Retiring Into What’s Really Important: The Wisdom of Abrupt Climate Change

Near term rapid climate change can bring you face to face with what’s really important in retirement.

That’s the premise of this blog post. It’s longer, and more meaty than my usual posts. I hope you’ll make the time to read it to the end.

Since 2008, I have traveled around North and Central America working with conscious retirees just like you. Some successful, others struggling. And I’ve gathered quite the assortment of success stories and strategies right from the horses’ mouths.

More recently I have been helping retirees come to terms with the growing evidence of near term climate change and what’s really important in full view of it. This post is my latest and best distillation and collection of those practices and stories.

In general, here’s who this post is for:

    • You’ve heard about near term climate change, and the possibility of human extinction.
    • You’re trying to come to terms with this and what’s really important in your own retirement.


  • You find it’s a lonely conclusion which interferes with many relationships.
  • You want somebody with whom to discuss this most important topic in the history of our species.
  • It seems most of your friends and family are in denial.
  • You wonder – now what?

At its heart, this post is all about exploring the question:

“What’s most important to me as I retire in a time when the expectancy of human life on planet earth may be shorter than my own life expectancy?”

Too much retirement advice (even that given by savvy, conscious-aging wise people) focuses only on our personal lives and does not take into consideration this bigger picture

So . . .

How do you look ahead to retirement without burying your head in the sand about the big picture?

How can you evaluate the growing evidence of near term climate change without succumbing to despair or cynicism? Better yet – how do you come face to face with who you really are, what’s really important, and live accordingly in your remaining years no matter how many?

In this post I will share with you

  • Three different perspectives on retirement: one toxic, one more healthy, one that focuses on what’s really important no matter what – even in view of near term climate change
  • How to evaluate for yourself the evidence and opinions about near term climate change
  • My personal take on what’s important now
  • My wish for you

The Toxic Perspective on Retirement

Let’s first look at the toxic view of retirement.

old idea of retirement
Retirement seen as decreasing powers.

This is old view is most clearly expressed in a bell curve graph divided into four parts.

  • Play
  • Education
  • Work
  • Retirement

The idea is that each of these activities takes place in one section or “box” of life. So when it comes time for retirement, your life is the last box, and that’s it for you. Play or education or work are over. Life is pretty much about withdrawal, which leads to depression, grief, illness, and premature death. So here the challenge is to preserve what little remains of life as more and more abilities decline. Little thought is given to what value people in the retirement box can contribute not to mention pass on to future generations.

Retirement seen as a time of increasing powers.

A More Healthy Perspective on Retirement (Mostly Current)

On the other hand, the more healthy view of retirement is most clearly expressed as a spiral in which there are no separate boxes, but each of the above activities is present all the time, and which opens out into ever more powerful abilities even as some abilities decline. So here the challenge is to look within and decide how to express one’s accumulated abilities and wisdom at any point in life to the benefit of self and others, especially the young.

This expectation of ever increasing abilities and wisdom to be enjoyed and shared not only in later years is indeed good news, for our planet is particularly in need of wisdom as more and more we see signs of the near term disappearance of human habitat. The limitation of this view is that it does not realistically take into consideration that we all die sooner or later – and that facing this prospect is more likely to help us focus on who we truly are and what’s really important today.

The What’s Really Important No Matter What Perspective on Retirement (Getting to the Root)

By What’s Really Important No Matter What I mean a perspective that is open to and honestly takes into account the root causes of what’s coming and even the worst case scenario. It takes into full account the growing scientific evidence and opinion about near term, rapid climate change and the demise of the human species in our lifetime. I will expand on this idea after next considering how to evaluate for yourself the evidence and opinions about near term climate change.

How to Evaluate for Yourself the Evidence and Opinions About Near Term Climate Change

The bad news at first glance is that the outlook for wise elder humans (of whatever age) to even be around long enough to share their wisdom is not good. Yes, it seems inconceivable that the time left for human habitat on earth in the near term is under threat. That’s because our brains and emotional systems have been developed to respond to threats that are immediately visible, such as rapidly approaching tigers, bears and such. However, the most recently discovered evidence to threats to human habitat on earth are largely unseen. They mostly take the form of scientific measurements of things like atmospheric temperatures, atmospheric gases, sea level, and sea ice. Taking care of business as usual, we seem unwilling to acknowledging the overall threat even as we see  local forms of such as unprecedented storms, droughts, and temperature swings.

How do we form our own opinion about scientific measurements? My purpose here is not to persuade you that the threat of near term loss of human habitat is real. I leave it up to you to  search the web for relevant, trustworthy information, and form your own opinion. But I am passionately interested in sharing with you what facts I think we all need need to know to arrive at informed opinions and to make compassionate, creative, and courageous decisions about this threat and what to do next.

The first thing to know: what is exponential rise in temperature 
The first thing to know is that in the time that humans have inhabited the earth until now, average global temperatures have risen slightly over hundreds of years. But their effects from some causes are cumulative and exponential. This means that because the effects we are seeing are caused by carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases, we are about to hit a cumulative and exponential wall in the form of an irreversible, and ever more rapidly increasing rise in temperature. Think about kicking a soccer ball down a hill. The further it goes down the hill, the more it picks up speed, and the faster it rolls to the point where it can no longer be caught.

Or think if a chessboard were to have wheat placed upon each square such that one grain were placed on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and so on (doubling the number of grains on each subsequent square), how many grains of wheat would be on the chessboard at the finish? One story goes that the inventor of chess requested his ruler give him wheat according to this progression. The ruler laughs it off as a meager prize for a brilliant invention, only to have court treasurers report the unexpectedly huge number of wheat grains would outstrip the ruler’s resources.

Or think about a Petri dish with a swab of bacteria and watch as the colony grows until at the last minute it goes from half full to completely full and consumes all the available nutrients or is poisoned by its own waste.

The second thing to know: a baseline temperature for human habitat
The second thing to know is that, yes, it’s true that temperatures have risen and fallen on planet earth before. Then we need to put recent evidence of temperature rise in some sort of perspective. So the baseline for thinking about average global temperature during human habitation of the planet is commonly set at to what it was in 1750. This is when the Industrial Revolution began in England and large amounts of coal began to be burnt. Human use of fossil fuels began at scale from that date, and that is when we began to seriously impact the climate. Average global temperatures then were about 13.8 degrees Celsius (56.84 degrees Fahrenheit).

So you can look at the thermometer to the right as a way of visualizing where we are relative to this baseline  beginning of the industrial revolution. We can call that baseline zero. For example, in 2014 the average global temperature was 14.6 degrees Celsius (58.28 Fahrenheit), or 0.8 C above the pre-industrial baseline set to zero. Relative to this baseline, you can interpret what people are saying about what is safe, where we are now, where we are heading, and what we can expect, and when.

The third thing to know: we are talking about average global temperature
The third thing to know is that we are not talking about day-to-day temperatures in any given part of the earth, but average global temperature. So when we are tempted to think about global warming as a hoax because we are experiencing a particularly cold winter, we need to remember that what scientists are reporting is average temperature world wide

One degree centegrade temperature riseThe fourth thing to know (decide): what is a safe global average temperature for human habitation and beyond which irreversible changes may take place?
The fourth thing to know is that there is disagreement about what is a safe temperature for human habitation beyond which irreversible changes may take place. Back in 1990 the United Nations Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases warned “Beyond 1 degree C above baseline may elicit rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.” However, for policy purposes the nations have adopted as a political goal 2 degrees C above the pre-industrial baseline. This norm was advanced by an economist rather than a scientist. So you need to consider this accordingly.

The fifth thing to know: what is the current global average above the pre-industrial baseline.
The fifth thing to know is where are we today. This information is tricky, not only because various agencies use different methods, but also because they measure it relative to various baselines. For example, the NASA Global Climate Change website says that the last annual average (2017) was 0.9 degrees C higher relative to the 1951 to 1980 average temperatures, which I understand was (is) 14.2 degrees Celsius.

Note that NASA’s baseline is 1.4 C higher than the baseline from the 13.8 C pre-industrial baseline of 1750, . So to understand NASA’s statement we need to add 1.4 degrees to account for the difference between the two baselines.  I understand this means that when NASA says that in 2017 we were at 0.9 degrees C, we were actually at 2.3  degrees C above the pre-industrial baseline, 1.3 degrees above the UN warning and 0.3 degrees C above the political goal.  Could this be right?

it's now 1.73 degrees centegrade above preindustrial temperaturesYes, it’s confusing, but in my view, important enough to be clear about. Where the heck are we NOW relative to pre-industrial global average temperature and both warnings beyond which irreversible changes may take place??? The most trustworthy evidence I have found says that the earth is now 1.73°C above the pre-industrial baseline with a monthly peak at 2.37 C above.

This means that we have already passed the 1 degree Celsius temperature rise the UN advisory group said “may elicit rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.”

The sixth thing to know: runaway self-reinforcing feeback loops
The sixth thing to know is there are a number of what are called runaway self-reinforcing feedback loops.  These are planetary systems which once triggered by a certain average global temperature, will start a process that rapidly changes the speed at which climate changes. Dr. Guy McPherson, Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona, has identified 39 such self-reinforcing feedback loops. For example: Methane (a very powerful Greehouse Gas) is bubbling out of the Arctic Ocean, and warm Atlantic water is defrosting the Arctic as it shoots through the Fram Strait,  and Siberian methane vents have increased rapidly in size from less than a meter across to about a kilometer. 

The seventh thing to know: global dimming. 
Scientists have discovered one of the side effects in increased pollutants in the atmosphere is to work in the opposite direction of global warming – a solar dimming, or cooling effect. This means that when we reduce emissions, instead of reversing global warming, it will actually increase the warming.

4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial baselineThe eighth thing to consider: humans become extinct at 4 degrees above the pre-industrial baseline.
The seventh thing to know is really an educated guess. And that is the point at which humans can be expected to go extinct. Here we are out of the realm of data or hard evidence, and into what are called models, or educated guesses of what will most likely happen based on the trends suggested by the data. Some scientists agree that human life on planet earth is hard to imagine beyond 4 degrees above the pre-industrial baseline. 

The ninth thing to know is that given this evidence why some people still deny climate change.
Nearly all scientists concur that climate change is occurring because of humans, and that our lives are at risk – so why is it so hard for some people to believe it? These seem to be the reasons:

  • First, for the past two decades oil and gas corporations have poured huge amounts of money into disinformation campaigns for short-term economic gains
  • Climate denial also stems from the strong laisser-fair ideology of small-government conservatives, and libertarians, and their strong opposition to regulation.
  • Third, in order to disarm their opponents, US climate deniers often rest their case on the defense of the American way of life, defined by high consumption and ever-expanding material prosperity.

Psychologists note that some long-time climate deniers like Donald Trump will never be convinced otherwise. Professor Marc Wilson, who lectures on the psychology of climate change denial at Victoria University says the way forward with these people is to …try and find the levers, the things that a person cares about, and try to present an argument that shows that the things they care about will be enhanced by doing the things that we know will also matter to the environment.

For example: Conservatives and libertarians care a great deal about freedom. Take a look below where I discuss the freedom of living in the now.

The tenth thing to know: why the main stream media downplays climate change.

  • First, advertising interests and editors challenge journalists’ abilities to adequately report on climate change issues often preferring more sensational topics that garner higher ratings and approval with advertisers.
  • Second, the journalistic norm of balance and the role of sourcing give climate skeptics exceptional media exposure, which creates a false balance between skeptics and scientists.
  • Media corporations have greatly reduced the number of environmental journalists that cover climate change.

So, when do you expect human extinction to occur, and how will that change how you live your life now?
Estimates of the date of human extinction range from less than eight years to never. Based on what you know what is your estimate, and what does that mean about how will you life your life now?

What to do?

Again, my purpose is not to persuade you of the truth of near term extinction. Rather it is to generate a realistic concern in you, to raise the question, and offer a few options for you to consider going forward. That said, those of you who know my former life as a Baptist minister probably understand my tendency to be a little missionaryish about things I’m passionate about. So yielding a little in that direction, I’d like to be really clear about the big question as I see it, and share with you some things I have done that might make sense for you, too.

Ask the big question: If it is true that retirement is not so much about decline as it is about ever increasing abilities and wisdom to share, how are we as elders to live in a time when near term human extinction is a real possibility – when our prospects for living through the next decade are in question? What will you do to avoid despair and reFire and focus on what’s really important?

The What’s Really Important No Matter What Perspective on Retirement

As we saw above there are two dominant views of retirement today: one represented as a bell curve in which retirement is seen at the end of life and as a period of decline. The other seen as a spiral when retirement is seen as an activity throughout life that results in ever increasing elder powers of wisdom even as other powers decline. I’d like to propose a third view as a circle overlapping a spiral in which retirement is seen as a time when the use of elder powers is focused on what’s really important in view of what we are facing today – near term rapid climate change.  Thus, the bad news of rapid climate change can become the good news of focusing down our great and daring retirement adventure on what’s really important.

Of course, everyone’s take on what this focus means personally is different. But I’m hopeful that however that focus shifts, it will take into account a realistic view of the evidence I presented above about near term and rapid climate change.

My personal take on what’s really important in view of rapid climate change: 

  • The freedom of living in the now. This is not particularly new for me. But I find living in the now and a regular meditation practice have served me well when the future seems uncertain. If we look at living in the now and meditation as a kind of retirement, this can be done at any time of life, not just when one has given up full time work or career.
  • Finding a simple, but reliable navigation process. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed, frustrated, and jaded with all the information to take in, process, and make decisions about. Over the years I have searched for a way to stay in touch with to my true self, turn this into specific next steps, and find the right support for my personality. Here’s information about a process that works for me.
  • Unlearning the conventional wisdom. I was born into a culture which took for granted the conventional wisdom that unlimited growth in the form of consumerism and corporate profits are good. But I could have taken the hint that these were lies back in 1972 when the study Limits to Growth pointed out that if there are no changes to historical growth trends, the limits to growth on earth would lead to sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity. Studies since then have shown we are well into overshoot, and need to unlearn many of these and other assumptions we grew up with. Embedded in our culture this conventional wisdom is like water to a fish. It sustains us emotionally. We habitually live and breathe through it. And we are largely unwilling to recognize that at the same time it is rapidly changing our climate, killing our habitat and soon will make humans extinct.

    Paul with his backpack and two roll-aboard cases
    Paul departs Lenox, Massachusetts for Guanajuato, Mexico with everything he owns except a bicycle in his backpack and two roll-aboard cases.
  • Lightening my load. Back in the 70s and 80s I started backing away from conventional wisdom, and moved back to the land with my family (wife and two kids) – to a 17 1/2 acre farmstead, in Maine.  Since that time (kids out of the nest, divorce, career changes, retirement) I have lightened my load even further to a backpack, two roll-aboard suit cases, and a bicycle. While this direction may not be for everyone, simplifying in this way has certainly worked for my peace of mind, and my preparedness to roll with climate change punches that may be coming my way.
  • Exploring different cultures.  Over the last five years I have visited four different countries in the Caribbean and Central America, and am about to visit a fifth. While recognizing that changing location does not necessarily mean changing fundamental values and lifestyles, travel has made it possible for me to break with many of the conventional wisdom, and business as usual lifestyle habits that continue to lead us toward near term rapid climate change and human extinction. Plus it has lowered my living expenses considerably.
  • Adjusting financially. Not coming from a career that provided huge financial assets for retirement, lightening my load has  relieved me of the worry that I will not have enough money to keep going in retirement until either my personal expiration date, or that of the human species, which ever comes first..
  • Getting close to nature. With the possibility of near term climate change leading to habitat disctruction, I plan to get closer to nature not only for aesthetics, but also for survival.
  • Keeping up with the evidence of abrupt climate change. I’m finding that main-stream news media are not at all doing a good job of keeping us informed about rapid climate change. While they do report on weather anomalies (unprecedented floods hurricanes, droughts, wars, etc.), they seldom connect the dots what we know is the climate change context of these events. So I depend on sources such as Nature Bats Last, and Arctic News to keep up-to-date.
  • Talking with friends, family, and tribe. This blog post is my first serious attempt to communicate these concerns with friends, family, and tribe. Already it’s opening up new opportunities for rewarding conversations with those I care about.
  • Giving new meaning to my work. As a retirement educator and mentor I’m finding new purpose in helping people take an honest look at these issues and moving forward in a positive direction. Far from becoming depressed about the prospect of near term climate change and human extinction, I have found that working through my own grief to new meaning in both relationships and work has proven to be an immense joy.
  • Handling end of life. Bronnie Ware, a former hospice worker, has written that in her experience the number one regret of the dying is I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. As I look to the end of my life whether by my personal expiration or by global catastrophe, I’m content that I have faced squarely what seems to be the big game changer of our time, and come to terms with life according to my true self, and not the life that others have expected of me.

GalazyMy wish for you

My wish for you is that you will choose not to bury your head in the sand as so many are doing, but ask yourself – given the evidence of near term climate change, what will I decide is really important, and how will I live my great and daring retirement adventure accordingly and however long I have? I invite you to join me and other reFirees in my next webinar where we’ll look at how to do just that. Click here for more information.