Our time is overwhelmingly one of ecological disaster. Not one informed person on this planet has any doubt that the human ecological footprint has become huge. Some think its still not large enough to be causing as many serious problems as I do, but even these skeptics agree that the scale of our modern industrialized technology’s impact on natural resources is enormous. We are not all eating Tilapia instead of Cod for no reason. Our public conversations about our ecological predicament, however, are wholly lacking in a rational response to the circumstances. We lack the courage to face the facts; our story failed us; we have not the nerve needed to steel ourselves for embracing the truth. We are fighting maturing by denying the deep disappointment in our growing disillusionment with technological progress as a road to a better world.
The environmental movements have been coming from the position that people are not well enough informed about the ecological facts. They design marketing messages to persuade people to live with some semblance of proper concern for the health of the planet. I have come to suspect that this approach fails to recognize the social situation for what it really is. People are not lacking in ecological knowledge. People do know we are in an ecological crisis, they know it viscerally. We are not failing to talk about it, let alone act rationally in response to it, because we are ignorant. It is because we are numb with shock. The news is so bleak and so huge and so unchangeable that it has been necessary to repress it in order to carry on with the day to day chores that sustain our survival, such as it is.
We are doing the best we can.
We have known the true state of things since sometime in the 1970s. The strains on our societies since then have been enormous, yet so far international relations and market driven Main Street have not broken down. There is reason to believe that may not remain the case much longer. It is hard to see any way business as usual can continue in anything like its present form for another generation or two. It is unlikely to make it another decade or two if we are interpreting our ecological data correctly. Our institutions proved to be too frozen in their ways to adapt to the new reality. The authority of those institutions drew upon the shared mythology of the societies in which they functioned. All throughout the world this psychological symbiosis is breaking down.
Until we speak with straight words about the reality of our ecological overshoot our societies will remain prey to pied pipers. Some will claim the elite are to blame and if only we could get them to pay their taxes all will be well. Some will blame everything that is no longer working well on foreigners, immigrants and ethnicities in the tried and true march towards the sacrifice of the scapegoat. Many will be enthralled by the dark simplicity of apocalyptic fundamentalism and, certain the time of their god is near, perpetrate all manner of atrocities. Colorful cults will rise up here and there promising all kinds of cosmic trips into the inner worlds as an escape from the dismal, shabby, crowded and violent environments we have made for ourselves.
It goes without saying that none of these predictable responses will be designed to have the slightest impact on the real causes of our problems. But they will. Every one of the social madnesses just described will also have an substantial impact on the environment and its populations. Through it all the reality will remain the ecological facts: overshoot due to reliance on the phantom acreage fossil fuels provided. Societies that begin to include straight talk about our constrained position may also find themselves better prepared to make choices that have a good chance of actually helping their people deal with the changing circumstances. So much for societies, what about as individuals? What does accepting the ecological critique offer us? Individuals who use this simple analysis might be able to resist the pied pipers and even convince some of their neighbors not to sign up with the latest cuckoo de jour.
Eventually some disaster of failed infrastructure or diplomacy will be large enough to tip the majority of the population of one overdeveloped country after another into a configuration more in keeping with the resources that are actually available within its own borders. Resources, it should be noted, sorely abused by the reckless and frankly brainless way in which they have been exploited for the last few hundred years.
Accepting the truth is hard. It does however bring with it more than a few blessings. It provides clarity about what we need to change. We have to relearn to be gentle. We need to walk on the earth more lightly. We will do so when we walk among one another with less fear.
Our greed is born as a consolation prize for the emotional and physical security modern life has removed from the human experience. For our long evolutionary history our species thrived, one might even say delighted, in our extended family arrangements. We were assured that there would be someone there who cared about us, to watch over us when we were sick, and to bury us when we died. Those same people had watched us grow up, marry and work as the years of our lives went by. The extended family was not the only feature of our long evolutionary history modern societies have unmoored themselves from. Living on the scale of villages and tribes, the extended family had a relationship with the place in which it lived we moderns no longer comprehend. The land and its flesh supported one another directly. The relations and community offered a context in which the provisioning of life’s necessities and the celebration of its stages was a shared phenomenon. Modern societies have all too often replaced this human touch, which nurtured us and gave our lives meaning, with faceless bureaucracies where an individual is little more than a number. And now our numbers threaten to destroy us.
Our greed is also as a consolation prize for the cognitive and spiritual security modern life has removed from the human experience. Naked spirit is exposed to the infinite universe of our space age cosmology. TV and movies arose to aid us in clothing the nakedness of our spirit with images, the language of the soul, in such myth making as Star Wars. In our rockets today our Icarus dreams mock us as they fall back to earth on the back of limited resources like fallen angels. None-the-less the technological peak of achievement they represent is something we should take great pride in. The Hubble telescope and what it has taught us alone is an accomplished fact with truly cosmic implications – we have gazed upon the heavens. Even so, we should not allow nostalgia for what was not meant to be, this space age vision of endless technological progress in space, “the final frontier,” to sicken us of the future we do have. The question before us now is not whether or not our children will be able to survive shooting from star to star but whether or not they will be able to survive right here on earth.
Can we live knowing what we know? Let’s take a mind healing metaphor. We are somewhat like a patient in analysis who has recognized the truth of formerly repressed material. From now on their view will include the new realization, often one that is very painful. We say the process has irreversibly expanded their consciousness. Mankind has long been facing Epicurus’ Atoms and Void view of its place in the big scheme of things. At times this wholly naturalistic view has been more repressed than at others, equivalent to the individual patient’s varying degrees of consciousness. I think most educated people would agree the sciences have advanced a picture of our place in the grand scheme of things that has now become impossible to dismiss out of hand. We have currently been forced to hold a number of astonishingly unexpected revelations in our collective consciousness. It is an open question whether or not we will be able to maintain this degree of awareness or not.
Consider a few. Quantum mechanics has taken pictures of the atoms, settling once and for all the debate that has rang out around Epicurus observations for millennia. We live in the world remade by chemistry, the molecular manipulations we have crafted atop the quantum nature of nature. Evolutionary theory uses the chemist’s molecular world’s ability to create a molecule capable of reproducing itself with variations to explain the diversity of life throughout the biosphere. The animal making all these theories finds itself situated on one branch of this enormous history in which 99% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. Even so the variations of adaptations throughout the biosphere, the living 1% that is here right now, simply strains credulity. This 1% is time’s cutting edge where all that has gone before is currently being expressed. We locate ourselves within a biological vastness. Ever curious, we also turned to the stars and found it was turtles all the way down; a molecular universe every direction we pointed our instruments. Astronomers also took a hint from the chemists. The Periodic Chart had established that there are only about one hundred elements, only a limited number of basic building blocks available to build a universe with. Reading the chemical signature of stars confirmed it, even as it opened our eyes to a host of phenomena stranger than the wildest speculations of our imaginations – quasars, black holes, and even whole galaxies other than our own. With the Hubble Space Telescope the universe became infinitely larger once again, unfolding a vision of billions and billions of galaxies surrounding us in every direction. It is against all this, and more, that our species now finds itself confronting the results of our ecological ignorance.
This is what I mean by our spirit is naked before the cold light of the stars. There is no escaping the revelations of ourselves as yeast’s close cousin. And like the therapeutic revelation, knowing has brought pain. Yet we have also awakened to our place. Can we take our seat? Will we find a way to incorporate what we know with how we see ourselves and conduct our affairs? The old ways of explaining the human experience are buckling under the weight of these new revelations. The seals have been opened on the final scroll, as it were.
To live through all this feels so traumatic since little is assured and much is likely to be lost. We are understandably still in a bit of shock. It will take time to learn to live with what we know. It helps, I think, to look at the whole thing from the perspective of thousands of years to respect the gravity of what we are discussing. How might this nugget of demonstrable understanding of our place in the universe, as revealed by our technological sciences, evolve within our ever adapting traditions? It is a particularly interesting question now that the industrial foundation of those technological sciences is coming undone.
We should be gentle with ourselves. To carry the precious gift of human consciousness within this vast and grand universe, while living on the planet of the apes, is not easy. It is not easy at all. It is, however, inexpressibly. . .