When Surrender Means Not Giving Up: The New Sacred Activism

By Carolyn Baker


There is nothing to do


And nowhere to go.


Accepting this,


We can do go everywhere.


~Mark Nepo~

A few weeks ago Andrew Harvey and I recorded a conversation between us on the topic of how to live in the face of catastrophic climate change. We made this recording in the context of other conversations about the need for a “new Sacred Activism” that is informed and updated by the dire realities of runaway climate change and near-term human extinction. [While the focus of this article is not on the science of climate change, the reader will find some of the most recent and ominous research on climate change below.*]

Recently, I’ve noticed some longtime activist voices verbalizing a new perspective and one that some would label as “defeatist.” Writing in his “How To Save The World Blog,” Dave Pollard recently offered a piece entitled “In Defense Of Inaction,” in which he states:

No one is in control. The enemy, if there is one, is not a cabal of elites, but a set of co-dependent collapsing systems that every one of us has a vested interest in trying (insanely) to perpetuate. Systems we have all helped co-create and are almost all dependent on…The question we must each ask ourselves, I think, is this: If we acknowledge that our systems and hence our civilization cannot be reformed or ‘saved’, what can we do now that will make a real difference, for the future, in our communities and for those we love?…The insanely rational answer to this question, I think, is (a) probably nothing, and (b) it’s too early to know.

Subsequently, Wen Stephenson’s “Let This Be The Last Earth Day,” in The Nation Magazine pleads:

End the dishonesty, the deception. Stop lying to yourselves, and to your children. Stop pretending that the crisis can be “solved,” that the planet can be “saved,” that business more-or-less as usual—what progressives and environmentalists have been doing for forty-odd years and more—is morally or intellectually tenable. Let go of the pretense that “environmentalism” as we know it—virtuous green consumerism, affluent low-carbon localism, head-in-the-sand conservationism, feel-good greenwashed capitalism—comes anywhere near the radical response our situation requires… The question is not whether we’re going to “stop” global warming, or “solve” the climate crisis; it is whether humanity will act quickly and decisively enough now to save civilization itself—in any form worth saving. Whether any kind of stable, humane and just future—any kind of just society—is still possible.

Isn’t this just giving up, or giving in? The pathetic whining of defeatists? How can any respectable activist utter these words?

I argue that, in fact, the perspectives articulated by Pollard and Stephenson are utterances of concession, but also of extraordinary courage. The word I choose to describe their perspective is surrender. But isn’t surrender synonymous with “giving up”? Aren’t Pollard and Stephenson really suggesting that we abandon the struggle, acquiesce, go back to business as usual, eat, drink, be merry, or possibly take our own lives?

What can we do?

In my recent article, “What Does It Mean To ‘Do Something’ About Climate Change?” I noted that, ‘Doing something’ implies that developed nations of the world and the fossil fuel industry will come together and:

1) Agree that climate change is actually happening;

2) Understand that the situation is so dire that humanity’s living arrangements must be radically altered;

3) Sacrifice their economic security and industrial profits to significantly reduce carbon emissions;

4) Agree to the reality of climate change and the altering of their living arrangements in time to prevent another 2 degree C rise in temperature.”

I then asked the reader what they genuinely, realistically thought can be done about catastrophic climate change, particularly in the face of more than 30 self-reinforcing feedback loops that are proving the process unstoppable and irreversible.

I believe that what both Pollard and Stephenson may be echoing is a third perspective that Andrew Harvey and I are naming “the New Sacred Activism.” That is to say that the fundamental issue is that we are being challenged to move beyond the triumphalist assumption that we can and must, through our activism, defeat capitalism, catastrophic climate change, economic corruption and collapse, and yes, the extinction of species, including our own. Indeed, our current predicament compels us to transcend the binary inference that if we do not conquer a diabolical system, we are only colluding with it and exhibiting shameful cowardice.

Contrary to our cherished assumption of vanquishing all forms of injustice, we must ask ourselves if we are willing to put love into action even if we don’t physically survive. The extremity of the crisis does not limit Sacred Activism, but rather expands it because we make ourselves available to 1) Bearing witness to the likely irreversible horrors of climate chaos and 2) Commitment to compassionate service to all living beings who suffer with us. This requires unwavering engagement with serving the earth community and practicing good manners toward all species in order to make their demise, and ours, easier. Taking one’s own life or succumbing to escapist self-medication is easy. Commitment to a life of service and fortifying one’s own connection with the sacred, thus deepening one’s sense of meaning and purpose, constitute a far more daunting and painful path.

Very often people who receive a terminal medical diagnosis report that while the announcement was heartbreaking, terrifying, and profoundly unfair, they experienced a certain kind of liberation in the process. Learning that they had only a limited time to live altered every aspect of their lives, particularly their quality of life, their decisions about how they wanted to engage with the remainder of their days, and their relationships with everyone and everything. Similarly, the reward of accepting the reality of near-term extinction is liberating even at the same time that it is agonizing. Something far more meaningful and momentous beyond our own physical survival becomes available to us. 

The Hero Archetype

Human consciousness is deeply influenced by personal and cultural archetypes or universal themes of which we may or may not be aware. A few examples of archetypes are: mother, father, hero, savior, martyr, warrior, maiden, crone, healer, and many more. If we are not aware of the archetypes that influence us, we may unconsciously live them out in both creative and destructive ways.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote and taught more about the hero archetype than perhaps anyone in modern times. Campbell simply defined the hero/heroine as “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” According to Campbell, the hero’s task is threefold: separation, initiation, and return. He/she usually experiences some sort of unusual circumstances at birth; sustains a traumatic wound; acquires a special weapon that only he/she can use; proves him/herself by way of some sort of quest or journey through which he/she is forever changed. The hero’s journey is one of death, rebirth, and transformation on which he/she embarks for the wellbeing of the community. Meanwhile, it is the hero, as well as the community who is transformed.

The pitfalls along the journey are many, but one of the most common – and also the most injurious to the hero and the community – is to become inflated with one’s heroic mission. One’s passionate commitment to the journey makes avoidance of this particular snare exceedingly difficult. Along the way, the hero may find him/herself becoming inflated but can always choose to pause, reflect upon the purpose of the journey and “something bigger” which compelled the hero to begin the journey in the first place. This is an opportunity to surrender to the ultimate purpose of the journey and the spiritual forces that motivated and support the hero. In all of mythology, the ultimate purpose is the transformation of consciousness, both one’s own and that of the community. In mythology, failure to surrender to the larger purpose of the journey guarantees the hero’s demise.

In Greek mythology the hero was always aware of the seduction of thinking himself equal to or wiser than the gods. Whenever heroes succumbed to this temptation, they began plummeting toward their demise. Perhaps the most famous example of the inflated hero is Icarus who, determined to soar, flew too close to the sun whereby his wings, which were made of wax, began melting, and he fell into the sea. Whether the wax wings of Icarus or the vulnerable heel of Achilles, the fundamental lesson with which all Greek mythological heroes were confronted was their human limitation and the consequences of forgetting those.

The hero symbolizes courage and sometimes appears as a warrior as well, but whether hero or warrior, courage is one of his/her stellar characteristics. One lesson the hero/warrior must learn is when to fight relentlessly and when to exercise restraint or surrender, for whatever reason, to the dilemma with which he/she is confronted. The Shambhala Warrior, for example, receives training in fighting spiritual rather than physical battles. Discernment regarding restraint or full-on combat is pivotal, and at all times the warrior must examine the heart and will. He/she does not continue fighting at all costs simply because “that is what warriors do.” Rather, the spiritual warrior considers whether or not it is time to stop fighting altogether or whether it may be time to change strategy. Fighting may not mean “winning” in the heroic sense, but rather, fighting for reasons that surpass even one’s survival.

As we confront catastrophic climate change which is likely to result in near-term human extinction, we must ask if we are willing to put love into action, even if we don’t survive. Can we move beyond a triumphalist agenda? Accepting the possibility of near-term extinction is an agony, but an agony that liberates the spiritual warrior in the powers of truth and love in order to discover the diamond hidden in the darkness that cannot be discovered in relentless fighting in order to “overcome.” The diamond can only be acquired by surrendering the need for anyone or anything to survive, even oneself. In the words of Andrew Harvey this is “a glorious and terrible adventure, but it is the antidote to despair.”

What we need now is not heroic victory but, again in Andrew’s words, an “astringent maturity,” an entirely new level of adulthood that acts in ways that bring forth optimum joy, optimum healing, and optimum beauty which will leave seeds for whatever life might remain as most species on the planet face their demise. The sacred inspiration we require results not from false hope or finding solutions, but from a state of active being in which we voluntarily enroll in radical psychological and spiritual training. If we haven’t registered for this psycho-spiritual apprenticeship, then we will persevere in our triumphalist agenda and inadvertently perpetuate despair.

Grief and the new Sacred Activism

Of paramount importance in the new Sacred Activism is regular, conscious grief work. Unless activists mourn, they can easily be consumed with the fires of passion because their psyches are not tempered with the waters of grief. Conscious grieving is an integral aspect of the “astringent maturity” we develop as we balance hero/warrior courage with discerning acceptance of our predicament. In his marvelous book Entering The Healing Ground: Grief, Ritual, And The Soul Of The World, Francis Weller states:

Grief is the work of mature men and women. It is our responsibility to be available to this emotion and offer it back to our struggling world. The gift of grief is the affirmation of life and of our intimacy with the world. It is risky to stay open and vulnerable in a culture increasingly dedicated to death, but without our willingness to stand witness through the power of our grief, we will not be able to stem the hemorrhaging of our communities, the senseless destruction of ecologies or the basic tyranny of monotonous existence…Grief is…a powerful form of soul activism. If we refuse or neglect the responsibility for drinking the tears of the world, her losses and deaths cease to be registered by the ones meant to be the receptors of that information. It is our job to feel the losses and mourn them. It is our job to openly grieve for the loss of wetlands, the destruction of forest systems, the decay of whale populations, the erosion of soil, and on and on. We know the litany of loss, but we have collectively neglected our emotional response to this emptying of our world. We need to see and participate in grief rituals in every part of this country.

Members of the Dagara Tribe of West Africa for hundreds of years have practiced regular grief rituals because they believe that both the earth and the community need periodic releases of grief. Without doing so, they say, the heart becomes and remains hard, and this becomes toxic for the community. Always a community versus a private ritual, the Dagara experience that grieving together solidifies the community and makes conflict resolution less problematic and complicated. As a result of the community grieving together, members of the tribe also experience something that Westerners might not expect, namely, a deepening of joy. In Entering The Healing Ground, Francis Weller shares his conversation with a Dagara woman immediately following a grief ritual. The woman displayed a radiant smile and seemed to exude joy from every pore. When he asked her how she could be so happy after engaging in a grief ritual, she replied, “I’m so happy because I cry all the time.” Her response, it seems, echoes the profound words of William Blake: “The deeper the sorrow, the greater the joy.”

Artist, educator, author, and activist Ann Amberg offers online classes in the powers of the universe and “how we can embrace a bio-spiritual, planetary species identity, inclusive of and embedded in the entire earth community.” Of our current catastrophic climate crisis she writes:

…we must be willing to mature and grow into our place of wholeness as a species in which we invite the earth and universe to inform our identity and to place constraints on our behavior. One evolutionary capacity might be learning to embrace “what time it is” –to partner with loss [my emphasis]–the acceptance that we are actually in an extinction phase and rapidly approaching the end point. To help us understand this destruction, we can recall what the cosmos does: the supernova that has been fusing for billions of years suddenly implodes. We don’t see it coming! It is hard for us to digest the deep ecological truth that the universe is our referent for what it means to be human, that technology will not save us….

Upon first reading Amberg’s statement, I was captivated by the phrase to partner with loss. Indeed, that is the crux of the new Sacred Activism. In partnering with loss, we open a door to unfathomable intimacy with the universe—a relationship that has the capacity to profoundly alter our very identity as consciously self-aware humans. It is one thing to struggle to save the earth, yet quite another matter to feel oneself inextricably connected with it in every cell of the body.

The Personal Perils of Heroic Activism

Recently, I have been personally shaken by the death of my longtime activist colleague and friend, Mike Ruppert. After decades of political struggle and physical health challenges, Mike took his own life on April 13, 2014. Literally thousands of people attribute their awakening to our planetary predicament to Mike’s efforts. The legacy he left for us is enormous, yet everyone close to Mike witnessed his reckless abuse of the body and the emotional wounding which ravaged his psyche and finally led to his suicide. As with many activists, Mike was only capable of surrender by terminating his physical life. While on the one hand, he had every right to choose that path, I believe that his demise is a cautionary tale against heroic activism.

Heroic activism, and particularly activism in which we do not grieve, invariably leads to burnout and compromised bodies and psyches. Rather than being self-indulgent, self-care, including grieving, is a spiritual practice that honors the corporeal container permeated by the sacred for the purpose of advancing its work.

Lean into the Anthropocene

At the website Welcome To The Anthropocene, this relatively new concept is explained:

Every living thing affects its surroundings. But humanity is now influencing every aspect of the Earth on a scale akin to the great forces of nature.

There are now so many of us, using so many resources, that we’re disrupting the grand cycles of biology, chemistry and geology by which elements like carbon and nitrogen circulate between land, sea and atmosphere. We’re changing the way water moves around the globe as never before. Almost all the planet’s ecosystems bear the marks of our presence.

Our species’ whole recorded history has taken place in the geological period called the Holocene – the brief interval stretching back 10,000 years. But our collective actions have brought us into uncharted territory. A growing number of scientists think we’ve entered a new geological epoch that needs a new name – the Anthropocene.

At the very least, humans are changing the chemistry of the planet. At worst, we are rendering it uninhabitable.

At first blush it may seem that the extraordinary quality of intimacy with the earth of which I have spoken would compel us to fight to our last breath to save it. When the heart is entwined with another living being, is not surrender to the demise of the beloved out of the question? Indeed, we stand in awe of earth warriors such as Julia Butterfly Hill, Edward Abbey, and Derrick Jensen who have devoted their lives to defending and protecting our planet. Yet as with a terminally ill beloved human, we must now realistically assess our capacity to spare our own species and thousands of others from near-term extinction. The heroic option of martyrdom for the Earth is indeed a viable one. So also is a conscious consent to admit ourselves to planetary hospice as Zhiwa Woodbury so beautifully and brilliantly articulates in his recent article “Planetary Hospice: Rebirthing Planet Earth.” 

Woodbury, an environmental attorney and a practicing Buddhist states that “The Great Anthropocentric Extinction is upon us ….Sober consideration of the current, cascading evidence leads to the inescapable conclusion that life as we have come to know it is, quite simply, at an end.” At the conclusion of several pages of analysis of humanity’s unwillingness to meaningfully address and attempt to reverse climate change, Woodbury concludes that “Our situation is regrettably, terminal.”

On the one hand, the mental health profession should have a significant role in preparing us to face our demise, but it is ill-equipped to do so. Eco-psychology, however, “is reinventing psychology by including ‘the psychological processes that tie us to the world or separate us from it’ in a more holistic vision of the human psyche (Buzzell & Chalquist, 2009, p. 17) that views humans and the world we inhabit as inextricably bound together….So from an eco-psychological viewpoint, the question now becomes what is the role of mental health professionals in preparing society for the end of life as we know it?”

The hospice model can be applied with the perspective that the coming catastrophe does not have to result in widespread fear, panic, dread, or hostility. As I have noted in a number of articles such as Preparing For Near-Term Extinction;  Fukushima And Catastrophic Climate Change: The Earth Community In Hospice, and Hospice Is A Busy Place,  many people in hospice report that it was the most meaningful time of their lives. For them it provided sacred space in which to reflect deeply upon their lives—to evaluate relationships that were enriching; to make amends and restitution with respect to some relationships that were difficult and painful; to provide service to others in their hospice environment; and to prepare mindfully and reverently for death.

In this regard, Woodbury concludes: “If we are able to apply the same principles at a societal scale, then ecopsychologists and planetary thanatologists can become the kinds of spiritual midwives that will be needed to transform the planetary death/rebirth process from a painful dislocation rife with suffering and regret into a healing process for both the human race and the Earth itself — even into a Great Awakening.”

Additionally, Woodbury applies Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief to The Great Dying/Great Awakening. In fact, the author reminds us, we are facing not only the possibility of near-term human extinction in the larger context of our planetary predicament, but also a plethora of endings on a smaller scale in terms of the limits of economic growth, energy depletion, and the end of life as we have known it in a variety of venues. Whatever our ultimate fate as a species, the fundamental assumption that progress is an infinite phenomenon to which humans are exceptionally entitled is unraveling at dizzying speed as human consumption is now literally consuming life on earth. Our spiritually puerile affirmations such as “Every day and in every way, everything is getting better and better,” must be supplanted, not by “Every day and in every way, everything is getting worse and worse,” but by a seasoned spiritual equanimity that wisely surrenders to whatever appears at the door of experience—a perspective so beautifully articulated by Rumi’s marvelous “Guest House” poem:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

The Great Dying cannot be practiced in isolation. Never before have humans required loving community to the extent that we do now. For as Woodbury notes, “… planetary hospice workers will be linked by a transmission of intention – the intention to be spiritual midwives for the rebirth of planet Earth. Just as the hospice movement today relies heavily on trained volunteers, so will planetary hospice rely heavily on the efforts of any and all who share the vision of the Great Dying as the dark night of collective humanity’s soul, and who are equally committed to ushering the human race through this difficult ‘night sea journey’ – during which ‘the sun sinks into the sea only to be devoured by the water monster – into the dawning light of a new day’.” (Washburn, The Ego and The Dynamic Ground,1995, p. 21).

Giving up, becoming defeatist? Is this the essence of the New Sacred Activism? Indeed it is not. Rather, as Woodbury notes, we must open to the “dark night of collective humanity’s soul” and live as if every act, every task performed in daily life, every kindness expressed to another being and to oneself might be the last. This is one way I stay connected with the light in dark times. Walking in reverence, living contemplatively with gratitude, generosity, compassion, service, and an open heart that is willing to be broken over and over again. I do not always live the way I want to live. It’s a practice, and practice never makes perfect. Practice only makes practice, and if I think it’s perfect, I’m not practicing. Nevertheless, I’d rather stumble in the dark, finding an occasional candle to light the way, than become blinded by incandescent heroism. And so in this time of unprecedented darkness, find the light whenever possible, but most importantly, be the light for someone else who may not be as familiar with the darkness as you are—and be willing to admit yourself to planetary hospice at the same time that you commit to being a hospice worker for the earth community. That may be why you came here, and that is the New Sacred Activism. 

*The Science of Catastrophic Climate Change


  • Hi Carolyn: Thanks for these thoughtful insights. As someone who appreciates so much your efforts and the spirit of this piece, please allow me to offer some important constructive criticism. You talk about “accepting the reality of near-term extinction,” by which I’m pretty sure you mean ours. From my viewpoint, that kind of crosses the line into unnecessary negativity, since the reality is that we face a very real RISK of eventual extinction, but there is nothing certain about it’s timing or eventuality. That is very different than accepting the reality of NTHE as some kind of inevitability. I’ve looked quite carefully at the science Guy and others present, and the contrary scientific views as well, and as a devoted Buddhist I feel it is so important to adopt “don’t know mind” in this regard. It is sobering enough to be considering the very real risk of NTHE for humans, especially given the present rate of extinction for all species, and the trouble species like tigers and Orangutans in Indonesia, or elephants and rhinos in Africa, are facing.

    As a long time activist and ecopsychologist who has been following all this quite closely, I have to say that I suspect this jumping to the conclusion of NTHE, no matter how troubling some of the science is, smacks of a very subtle form of despair. I think it was Jane Goodall who said that we who are priveleged have a moral obligation to be optimistic on behalf of those who do not enjoy such privileges (including other species).

    In this same vein, I’m so grateful that you include quotes from my 2014 paper in this article, and just want to clarify that the context for the statement “Our situation is regrettably terminal” was the end of life as we know it, and the ongoing tragedy of mass extinction – not NTHE or the end of all life, as some have misconstrued it. We can turn to myth for hidden truths in dark times like these, and one myth we humans hold dearly, as reflected in so many of our movies, is facing and overcoming what appear to be impossible odds. It’s what we do, and it’s why the work of people like you and Andrew is so important.

    Thank you! And P.S. to your readers: something we can all do right now is stop eating meat we don’t kill ourselves (i.e., hunting/fishing), and insist on organic produce to support agroecology – which is the real long-term solution to our problem. And keep spreading the word about the mouth/climate connection.

    Liked by 1 person

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