Bearing Witness

“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” – Carl Sagan

We are all witnesses to the Great Dying, a sixth mass extinction, the last one being 65 million years ago which wiped out the dinosaurs. This is not hyperbole; it is a defining feature of our age.

Jonathon Blair - Copy

Countless species are falling prey to the wealthy’s indifference, militarism and folly everyday. As in ancient civilizations, the wealthy and the privileged are generally the last to feel the pain of collapse, yet are most often the root cause. And compared to the mass of humanity we share this planet with, and as a result of rapacious exploitation and plunder, Americans, and westerners in general, are the wealthy and the privileged of modern civilization.

Great Hammerhead in Bimini Bahamas Photo by Laura Rock

Despite overwhelming evidence of crashing ecosystems, many of us living in the twilight years of the American empire seem oblivious to the canaries in the coal mine. Every human being who has ever lived, lived here, on this little, saltwater drenched rock suspended in the endless, cold ocean of space. Yet so often one can feel as if they were alone, wandering among zombies and phantoms, unaware of or uninterested in grappling with what lies ahead of us. The magicians and merchants of corporate consumerism foster this disconnection gleefully, and create a labyrinth of distractions and doubts that add to the self-delusion.

I Shop Therefore I Am

Insipid optimism is the demand of our corporate kingdom. Eternal youth, popularity, and economic fortune, are to be believed not only possible, but necessary for fulfillment and social connection. This is not an optimism that enjoins the soul to more wondrous places, or that stirs a connection to the nature we are all born of. This is the kind of optimism that unhinges you from reality; and that chaffs the skin of your soul. It is like a chisel set against your skull. It is the kind of optimism that condescendingly tells us that “everything is going to be okay.” Even if this were somehow true, everything is NOT okay for millions of people and countless species around the planet right now.  And not acknowledging that underscores the inherent callousness in this way of thinking. It masquerades as hope; but it is merely cruelty obscured by a deceptive, mocking jingle.

In our society we are temporarily appeased by objects created for one use. In fact many wars of our age are fought for just this purpose. The plastic items that are choking our oceans were born in the darkness of oil wells and tar sands, drilled and scraped clean for the ease of a fleeting moment, and tossed away to become forgotten, yet enduring pollution. The shaming evidence is scuttled away in the darkness of the early morning, so that our day, our very important day, is not inconvenienced by the unending moan of the nature we crush under busy, productive feet.

Plastic debris that has washed up along the shore of the Azores. Photo courtesy of 5 Gyres.

Plastic debris that has washed up along the shore of the Azores. Photo courtesy of 5 Gyres.

The petro-dollar has made our penchant for convenience and self-delusion incredibly efficient. It has spawned the neoliberal economics that repress hundreds of millions of people and that is now driving us all toward extinction. And we have been conditioned to see this all as merely “the way of progress,” and to malign and ridicule those whose hearts see such sights and mourn the enormous weight of history, the staggering lack of empathy and the gaping dearth of a viable future for a species callously divorced from its soul.

We have been meticulously trained to separate life itself into worthiness categories, in fact, to be seen only as useful if it serves our copious desire for more. We house millions of sentient beings in concentration camps, bereft of comfort or even the ability to turn around, often brutally beaten and mutilated, stripped of the dignity any creature has a birthright to, all to sate our unending appetite for flesh.

cows at a factory farm

We avert our eyes to the plastic bags clinging to the branches of decrepit trees, or the bottle caps that outnumber seashells on the shore, or the birthday balloons floating atop the waves at the beach, even while knowing their destination will in all likelihood be the stomach of some hapless sea turtle. After all, paying attention might cause us to question. It might cause us to change. It might reignite the sacred reverence our ancestors knew. It might cause us to face the demons of our cupidity and the resulting devastation and suffering they cause.

A seabird with a stomach full of plastic waste Photographer Chris Jordan (photo: Chris Jordan)

We can remain in denial about the ecocide we are all witness to, as the cult of optimism would have us do, or we can acknowledge and embrace the sorrow that is a natural response to loss, devastation and catastrophe. In grief we make a choice to honor the lost and their existence. We speak in a clear voice, to anyone who will listen, that their lives mattered. And we are also forced to face our own mortality in the process.

Agreeing to walk through our grief honestly can be a catalyst for creative defiance and undaunted dissent. It is perhaps the only resistance we can offer to the insistence of apathy imposed on us from the wraiths on Wall Street and Madison Avenue. The unnatural barriers they have erected to mask our humanity crumble in the rancid pile they deserve when a soul is set free to grieve. It is in grief that we find ourselves to be inseparable from each other, and from the nature from which we are all born. In this way, sorrow is the only coherent answer to extinction. It is a wail of conscience.

sea turtle

(photo: Getty Images)

Bearing witness to the unprecedented crime of ecocide sweeping our planet is not accepting the carnage, it is lending another voice to testify on the behalf of the victims. And in doing so, it succeeds in making the difficult case for the worth of the human soul.

Kenn Orphan  2014

14 thoughts on “Bearing Witness

  1. Myrna

    Thank you, Kenn, for writing such an eloquent and heart touching piece. I try to live a gentle life, a life that attempts to minimize harm to other creatures and our beautiful planet. I weep at the seeming insignificance of my actions in a world so full of ignorance and cruelty… but then I am reminded, by you, and other caring souls, that I am not alone, that there are many others who bear witness along with me, and I am comforted. And I determine to keep spreading my truth. Keep shining the light, Kenn.


  2. iconickevin

    It is an absolute joy to see other people echoing our cry to arms. Whilst having no illusions as to the peril we are confronting it is wonderful to know we are not lone voices calling out in the wilderness, wake up everyone, prepare for collapse.great essay well done Kenn Orphan

    Liked by 1 person

  3. mike k

    Thanks for this sincere and beautifully expressed piece. You have said so well what has been in my heart for a long time. Our grief has it’s own value, and needs to be shared. It will play it’s part in the possible creation of a better, truer, and more loving world whether it is obvious to ourselves or others exactly how it does so. The awakening of conscience entails pain and remorse that are real and honest beginnings of a healing process.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hillary Frasier Hays

    Bearing Witness. Exactly. For years now I’ve been crying out about this endlessly, desperately essential offering that ought to be borne out of our human existence and wholly imparted to others. Offerings that we give unto the ones who go before us. However these offerings manifest…as silent teardrops in our eyes or perhaps as long and broken sobs, or maybe we grow fragile flowers or plant a baby tree, or perhaps we write a poem and tell it to the spirits beyond the rainclouds and the stars. However we bear witness, it is crucial that we do so. Because to blot out this intrinsic Call makes us so much less than human.

    Just yesterday I felt fury within when coming upon some words a lesser evolved human had written. He was saying that Ebola doesn’t exist, that it’s all a ruse, that no one has died from it, and that every so-called victim in Africa and beyond is merely a paid crisis actor. Oh dear God, I wanted to scream! So I replied to this sneering, blind-minded individual in a terse manner, saying that at a minimum such beliefs as his are cruel and irresponsible.

    Because to say that no health care workers have given everything they are to soothe the pain and the fear of Ebola-sickened others. Because to say no one, including these heroic health care workers, has suffered or has cried out the anguish of not wanting to die. For to say no one has died Ebola’s agonizing death – is to deny those dying and dead the recognition that they existed, that they were loved, important, precious, enduring, and that they matter.

    Somehow I have always innately understood what it means to bear witness. Whether it was a pet who died during my childhood, or my beloved grandmother who was lost to alcoholism, or my darling, heroin-stolen Forest Shomberg aka Drift Wood – I always felt suffused with the knowing that to witness a passing with one’s entire Being, whether it be in person or in spirit – represents a fundamental part of what it means to be human. But maybe everyone understands this need. It’s just that some people choose to spit in the face of that which they fear. I am simply so grateful not to be one of these.

    …meanwhile, just who is the magnificently awakened, lucid, gifted author who wrote this article? He feels like a long lost soulmate although we’ve never met…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Barbara Carter

    Excellent article, Kenn. But if it is true that extinction is the rule, perhaps we should attempt to be more stoic about it. We all have to die.

    Perhaps Gaia wants us to unleash all that fossil carbon for the next round of evolution (I understand the Earth was running rather short of available carbon).

    We appear to be powerless to change what we are. Even you and I use the products of industrial civilisation (like our laptops). Believing that we’re free just doubles our angst.

    Bearing witness is important, but we need to try not to be too hard on ourselves. It’s all bred in our genes, I guess.

    Oh, heck, you’re right. It’s truly awful.


    1. Kenn Orphan Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts, Barbara. I don’t think grief ever has an answer or a secret code. But facing it allows us to encounter others who are willing to take the painful journey with you. And the discoveries along the way have the power to deepen us and make us more vulnerable and human. Maybe that is where our power really comes from. And in the end who wants to face what is ahead of us alone? Peace to you!


  6. xraymike79

    Reblogged this on Collapse of Industrial Civilization and commented:
    Championing the rapacious conversion of the Earth into dead commodities and its peoples into soulless consumers, the adherents of capitalism have succeeded in entrenching their ideology into the minds of the vast populations as the only viable economic system and way of life. Mesmerized by the electronic gadgetry of the digital age and singing the praises of the “free market”, atomized citizens blissfully hack away at the tree of life that supports them. The bio-destructive power of capitalist industrial civilization stamps out the poetry of nature, silencing entire ecosystems. This essay by Kenn Orphan describes this mindless march towards self-destruction and the redemption that comes by bearing witness to it.


  7. David Goldstein

    Hey Kenn – enjoyed your article very much – We have a somewhat similar outlook and writing style. I’ll enclose my most recent Common Dreams/Huffington Post climate article here:
    I’ve also written a screenplay for a blockbuster Hollywood-type climate change movie and am shopping it around. I’m always open to feedback and if you felt like giving it a look, please let me know!



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