If We Must Fall, Can We Manage to Do It Gradually? Every civilization in history has fallen except the current one. That is simple truth, and we have no reason to think that we can carry on indefinitely as we have been. In fact, there are many indications that we are headed into a decline of our own: population exceeding the global capacity in more and more aspects, significant signs of negative impact on the ecology, the accelerating extinction of many species in our highly interdependent environment, overuse of important resources leading to exhaustion. All this brings up the important questions: Are we any smarter than our predecessors, and can we understand what is happening and work together effectively to control the decline and mitigate the suffering involved?
The question of how smart we are is important. We must be as educated and innovative as possible if we are to adjust to changing conditions and move towards a sustainable world economy. For this reason I have always said (especially to my children) that you can’t know too much, and knowledge is something that can’t be taken from you once you have it. Problems motivate our creative efforts, but those efforts will be much more effective when amplified by knowledge. There is a far more powerful factor, however, and that is how well we can work together on the most important shared mission: long term survival.
Real progress requires collaboration at every level and scale. Problems must be addressed on scales and levels that will allow us to effectively deal with them, and global problems must be dealt with on a global scale and level. “Think globally and act locally” is a great concept that illustrates how the individual can address our problems on a personal level, but the need for global collaboration and action might better be addressed by “Work for collective global understanding and coordinated local action”.
Achieving a cross-cultural, global consensus will be a new occurrence in human history. Reaching a world-wide understanding and agreement on our problems has so far proven extremely difficult, however, partly because it has never been done before. I hope it doesn’t take catastrophe on a global scale to get us all working together, as much suffering might be avoided if we can learn to work together now. It is human nature to be self-interested, however, often until we are reduced to the level of survival concerns. I am confident we are intellectually capable of doing better, but achieving a global political will to act before the situation becomes an emergency is a huge challenge. Needless to say, we should each be learning, promoting a new understanding, and demanding a new mindset of our leaders that will permit such a gigantic collaboration.
If appeals to reason don’t work, what then? Alternatively, there are scare tactics that will get people to think and work on problems before they become disastrous. While I don’t like scare tactics, I have to wonder if they might not be warranted in the face of global-scale problems. The movie “An Inconvenient Truth” certainly scared me, and apparently scared a lot of other people, with positive results. Since it came out I have seen far more people trying to learn more about global climate change, and along the way learning about our population and energy problems, than ever before. As evidence, my last two articles with “global warming” in the title more than doubled the number of “hits per day” on this blog in less than three weeks. I’ve also witnessed a great many more people seriously discussing our global problems and taking personal action by changing their energy use habits, for example. Much as I dislike scare tactics, I think they would be preferable to real catastrophes.
Can we set aside our differences and work together to manage our situation? No individual, group, or even country can deal with our biggest current problems alone. Selfish motivations such as nationalism and ethnic/religious hatred will only undermine our efforts and put us at greater risk, and we have far too much of those kinds of thinking now. Overcoming them is a huge challenge all by itself. I expect to write more on how that can be done in the future, but I expect that there are much smarter people out there thinking and working on this. I hope to find and learn from them soon.
Must we have disasters to become truly motivated? This may be one of our biggest challenges, as people tend to only truly pull together when things get really tough, and that is a situation we need to avoid. I have no doubt many people will experience hard times and disasters, and many will die prematurely in the coming decades due to our actions of the present and past. Those disasters will be powerful motivators that will eclipse other concerns and force people to work together. I believe we would all rather avoid or mitigate those disasters and work together today, however, if we think clearly about the situation. At the worst, hopefully we will get enough “warning shots” from Mother Nature to see us making progress in positive directions before things get too bad.
If we’re really as smart as we think and say we are, we should be able to handle this. Ensuring a better future begins with each of us. It is through a calm, thoughtful, and collaborative approach, with each of us learning and acting as individuals and together, that we can mitigate and eventually overcome our problems, and move to a sustainable world situation. I expect the struggle will go on for anywhere from the next several decades to several centuries. The struggle is already upon us, however, though many of us still live in such comfort and with such high aspirations that the need isn’t clear to us. Worse yet, the systems that sustain our comforts are old systems, evolved in an era of extremely cheap energy, and resulting population explosion, when we had no evidence of the “hole we are digging for ourselves.” As those systems falter or otherwise change, the need for action will become increasingly clear. Please, though, let’s not wait. We think we are smart and civilized, but we need to “put up or shut up” now. If we are really so smart, we can prove it by planning and working to preserve our current magnificent civilization, make the coming decline a graceful one, and make the transition to a sustainable situation.
I will continue to think and write in hopes that more people will gain understanding and act constructively. As always, I welcome your comments, as I am always eager to learn. – Tim