Last Days in Ocean Beach is an effort to capture the mood of deep unease and uncertainty that permeates our era and informs the thinking of many writers, artists, and intellectuals, even if they are not quite saying it out loud. It was written before the election of Donald Trump, but it is clear that his election only underlines the chasm between the cartoon reality driving much of our social, cultural, and political discourse and the unrelentingly grim truth that we are killing the world whether many of us want to admit it or not.
As Bill McKibben put it, “physics doesn’t care about political realities,” like who won the election. There may be a hegemonic political reality that refuses to recognize where we are, but the reality of physics and scientifically documented mass extinction proceed nonetheless. Someday soon, we will be unable to deny it. At present, however, many of us, particularly in a place like San Diego where, as the banal tourist slogan puts it, “Happy Happens,” are satisfied to keep having a beach party at the end of the world. Thus, the strange disconnect between the perpetual marketing of our local “paradise” and the looming threats that may eventually destroy it could not be greater than they are here in San Diego.
But it’s not just us in superficial Southern California who seem incapable of coming to terms with the central truth of our times. In his provocative recent New York Magazine essay “The Uninhabitable Earth,” David Wallace-Wells ably documents the looming apocalyptic threats posed by catastrophic climate change and wonders, along with the Indian novelist, Amitav Ghosh, “why global warming and natural disaster haven’t become major subjects of contemporary fiction — why we don’t seem able to imagine climate catastrophe, and why we haven’t yet had a spate of novels in the genre [Ghosh] basically imagines into half-existence and names ‘the environmental uncanny.’” In this spirit, Last Days in Ocean Beach is my attempt to speak to what it is like to live, along with the main character of the novel, “on the border between dread and wonder.”
In that way, my novel tries to answer the call of the Dark Mountain Manifesto by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine that boldly proclaims, “Ecocide demands a response. That response is too important to be left to politicians, economists, conceptual thinkers, number crunchers; too all-pervasive to be left to activists or campaigners. Artists are needed. So far, though, the artistic response has been muted.”
This is so because, according to the authors:
We imagined ourselves isolated from the source of our existence. The fallout from this imaginative error is all around us: a quarter of the world’s mammals are threatened with imminent extinction; an acre and a half of rainforest is felled every second; 75% of the world’s fish stocks are on the verge of collapse; humanity consumes 25% more of the world’s natural ‘products’ than the Earth can replace — a figure predicted to rise to 80% by mid-century. Even through the deadening lens of statistics, we can glimpse the violence to which our myths have driven us.
And over it all looms runaway climate change. Climate change, which threatens to render all human projects irrelevant; which presents us with detailed evidence of our lack of understanding of the world we inhabit while, at the same time, demonstrating that we are still entirely reliant upon it. Climate change, which highlights in painful colour the head-on crash between civilisation and ‘nature’; which makes plain, more effectively than any carefully constructed argument or optimistically defiant protest, how the machine’s need for permanent growth will require us to destroy ourselves in its name. Climate change, which brings home at last our ultimate powerlessness.
Once we come to terms with both the vanity of our grand illusions and their inevitable costs, what is left is loss, profound and gut-wrenching loss. As researchers Neville Ellis and Ashlee Cunsolo put it in “Hope and Mourning in the Anthropocene: Understanding Ecological Grief”:
We are living in a time of extraordinary ecological loss. Not only are human actions destabilising the very conditions that sustain life, but it is also increasingly clear that we are pushing the Earth into an entirely new geological era, often described as the Anthropocene.
Research shows that people increasingly feel the effects of these planetary changes and associated ecological losses in their daily lives, and that these changes present significant direct and indirect threats to mental health and well-being. Climate change, and the associated impacts to land and environment, for example, have recently been linked to a range of negative mental health impacts, including depression, suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress, as well as feelings of anger, hopelessness, distress, and despair.
They note that “climate-related ecological losses can trigger grief experiences in several ways. Foremost, people grieve for lost landscapes, ecosystems, species, or places that carry personal or collective meaning.”
In my own case, much of what inspired Last Days in Ocean Beach was my experience as a father of a young boy who as, a grown man, will inevitably be living in a world far less rich in biodiversity than the one he’s growing up in today. And if he chooses to have children of his own, their world might very well be on the brink of dystopian realities–unless our current rush down the suicide path is halted in the very near term.
So many of the most precious things my wife and I have shared with our son during his childhood have involved seeing natural landscapes, animals, and beloved places that are presently endangered, whether they be beautiful birds and turtles on the Hawaiian Islands or wildlife and wilderness in the California Redwoods and a multitude of other places.
What will be left for future generations?
Inevitably much less, even if we can summon the wisdom and courage to change our present course.
Authentically coming to terms with this stark truth and the profound uncertainty that defines the present moment for all of us means facing the unsettling ambiguity clearly, sitting with deep grief, and living in a world of wounds.
For some, this might be a shattering experience, but, one hopes, it just may get us off our screens for a moment and out of our “civilized” bubbles. As Ellis and Cunsolo observe, “Ecological grief reminds us that climate change is not just some abstract scientific concept or a distant environmental problem,” and it may have the power to show us “the ways in which more-than-humans are integral to our mental wellness, our communities, our cultures, and for our ability to thrive in a human-dominated world.”
In other words, ecological grief forces us to come to terms with our larger selves, that part of us which is connected to all of life and the earth we depend upon to live. And while this reckoning will inevitably bring pain, it does not necessarily have to subject us to despair.
Ellis and Cunsolo put it this way:
We do not see ecological grief as submitting to despair, and neither does it justify “switching off” from the many environmental problems that confront humanity. Instead, we find great hope in the responses ecological grief is likely to invoke. Just as grief over the loss of a loved person puts into perspective what matters in our lives, collective experiences of ecological grief may coalesce into a strengthened sense of love and commitment to the places, ecosystems and species that inspire, nurture and sustain us. There is much grief work to be done, and much of it will be hard. However, being open to the pain of ecological loss may be what is needed to prevent such losses from occurring in the first place.
So, while Last Days in Ocean Beach will certainly not save the world, it is my small hope that it will help those who come upon it sit for a while with reality as it is. Then please, dear reader, remember to act first and always out of love for the larger self and fight for those places we adore while fiercely trying to hold onto and preserve what we can of the profound, heartbreakingly beautiful richness and radiance of the world.
Verbatim Books is presenting a Book Release Celebration for Last Days in Ocean Beach on Sunday, May 6th from 4:30-7 at Tiger!Tiger! (3025 El Cajon Blvd., North Park), where I will be reading. Joining me will be Perry Vasquez, who did the cover painting as well as the sketches throughout the novel. All are welcome to this event.
Last Days in Ocean Beach is the story of William, a scientist working at the Center for Extinction Studies, a think tank at the College of the Sun funded by a green billionaire. William lives “on the border between dread and wonder” as he desperately works to raise the alarm about climate change and its dire consequences to an apathetic public, learns to live with grief, and hold on to love. Along the way, we meet the residents of his wonderfully shabby apartment complex in Ocean Beach–bikers, hippies, skate punks, adventure tourists, reggae singers, aimless young professionals, Iraq war veterans, decadent retirees, a hospice nurse, and a Buddhist monk, all of whom are searching for something, looking to live more fully. Last Days in Ocean Beach is a blues song moaning and rocking the beach party at the end of the world.
“Jim Miller’s protagonist observes what each one of us knows–we’re all heedlessly driving and flying our way to oblivion. At a time when our planet is under siege, this important novel explores how delicately our individual lives and our relationships are woven into its future and the future of human life.”
–Sandra Alcosser, author of Except by Nature
“Jim Miller manages to find real warmth in the cold light cast by our apocalyptic moment; this is a rare instance of actually dealing with, instead of attempting to ‘fix,’ the cascade of emotions and ideas that naturally come from the immensity of the challenges around us.”
–Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth
For more information on City Works Press and to buy a copy of Last Days in Ocean Beach, go here: www.cityworkspress.org