Not the End of the World

But a new beginning, I hope.

It’s neither the end of the world, nor the end of humanity. Not yet, at least.

But it sure feels that way, doesn’t it? Now that a virulent microbe has stopped us dead in our tracks making an eerie hush descend upon humanity’s frenzied existence.

Were it not for the tragic loss of life and financial pain, I would allow myself to feel vindicated for having called for a collective time out less than a year ago:

“Sometimes I find myself wishing the world would stop. Wishing someone would make all stoplights turn red; throw a monkey-wrench into the gears of the madly-spinning carousel; flip-off the world’s main breaker switch plunging humanity into quietude. Just long enough for us to come together and figure out what the hell we’re doing.”

Well, here we are. What now?

Necessarily, for most, sheer survival will take precedence over philosophical or existential questions. I am in that same boat, with no like jacket, and taking-in water at alarming speed. But like the musicians aboard the RMS ‘Titanic’ who played to their tragic end, as a writer, I feel called to lend my mind and voice to discover and share whatever can be learned from the current crisis. For this is precisely when artists go to work, said Toni Morrison. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

From a practical standpoint, I could limit my work and actions to urging the United States to demand that China permanently ban the trade of wildlife for human consumption as a non-negotiable condition to resume trade talks. For that’s how this whole mess started, as far as my research goes. Such a ban would lower the probability of a new contagion. Once the current one subsides, we could go on with business as usual.

But business as usual, I argue, is precisely what is pushing humanity to the brink, so I think it wise to not let this crisis go to waste and explore what it’s trying to tell us.

“Cracks in the foundations of our life narratives can have the surprising effect of clearing space for unforeseeable developments,” says philosopher Gabriel Rockhill. “Like the seeds that sprout in toxic soil or push through slabs of oppressive concrete, re-emergence and reinvention become possible.”

The loud cracks now being heard around the world are symptomatic of a system beginning to show signs of structural fatigue and nearing collapse, none louder than the silent crumbling of our illusions.

Our cherished illusions of certainty, security, and human supremacy… gone!

The illusion that our relentless and voracious encroachment into the natural world can proceed without consequence.

The illusion of our separateness from nature which makes us blind to what John Muir once said, that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

The illusions of limitless growth, progress and economic prosperity now crumbling at a dizzying speed.

Finally, our illusory and hubristic faith in human reason and technology which makes us blind and deaf to our natural instincts and nature’s wisdom.

An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted. — American playwright Arthur Miller.

The Anthropocene era, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment, appears to be ending. That, at least, is my most fervent hope.

The emergence of a new era, called ‘The Ecocene’ by many, will depend on a new understanding of human-nature relationships and on ecologically informed ways of thinking and living.

Intimations of what this new era promises are already manifest. Nature is presenting us with a picture of her rapid healing power when unburdened and unsullied by man’s heavy footprint. Skies are clearing, so are waterways. Once more, dolphins frolic in Venice canals. Birds are back in Wuhan. For those who demand more objective metrics of well-being, consider that air pollution is responsible for seven million deaths per year, and that close to 9000 children die of malnutrition every-single-day. To put those numbers in perspective, the latest death count from Covid-19 is ten thousand.

The emergence of the Ecocene, however, depends entirely on what we do once the dust settles.

“In a very real sense,” says American author Jeff VanderMeer, “the history of the world can be seen as an ongoing battle between good and bad imaginations.”

I believe we are now starting to experience the real consequences of our bad imaginations, consequences which make no distinction between rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, or between generations. We are all in the same boat, or Ark if you will, called Planet Earth, facing a common enemy… not just a virus, but ourselves.

Meanwhile, the voice of good imagination has grown steadily louder as humanity rushes towards the abyss. We just haven’t been listening.

For example, in her eye-opening 2014 TED Talk, English economist Kate Raworth wonders, “what if economics didn’t start with money but with human well-being?” She then examines the two sides of that story. “On the one hand,” she says, “our well-being depends on us having the resources we need to meet our human rights to food, water, health, education, housing, energy. And on the other hand, our well-being also depends on our planetary home. For the last twelve thousand years, the conditions on this planet have been incredibly benevolent. We’ve had a stable climate, plentiful water, clean air, bountiful biodiversity and a protective ozone layer. We’d be crazy to put so much pressure on these life-support systems [to the point where] we actually kick ourselves out of the very sweet spot that we know as home.”

But that’s precisely what we’ve been doing: moving dangerously away from that sweet spot, particularly since the Industrial Revolution.

The voice of good imagination is also coming from the young who look upon the actions or inactions of their elders with dismay. “We deserve a safe future,” says 16 year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg. “Is that really too much to ask?”

No, Greta, it’s not. We all want the same thing. But I’m afraid nothing will change unless we change.

By “we,” I mean those whose way of life is at odds with the planet. Who live at right angles to the land. Whose interactions with the natural world, excess consumption and investment decisions compromise the health of the world by undermining its support systems and regenerative capacities. I’m talking about the fortunate ones who live in developed countries. The change must begin there.

No government or international body can save us from our addictions or temper our auto-destructive impulses. Technology, alone, won’t help either; this is just one more human illusion currently crumbling before our very eyes. And no, Mr. Musk, none of us want to join you in Mars.

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. — Albert Einstein

Changing our way of thinking starts by becoming informed citizens of planet Earth. In this quest, we have only one choice: either accept the science or not. Science is not a matter of belief or disbelief. Those who choose not to accept the science should do the world a great favor and book themselves the first space flight out of here.

For all the rest, a good starting point is learning how humans impact the environment and the top 10 solutions to reverse climate change.

Next, take a hard and honest look at your consumption. Not through the lens of sustainability alone, but far deeper. Examine all the stuff you purchase and ask yourself: Do I really need this? Has all the stuff I’ve been accumulating added to my happiness and well-being?

The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less. — Socrates

If you are among the lucky few to have investments, exercise the right to demand that your money stop funding companies which are part of the problem. Become a conscious investor, as Vinay Shandal urges in this TED talk. If you, like me, have a pension, write a letter to the fund’s manager asking her to divest from industries which are undermining our collective well-being. Or, if you live, say, in Norway, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or China, call the officer who manages your country’s sovereign wealth fund and tell him the same thing (okay… maybe not China).

For those who believe their individual actions won’t make a difference in the grander scheme, I offer you the story of seven year-old Benjamin Ball.

The current crisis is humanity’s first, and perhaps last reckoning moment. The perfect opportunity to quickly move back to that sweet spot Kate Raworth talks about. If anything, with death lurking so closely at everyone’s doorstep, it should make each of us question how we’ve been living up to this point and seize the moment to change course.

When we finally come out of this, we’ll be stepping up to a crossroad where we’ll have to choose between “business as usual” and the ultimate survival of our species. Let us wisely use this sheltered time to decide which path to take.

Sorry not Sorry, Millennials

A conditional apology from a boomer-ish.

During my father’s recent memorial, I got a taste for the intergenerational conflict currently exemplified by the cry of “OK boomer.”

The boomers and Gen-Xers in my family were slightly outnumbered by the millennials, and in terms of political leanings, there were 4 ultra-conservatives, 3 ultra-progressives, 3 apolitical, and me, self-described as non-partisan, a-moral, un-ideal, non-religious, and pledging allegiance to little else than the Earth and all living beings. An explosive and interesting mix, indeed.

The timing was perfect: the impeachment trial, the Iowa caucus, Australia devastated by fire…

Ensconced for an entire week in my father’s house amid freezing temperatures and dismal weather, tempers flared at every turn. But since there was nowhere to run, things had to be hashed out.

What struck me, deeply and painfully, was the angst among the young adults in our clan. Citing crippling student debt, stagnant wages, unaffordable housing and health insurance, a nearing collapse of social safety nets, and a planet on the brink, every single one expressed extreme reluctance to bring children into the world.

The mood was borderline nihilistic.

Having no house of my own, currently on Medicaid, deep in debt, and struggling to pay off my daughter’s college loans, it was easy to relate, even at 58.

What a shame, I thought, that we — the outgoing bunch — were handing them such a dismal world outlook. So I decided to offer millennials a heartfelt, generational apology, which, understandably, was met by the outcry and stern rebuke of some of the boomers around the dinner table. How dare I apologize!

I just couldn’t help but contrast their pessimism with the excitement and sense of hope I felt when my firstborn arrived into the world in 1993. As she emerged from her mother’s womb and scanned the delivery room with her wide open, curious and impossibly-blue eyes, I felt my timeline suddenly extend a whole century and the word “legacy” entered my consciousness for the first time. That legacy was now on trial.

But wait a second… I thought, after everyone flew back to their respective homes. Are previous generations not due proper credit, respect, and admiration for, say, nearly ending world hunger and having drastically reduced infant mortality rates and deaths from infectious diseases? Is the fact that 90% of the world’s population can now read and write not earn us any accolades when just a century ago 7 out of 10 were illiterate? What about world poverty? At the start of the boomer generation more than 70% of the world’s population was extremely poor. By 2015, that number had dropped to less than 10%. And life expectancy? While I will likely die before my 80th birthday, thanks to advances in medical science, millennials will probably enjoy an extra decade in pretty good health provided they stop worrying so goddamn much.

To be fair, I also worried a lot before deciding to have children. That’s why I took so long to have them. Being an inveterate catastrophizer, I considered everything that could go wrong and likely make me fail as a father. By a ton, or more, I underestimated the amount of shit that would soon hit my fan.

By the time my second daughter showed up, I was bankrupt, living in self-imposed exile in one of the most expensive places on Earth, with no college degree, no network, and four mouths to feed. Prior that, I had lived for 34 years in a third-world country under mostly military rule and ravaged by 30+ years of civil war that cost the lives of 200,000 thousand people. Throughout, I witnessed car bombs, executions by firing squads, political assassinations, and coups d’état. I made and lost fortunes running several businesses under systemic corruption and bouts of extreme inflation and a collapsing currency. My family received several death and kidnapping threats which eventually made us flee our home country.

Yet, I’m still here. Scarred and wounded, of course, but doing just fine. My daughters are thriving. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the priceless gift of their presence in my life, I would’ve ended it long ago. It was their light and their future which kept me going.

Perhaps the prevailing millennial malaise can be partly explained by the fact that we old people are terrible storytellers. We don’t share our victories, accomplishments, and survival stories with the younger generations as much as our parents and grandparents did. We no longer sit at the table or by an open fire to mesmerize and inspire our children with our tales of adventure. Instead, we let the peddlers of media doom and gloom drive the narrative. No wonder they’re afraid. If a young zebra spent its time watching National Geographic documentaries, it, too, would never dare venture out into the savannah.

So, ok, Millennials… granted, we forgot the warming of the planet. We bad. Don’t forget, though, that global warming didn’t show up on our radar until the U.S. drought of 1988, and it wasn’t until 1997 that the Kyoto Protocol on climate change was adopted, which, mind you, was drafted by Boomers and Gen-Xers, as was the recent Paris Accord. So we’ve had less than thirty years to tackle this problem. In the meantime, though, we’ve been busy putting out other fires across the world, like patching-up the ozone layer, increasing the world’s production of renewable energy 6-fold, and putting you through college.

Besides, I am sure you wouldn’t want to inherit a world where every problem has been solved for you. That would rob you of the opportunity to test your mettle and prove your worth.

So get to work, and while you’re at it, have as many children as you can so when they grow up and dare berate you for your generation’s ‘dismal’ legacy, you, too, will have something to brag about while inspiring them with your tales of derring-do.


Related stories:

Failure to Launch! A challenge to young men.

Fire and Stories

 

Time out!

Let the phone and email go unanswered, the post and tweet ignored, the news unchecked, stocks untraded, the appointment missed, the meeting skipped. Let the mailman take the day off.

Abandoned Carrousel (lucas-sparks.com)
Image source: lucas-sparks.com

Sometimes I find myself wishing the world would just stop.

Wishing someone would make all stoplights turn red; throw a monkey-wrench into the gears of the madly-spinning carousel with its panting, sweat-lathered horses; someone to yell “Freeze!” inside the circus tent suspending twirling trapeze artists in mid-air, cut the steam off the calliope, lift the needle off the blaring phonograph, flip-off the world’s main breaker switch plunging humanity into quietude.

Just for a while.

Let the phone and email go unanswered, the post and tweet ignored, the news unchecked, stocks untraded, the appointment missed, the meeting skipped. Let the mailman take the day off.

Time out!

Just long enough for us to come together and figure out what the hell we’re doing.

After all, we do it to our kids.

“Go to your room and think about what you’ve done and don’t come out until you’ve found your ways and manners!”

Time out (Comstock - Getty Images)
Source: Comstock – Getty Images

It’s shameful, yet delightfully ironic, that kids are the ones now sending ‘adults’ to the corner.

Kids like fifteen year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden, Jamie Margolin (17), founder of Zero Hour, thirteen year-old activist Alexandria Villasenor, co-founder of US Youth Climate Strike, Emma Gonzalez (19) and David Hogg (19), founders of the anti-gun violence group March for our Lives, etc.

What have you done?” “What are you doing?” seem the questions they are posing to the generation in charge.

Shut up! You’re too young to know any better. We must keep spinning the carousel. If it stops, we’ll be catapulted and smashed to bits!

Sssh the sea says

Sssh the small waves at the

Shore say sssh

Not so violent, not

So haughty, not

So remarkable

Sssh. — Rolf Jacobsen

Would we, tough? Would we really be smashed into bits once we’ve recovered from our addictions? The world wouldn’t stop spinning, would it? Just the grindstone grating us to anxious dust.

Three years ago, I stepped off the carousel and turned-in my badge certifying me as an inmate of the insane carnival and took a time out. I’m happy to report I have never been more whole.

I had felt trapped inside a bullet train racing at breakneck speed to a destination fuzzily defined by its conductors as “progress” while the friction of wheels against rails shot heated sparks scorching the landscape outside. I looked out the window and realized I was missing sunsets, cloudscapes, starlight, moonrises, dragonflies, the sea’s soundprint inside seashells…and my time was running out.

Sssh

Inside the train I kept hearing outrage, gunshots, screams, groans of despair, and hollow laughter. I saw burnt out grownups in endless shifts shoveling coal into the train’s insatiable furnace and children with terror in their eyes.

When I asked the train conductors to explain what exactly they meant by “progress,” they scoffed.

“Why, a better life, of course. You fool!”

When pressed for clarity, they said things like “growth, immortality, abundance, eternal happiness, immutability, and absolute power and control.”

I knew I had to step out.

Long had I bought-in to these stories. Actually contributed to their dizzying incantations, convinced that if we stopped spinning the tales, the skein would unravel.

It took me a while to detox and become centered.

When you spin in place a hundred times and suddenly stop, unless you’re a whirling dervish, it takes a while to regain your footing. You’re off-balance and disoriented, mostly guilt-ridden for not contributing coal to the furnace.

Immortality, Immutability, Eternal Happiness, Absolute Power and Control

Like a silkworm, I’ve been munching on the mulberry leaves of these insane notions trying to come up with better silk, such as “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” or “an organism at war with itself is doomed,” or “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” or, “what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?” Truths spoken by Gandhi, Carl Sagan, Krishnamurti, and Jesus — the bees of our world, in epic battle against the locusts.

I’m writing my way into their hive, offering my talents to stop the bullet train before it’s too late.

Perhaps it is…

I confess there are days when I lose heart. Days when I just want to throw up my hands in defeat, move to an island in the South Pacific, and there, lulled by the waves’ whispers, wait for Armageddon while enjoying what little remains of this once paradisiacal little blue planet while the locusts finish it off.

What stops me are the children.

I do not wish to come out empty handed from my time out and face their opprobrium.

“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?” asked poet Antonio Machado.

I want to answer Machado with something other than dead flowers, withered petals, yellow leaves, despair, death, and devastation.

My time out has allowed me to discover it is not so much a matter of writing alternative stories but simply harmonizing with the magnificent score written in the cosmos at the moment of the Big Bang fifteen billion years ago. We’re just playing off beat and out of tune.

We demand immutability from a Universe in a state of constant fluidity and change.

We deride and reject balance and pursue growth for the sake of growth which is the ideology of the cancer cell.

We consume way beyond our needs to distract ourselves from facing the gaping holes in our hearts.

We rail against decay and death, forgetting the Universe’s Second Law of Thermodynamics necessary for new life to emerge.

We forget we all came from stardust; that we all share the same constituent parts and then dare see diversity as ‘the Other.’

Inside the bullet-train, in self-imposed exile from Earth, we consider her not as a living organism that sustains us, but as a giant glittering mall, inexhaustible supermarket, and massive dump-ground for our waste.

In such disharmony, many still wonder why they remain so afraid, depressed, distressed, burned-out, insecure, and soul-starved.

But they keep shoveling coal into the furnace; spinning the carousel while seeking endless distractions and swallowing magic pills to prevent them from looking inside and out the window and realize what they’ve done and keep doing. Meanwhile, children gaze with terror in their eyes sensing the solid wall awaiting the train in the not-too-distant future and they can’t get out.

For now, it seems the Locusts are winning, but

shhh

listen carefully,

and you’ll hear the growing buzz of bees.

An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted, said playwright Arthur Miller.

The Age of the Locusts is almost over. But they won’t give up without an epic fight.

This is not a cosmic battle of Good vs Evil. Simply a clash of bad imagination vs one that speaks the language of sustainability, balance, harmony, serenity, tolerance, awe, wonder, and delight.

It is the language of bees, and I have now joined their legion.

My book, The Hero in You, is the nectar I intend to pass on to younger ones for them to turn into wax and honey to gum up the wheels of the bullet train until it comes to rest giving the world an urgent time out.

The Universe doesn’t give second chances.


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