In memoriam — Christmas 2019
Dedicate to those who have died in the fires currently ravaging Australia, and for those brave souls who are fighting those firestorms.
The things you do for yourself are gone when you are gone, but the things you do for others remain as your legacy ~ Kalu Ndukwe Kalu
It really only struck me a few days ago how hopeless our situation actually is. I was having a late breakfast at my hotel in Melbourne, scanning the pages of the Bangkok Post. I had just spent 15 minutes on a live cross to a breakfast show in New Zealand speaking to a television audience about the enormous firestorms currently engulfing Australia, in addition to other global events that signify a grave deterioration in the conditions necessary for human life.
I am not sure whether I turned to the newspaper as light relief or to confirm my own biases. In any case I found almost every article, editorial, and advertisement reinforced normalcy. My deepest concerns about the future were not being contradicted — just reframed as a part of a pattern that could not possibly ruffle feathers or cause excessive anxiety. That, I venture to suggest, is part of the problem we face. Our narrative is enmeshed within business-as-usual.
We do not take kindly to imposed change. The thought of extinction is ridiculed or dismissed as inconceivable. Change of any kind inevitably sets off warning bells. It signifies loss, inviting dread and resistance. The thought of calling a temporary halt to our own economic growth in order that people a world away might benefit from a slightly higher quality of life is simply incomprehensible.
Preferring to hide in ignorance or history, where answers were always found to the problems of the day (even though many of them were shortsighted, unwise, and barbaric) we continue to patch up the present as best we can, preoccupied by the repetitive and delusional routines from which we take comfort; all the while hoping that “she’ll be right”.
Commentators tell us to remain optimistic, ignoring the massive failure of imagination and emotional gridlock we suffer from. My own critics constantly tell me not to harp on the bad news, or to be so negative. This will only repel your audience. People need to hear good news, they insist, concerned about my state of mind. But what if business-as-usual, and even good news, which is there if we know where to look, just gets in the way of hearing a truth we need to hear. What if our nostalgia for normalcy is impeding the decisive actions we must take concerning the really, really, intolerably bad news?
The truth that hardly anyone dares utter is an unthinkable and unlivable reality. Our society is in a state of collapse — precipitated by a predatory disregard for nature. This is probably most evident in the abusive and divisive ways we treat each other. We are one species. Almost everything we cherish is under threat. Yet still we seem unable to escape the urge for self-destruction.
It is possible there is no way out of the mess we have made of the environment. Although there is a plethora of solutions available, we are not deploying them at the scale and speed necessary to avoid catastrophe. Advised to prepare for the worst by many leading scientists, we are not even up to that task.
In these circumstances it is difficult to refrain from deriding others, attacking their motives, drawing attention to their many shortcomings, and calling out their banality, incompetence, ideological leanings, or lack of courage for the situation in which we now find ourselves. But hate and derision are a part of the problem. Attacking others might fill us with a false sense of self-importance but it is pretentious and will ultimately make matters far worse.
We need all our energy to focus on how to get out of this mess. Censuring incumbent leaders for lacking the wisdom we ourselves could not muster if we were in their shoes is misguided and akin to the vituperative murmurings of a madman. Individuals are not to blame. Like us they are trapped in a prison of our own invention. It is called capitalism and it is killing us.
If we are to step back and look objectively at the causes for our contemporary predicament we can identify systemic flaws embedded within our shared worldview. Unfortunately, as has been pointed out to me on several occasions, some of these “flaws” (the instinct to compete, for example) are human nature. To which my response is emphatic: if we find it impossible to change these aspects of human nature, then we have already lost. In that case our destiny will, and deserves to be, extinction.
Right now, making this point on the evening television news would invite outrage — stirring up apprehension in those who cannot bring themselves to face such an outlandish proposition. It would be irresponsible. In any case, the media’s propensity to coat everything with honey, glossing over anything that smacks of an existential nature, would result in such a topic being normalized for mass consumption — by being placed amidst excerpts from the latest Marvel movie and yet another faux celebrity scandal.
Although some of the drivers of human behaviour etched into our shared worldview could constructively evolve into others, compassion and cooperation replacing hate and division perhaps, it is not simply these factors that are at fault, but the overarching narrative we use to design systems that then reify these values. The most insidious of these is materialism- explicitly the addictive cycle of desire and consumption to which we submit daily.
In 1945 the planet felt empty. Only 2 billion humans inhabited Earth. In the space of 75 years the population burgeoned to over 7 billion people — all seeking a better quality of life under the auspices of market capitalism. Unimaginable stress was put on systems essential for our mutual well-being and prosperity. Not designed to cope with such numbers they began to fail. Back then we barely noticed, distracted by our newly-acquired wealth and seduced by the power that wealth brings.
Unaware of potential consequences we were urged to follow the credo of economic growth. And we did — buying new goods and seeking novelty as though our lives depended on it. Our compulsion became pervasive. We threw away stuff with causal nonchalance as easy credit and inbuilt obsolescence conspired to replace the old with the new. Materialism spread to become a global faith.
Almost without noticing things started to go wrong. Aided and abetted by corporate media’s ability to generate indignation and outrage we found an easy target for our anger. We began to blame others for our predicament. Perhaps they did not look like us. Possibly they prayed to different gods, or just spoke an unfamiliar language. But the insidious nature of loathing quickly became socially corrosive. Fear turned to apprehension in the minds of individuals. Anxiety and depression quickly followed. Eager to hide our mental fragility we resorted to extra medication, junk food, alcohol — along with more financial debt. We tried everything. Nothing made us happy. Suicide rates continued to climb.
The illusion is perpetuated today through the manipulation of marketing. Our apprehension, envy and anxiety can be cured, we are told, just by consuming more and more stuff. Wealth will make us happy again. Happier than before. The reality is that increased spending has led to increased pressure on the systems that are now in a state of collapse.
Thus, the cycle of desire and consumption was born. It still intoxicates the human mind and deceives us into believing that materialism is a solution. Actually, it is the problem and there is no solution in sight. It is also the reason we should not blame individuals for our plight. That path gets us nowhere, exacerbating the destructive nature of the cycle, thus making our exit, if that is possible, even more difficult.
There are other equally destructive cycles that follow a similar course. Unending conflict and war leading to the further fracturing of humanity. An obsession with unrestrained economic growth resulting in environmental destruction. The tacit pact that allows wealth to translate into power and that eventually leads to a few individuals owning most of the world’s wealth.
None of these cycles are sustainable. They can all be traced back to an overarching narrative of self-righteousness and hubris that animates them. It is this narrative that must change.
We can do the easy stuff now. We can connect the dots between events and outcomes. We can experiment with a range of new prototypes. But there our ingenuity and will stops…
Only when, with great effort and persistence, we are able to put aside prejudices, stepping into different design ontologies to craft systems that work effectively for village farmers in the developing world as well as shareholders in our wealthiest nations, can we be assured of enduring. Why is that?
In order for these new systems to endure they will need to be generative and restorative. That is impracticable if we are unable to step into new epistemologies of understanding and to reframe what it means to be human. For that to happen we need to take a giant leap of consciousness: to see ourselves for who we are in order to see the world differently.
I hazard to suggest that nurturing a generation possessing a self-generative consciousness is the next step in human evolution. But as I keep pointing out, and being shouted down, such a leap of consciousness depends upon human nature changing its most fundamental impulses.
This is the greatest challenge of our time. At this point anything else is a distraction. I am told repeatedly that it cannot be done. That human nature is what it is…
So, I can only resort to hope. But please do not ask me to inspire optimism every time I get up to speak or write an article. Do not plead with me to look on the bright side or to ignore science. I prefer to face the truth — even if that truth is an intensely agonising burden.
That said, I still believe we will eventually come to our senses. I do have faith in the young generation. And I do believe we will be wise enough to survive our own success. Eventually. But not tomorrow. I fear there is much pain and catastrophe to come before we feel compelled to act.