By Ray Grigg —
Anyone who gives serious consideration to environmental issues these days secretly hopes to be wrong. This curious contradiction stems from the stark realization that almost all the credible information coming repeatedly from multiple objective sources has identified the inability of our planet’s essential ecologies to absorb the impact of the materialistic ambitions of our modern civilization. Such a fundamental incompatibility is sobering to confront and admit. Only a committed misanthrope would deny humanity assured security, physical comfort, and meaningful engagement. But the obsessive and cavalier quest for superfluous material wealth by a burgeoning human population has become so environmentally destructive that these objectives are now being considered self-defeating.
This dilemma presents itself as a profound conflict for those whose lives are guided by a modicum of awareness, conscience, and integrity. Doesn’t everyone have an obligation to be a seeker and purveyor of truth—a truth best discerned by open and unprejudiced inquiry? Shouldn’t all thinking be sincere, searching, and honest? How do we find the necessary insights to guide our personal and collective conduct if we don’t use a diligent and principled courage to carefully and thoroughly examine the generous supply of information available to us? Doesn’t the social consciousness that can safeguard present and future generations begin with a mindful awareness of the moment?
Those seriously considering our deteriorating environmental conditions are now considering prospects almost too disturbing to confront. The reflexive response to such an uncomfortable realization is denial, to secretly hope that the sobering assessments are wrong—merely the projections of a passing and unwarranted cynicism that is inclined to expect the worst rather than the best. But a loyalty to the mounting evidence forces the more rational conclusion that our environmental problems are moving inexorably from serious to critical. We have been much too negligent in respecting the law of limits and much too remiss in assessing the magnitude of our impact on ecologies. And now we find that the penalty of procrastination has made our plausible solutions nearly impossible to implement—in metaphorical terms, we have been accelerating when we should have been braking, and now the looming corner may be too tight to negotiate. In attempting to guide our destiny, we have been too venal to measure the ecological cost of our ambitions, too proud to acknowledge the seriousness of our situation, and too aloof to notice our dependent relationship with nature.
Rather than accept responsibility for this ruinous behaviour of ours, a more comfortable position would be to dismiss the accumulation of damning evidence by declaring it all wrong. The science is wrong. The assessments are wrong. The experts are wrong. The dystopian predictions are wrong. Or, as an alternate explanation for our abject failure as a reputedly wise species, we could argue that we are merely transitioning through a cynical period in our psychological history, that our sense of ominous foreboding will pass, and that our lapsed competence will eventually lead us to a brave new world of unbridled optimism.
But the rational inner voice says this is not so. We are who we are. Our civilization is what it is. Built to its present complexity over centuries—even millennia—it cannot be changed as quickly as the critical circumstances now require. What if the saving grace of radical new technologies is an empty promise made by the inflated confidence of a human hubris? What if we have been too numbed by the enchantment of our ingenuity to gauge its global impact? What if the complexity of our environmental problems has already become larger than we can solve? What will we discover if the intimation of a disconcerting future is forcing us to sit down to the dark night of our human soul?
The power of hope is not comfortable with the destruction of optimism. To think that the structure of our civilization may have fatal and inescapable flaws is akin to cultural heresy, a violation of a loyalty to our essential humanity. If we can’t believe in ourselves and the sublime culmination of all our collective wisdom and effort, does this leave us with an unbridled and destructive cynicism that makes us traitors to the human cause? Is our destiny as a species to be the destructive raping of the Mother that birthed and nourished us?
Those who were aware of the early signs of serious environmental degradation 40 years ago have watched the momentum of this worrisome trend move inexorably from possibility and likelihood to probable inevitability. Almost none of the significant measures of deterioration have been reversed or even slowed. Unless we can engender a change akin to a miracle, this suggests that something in the human character prescribes that civilization will move in the direction of heroic tragedy.
The reality is that we cannot be certain of our environmental future—yet. But we do know that history’s long record charts the rhythmical rise and fall of civilizations. Size and complexity do not provide exemptions. In the enthusiasm of constructing such systems, some fatal flaw is usually installed in the structure. Humanity survives but the monuments to our creative ingenuity collapse in ruin. After energy and diligence have meticulously built enormous systems to precarious levels of cleverness, each collapse has usually been caused by some unforeseen environmental factor. We have increasing evidence to suggest that our present civilization may not be an exception.
Each civilization is proud and confident enough to believe that it is exempt from history’s precedence. And people like to believe that their mistakes are much more forgivable than the mistakes of an entire civilization. This is why those who give serious consideration to environmental issues these days secretly hope they are wrong. Being wrong is not as troubling as being right.
Ray Grigg is a weekly environmental columnist for the Campbell River Courier-Islander. He is the author of seven internationally published books on Oriental philosophy, specifically Zen and Taoism.