the New Yorker by Tom Toro which manages to convey anthropotragedy. A man in a bedraggled suit sits around a campfire with some children, who look like they are listening carefully to a story he is telling. He says, “Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.”[iii] Some people might resist the message of this comic because technically we aren’t destroying the planet, we’re just destroying all the life that’s currently on the planet, but either way the point remains intact.

From our current perspective, it makes perfect sense to do things like protect profits, grow economies, clear-cut forests, and expand fossil fuel supply in order to keep energy prices down. It’s only when you zoom out and look at things from the perspective of an alien, or your great-grandchild, or a good artist or commentator, that the actions of humanity look absurdly tragic, ridiculous, short-sighted, amazingly stupid, way out of proportion, and even obscene.

In order to truly Bear Witness to our climate and ecological emergency, it’s necessary to go beyond reading the news or memorizing statistics. We need to explore and open up to ways of seeing that reveal the tragic and fatal nature of the course humanity is on.

A Way to Perceive Our Anthropotragedy

For example, India and Pakistan recently experienced a terrible, unprecedented heat wave.[iv] In early May, the Guardian published a piece in which a man named Nazeer Ahmed described the conditions in his home in Turbat, Pakistan. Over the course of several weeks, temperatures repeatedly approached 50C (122F). Energy shortages meant air conditioners and refrigerators frequently couldn’t function. These are not normal conditions for the area. Ahmed said, “We are living in hell.”[v]

I can read this article and think, “Oh no, that’s terrible. See, we really need to do something about climate change!” But then I figure Pakistan’s probably hot anyway, and this too shall pass, and there are lots of bad things happening in the world right now, and anyway I have stuff to do. We’re like frogs in water that is slowly but surely coming to a boil. Those who are starting to boil don’t control the heat and the rest of us still aren’t sure what’s happening. From the outside our relative passivity while the world goes to hell in a handbasket looks like an unmistakable anthropotragedy, but from inside we’re just innocently living our daily lives.

I have a different relationship to this recent heat wave in India and Pakistan because of a book I’m reading called Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. It begins with a scene in the not-too-distant future when a heat wave in India brings about prolonged “wet bulb” temperatures that coincide with widespread power failures. A wet bulb temperature is one where heat and humidity combine such that a human being loses the ability to shed heat through sweating. If you have high humidity, this can happen anywhere above 35C (95F). In a matter of hours, people essentially broil and die unless they can cool off – and when it gets hot enough, such cooling can only happen with the use of energy to produce air conditioning or refrigeration. In the absence of power, there is no escape.

In Ministry for the Future, the protagonist is caught in the middle of a disaster where wet bulb temperatures drag on for days. Children and old people die first. Here’s a short excerpt from the story:

Four more people died that night. In the morning the sun again rose like the blazing furnace of heat that it was, blasting the rooftop and its sad cargo of wrapped bodies. Every rooftop and, looking down at the town, every sidewalk too was now a morgue. The town was a morgue, and it was as hot as ever, maybe hotter. The thermometer now said 42 degrees, humidity 60 percent. Frank looked at the screens dully. He had slept about three hours, in snatches. The generator was still chuntering along in its irregular two-stroke, the A/C box was still vibrating like the bad fan it was. The sound of other generators and air conditioners still filled the air. But it wasn’t going to make any difference.

He went downstairs and opened the safe and called Preeti again on the satellite phone. After twenty or forty tries, she picked up. “What is it?”

“Look, we need help here,” he said. “We’re dying here.”

“What do you think?” she said furiously. “Do you think you’re the only ones?”

“No, but we need help.”

“We all need help!” she cried.

Frank paused to ponder this. It was hard to think. Preeti was in Delhi.

“Are you okay there?” he asked.

No answer. Preeti had hung up.[vi]

In the story, once gas for generators is gone, people go sit in the lake even though it’s hotter than normal body temperature and filling up with corpses. Eventually millions die a slow, agonizing death.

Reading the play-by-play experience of someone in the middle of a fatal heat wave, even if it’s a fictional account, brings our anthropotragedy to life in a way that simply reading the news cannot. And how far in the future is the first heat wave that kills millions? It’s really just a matter of time.

Expanding Our Imaginations

We want to believe it’s really not that bad, but wishful thinking will not get us out of this mess. We need to use whatever methods we have at our disposal to get our minds and hearts around what’s going on, or we will not respond appropriately.

However, it’s important to remember that our story is not over. Right now, it looks like we’re actors in a vast anthropotragedy that future generations will ponder with disbelief and bitterness as they struggle to survive in an apocalyptic wasteland. But humanity may yet live out the hero’s journey instead – another archetypal story in which the hero overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds to triumph in the end. Our potential to make a beautiful, sustainable world is exactly what makes our anthropotragedy so tragic. Let us not only inform ourselves about the climate and ecological crisis, let’s also expand our imaginations – because once decoupled from greed, human creativity is the strength that may overcome humanity’s flaws.








[vi] Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Ministry for the Future (p. 8). Orbit. Kindle Edition.


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