Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members. Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.
Jung’s Deathbed Vision and Our Future
“I see enormous stretches devastated, enormous stretches of the earth. But, thank God not the whole planet.”
“The threat from climate change is more total than from the bomb. It is also more pervasive. In a 2018 paper, forty-two scientists from around the world warned that, in a business-as-usual scenario, no ecosystem on Earth was safe, with transformation ‘ubiquitous and dramatic,’…”
David Wallace-Wells (2019)
“Climate change is fast, much faster than it seems we have the capacity to recognize and acknowledge; but it is also long, almost longer than we can truly imagine….our current climate models may be underestimating the amount of warming we are due for in 2100 by as much as half.”
David Wallace-Wells (2019)
Carl Jung had a very keen intuition, which manifested over the course of his long life in both personal hunches and collective warnings. In 1896, for example, when he was 21 years old and living in Basel as a medical student, Jung was asked by his mother to pay a social call on an old family friend, Frau Rauschenbach. During this visit Jung had a fleeting glimpse of a young girl and he knew intuitively that he had seen his future wife. This was highly improbable, given that Emma Rauschenbach was then only 14, the daughter of a rich industrial family, and he was an impoverished medical student with many years of education ahead of him. But Jung never wavered and, once he achieved financial independence, he courted her persistently and married her in 1903.
Another example of Jung’s intuition operating in his personal life was his initial meeting in 1933 with Marie-Louise von Franz, who was to become one of his most diligent students, analysands and co-workers. The meeting came about through Jung’s interest in getting to know more about the young people of the day. Von Franz was the only girl in a party of 8 that Jung hosted with lunch and supper and, as he spoke to them of his psychology, he felt certain that von Franz had something to do with alchemy. His intuition prefigured reality a year in the future: In 1934 von Franz became Jung’s analysand and translator for him of Greek and Latin alchemical texts. Many years later, she wrote Alchemy, one of the definitive texts on alchemy and Jungian psychology.
Jung’s intuition was no less impressive about collective situations. In 1913, Jung sensed the “atmosphere” of Europe was “darkening,” and there was “something in the air,” something that felt oppressive in concrete reality, not just in his unconscious. In October of that year, Jung had a prophetic vision which he described in his memoir:
“… I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps. When it came up to Switzerland I saw that the mountains grew higher and higher to protect our country. I realized that a frightful catastrophe was in progress. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood. This vision lasted about an hour…. Two weeks passed; then the vision recurred, under the same conditions, even more vividly than before, and the blood was more emphasized. An inner voice spoke. “Look at it well; it is wholly real and it will be so. You cannot doubt it.”
When Jung was asked later in the year what he thought were the prospects for Europe’s future, he replied that he “had no thoughts on the matter,” but added that he had seen rivers of blood. In the Spring of 1914 he had three dreams in which Europe was covered with ice and all the vegetation was killed by frost. World War I broke out 2 months after the last of the three dreams.
Jung’s gravest warning came in 1961. In May of that year Jung was 85 and in failing health. His doctor put him in the hospital for several days for tests, and when he returned to his home in Küsnacht he was very frail. He loved to ride in cars, and Barbara Hannah (who had often taken him for rides) tried to get him to accompany her, but after May 6th he was too weak to go downstairs in his house. He told Ruth Bailey, his housekeeper, of recent dreams, one of which made him think he would soon be dead.
On May 17th he had an embolism, a blood clot that traveled to his brain, causing a stroke. This left him in tears because it affected his speech for a while. Thirteen days later he had another setback and took to his bed, where he slipped in and out of a comatose state, occasionally reporting visions.
On May 30, eight days before he died, Jung dictated to his daughter his last visions, with instructions that the notes were to be given to Marie-Louise von Franz. The images were sobering: “I see enormous stretches devastated, enormous stretches of the earth. But thank God, not the whole planet.”
I have been familiar with Jung’s biography and his deathbed vision for over a decade, and have always assumed the devastation would be due to a nuclear holocaust. Certainly, in 1961, that surely was what Jung’s family and friends thought would be the cause since the Cold War was “hot:” just a few years before, the Soviets had taken over Hungary, in 1960 the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, had given the world an unforgettable spectacle when he banged his shoe on the desk during the U.N. General Assembly, Cuba had gone Communist, and the stockpiles of Soviet and U.S. nuclear warheads were growing. It seemed logical that the only cause of planet-wide devastation would be a nuclear World War III.
But recently, after reading The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, I’ve come to think that the global situation Jung envisioned might have a completely different, though no less devastating cause: climate change. Drawing on an article in Science, Wallace-Wells summarized the conclusions of 42 climate scientists, whose studies warn that
“The threat from climate change is more total than from the bomb. It is also more pervasive. … in a business-as-usual scenario, no ecosystem on Earth was safe, with transformation ‘ubiquitous and dramatic,’…”
Note the adjectives: “total,” “pervasive,” “ubiquitous,” and “dramatic.” In 228 deeply researched pages, Wallace-Wells details just how all the global systems we now take for granted–transportation, health care, economics, politics, daily life–will be transformed, and how these changes will be global (“ubiquitious,” everywhere), thorough (“pervasive,” not superficial), and “dramatic” because “Climate change is fast, much faster than it seems we have the capacity to recognize and acknowledge; …”.
When I read the word “fast” I was reminded of our experience here in Waterbury, Vermont, during Hurricane Irene in 2011. Friends went to dinner on the evening of August 28th, walking up the street to a local restaurant, leaving their car in a parking lot that was completely dry, only to return 90 minutes later to find their car had disappeared under 6 feet of flood waters!
Wallace-Wells identifies 12 “elements of chaos,” with floods and drowning being one of them. The others are
We don’t usually think of ourselves as heat engines, but we are. Normal body temperature is 98.6°Farenheit, and if you put a lot of people in a small room, it will heat up quickly. We cannot function unless the ambient temperature allows us to dissipate our body heat into the air, and there are now (in 2019) “354 major cities with average maximum summertime temperatures of 95 degrees Farenheit or higher.” Wallace-Wells notes that this number could grow to 970 cities by 2050, exposing 1.6 billion people to deadly heat.
The global staple cereal crops, like all plants, grow best in optimal temperatures, and with our globe heating up, this means that our global production of wheat, rice and corn will be negatively impacted as the Earth heats up. Experts predict that “for every degree of warming, yields decline by 10 percent.” So, while global population is predicted to increase 50% in the next 30 years, we are likely to have 50% less of the staple grains to feed them. Wallace-Wells notes that the United Nations estimates we will need twice as much food in 2050 than we have today, but we won’t have the arable land to produce it.
Californians know about wildfires!–whole towns (like Paradise–ironically named) have disappeared, consumed by flames. Global warming, with the droughts it creates, is intensifying this feature of areas like California, and by 2050 the devastation such fires cause could be double what it is today. In some areas prone to fire, the area burned could increase fivefold. “For every additional degree of global warming, it could quadruple.” This means that by 2100 the United States could have “sixteen times as much devastation from fire” than we have in 2019.
“Disasters No Longer Natural”
“Natural disasters” is a term used in the insurance industry to refer to an untoward event caused by Nature, but, as our planet heats up, we are witnessing disasters that, as Wallace-Wells says, are no longer “natural,” i.e. within the range of what we have for generations expected to see, so that “once-unthinkable outlier events [become] much more common,” and “whole new categories of disaster” occur. For example, what we have regarded as “500-year” floods (a flood so severe that it would be experienced only once in 500 years) are likely to hit New York City every 25 years.
While 71% of the Earth is covered in water, only about 2% of that is not salty, and only 1% of that fresh water is accessible (i.e. not trapped in glaciers). So we don’t have a lot of potable water. This means we are likely to face “widespread water shortages in Peru and California, the result of glacier melt,” and by 2050 there could be a billion people in Asia lacking adequate water supplies. (And remember the “rule of 3: a person can live 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food). Lack of water can be deadly.
Global warming is devastating for our oceans, and this is creating problems on many fronts. First, the oceans feed us, providing “nearly a fifth of all animal protein” in our diets. Secondly, the oceans play a large role in our planetary seasons, thanks to the major currents, like the Gulf Stream, which modulate the temperature of Earth. Oceans also absorb a lot of the sun’s heat, sucking up “more than a fourth of the carbon” we emit by burning fossil fuels, but taking in all this carbon results in “ocean acidification,” which causes coral bleaching and the consequent destruction of the reefs. This is bad news for the half-billion people who depend on the reefs for the marine life and food supply, and for the reefs’ protection of coasts from storm surges.
Global warming is causing air pollution. Lots of carbon in the air can cause a decline in cognitive ability, so as we continue to emit carbon, our mental sharpness is falling. But, more than carbon, our air is becoming unbreathable due to dirt and dust. Remember the “dust bowl” of the 1930’s? It devastated farmers, but also caused people to sicken and die. “… climate change will bring new dust storms to those plains states,” leading to “deaths from dust pollution to more than double and hospitalizations to triple…”. The United States has not seen the worst of it: both India and China have dangerously polluted air now, and “one out of six deaths is caused by air pollution.”
“Plagues of Warming”
Global warming is causing Arctic ice to melt, and this is exposing prehistoric germs to our air–germs that existed before there were humans on the planet. This means that our immune systems, never having been exposed to these pathogen, would have no ability to fight back. This is not some science fiction fantasy: In 2016, “a boy was killed and twenty others infected by anthrax released when retreating permafrost exposed the frozen carcass of a reindeer killed by the bacteria…”. Disease vectors are also changing as global termperatures rise, e.g. the range of mosquitos is advancing northward as the tropics expand, so we are likely to see cases of yellow fever, lyme disease and malaria in northern areas that have never before witnessed such plagues.
Experts on the economics of global warming predict that, in countries already relatively warm (e.g. India, China, Africa) “every degree Celsius of warming reduces growth, on average, by about one percentage point.” This translates into estimates of “a 23 percent loss in per capita earning globally by the end of this century.” Wallace-Wells anticipates “not a Great Recession or a Great Depression but, in economic terms, a Great Dying…”. This will affect different countries differently, e.g. India and Pakistan (two countries which are already very hot in summer) are likely to hurt the most, while the United States will suffer tremendous economic loss due to the high level of development along its long coastlines (which will be flooded and eventually completely lost). This has led climate scientists to warn that the U.S. is “more vulnerable to climate impacts than any country in the world but India, and its economic illness won’t be quarantined at the border.” The “best-case warming scenario” anticipates our global economic output will be cut by between 15 and 25% by the year 2100.
Sociologists recognize the link between climate change and war/crime. If we manage to limit global warming to two degrees, we are still likely to see an increase in war of between 40 and 80%. Data from 9,000 American cities has shown a rise in all crime categories as air pollution increases. After the nation of Guatemala was hit by 5 hurricanes or tropical storms, devastated farmers turned to growing poppies, leading to an explosion in organized crime (for the opium trade)–just as, several generations before, the Sicilian mafia got its start after a prolonged drought. Where Guatemala once produced coffee and sugarcane, now its cash crop is opium, and it has become one of the most dangerous nations in the world. Climate change is likely to make both coffee and sugarcane ungrowable in Guatemala in the future.
By “systems” Wallace-Wells refers to “what the American military means when it names climate change a ‘threat multiplier.'”–something that makes any problem much more complex or difficult to handle. Already we are seeing climate change-induced migration, as climate refugees flee places that have become uninhabitable. Wallace-Wells notes that climate change, “since 2008,… has already produced 22 million” climate refugees. We saw how severe hurricanes in the United States left 60,000 refugees in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, and Hurricane Irene forced the evacuation of nearly 7 million. It will only get worse: the American coastline will experience a sea-rise by 2100 that “could displace 13 million Americans.” In other parts of the world “more than 140 million people … will be made climate migrants by 2050.” This will hit sub-Saharan Africa (86 million), South Asia (40 million) and Latin America (17 million) especially hard. Where will these people go? Such predictions are leading some young people to question the prudence of having children: Is it fair to bring new children into such a degraded world, to contribute to the over-crowding?
It is no exaggeration to say that every aspect of our world and daily routines will be affected by the impact of climate change, with Jung’s “enormous stretches” of the planet becoming unhabitable, e.g. Africa, Australia, Central and much of Latin America, due to heat, drought, and famine, as indicated by this quote from Wallace-Wells:
“… the worst-case outcome of a worst-case emissions path–puts us at eight degrees. At that temperature, humans at the equator and in the tropics would not be able to move around outside without dying. In that world, eight degrees warmer, direct heat effects would be the least of it: the oceans would eventually swell two hundred feet higher, flooding what are now two-thirds of the world’s major cities; hardly any land on the planet would be capable of efficiently producing any of the food we now eat; forests would be roiled by rolling storms of fire, and coasts would be punished by more and more intense hurricanes; the suffocating hood of tropical disease would reach northward to enclose parts of what we now call the Arctic; probably about a third of the planet would be made unlivable by direct heat; and what are today literally unprecedented and intolerable droughts and heat waves would be the quotidian condition of whatever human life was able to endure.”
While I have been concerned about the environment for over four decades, and wrote my first book, Earthkeeping, on our need to take action to protect our ecosystems, it was only when I read The Uninhabitable Earth that I realized Jung’s final vision might have been about what our planet is facing in the coming decades. How like Jung to consider the fate of the world as he lay dying! His waning energies were not focused on his children, his grandchildren, his psychology, the Institute he founded, or on his own reputation. He spent his dying breaths trying to get our attention. We honor him best by each doing our part to save the Earth.
How might we do this? Lest you feel despair(after reading the above) or think that you are powerless to help the Earth, you need to understand that there are over two dozen specific things you, as an individual, can do to help mitigate climate change, e.g. reduce your food waste, eat a plant-rich diet (less meat), plan your family (consider having one, two or no children), put solar panels on your rooftop (or, as in my case, in your backyard), plant trees, install geothermal heating in your house, drive an electric vehicle, improve the insulation in your house, install LED lighting, use mass transit, use solar power to heat your water, use heat pumps, refuse to use airplanes, avoid the use of plastics, limit your use of a gas-powered car, walk around your city, recycle your recyclables and compost your garbage, install smart thermostats in your home, advocate with your elected officials for a bike-friendly infrastructure in your town/city, use an electric bike (especially helpful if your terrain is hilly), recycle your paper, install a green roof, take the train rather than flying or driving, and carpool.
For more on how right now we have the technologies to mitigate climate change, read Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. Paul Hawken edited this best-selling volume, which is full of practical things our global society could be doing. The key is political will. So, a final thing each of us can do is to advocate, agitate, and vote for officials who will enact these solutions. Most of all, we must not feel helpless and we must not lose hope.
Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.
Hannah, Barbara (1976), Jung: His Life and Work, A Biographical Memoir. New York: G.P. Putnam.
Jung, C.G. (1965), Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.
Hawken, Paul ed. (2017), Drawdown. New York: Penguin Books.
von Franz, Marie-Louise (1980), Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology. Toronto: Inner City Books.
Wagner, Suzanne (1998-99), “A Conversation with Marie-Louise von Franz,” Psychological Perspectives, 38 (Winter ’98-’99), 12-39.
Wallace-Wells, David (2019), The Uninhabitable Earth. New York: Crown Publishing.
 Quoted by Marie-Louise von Franz, in Wagner (1998-99), 24-25.
 Wallace-Wells (2019), 226.
 Ibid., 12.
 Hannah (1976), 83.
 Von Franz recalls the circumstances of her initial meeting with Jung and 7 of her classmates in Wagner (1998-1999), 12. Cf. Bair (2003), 368.
 Hannah (1976), 229.
 Ibid. Jung bartered with her for the analysis: she translated Latin and Greek texts for him in return for his analysis of her dreams.
 Published in 1980 by Inner City Books, Toronto.
 Hannah (1976), 106.
 MDR, 175
 Ibid., 176
 Wagner (1998-1999), 24.
 In 1956, five years before Jung died.
 With the ouster of Batista in 1959.
 Wallace-Wells (2019), 226
 Ibid., 47-48.
 Ibid. 49.
 Ibid., 74.
 Ibid., 79-80.
 Ibid., 86-88.
 Ibid., 94-96.
 Ibid., 100-104.
 Ibid., 109-112.
 Ibid., 117-123.
 Ibid., 124-130.
 Ibid., 131-135.
 Ibid., 14-15.
 Charles Juzek and I edited this volume of essays. (Pacific Grove CA: The Boxwood Press, 1974). It is now out-of-print.