Mike Nickerson: “This posting started as a response to a number of people who expressed deep concerns about the world as we descended into the pre-Solstice darkness. It is a sequel to the Cyclemas post.”
Almost daily people share with me the heart-ache they feel around the state of the world. Some are immobilized by what they sense and humanity’s potential comes up short by at least the difference they can make.
We all need reason to carry on. Something to hold our spirits up so that we can continue to act and thereby make the best of what we face. Human beings are easily clever enough to succeed on this planet for as long as the Sun is a viable star. Where can we find enough strength of heart to recreate the human project in a way that accommodates our species’ new grown-up state?
It is important to feel and to express pain, sorrow and shame when they arise. Blocking or hiding such feelings only turns them into invisible forces that can trip us up. There is much for humans to answer for in our treatment of the Earth and of each other. If one isn’t upset to some extent, one isn’t paying attention. Feeling the troubles is a first step toward moving forward to deal with the challenges. While some of the issues have been unresolved for ages, the changes that are coming about presently provide new opportunities for transformation.
Once we accept, as a species, that we cannot grow forever on this wonderful but finite planet, we will have reached emotional maturity. At that point we can apply our vast collective knowledge, skills and ingenuity toward stabilizing the human presence on Earth.
Individuals who have been fortunate enough, in formative years, to live in the presence of nature will have an innate sense of a strong order, beyond the human realm. There is a robustness to the life that thrives everywhere that water is found. Look to the clouds, streams, rivers, lakes and oceans to realize that the cycling of water is powerful and forever. Look at trees, rooted firmly in the ground, capturing sunshine and growing strong and at smaller plants growing up through pavement and in every corner where there is any soil. Though time wears down all living things, the miracle of reproduction constantly renews each form. Look at tiny insects and animals moving about and realize that they have lived for hundreds of thousands, sometimes hundreds of millions of years. Ancient beyond imagining, the matrix of nature has rebounded from catastrophes far more serious than what humans can muster.
We humans are also amazing individually and ten thousand times more so as societies. Picture your skull – that iconic complex of bones that houses your senses, your ability to talk. Picture your brain – that remarkable tool that we are gifted with by virtue of being human. Creatures such as ourselves have managed well in practically every part of the world. Rather than being instinctively fixed to live in particular circumstances, our big brains are programmed anew each generation, with the realities present in the world they grow into.
Youth will Save the Planet
Already an increasing number of today’s youth are forming world views based on our full Earth. As time reveals more of the dangers resulting from ignoring Earth’s limits, far more of our youth will build their world views around that understanding, rather than on the model of perpetual expansion. Helping young adults grasp the new criteria may be the most potent action for change that anyone can take.
In the same way that those who have grown up with computers are fully at home using them, those who grow up with an understanding of sustainability will become competent at building a world to fit.
Civilizations are nurtured by the value of people treating each other as they like to be treated themselves. In Life, Money and Illusion I call this the “tap root of civilization.” All cultures include this “rule.” As an underlying principle, it nurtures cooperation and leads to synergies by which well-being exceeds, by far, the sum of all the individual efforts. Even the capitalist faith of Growth Everlasting exhibits this ethic when we buy the products and services of others the way we would like them to buy our products and services. Alas, the greater value placed by that faith on competition and greed leads to insensitivity and abuse of the social and environmental foundations of well-being. Communities where people don’t take care of each other do not endure.
There is a logic to what one philosopher from an earlier era said to embellish the Golden Rule. He encouraged people to love their neighbours as they love their own selves. Following this example, he explained, leads to everlasting life. Where is the logic here? No one lives forever! When one truly loves another, the interests and concerns of the other become one’s own. Loving one’s community, from good neighbours, even to enemies, unites one with the community. While such individuals eventually pass away, their essence continues in the communities they nurture.
Taking care of each other has been the human tendency for so long that is is at the core of our emotional selves. The “Law of Feeling” states that when one does something for someone else, without thought of getting anything back in return, one feels good about one’s self and consequently about the world. You can easily test this, if you have any doubt.
Success is not about us as individuals. Individuality is great for pioneering new approaches and guiding societies as they adapt to changing circumstances. However, if one identifies only with one’s own self, there can be no end but tragedy. You will die. No one has ever gotten out alive, even in the best of times. What can be everlasting is the gifted species that we have the huge honour to be.
Enormous volumes of nutrient materials are cycling through living systems at all times and we can eat much of it. We already live in climates as diverse as the Arctic and the Sahara Desert and everything in between. And we can adapt in the short term, if need be. A huge amount of work has been done in preparation since planetary limits came into view four decades ago.
Before us is a spectrum of possibilities. At one extreme is the best possible outcome, where mature responsibility sweeps throughout the world’s institutions and we re-structure how things are done to serve all life safely within our planet’s limits. At the other extreme, nations pursue their “me, me, me” policies, competing for diminishing resources, and leading to massive conflict, followed by a nuclear winter and the end of the human experiment. We could end up anywhere along this spectrum.
In the next century and a half, human impacts will trim down either by greatly reducing our average consumption of natural resources or by a compassionate or naturally induced reduction of the population. At present levels of consumption, one or two billion people would be practical according to some ecologists studying the ability of natural systems to provide the essential nutrient – nitrogen. We could achieve such a population in a few generations with a custom of one child per couple. Or it could come about chaotically. Chances are that, if we wait for the chaotic option, only a half a billion people or fewer will populate the globe.
Rest assured, however, that regardless of how things unfold over that time, neither you nor I, nor any of the children or grandchildren that we know, could possibly be among that population. If we are identified with our community, however, those hundreds of millions of people will be us, homo sapiens.
In such a time, we will have a potent memory of a civilization that went very wrong. If we do our job well today, that memory will contain a clear understanding that ongoing efforts must respect the limits of our planet. Indeed, as we shed the dread of personal mortality and take on the practically immortal role of homo sapiens, we can focus more resolutely on the work at hand.
The spectrum of possibilities remains. Every effort we make toward the positive end improves the outcome. Every shock to our social and environmental stability inclines more people to consider the possibilities. Responsibility may yet come to our institutions as it comes to most individuals. One approach to advancing this end can be found in this free on-line mini-course on Shifting Society’s Goals.
Even if we can’t get beyond our veneer of individualism, and the collapse scenario unfolds, the pressure on living systems will drop dramatically with the population. With the pressure off, Earth will repair itself. Human culture, chastened by the experience, will sooner or later begin its reorientation into far more appropriate forms. If we love humankind, that civilization will be us. Take heart today and, whatever actions you are drawn to will, when the dust settles, leave us better off.