It’s Not Too Late to Love the World: In Memoriam Michael Dowd

 By: John Halstead

“Don’t take anything for granted; celebrate it all! Live life fully, love the life you live, and be the biggest blessing to others for as long as you can. This is how to experience joy independent of the circumstances–even in the face of the end of the world as we know it and possible near term human extinction.”

— Michael Dowd, “The Big Picture: Beyond Hope and Fear” (presented at the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome)

A druid ritual held at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago this past August got me thinking about ancestors. I’ve never really connected with my own biological ancestors, so when people talk about ancestors, I often think instead about people who have profoundly influenced me — both the dead and the living.

My “ancestor” shrine (Michael Dowd in the upper right corner)

During the Parliament, I started to make a list of people who have been important spiritual, intellectual, and personal influences on me. I categorized them as “ancestors” (those who died before I was born), “honored dead” (those who died in my lifetime), “elders” (those a generation older than me who are still alive), and “allies” (those of my generation or younger who are still alive).

After the Parliament, I felt inspired to create a kind of shrine to those people. I placed their pictures around an image of a tree, men on one side, women on the other. For those who were still living, I used a color picture and placed them around the branches. For those who were dead, I used a black and white photo and placed them around the roots.

One of those elders who I put on my tree was Michael Dowd. I had included on my tree both people who inspired me through their writing and speaking or their activism, as well as people who had a more personal impact on me. Michael was all of those things.

It’s probably post-hoc confirmation bias, but I remember more than once when I looked at my “ancestor” shrine, I thought that I might be moving Michael from the top with the living elders to the bottom with the honored dead sometime soon. It didn’t make much sense at the time, because Michael was only 64 years old and both physically vital and mentally keen … except that Michael talked about death a lot.

Michael died on October 7th. He was in New York at the time for his father’s hospice. Michael’s father passed on October 5th and he was staying with a friend afterward to continue to work through the grief process. Two days later, he died in his sleep as a result of a massive heart attack.

Michael’s death is especially poignant given the nature of the work that he devoted the last years of his life to: helping people to accept that our civilization is on an unstoppable downward spiral and to move beyond both hope and doom to what he called “Post-Doom”, which he defined as:

  1. What opens up when we remember who we are and how we got here, accept the inevitable, honor our grief, and prioritize what is pro-future and soul-nourishing.
  2. A fierce and fearless reverence for life and expansive gratitude—even in the midst of abrupt climate mayhem and the runaway collapse of societal harmony, the health of the biosphere, and business as usual.
  3. Living meaningfully, compassionately, and courageously no matter what.

While a lot of people listening to Michael’s talks might get stuck on the part about how it’s too late to save the world, that part was really just the preface to his real message, which was that it’s not too late to love the world. This is also the essence of what I call paganism. (Michael described himself as a “Gaian”.)

Michael encouraged us to stop denying or bemoaning our fate and embrace our mortality — both individual and collective. He taught us by word and example to celebrate our place in Great Story, the Epic of Evolution, to honor the land we inhabit, and to be of service however we can. He urged us to consume less energy, less stuff, and less stimulation, and to cause less suffering (LESSS). He counseled us to express care, gratitude, regret, and compassion with everyone in our lives. And he challenged us to contribute to the well-being of others, both human and other-than-human. In short, he invited us, at the end of the world, to love the world.

And he didn’t just say it. He lived it!

Though I didn’t know it at the time, Michael’s evolution of thought roughly tracked my own: from religious naturalism to environmental activism to Post-Doom. I first became aware of Michael through my work with the Naturalistic Pagan community. At that time I knew him as a progressive Christian minister, eco-theologian, author of Thank God for Evolution (2006), and an evangelist of the Great Story/the Epic of Evolution.

The Great Story is the history of the universe, starting with the Big Bang to the present moment. The Great Story teaches us that we are an interconnected part of nature and that our individual and collective lives are a small, but integral part of the evolution of the universe. It teaches us that we are related to each other as one large family, not just human beings, but all animals, as well as plants, and even the earth and the sky. Michael’s work promoting the Great Story would lay the foundation for his later work.*

In 2014, Michael became active in the climate movement. That was the same year I participated in my first climate protest (the first People’s Climate March) and the year I had my ecological awakening while visiting Pando, a grove of quaking aspens which is actually the largest organism on the planet.

In 2019, Michael’s focus shifted from climate activism to Post-doom (though he’d been aware of the underlying facts since 2012). In this process, Michael was profoundly influenced by William Catton’s 1980 book, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Just the year before, in 2018, I had organized my last event as part of (Tellingly, it was a prayer vigil.) As I realized the depth of the cultural and economic transformation that was needed to avoid environmental catastrophe, I grew increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of any such change happening.

Though I didn’t know it, Michael was going through the same process and developing what came to be Post-Doom. Michael’s work also paralleled that of others, like Jem Bendell, author of the 2018 Deep Adaptation paper (which has now become a movement), and built on the work of many others. But where Bendell’s work is more policy-oriented, Michael’s message is explicitly spiritual.

Though not widely embraced, the Post-Doom message has entered the mainstream discourse with the publication of David Wallace-Wells’ 2017 New York Magazine article (and 2019 book), “The Uninhabitable Earth”, Roy Scranton’s books, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015) and We’re Doomed. Now What? (2019), Jonathan Franzen’s 2019 New Yorker article, “What If We Stopped Pretending?”, and Jeff Gibbs’ 2019 documentary, Planet of the Humans. Apparently, 2019 was the year of the Doomers and Post-Doomers. (We even had our own U.S. Presidential candidate. Not really.)

Michael published the first of his Post-Doom conversations that year, too. Since that time, he has recorded conversations with such activists and thinkers as Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb), Jem Bendell (Deep Adaptation), Joanna Macy (The Work that Reconnects), Richard Heinberg (Post-Carbon Institute), David Holmgren (Future Scenarios), Dougald Hine (Dark Mountain Project), Trebbe Johnson (Radical Joy for Hard Times), Carolyn Baker (Collapsing Consciously), Dahr Jamail (The End of Ice), William Rees (“ecological footprint”), James Howard Kunstler** (World Made by Hands), Richard Rohr (Center for Action and Contemplation), Derrick Jensen** (Deep Green Resistance), Stephen Jenkinson (Die Wise), Laura Schmidt and Aimee Lewis-Reau (the Good Grief Network), Britt Wray (Generation Dread), and many more (over 100 in all).

In this work, Michael was supported, encouraged, and enabled in myriad ways by his wife and partner, Connie Barlow. In addition to her own work as a science educator, environmental activist, and leader in the assisted migration movement (“helping forests walk”), Connie edited Michael’s videos to make them more effective communication tools.

While Michael was developing Post-Doom, I was working on an essay which I published here at Gods & Radicals, entitled “What If It’s Already Too Late?: Being An Activist in the Anthropocene”, which later became a small book, Another End of the World is Possible (2019). The article drew the attention of folks in the post-doom/deep adaptation community (which I hadn’t known existed before that). And one of those people was Michael.

Michael Dowd, Connie Barlow, and the author (summer 2020)

Over time, Michael became a friend and mentor to me. He (and Connie) spoke at my Unitarian congregation on multiple occasions. And he and Connie visited our home in 2020 (with appropriate safety practices) on their way to relocate closer to their grandchildren in Michigan.

Michael had a unique gift for lifting up other people and connecting like-minded folks. This was, in my opinion, at least as important as his writing and speaking. I was one of many, many people who Michael encouraged and whose work he promoted. He even recorded his reading of (the first edition of) my book.

Michael had a contagious enthusiasm and one of the most generous spirits I have ever met. I don’t know of anyone else who could have delivered his message as effectively as he did. I echo what Jordan Perry wrote of Michael in memoriam:

“His electric, surround sound version of loving attention was wild and joyful to experience. His limitless curiosity and bombastic reverence for life never ceased to compel me to want to lean into my life with more authenticity. He could challenge, cajole, compel, and confuse with grace. I loved the man.”

Michael embodied his message in the way he lived his life. And his death challenges all of us who knew him to embody that message as well.

Now that I think about it, my “premonition” about Michael’s death probably originated with his email blast this past May which had the subject line:

“I can die now 🙂 My core message will live on.”

He added in the body “…until the Internet or YouTube goes down for good, of course. ;-).” (Michael embraced gallows humor.) What Michael called his “core message” was contained in a video of a presentation that he gave to the Canadian Association of the Club of Rome in May, entitled “The Big Picture: Beyond Hope and Fear”, and the subsequent Q&A. In it, Michael talks about how, in this age of chaos and breakdown, we can escape the “seesaw” of hope and fear.

Like Michael, I have let go of hope for either the status quo or for “progress”. I have no faith in the mainstream environmental and social justice “movements”. Post-Doom teaches that, ironically, it is the very urge to cling to hope and the faith in progress and technology that is driving us faster and faster toward our own annihilation. When we refuse to acknowledge natural limits, then we end up hastening the very outcome that we want to avoid.

This is not as radical of a position as it was in 2019. With the hottest month ever being recorded this past July and the Canadian wildfires turning the skies orange where I live in the American Midwest, it was easy to imagine we are on the verge of an apocalypse. Last month, scientists announced that we’ve now exceeded 6 of 9 planetary boundaries that make the planet habitable to humans (up from 4 a few years ago). Many policy advisors are now saying that we need to focus as much on resilience and adaptation as we do on cutting emissions. Meanwhile, some academics and even mainstream news sources are taking civilizational collapse seriously.

Mainstream activists fear that doomerism will drive people to despair and paralysis. Being post-doom, however, isn’t about staying stuck in a state of despair (though it’s common to pass through that stage), nor does it lead to paralysis. It’s about reframing the question of what kind of action is appropriate and meaningful in the light of the end of the world as we know it (i.e., inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe, possible extinction). This leads to a different kind of joy, one born from love of the world as it is, rather than hope for a future that will not come. And the way Michael Dowd lived his life was proof of that joy.

In spite of the direness of the situation and the lateness of the hour — or perhaps because of it — I believe we have an unprecedented opportunity to imagine “another end of the world” and to start to build another way of life in the cracks of civilization. I’m striving to follow Michael’s example, through my writing and speaking and rituals, to help transform how we think and talk about our relationship with the more-than-human world. I also am working at putting this into practice, as Michael advised. For me, that sometimes takes the form of what David Holmgren calls permaculture activism, creating parallel/alternative systems at the household and small community levels, in order to (1) increase resilience in the face of collapse, (2) as a boycott of the dominant destructive system, and ultimately (3) to help shape what follows collapse in an ecologically positive way.

Without the death of stars, there would be no planets and no life.

Without the death of creatures, there would be no evolution.

Without the death of elders, there would be no room for children. …

The gifts of death are wisdom, creativity, and the flow of cultural change.

The gifts of death are the urgency to act, the desire to fully be and become.

The gifts of death are joy and sorrow, laughter and tears.

The gifts of [the acceptance of death] death are lives that are fully and exuberantly lived, then graciously and gratefully given up, for now and forevermore. Amen!

— from “The Gifts of Death” by Michael Dowd


* Michael and Connie’s religious naturalist credo was:

  • Reality is our GOd (Michael substituted an image of the Earth for the “O”.)
  • Evidence is our scripture.
  • The Epic of Evolution is our creation story.
  • Ecology is our theology.
  • Integrity is our spiritual path.
  • “Come Home” is our core message.

** This is not an endorsement of any transphobic statements or positions taken by these or individuals.