Friday, September 02, 2005

Change

After a while Quantity has its own Quality. You may have heard this before; it is an expression attributed to quite a few historical figures. It doesn't really matter who said it; it's all too true. Not only does a mammoth event like Hurricane Katrina spell trouble for millions of people unfortunate to have been caught in its path, it is going to affect many times more millions of people throughout our world economy.

This disaster, embedded as it is in a new epoch of probable global warming, suggests that we are living in the first century of the rest of our species!

Yes, the 20th century was the last century of one kind of place in the universe, and now planet earth is different because of everything that happened back then. Among the most important major changes was world population. Since I was born the world population has tripled! The United States has over twice the number of people it did when I was born. We are currently at 6.463 billion people in the world. The U.S. is just under 300 million. North America now has a higher percentage of wild, uninhabited area than does Africa, where people are bursting out of their national seams. We have instant communication with the most remote areas of the planet, and diseases from these places move regularly into the trade routes and threaten us all. There is a lot to consider these days. Are we up to it?

The current (September) issue of Scientific American is devoted to the various things that require a new perspective, new basic assumptions. Among the new assumptions is this one: we have to stop thinking of the planet as a realm of endlessness, of possibilities without number. The brutal fact—as illustrated by the havoc created by one furious storm in a vital area—is that we are interconnected in what is now effectively a zero-sum game, a closed system in which the realization that there is an "opportunity cost" for virtually everything.

What is an "opportunity cost?" If, for instance, we choose to build New Orleans back up to its former "big easiness" (which we probably will attempt to do despite the irrationality of it all), then we must be prepared to pay the same price when another big hurricane visits again during this cycle of frequent tropical storms. The $30-$100 billion this time and the $40-$120 billion next time has to come from somewhere. It now means that a very, very large amount of planetary resources is going to be sequestered into the bayous of Louisiana. A good analogy is the nature of tropical rain forest soils: all the lush richness we expected of soils in tropical rainforests turns out to be already committed to and held within the existing plants and trees. The soil itself is depleted. When we reinvest in New Orleans; we will commit the resources from somewhere. If we don't reinvest, then all those people will have to go elsewhere and fit in; there will be a huge cost to do that too. But we will reinvest because it is important to have a major port at the mouth of the Mississippi River. We just have to be very, very smart about it, because the stakes are now unimaginably huge.

This website is about politics, and so the message for today is that we have to grow up. We are now like young men and women leaving home for our first independent existence. Our childish illusions about how we are going to party all night and work at some cushy job where our friends are all employed too, is now obviously a silly, childish dream. We now understand that we need to eat and provide shelter for ourselves and our families when we create them. We are now adults in an era of inexorable limits. The frontier is long gone; space travel is astronomically expensive and just as dangerous; residential property costs and arm and a leg; gasoline for our "unintelligently designed" and "unintelligently purchased" vehicles has already hit $4+/gallon. Movies are not better than ever; popular music is a hash of rhythmic nonsense; sports are corrupted by drugs; and (speaking of drugs), we can no longer trust the pharmaceutical companies to resist making profits with dangerous concoctions for niche "diseases." Political and religious terrorism stalks the world's cities and transportation systems. It is all a blooming, buzzing, mind-bending confusion, and no wonder we look for certitude and strong leaders in this time of trial. It is no wonder that millions of adult people are regressing into the comfort of childlike mythologies, superstitions, and dogmatic certitudes. There is the feeling of security in unvarying dogma, but of course it is an illusion.

Liberal politics must change, too. It is necessary for those who lead to understand that the world is not the planet they grew up on. It is now officially impacted with us, homo sapiens sapiens. The key is going to be how sapient we really are. We have to take (back) control of our destinies. Corporations cannot possibly act for the benefit of humanity; they are inhuman and created for one purpose only—to achieve a near-term profit. Only rational human beings, uncompromised by the wealth of corporations and the miasma of superstition, can possibly understand the new zero-sum game, a closed and impacted system with the only free thing in the world being sunlight, contracted for the next billion years, but by no means completely assured.

One measure of our lack of commitment to sapience is the current debate over whether "creationism" should be taught in public schools. If it is, then children are not going to understand science and engineering; they are going to be confused about how we know things. Creationism is a myth, an assertion without evidence to support it, and science is a process of learning; they are really completely incompatible. When, as a creationist-dominated society, we lose our scientists to societal indifference and inept education, we will lose our ability to act quickly and rationally in the face of new environmental and social circumstances. If we teach creationism and there really is a serious global warming underway, the graduates of our public schools will just stand there peeing in their pants while waiting for deity to bale them out.

Thornton Wilder wrote his most brilliant play in 1942, not quite a month after Pearl Harbor, and called it "The Skin of Our Teeth," which in the end he celebrates mankind's resilience, inventiveness, pluck, etc. The play is written so that we understand the challenges mankind faces to be of an essentially "cyclic" nature.

When the planet was unexplored, when economies were regional, when nations waxed and waned by the force of arms and size of colonies, when most of the world was committed to agriculture and most human beings lived off the land among the seasons, things might have seemed to be cyclic. There may have been a seasonal renewal factor at work; there may have been a way to see life as constantly replenishing itself. But in the 20th century we abandoned agriculture as the dominant metaphor of life. We also invented the process of "growing" (expanding) ourselves out of our difficult circumstances. Now, in our crowded world, growth somewhere is necessarily no growth elsewhere and probably decline somewhere else.

Now in the 21st century life is more serious than Wilder imagined. We cannot let things go so far that we are as close to destruction as the thin skin of our teeth. There is too much at stake.

We have jobs, we work, live, have kids, invest, hope for health, and then we retire, grow old, and then we die. It is and always has been a "sequence," not a cycle. It is inexorable, but it is also real. We don't keep coming back until we get it right. We don't get a lot of second and third chances. In all important things we are as capable of failure as success, and our society is just as capable of collapse as continuation.

All of us homo sapiens sapiens die and are no more. And now in the new millennium we have long since come to disbelieve in heaven or hell. We have outgrown our immature fears of death and understand it to be simply the end of the process we identify as "life." At the same time, though, we understand ourselves to be "spiritual" animals endowed, (because of our hunter-gatherer brains' memory and ability to plan), with abstract reflection (sapiens sapiens), with the ability to know beauty and to postulate futures ... and pasts. We put aside childish notions and childish explanations in favor of understandings more abstract and closer to the truth. For Christians it is not less marvelous that the historical Yeshua bar Yoseph, Jesus of Nazareth, two thousand years ago understood and spoke to the essential nature of human beings as a real man; it is not necessary that he be miraculous; it is only necessary that we understand ourselves to be "miraculous." It is not hubris; it is to honor that which lives ... reflectively.

We are explorers in a universe, privileged to take this planet, coursing around its sun, and around the galaxy at a 486,000 miles an hour of galactic orbital velocity—to where, it does not matter, (moving at 1,000 mph toward Sagittarius, if that helps). It is important only that we understand the voyage to be real and completely out of our control. But we are now numerous enough that we now have a new Quality. We are capable of responsibility for the thin layers of life on our planet, and each of us has some part to play while along for this cosmic ride. Each of us must understand our existence to be the reason something else does not exist. We must understand that our intelligence and spirit proves that our existence should be honored, because of both its improbability and its possibility, and because it nevertheless is.

James Richard Brett

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