Adaptation, cycles of despair and hope, and the long view

(Colin Bell)

Two interesting articles up back to back syndicated on Energy Bulletin this morning. Kurt Cobb at Resource Insights asks whether human can really adapt to climate change given the likely speed of events, and notes two near-extinction events for humanity in our relatively short time on the planet. Is it not just arrogant to assume that technology can save us from a similar fate over coming decades and centuries?

Kurt is always worth reading, even if, as here, I think he goes a little too far in comparing us with our prehistoric forebears. Clearly our greater knowledge and skill puts us at an advantage, and quoting numbers in the thousands for total human population runs the risk of being written off as “doomer”. Which brings me onto the second piece by Mark Morford in the San Francisco Chronicle. How, he is often asked, does he keep going in the face of despair? Read the whole piece but here are some wise words from the conclusion:

And then, you engage. You get out from behind the headlines. As recently put by Jonathan Franzen in a fine commencement speech to overly Facebooked youth of today, “When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them. And who knows what might happen to you then?”

Not clear enough? Still deeply confused by the mass misery of the world? Try ee cummings: “Unless you love someone, nothing else makes any sense.”

Something that I think lies behind the issues in both articles is that we’ve lost a lot of cultural perspective on what the world is really like. As is often said, our modern lifestyle and technology shields us from real interaction with the world and its forces. We want a comfortable and risk-free existence, but fail to acknowledge that we have limits, and seem surprised at our inability to handle events such as the Japanese tsunami and the combination of drought and flood seen this year in the UK and USA.

But we also seem to have lost sense of our relationship with time and the cycles of nature and human existence. History, both human and evolutionary, tells us that every civilisation and species has times when they flourish, and times when they struggle. The good news is that in general humans are pretty resilient. Those who warn we will wipe humanity from the face of the earth are probably wrong. But it has to be asked whether a population crash followed by survival is really the best we can hope for.

The bad news is that our willingness to accept, and ability to deal with, lean times seems to have been largely lost in the richer parts of the world. We were promised, unwisely, “an end to boom and bust” by Gordon Brown, and seem to be holding our governments to this, although most of us were perfectively happy to accept the boom when it came!

Somehow we need to rediscover this cultural knowledge, together with a more long-term view, before it is too late. Unfortunately the generation who lived through the Depression era is mostly no longer with us, and for most, constant growth with only small setbacks is all we’ve known.

Here, the major faiths have something we can learn from, with Judaism being the clearest example. Through the Tanakh and their traditions, the Jewish people see themselves as a historic community that has survived, and even defines itself, through periods of oppression and hardship: captivity in Egypt and the Exodus; the Exile and return (losing a large majority of the population in the process); and most recently the Holocaust, again largely wiping out Jewish communities in parts of Europe.

But despite that they look to the future, and see the need to love and take action. Similar strands run through Islam (particularly the Shi’a branch) and Christianity, both drawing on its Jewish heritage and the New Testament and early century references to a persecuted church. Here at least, centuries of domination have probably buried these ideas too deep, but they are ripe for rediscovery.


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