Ensuring a creative survival

2013-07-23 00:00

HISTORICAL and scientific research and modern communications have enabled us —or those of us who have the means and the time to think about such things — to see our world in a way that was not possible even a generation ago.

Astro-physics has shown where planet Earth stands (or rather spins) within the cosmos, although it would be quite wrong to conclude that our infinitesimal size makes our issues insignificant.

Television and other contemporary media have brought geography to life: although there are some biases in presentation, we can, in fact, watch what people are doing more or less everywhere — how they live, how they face crises, how their politics and economics work.

All this has the effect of highlighting many contrasts: between rich and adequate and poor, between different environments, between developed countries and developing ones, with strong suggestions of the internal and external impediments to development.

All societies have problems: the current global economic instability is more of a problem for First World countries than for the poorer ones.

So the whole world is spread out before us. But we can now fairly confidently go backwards in time, and look at many aspects of the wide-ranging, fascinating history of the human race. There seems to have been a clear evolutionary pattern in the development of societies. Some progressed, others were held back or decided to hold back. The reasons for this were usually environmental and socio-political. Some evolving societies succeeded; others, sometimes after a period of success, failed cataclysmically.

Communal life, like personal life, was and of course still is, a constant struggle. As we look at our world today, we can see how some societies and nations prosper, although perhaps falteringly, while others make some progress, and yet others do not.

How should one react to this vast mass of challenging information?

In a certain sense we humans are now all so interconnected that we are, for all our differences, one composite society. We know that our planet is fragile; its resources are not unlimited. Will we succeed or fail in developing and maintaining ourselves and the Earth upon which we depend?

Can we learn all-important lessons from the various narratives offered by our new global history and geography?

Environmentalists and others have raised all these questions, often in a piecemeal way.

A person who has played a very significant part in seeing the issues in a unified perspective is Jared Diamond, the U.S. environmental geographer and historian. Towards the end of his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, he says: “For our society as a whole, the past societies that we have studied … suggest broader lessons. Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping their outcomes towards success or failure: long-term planning, and willingness to reconsider core values.

“On reflection, we can also recognise the crucial role of these same two choices for the outcomes of our individual lives.”

I agree with Diamond. What our political, intellectual and spiritual leaders need — what in the end we all need — are foresight and flexibility. It is almost certainly not going to be an easy ride. There will have to be a movement towards that human equality which in any case moral considerations urge upon us. Affluent people will have to temper their lifestyles, but poor people may well have to somewhat modify their expectations. There will have to be new global discussions and agreements, new rules, and probably new technologies.

All this will be difficult in a democratic culture, where leaders depend upon voters, many of whom at the moment evade or are ignorant of global issues. (Undemocratic China also has to consider its constituency.)

Am I asking for Utopia; an impossibly ideal situation?

I hope not. I hope that a sufficient amount of enlightened intellectual and political leadership, common-sense awareness and humble observation will be able to persuade most human beings to override their many other serious concerns in order to avoid not a bang, but a whimper that will wipe out all that has been achieved since the original big bang that took place so many million years ago.

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