The world turns on its dark side. The fabric of society is shredding. Many of our most life-critical systems no longer work. A few have already collapsed.
No, this is not about Star Wars, nor am I referring to Geostorm, a recent movie in which our hero selflessly saves the world from a particularly malicious piece of geo-engineering sabotage. I am reflecting once again on the human condition — particularly our fascination with the possibility for self-destruction from existential risks such as a nuclear winter, machine intelligence, bioengineered pandemics, climate change, or just straight out old-fashioned war games.
Human ingenuity has created a world full of astonishing marvels — a world of wonder we should cherish and protect for future generations. Yet fear, antagonism, and resentment still effortlessly divide us.
We continue to pollute the air and the oceans as if that is our God-given right. We find the most bizarre excuses to abuse and to fight each other. Politicians goad their counterparts into risky military games with what appears to be callous indifference. Developments in machine intelligence — synonymous with conceiving a new species according to the late Stephen Hawking — are allowed to proceed, unfettered by concerns for human safety. Nation states fuel their neuroses by installing “eyes in the sky” with the capacity to monitor what individuals read or say, track their every movement, and execute them at whim with drone-delivered precision. And all the while the constant flickering of screens from digital portable devices invite us to engage in a new form of mass addiction.
Is it really possible to mount a convincing, evidence-based argument, that none of this has any impact on our capacity to function or consciously evolve? I seriously doubt it.
In contemporary Australia suicide is the leading cause of death among children. In the US it is other children armed with guns. Around the world the despair of urban homelessness is hidden in full view. Changes to our climate are happening faster than anyone imagined. Drug-induced numbness raids the dreams of those who have already lost hope.
And yet my critics label me a Cassandra. Denouncing my view as extreme, they doggedly counsel me to desist from voicing conclusions they regard as disgracefully dystopian.
Stop all this doom and gloom. Pessimism is not in the least bit helpful. It is vital we retain hope. Life is good and getting better for most people. Things are on the mend for those that have had it tough. We must trust in the progress humanity is making.
I have no doubt words such as these sum up the views of a majority of people — mostly because we want it to be true. Hardship, struggle and conflict in nations half a world away, or even just around the corner, are casually ignored by those of us who sense that our circumstances are improving — particularly when we are constantly told this is the case.
Unrelenting tales glorifying figureheads, flags, and other fictions, are where influence and psychological potency can be found. Those who believe the capitalist market economy will continue to deliver the very best our civilisation has to offer will see no advantage in advocating more progressive views. Those who remain convinced that tired old Western empires are invariably a force for good will always view China or Russia or Iran as a threat. Those who have come to fear alternative allegiances will bestow evil motives on even the most innocent. While those transfixed by the latest television reality shows simply do not care much either way. They go about their daily lives, looking after their families as best they can, absorbing vicarious thrills that come their way, eyes fixed firmly on the present.
Real life, you see, is no Hollywood drama. Real life follows a daily routine. Humdrum and repetitive it has an insidious way of lulling us into a false sense of security. Justification for the prevailing narrative goes something like this…
Of course, there is some killing, some poverty, crime and depravity in the world. When has that not been the case? It cannot be helped. But by and large we are making progress. Just look at the statistics. Extreme poverty is a thing of the past. China alone has lifted millions of its citizens out of privation. We live longer, healthier lives. Democracy is widespread. Economic growth is good for all of us. Of course there are problems. To imagine we could eliminate poverty completely, for example, is delusional. Humans are not perfect. Where there is wealth there will always be those who are less well off. These things are simply an unfortunate yet inevitable consequence of the way we choose to live our lives. A price we must all pay.
We are told this story ad infinitum. It is hidden in the cracks of the news, the marketing lies from every large enterprise, and the policy initiatives of our governments. This narrative is now the dominant catalyst of our age. In large measure it is the story that determines what we believe and how we react to events — both individually and collectively.
The message is the narrative. But in this case the narrative is a menace. How does society even begin to contemplate changing tack while it is gagged by a creed considered to be inviolate by those in power, and where pointing out inconsistencies or shortcomings is judged to be an act of treachery? How do we escape the embrace of those whose main impulse, anchored often in the best of intentions, is to stay in power, by every means available, in order to preserve this narrative? Perhaps even more crucially, how can we draw attention to flaws in a story so deeply embedded in our consciousness it is now a phantom — always present yet unseen.
Yesterday there was nothing humans could have done to prevent, or to save themselves, from existential crises. Today it is different. New knowledge places us in a privileged position relative to past generations. For while our activities have steadily reshaped the future of our planet, we have continued to develop technologies that may help mitigate, or at least, deal with crises more effectively.
But are we already squandering that opportunity? By focusing purely on technology as a panacea are we ignoring the need to craft a different, more liberating narrative to guide our activities? A new worldview that helps lift us out of the quagmire of past errors?
In the daily tumult of current crises facing us, where accusations are constantly traded and where blame is relentlessly dodged, where psychopathic buffoons swagger imperiously across the world stage, railing against truth and common sense, let us not forget the many generations we hope are yet to come and will need to deal with the consequences of our misbegotten apathy.