The Cancer

Some years back, my wife received the news that absolutely no one ever wants to hear.  We were seated beside each other in front of her doctor’s desk as he told us the tests she’d undergone confirmed that she did, indeed, have Cancer.

In that instant, every item on our life’s to-do list faded to insignificance.  The scourge of Cancer immediately leapt to number one on our life-agenda.  We were, in a word, gobsmacked.

Over the next few weeks, we dragged ourselves through the same range of emotions so many other people have experienced, I’m sure—disbelief, anger, denial, terror, uncertainty, guilt, anxiety.  And then gradually, resolve, hope, and action.

A few years later, I received the same grim diagnosis, from a different doctor this time, but with the same gamut of emotions tumbling out in the wake of the news.  And with the same re-ordering of life’s priorities.  I suspect anyone who has received such a shock has experienced a similar phenomenon—every other issue of importance in one’s life comes to a jarring halt, at least for a time.

In both our situations, the Cancer had been growing inside our bodies for some while before we ever became aware of its presence.  And it had continued to grow during the time it took us to obtain medical advice, to undergo tests, and to receive the results back.  Our initial diffidence and slowness to act were based on a purely human trait, a perhaps-understandable reluctance to admit, even to ourselves, that something might be amiss, that something might disrupt the normalcy of our lives.

But Cancer, we discovered, is constrained by no such hesitancy.  It exists insidiously, mindlessly, remorselessly, bound by no laws except its own biological imperative to metastasize, to survive.  As with viruses, Cancer has no regard for our human concerns.  It has no mercy.

As I write this, both my wife and I have outdueled the scourge, at least for now.  But the possibility of recurrence is ever in our minds, even as our own innate optimism buoys us.  It fooled us once, but we are more vigilant now, and readier to act more quickly if the need arises.

Once bitten, as the old saw has it, twice shy.

But our personal experience reminds me, unhappily, of the situation in which we, as a species inhabiting this planet Earth, presently find ourselves.  For some time, a looming catastrophe has been growing, a sort of Cancer very few of us seem ready to acknowledge.  We are perhaps so wrapped-up with the management of other crises and issues of importance—pandemic disease, pollution and environmental degradation, malnourishment and hunger, government corruption and a rise in authoritarianism, regional wars, terrorism, substance abuse, domestic violence, to name a few—that we are unable to pause to re-order our priorities.

But like all other Cancers, this one will prove indifferent to our ignoring of its presence.  It will dwarf our other concerns, smother them, render them insignificant in the big picture, and will leap to the fore as humankind’s number one agenda-item.  It will continue to grow exponentially until such time as we resolve to take immediate, aggressive, and effective action to curtail it.  And by then—perhaps already—it may be too late.

Our planet, the only home we have in the vast reaches of the known universe, is overheating, so far uncontrollably.  It has been doing so for a long time now, since before we became aware of it, and has shown no sign of slowing down, even though some of the more learned and wise among us have finally acknowledged it. 

Glaciers melt, ocean-levels rise, moderate zones become sub-tropical, drought ravages formerly-fertile lands, famine spreads, extreme weather-events increase in frequency worldwide, wildfires rage.  And most ominously, global freshwater reservoirs are shrinking.

Like the oncologists my wife and I depended on to deal with our own Cancers, earth-scientists have conducted their tests, studied the results, and announced their diagnoses.  As they see it, climate change is the existential crisis of our time, the Cancer that has the potential to bring about the demise of human life on Earth as we know it. 

We ignore these warnings at our peril.

The hope, of course, is that advances in science and technology will merge with the ingenuity of humankind to arrest the changes that are upon us.  But even the most optimistic do not profess to believe the changes can be reversed.  Just as there is no guarantee my wife and I will remain Cancer-free forever, there is no assurance our Earth will fully recover from the climate-Cancer assailing it.

But we must deal with it.  And soon.

The Cancer has no mercy.

Paradise. Lost.

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make

a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

– John Milton, Paradise Lost

The great writers and minstrels have always known these things about humankind.  Although there are individual exceptions, as a species, we are inherently selfish, alarmingly short-sighted, determinedly destructive, and staggeringly—perhaps wilfully—oblivious to the effects we have on our environs.

Hearken to tales of yore if you want proof—from the painful struggles of Sisyphus, to the incessant wars of Imperial Rome and her successor empires, to the colonial pursuit of material wealth and power, to the latter-day struggles for freedom and autonomy—all undertaken in the belief that we can overcome every obstacle because we are superior beings.  We rule.

But for what?  As Schopenhauer declared, “…the most perfect manifestation of the will to live represented by the human organism, with its incomparably ingenious and complicated machinery, must crumble to dust and its whole essence and all its striving be palpably given over at last to annihilation—this is nature’s unambiguous declaration that all the striving of this will is essentially vain.”

Although not yet eighty years of age, I have been alive in nine decades, the 1940s to the 2020s.  Incredibly privileged to have been born in North America to white middle-class parents, one of five children, I have witnessed wars, epidemics, economic booms, financial crises, social inequities, scientific breakthroughs, racism and misogyny, space exploration, and (for better or worse) rock ‘n’ roll.

Throughout history, the prevailing norm among the successful has been that through it all, we are making progress, that things are getting better.  And I suppose they are, for some.

But at what cost?  There are approximately 7.8 billion people inhabiting our planet Earth today, about ten percent of whom live in extreme poverty.  More alarmingly, almost eighty-five percent of the world’s population lives in regions currently affected detrimentally by climate change, the most serious threat to our future.

Science tells us that the planet has existed in its orbit around the sun for close to 4.54 billion years, and that the first forms of primitive life likely appeared around 4.1 billion years ago.  The earliest examples of hominins (human-like creatures), our homo habilis, homo rudolfensis, and homo erectus ancestors, have been around for an astonishingly small period of only two million years.  The species to which we belong, homo sapiens, arose perhaps 300,000 years ago, descended from those earlier creatures, but took a huge intellectual leap forward approximately 65,000 years ago with the creation of projectile weapons, fishhooks, ceramic vessels, sewing implements, cave-paintings, even musical instruments.

So, in fewer than 70,000 years, a tiny fraction of the 4+ billion years of Earth’s existence, humankind with all its strivings has brought this ancient planet to the point where our own continued existence on it may well be in doubt.

Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has maintained a Doomsday Clock, whereby they metaphorically measure threats to humanity from unchecked scientific and technical advances.  In the ensuing years, the clock has wavered between seventeen minutes to midnight and its present setting of 100 seconds to midnight.  If it were ever to reach actual midnight, it would mean there has been an extraterrestrial collision, a nuclear exchange, or a catastrophic climate change that has wiped out humanity.

Which would you choose, the extraterrestrial or nuclear option, or the climate alternative?  And which do you think is most likely?

Of the three, I worry most about climate change.  At my age, I’ll not likely see the worst effects, those that will change life irrevocably for Earth’s inhabitants, but I liken their inevitable depredations to the fate of a rabbit warren, whose denizens over time despoil it.  The result is zoonotic disease and plague, which will kill many of the rabbits, severely afflict others, and force survivors to find a new home.

We are already seeing examples of death and forced migration of people from their homelands because of the effects of environmental damage.  We are befouling our oceans, deforesting our woodlands, polluting our freshwater lakes, strip-mining our highlands, and poisoning our rivers with our mountains of garbage and toxic pollutants.

We are pumping untold amounts of carbon-rich contaminants into the atmosphere, resulting in a dramatic warming of Earth’s temperatures, to the point where polar ice-caps are melting and sea-levels are rising.  

The strangest thing of all is that we are perpetrating these transgressions, even while knowing of their deleterious effects.  We know about the Doomsday Clock.  We know about the Paris Agreement on climate change, we know we must restrict global temperature rise to less than 2C by 2050, and that we are perilously close already to missing that target.  We know regional and seasonal temperature extremes are reducing snow cover, melting sea ice, intensifying heavy rainfall, producing once-in-a-lifetime droughts, and changing habitat ranges for animal and plant life. 

But we are a self-engrossed species, intent on our own pursuits with scant regard for the long-term consequences.  A superior species?  I wonder.

Of course, the planet Earth soldiers on, evolving as she has since time immemorial, herself oblivious to the life-forms who call her home—the most advanced of whom think perhaps they, not she, will determine the future.

But we seem unable to stop the clock.

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

-Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

Another One

Another year recently opened up before us, the two-thousand-and-twenty-second in the Common Era (CE).  It may be annotated in two ways—2022 CE or, as has been more common, AD 2022 (from the Latin Anno Domini, ‘in the year of the Lord’).  Strangely enough, the AD nomenclature was introduced retroactively in year 525 of the Common Era, more than half a millennium after it began at the end of the BC (Before Christ) period.  That period is also referred to now as BCE (Before Common Era).

The CE and BCE designations are more inclusive additions to accommodate the religious diversity in our society, although it is still the Christian calendar that is almost universally used globally.  The current version of that is the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 CE by Pope Gregory XIII, modifying the Julian calendar which had come into effect around 45 BCE.

There are approximately forty other calendars in use around the world today, mostly used to designate holidays associated with the culture or religion from which they emanated.  A few of the more notable ones include the Buddhist, the Chinese, the Hebrew, and the Islamic.  

In this Gregorian calendar year of AD 2022, those calendars show their dates in accordance with the time of their origin:  Buddhist, 2564; Chinese, 4720; Hebrew, 5784; and Islamic, 1444.

The dawn of AD 2022 is the seventy-eighth such occasion I’ve been around for, and marked the umpty-umptieth year in a row that I did not make any new year’s resolutions.  Ironically, that’s because at some previous and now fortunately-forgotten new year’s celebration, I made a resolution never again to make new year’s resolutions.

More ironically, that’s the only resolution I have never ended up breaking.  Not yet, anyway.

Still and all, I do ponder what this new year might have in store, not just for me, but for all of us.  Most urgently, I suppose, I wonder if the Covid pandemic with its seemingly-endless variants will finally ease its relentless onslaught.  And will the good fortune we in the wealthier nations of the world enjoy in our fight against it be shared effectively with the less-fortunate nations, so this pandemic disease won’t continue to find a viral breeding-ground among their inhabitants.

Will the political unrest in many of the so-called democracies of the world lead any of them into anarchy, and from there into authoritarian rule?  Is democracy on the chopping-block?  Is the burgeoning civil divide among the citizens of individual nations reconcilable, or will those people find themselves doomed to living with ever-increasing strife and turmoil?

Is the rapid growth of the stark economic inequalities we see among the citizenry of even more prosperous nations bound to continue?  Will the rich continue to get richer, while the poorer among us languish?  Will we prove able to move from proclaiming, I’m alright, Jack!  I got mine! to Let’s share the bounty.  There’s lots to go round.?  Will we help each other in a true, collective fashion, or will we turn away from each other, crying and decrying Socialism!

I wonder if, in AD 2022, empathy and inclusivity will begin to spread among the peoples of the world with respect to the acceptance of others of different race, gender, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation.  Or will narrow, ideological dogma continue to triumph over egalitarianism?

Will ongoing and increasing major climate changes impel even greater numbers of people living in threatened environs into forced migration to avoid environmental disaster?  And where will they go?  And will they be welcomed or turned away?  To what extent will nationalistic, political borders trump human compassion?

Not being a crystal-ball-gazer, I have no answers to these questions, nor sure-fire solutions to the problems.  I suspect no one else does, either, although many will profess to.  The answers will manifest themselves over time, as we apprehensively watch the unfolding of 2022 CE.

I do have opinions and hoped-for outcomes, however, and I expect to continue to write about these in this blog for as long as I’m able.  That’s not to be considered a new year’s resolution, though—I don’t make those anymore, remember?

But it’s a promise.

Do Better

Only the seriously stupid or wilfully resistant among us can deny that this planet Earth, our interstellar home, is changing.  Even if one were to disregard or dispute the vast array of credible evidence of global warming and environmental degradation we are presented with on an almost daily basis, it would be hard to challenge the notion that, over time, since its very beginning, the planet has evolved from its original state.

Across billions of years—4500 million of them is the best estimate—this third rock from the sun has passed through numerous iterations: the largest of these are defined by science as the Hadean, Proterozoic, and Phanerozoic eons, each of which is further subdivided into eras, periods, epochs, and ages.  During the first of these, the hot rock we now call home cooled to the point that water began to form on the surface, enabling the creation of the earliest life forms.

earth

According to the fossil record so far unearthed, human life first appeared during the mid-Pleistocene Epoch, five to seven million years ago, following an environmental cataclysm that destroyed about 75% of all plant and animal species then existing.  This demonstrates that for 99.5% of the planet’s existence, humankind did not exist, mainly because the conditions necessary for our survival and propagation were not present—evidence that, over four billion years, the planet evolved from its original state to a stage that supported human existence.

Why, then, should anyone today suppose that the earth has somehow ceased its evolutionary journey?  It is ridiculous to think that it has somehow morphed into stasis, an unchanging organism destined to remain for always as we would like it to be.

Of course it is evolving!  Of course the climate is changing!  As it always has.

During the relatively short period of time human life has existed, the planet has experienced as many as six ice ages, the last of which was about twelve thousand years ago, and four periods of temperature variation warmer than today’s, the last of which was approximately 160,000 years ago.  It is worth noting that the temperature variation of the planet today is creeping ever closer to that of the last warm period.

icemaps

Had we been alive at the end that last ice age, we would have witnessed the retreat of continental-shelf glaciers from what is now Canada and the northern USA as the ice melted during a warming period—just as we see happening in the Antarctic and Arctic regions today.  The waters are rising.

Really, the question is not whether the earth is changing, or whether we are truly plunged into a period of global warming.  Only the seriously stupid could doubt that.  The question is: has this change been exacerbated by the great spewing of carbon-based emissions we have caused?  The question is: are we, as self-preoccupied residents of the planet, ensconced in our oft-warring, sovereign nations, able to sacrifice our creature comforts in order to slow down the rate of warming?  The question is: are we even willing to do that?

And the critical question is: even if we do decide, globally, to take meaningful action now, not thirty years on, is it already too late?

The humans who walked the planet during the last warm period were not like us today.  Humankind has changed mightily since then.  It is likely that, if our species is to survive the earth’s latest evolutionary cycle, however long that may last, those remaining will be far different creatures than we are today—perhaps as unrecognizable to us (if we could still be here to see them) as our distant homo erectus progenitors would be (if we had been around to see them).

When I read of the potential devastation to the populations of the planet by the end of this twenty-first century—made worse by our wilful ignoring of humankind’s destructive aggravation of the evolutionary changes naturally occurring—it is of some comfort to me that I shall not be here to suffer through it.

warming

But I wish we could do better.

Picking Up the Sticks

My grandfathers, when they were just boys in the late part of the 19th century, played some version of a game called Pick Up Sticks with their family and friends.  In their day, it was likely known as Spillicans or Jackstraws, but the premise was the same as when they introduced the game to me a half-century later.

jackstraws

Their sticks were almost surely made of wood, resembling long toothpicks—or perhaps of straw.  Mine, thanks to the unbridled proliferation of plastic in the mid-1950’s, were a colourful array of synthetic sticks, identical except for colour.

The game was simple in concept, difficult in execution.  The sticks were held in one player’s hand, then released to spill on the playing surface in a loose, randomly-jumbled pile.  Any sticks falling separately, away from the pile, were removed before play began.

The first player then attempted to extricate a stick from the pile without moving any other stick.  If successful, (s)he tried to remove a second, and a third.  Each player’s turn ended when another stick was inadvertently moved in the attempt.

In some variations of the game—certainly in the one I played with my grandfathers—sticks of different colours were worth different values.  The single black stick was the most valuable; the most plentiful yellow sticks were worth the least.

I loved when I beat them at the game, basked in the praise they lavished upon me—having no idea then, of course, that my winning was their doing.

Grandpa-and-Grandson

The game helped to develop and test a variety of skills for all who played it:  hand-eye coordination, visual discrimination, spatial relations, and visual-motor dexterities, to name a few.  And patience, of course, and attention to the task at hand.  Every player had a hawk-eye trained on the pile during every other player’s move, watching for (perhaps hoping for) the slightest movement of other sticks.

I haven’t played the game in years.  But I’ve been thinking about it lately as I read about and listen to the challenges facing the legislators we have elected to govern us in our western world.  What a tangled web of sticks they face!

A partial list of those challenges, often directly contradictory to each other, includes:

0 embracing globalism vs. defending sovereignty,

0 pursuing free trade vs. safeguarding home-grown industries,

0 growing the economy vs. protecting the environment,

0 reducing national debt vs. increasing spending on social programmes,

0 encouraging immigration vs. protecting the homeland, and

0enhancing security vs. increasing civil liberties.

I envision such challenges, and countless more, lying jumbled on the table in front of our beleaguered politicians, like a nightmarish game of Pick Up Sticks, daring them to make a move.

Deal with it! the supporters of any particular issue might demand.

protestors

It’s complicated! the legislators might reply, fearful of the repercussions they will face if, by acting, they disturb any of the intermingled sticks—sticks representing issues of equal importance to others of their constituents.

Approve that pipeline!  We need it to move our bitumen.  The economy is at risk!

Stop supporting the fossil-fuel industry!  The environment is at risk!

Can one of those sticks be moved without jostling the other?

Lower taxes to encourage business to spend!  That will expand the economy!

Stop cutting back on the social safety net!  People need help!

You’re increasing debt to unsustainable levels.  It’s a ticking bomb!

With which stick do legislators start?  And will they then be able to get at the others, too?

Fix our immigration system!  We need skilled workers coming in to the country!

Keep those people out!  They’re taking away our jobs!

Is it even possible to handle both those sticks?

consequences

Scott Fitzgerald, the flawed but immensely-talented American author, once wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  Opposed ideas might be defined as those which are not synonymous, but nor are they directly contradictory.

Trying to manage contradictory thoughts or values, on the other hand—or having to synthesize them—can be so upsetting that people who are possessed of two (or more) will often eschew acting on any of them.  This state of mind, referred to as cognitive dissonance, is why most of us seek to avoid situations where it is likely to arise.

Noah Chomsky, an American professor of linguistics, a self-professed anarchist and human rights activist, has written, “Most people…can’t tolerate too much cognitive dissonance.  I don’t want to deny that there are outright liars…[but] I don’t think that’s the norm. The norm is obedience, adoption of uncritical attitudes, taking the easy path of self-deception.”

If he’s right, how can we legitimately expect our elected officials to get it right in the face of so many contradictory realities, and so many contradictory demands from people who have come down on one side or the other of those issues?  Game or not, it must be a nightmare.

My grandfathers have long since passed away.  I cannot remember whatever happened to my game of Pick Up Sticks, long gone as well.  But I do know that I have no desire to play it on the public stage, and I do have some sympathy for those whose job it is to clean up the mess.

clean-up-your-mess

Tossing the sticks down is easy, but picking them up is difficult, nigh impossible, indeed.