An elegy in prose for Michael Dowd

October 13, 2023

Michael Dowd‘s spirit left his body, in the wee hours of Saturday, October 7, pulling out the roots of him from thousands, tens of thousands, of people – me included. I feel the pain in so many of us, as the Michael-in-us passes into the unknown.

He’s been my friend, thinking partner and ally for decades. And now…how can that ebullient personality, that vibrant body, be now just another body, among the tens of billions of human bodies that have lived and melted back into the earth, the only G-d he believed in.

If his name is new to you, Michael was an itinerant preacher of the bad news of overshoot and collapse. He started as an evangelical preacher, but he was too earthy for the church and was booted out. Then he got religion on the story of the Universe Story as expressed by Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, and traveled to share the good news of our role as stardust made manifest in human form. Our job is to celebrate the miracle of life, and celebrate he did. Then he found William Catton’s unflinching book on Overshoot and Collapse, which is the inevitable process, for any top dog species without competition, of multiplying without thought of the morrow, eating everything in sight. Eventually, they’ve eaten it all, and die off. Is this the human fate?

In his insatiable search for answers, he found the literature on the rise and fall of civilizations. Sir John Glubb’s book, The Fate of Empires , explained where we are in the process of collapse. The semi-final phase of societies gutted of moral or civic glue.

Somehow this all added up. His huge evangelical heart combined with his understanding of God as the evolving Universe, our home, and his acceptance that we are not going to wheedle our way out of this great unraveling.

He and his wife, scientist Connie Barlow, called it “Post Doom No Gloom”– by accepting inevitable collapse we enter into the grace of accepting our own mortality. This is the good news in a bad news world: there is joyous life beyond “doom” – TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it) as he called it. Beyond the wrenching grief for the suffering that comes as the climate swings into a new stability that likely won’t include humans – there is a joy in just the glory of the living world/the living universe. There is praise and thanksgiving and unfettered love for being part of it all.

As Mother Teresa said, “We are not called to be successful, but faithful.” He was faithful to reality, including glorious rivers and repeated endings of mighty civilizations.

His morality was ultimately this, this fidelity to reality and his unstoppable call to share his “good news” with tens of thousands of us.

I could make something of him dying as Hamas rampaged through Israel, a tragic act in a long history of displacement and mutual violence. In Sir John Glubb’s matrix, such wars always come as civilizations overshoot their own ecological niches and devolve. We see this same tearing one another to shreds in the US and in Ukraine, in South Sudan and beyond. The struggle for final dominion of all life has a poison pill inside. Always.

While we don’t know what Michael would have said, as he died just as Hamas breached Israel’s defenses, I am sure he would set our shock in a larger context of holy life and human failing.
Watch this, his final sermon:

I loved Michael. For years. I also see that I let him find for me the language and context for this unraveling. I let him – and the hundred or so guests on my podcast – give me/us their understanding of what’s happening and how to live through it.

So his death also lays down a gauntlet for me. Can I step further and firmer into the truth I carry. When a leader dies, this is the challenge. Often people vie to be the recognized successor of a great teacher. Not with Michael – though many will teach what he planted in them. The challenge for me is to anchor the wisdom I’ve gathered in my zig zag through life, and offer, through words, my partial but passionate values and understandings.

May he rest in peace and we rise to this terrible and potent occasion