32. Countdown - a Little Local Difficulty
A limited nightmare in one locality or department of life can be overwhelmingly disturbing to wider populations – it depends on how humans perceive and interpret events, and how the world media spin it. The social devastation of the Bosnian civil war, while localised, was a nightmare scenario for Europeans, Muslims and the whole world, not only for Slavic peoples in the area.
Bosnians, Croats and Serbs fought over universal human issues valid everywhere – inter-ethnic distrust, insecurity and territoriality, with a measure of historic vengefulness thrown in. Bosnia became the focus of a rampant outbreak of suicidal mass-destruction, acted out in the Balkan theatre on behalf of all of us, worldwide. The very existence of this conflict, even discounting the 80-120 other conflicts (depending how you count them) going on at any time in the 1990s, is a crisis for humanity, prodding us to action.
Acute localised crises have either a direct or a psychological worldwide impact. The wholesale shoot-out in Lebanon in 1975-89 not only fuelled cross-national Islamic fundamentalism, destroying a prosperous cosmopolitan hub-city (Beirut) and affecting the stability of many neighbouring countries, but also it horrified and dispirited the world as a result of the simple existence of this crisis.
This mass psychological effect is much more important than many realise – it hits the collective unconscious in a deep, dark place. Globally, people are actively disheartened, disillusioned and disempowered by the very occurrence of nonsensical, tragic, unjust traumas – especially of the visibly man-made kind. Earthquakes and famines do have indirect man-made causes, but civil wars and outbreaks of depraved violence unequivocally disgust us, revealing what bastards and fools we are: they confront us with our biggest failings as humans.
Places such as Beirut and Sarajevo have served as a cesspool for the world's accumulated negative unconscious feelings. Notably, Beirut and Sarajevo both were cosmopolitan cities where inter-ethnic relations had long been sound and harmonious – a triumph of human variety and cross-fertilising creativity. Yet this was destroyed. It is as if there is in humanity a need to destroy positive exemplary situations, to wipe out uniquely happier areas of life, as if to enforce a message that social caring, interrelatedness, tolerance and pluralism do not pay.
The Yugoslavian war began soon after the Lebanese civil war subsided – both concerned historic Christian-Muslim ghosts. It was as if a negative virus switched host-bodies, having exhausted the Lebanese, seeking new susceptible people, the Yugoslavs. This can happen anywhere – wherever there is a vulnerable, unstable or changing social situation. Civil war is a world issue, not just local, concerning the redemption of an age-old embattled psychology called 'Them and Us'.
Yet the crucially big future issue facing us involves global cooperation and unity of action, the precise opposite to such things as civil war. It involves All of Us Together. Localised horrors such as those in Beirut and Sarajevo can stop the whole of humanity in its tracks: if inter-ethnic relations can get as bad as they got there, what hope is there for success elsewhere, in Nigeria, Israel, India, Malaysia, even in the gun-riddled United States?
Single-issue crises can have an enormous impact. While they appear at first to affect only specific areas or departments of life, they nevertheless have greatly wider effects or implications. Consider, for example, the 0.5mm natural skin of the oceans – a small or unknown matter in the minds of most. This is an organic interface between the atmosphere and the ocean which in this century has been globally polluted with a veneer of industrial chemicals and complex hydrocarbons which do not break down. These chemicals, now thinly distributed across the oceans worldwide, are microwaved from above by solar and cosmic rays no longer efficiently filtered by the ozone layer. The ocean surface is churned by boats, increasing storms and periodic bombs, and the chemical ocean-skin is added to by emissions, outflows and dumpings every day, worldwide.
This defiled, artificial skin has now begun to block the natural passage of oxygen and nutrients across this surface interface, affecting both ocean life and the atmospheric replenishment of oxygen in a potentially drastic way. Should the constitution of this skin change beyond a critical threshold, life on Earth could be severely threatened simply from one crucial, though thinly-spread source. Not only could plankton and fish stocks collapse, but atmospheric warming could accelerate rapidly, crucial species and water supplies could be threatened, harmful marine algae or viruses could multiply, and ocean temperatures and currents and atmospheric circulation could change.
Such slowly-accumulating chronic crisis-factors turn acute when critical thresholds are crossed. The trouble is, we don't know where those critical thresholds are – yet they are there. Another chronic crisis, well-known worldwide, is the growing insufficiency of worldwide forest cover, together with secondary effects of deforestation. However, only gestures and localised measures have been offered to remedy the situation, despite the knowledge that it takes at least a half-century to regenerate forest. Short-term economics prevail over environmental considerations.
In a world beset both by large-scale unemployment and by forest depletion, reafforestation is a logical step to help both problems, yet it is deemed cheaper and better to block such labour-intensive, longterm-return activities. Globally, the forestry crisis is currently sub-acute. Forestry practices in some countries are now slowly beginning to change, though with a dreadful lack of scale and urgency – yet this causes large-scale exploitation to be switched to countries where regulation is sparse, and the chainsaws get there before the legislators.
Chronic and sub-acute ills turning acute are possible, and they are visibly happening today. Yet we lack previous experience in macro-ecological issues. However, do we need to wait for sufficient experience and for hard evidence to be garnered before we act? Is it not possible to exercise basic commonsense in the making of many decisions? During the 1996 BSE crisis (in which beef cattle contracted 'Mad Cow Disease' which passed into the human food chain and caused a new strain of a brain-rotting disease called CJD), the British government obfuscated and blew steam, insisting on following indecisive scientific advice and denying its own complicity in its favouring of food-industry and agricutural profits over public health.
However, farmers' commonsense had warned of the looming problem some fifteen years earlier: many observers had felt doubts over adding sheep offal to cattle feed, and that offal had turned out to be partially diseased. The problem was evaded and avoided until it was too late. This brought up a deeper issue – accumulated public distrust in the pronouncements of government, authorities and scientists. The moral of the story was: pay attention to any activities which commonsense says are risky or questionable, at times regardless of the utterances of experts and authorities.
Commonsense is widely regarded as unscientific and irrational, therefore an unsound basis on which to make pragmatic political decisions. Decisions should be made (goes the rationale) only on the basis of demonstrable proof. The problem here is that proof, if politically unacceptable or unwelcome, is easily questioned or ignored – thus, in the 1990s, scientists offering the opinion that world climate was warming and changing were ignored in favour of business interests which pointed to the costs and risks of change. However, this is a case of double-think. The key global decision-making bodies are the financial markets, and these run on a gambling principle involving risk- and profit-assessment and investment based on calculated likelihoods, with a strong measure of irrationality thrown in.
Trillions change hands every day on the basis of calculated risk – the world economy rests on betting in shares, currencies, commodities and financial instruments. Yet political decisions on ecological and other longterm matters is regulated on a basis of demanded certainty, not risk – in other words, there must be proof of the necessity for change before changes are made. Why does this dichotomy exist? Why are ecological policy-decisions not made on the same basis as financial decisions? This irrational and ideologically-biased double-think is itself a disastrous course to take: while vast sums can be written off or insured against in the financial sector, ecological and human losses and waste cannot be treated likewise.
The possibility of a variety of crucial disasters breaking out was clearly established some three decades ago. In the 1960s, news of pesticide damage, critical population curves, the North-South divide, the dangers of radiation, technological excess and ecological catastrophe became publicly known. Yet willingness to carry out necessary global remedies has been noticeably insufficient, characterised by much institutional, business, media and public foot-dragging. A historical correctional possibility was thus missed – truth-speakers lost jobs and families, were ruined, harassed or jailed, and this still happens.
Nowadays, we face much greater and more visible risks than we did when we first clearly perceived them in the 1960s. Every year of delay increases the damage, cumulatively. Yet the crisis has not reached a sufficiently ultimate pitch to force remedial action. We have been served warnings and reminders, and the final reminder is probably not far away.
Interestingly, the meaning of the word disaster is 'an unfavourable aspect or star' or 'out of harmony with the stars'. It's an old astrological notion, still used, even though astrology is out of official favour. This ancient idea of the inherent symmetry between macro-systems and micro-systems interlocks with modern ecological thinking, scientific systems theory and chaos theory, all of which underline the notion of interrelatedness and mutual sensitivity, pointing to the need for sustainable ecologically-friendly practices to ensure survival.
Additionally, sustainable social practices, not to mention attention to the psycho-spiritual condition of humanity, imply similar macro-scale considerations. In other words, cultivation of harmony – adjustment to the laws and rhythms of the larger whole – is a primary priority if we are to get to grips with the fundamental causes of likely disaster. We are part of something much bigger than us. It is this which forms the basis of a body of thought known as 'deep ecology' – the linking of ecological with social, psychological and spiritual realities.
When is major disaster likely? Here we are treading into the unknown. The problem here is that we lack sufficient knowledge, experience and motivation to make an accurate estimate. However, we could make estimates based on an assessment of possibilities – which is how financial and investment planning works. The presence of unknowns doesn't bring the money markets to a halt, but it does seem to constitute a sufficient excuse not to make other kinds of assessments.
The second problem is that the answer depends on who is answering it: fundamentalists tend toward drastic and imminent predictions, moderates tone down their prognostications on the basis that they cannot prove much or gain acceptance of their proofs, and people in positions of power occasionally utter concerned noises and make symbolic gestures while demonstrating a singular lack of concern over the issue – they are likely to be out of office or dead by the time the problem really arises. The outcome of this is that, apart from a small number of voices in the wilderness, the world lacks any credible timetable or strategy.
However, this official befuddlement conceals the import of the question – to some extent it is an obfuscation technique to remove the issue from the confused and concern-fatigued public eye, stowing it away in ivory towers. To some extent it reflects a fear of setting in motion the necessary processes of change, which are likely ultimately to unseat many of the power-holders currently in office. Nevertheless, there is a clear and simple answer. We are likely to see large-scale disaster within fifty years. On this, many scientists, futurologists and experts generally agree.
Put another way, people born from the 1960s onwards are the people who will have to deal with it. People older than these risk losing their pensions and comforts, but they don't stand to lose a future – they'll lose only some peace of mind and later-life security. Unless, that is, one looks upon life from a more metaphysical viewpoint, experiencing concern over our future incarnations, or unless we take a compassionate, trans-generational, historically-aware viewpoint which might feel concern for the future of humanity whether or not we're personally involved. However, such 'flakey' viewpoints have no influence on the money-markets and little influence on people in power, so, in the view of many, they matter little. Negative media-assaults surrounding HRH Prince Charles in the 1980s-90s, after his declaration of interest in organic farming, community architecture and youth employment, demonstrate how influential people who become concerned for the world are dealt with.
This fifty-year timetable is subscribed to by thoughtful ecologists, demographers and other pundits, and it is likely to be quite reliable. However, nobody knows exactly what mechanisms are likely to tip us into crisis. This might be a void question inasmuch as so many critical factors are known to exist that the likelihood is that we might experience a chain-reaction of many simultaneous crises in many different domains of life. Volcanic explosions can lead to climatic change, sparking economic crisis and social disturbance, and off we go into an unstoppable slide which no government might be in a position to handle.
There is a second answer to the big When? question. We're already in crisis, and it's growing yearly. Agreement with this assertion depends on your viewpoint. There are those who look at news broadcasts and count each presented crisis as a local, isolated occurrence, symptomatic of nothing much – in other words, today's situation is unexceptional, and life goes on as it always did. There are those who believe that government, technology and the experts will handle it – and the fact that these are (apparently) unanxious about our situation shows that doomster-style paranoia is unfounded. There are those who perceive underlying connections, messages and symbolism behind current events, and who thus read an all-pervading and growing crisis into the whole situation.
All of these approaches are subjective and liable to error. However, it is not difficult to see that we are in crisis. To deny it involves assertive ostrich-imitation. Our climates are visibly changing, social stress-levels edge toward breaking-point, market vulnerabilities loom, species die out, the magnetic field of our planet is in decline, and hosts of other indicators blink and bleep their presence to any relatively open-minded observer.
There is a third answer to the big When? question too: we just do not know. Nothing is proven unless solidly demonstrated, and all predictions, speculations and assessments can talk only of possibilities and probabilities. Major uncertainties are involved and the sumtotal of our knowledge is limited. In addition, we do not know how nature and humanity adapt to changes – in theory, the extinction of species or the release of radiation into the atmosphere are harmful, though redeeming outcomes can arise which counterbalance the damage.
We do not know how increased ultraviolet light-frequencies affect the growth of vegetation (it could be helpful) and we do not know how masses of humans respond to crisis (they could respond well). Our lack of knowledge and experience in macro-futurological questions does not mean that we should abandon all attempts to answer the question, however – lack of data or knowledge is not uncommonly used as an excuse for avoiding the question. This is where we must resort to com-monsense again.
We do know enough to address certain major issues which we know need addressing (such as fossil-fuel burning and its atmospheric effects), and we also know of risk-possibilities (such as the connection between environmental dioxin pollution and declining male sperm counts). So while this lack-of-knowledge qualifier is valid, it is not a major determinant of strategies. If anything it demands investment in research and actions to find the necessary information and to act on the basis of possibilities, just as financial markets act.
There are also the more metaphysical predictions proffered by psychics and seers of the present and past. These are unpopular with most, and over-popular with some. Some take such pronouncements and their current interpretations to be gospel truth – many are the interpretations of the Book of Revelations or the quatrains of Nostradamus, Mother Shipton or numerous other seers. Many are the psychics and intuitives who make their own pronouncements too – maps have been drawn to show the sinking and rising of land in relation to the oceans, and many have been the dates and details given for the end of the world or other catastrophes.
The danger here is that the proliferation of inaccurate or outlandish prognostications makes people trivialise or reject them all. The profusion of predictions conceals the potentially valuable material in its midst. Useful material has to be distinguished from less useful material and interpreted correctly. Here, predictions must still be taken as possibilities, not immutable definites. The fact that several prognosticators say the same thing means something, yet it is still proof of nothing: in the final analysis proof is found in events and facts only. The fact that a prognosis is regarded as having authority by dint of its source or tone gives it interest-value but no claim on reality until fulfilled. However, there is value in being familiar with such forecasts, if a mature attitude is taken, since it can help us identify early signs of ominous and otherwise-unforeseen developments and it widens our perspective.
For example, students of the Olmec and Mayan Long Count calendrical system name a specific date, 23rd December 2012, as the end of the 'Fifth Sun' or age. Each 'sun' is ended by an all-encompassing disaster which wipes the planet clean and makes for a new start. This calendrical system goes back millennia, possessing a sophistication which is impressive. However, it is to be noted that the Olmec, Aztec and Maya cultures were themselves rather transitory and subject to cultural paranoia over the matter of downfalls and tragedies – in this regard, ancient Chinese prognoses would theoretically be more valuable, though few are known.
The interpretative problem here, therefore, lies not with Mayans and their kin – it is with modern interpeters and the anticipatory fears of their readers. People interested in such predictive instruments as the Mayan calendar already tend to possess a predilection for disaster scenarios, rightly or wrongly using the historical authority of Mayan culture to justify and substantiate their belief. Also, the translation and interpretation of Mayan concepts is not direct and simple: when Mayan texts and traditions mention the 'end of the world', this does not necessarily mean the world will end, only that an era ends and a new one begins. Neither does it reckon in the actions and choices of humans or higher intelligences and their capacity to alter future possibilities. Predicting the end of the world sells lots of books, but it was necessary to wait until 2012 or after to learn the final truth of the matter. We nevertheless know that we have a job to do.
While our knowledge and experience is scant compared to the scale and precedent of the problem, much of the reason for this is a lack of investment in research. Expensive, risky projects such as the 1990 unification of Germany or the 1950s-70s space race were pursued without prior experience too: vast resources were invested and risked in both projects on the basis of calculated risk and political ambition, flimsy evidence and lack of precedents. Yet they were done. Similarly, while we have only current facts and knowledge to go on, it is time to take risks to redeem our future. The risks of not doing so are surely greater.
The telling factor here is the will to do it: we are hamstrung by the reality that current vested interests are yet to perceive an advantage in correcting and re-balancing things. Current facts contain well enough information for us to know how things are going. The price of disaster is being paid now, not only in the form of compensation and rising insurance premiums, but in every niche of the world. Perhaps if these costs were ingeniously quantified, more notice would be taken – though the basis of their quantification would probably be disputed by anyone who resists change.
Were information-suppression to end, allowing public access to large swathes of information, we would know a lot more. Suppression, amnesia and avoidance are dangerously common modern ailments. However, the issue is simple: where there's a will, there's a way. So the big question now concerns will.
Humanity on the threshold
of a global breakthrough
by Palden Jenkins