Who Will Mourn Us When We’re Gone?

Who will mourn us when we’re gone?  For many of us, I suppose, it will be our families and friends, those left behind when we have shuffled off our mortal coil, to paraphrase Shakespeare.

But who will mourn us as a species when the last of us has gone?

In fact, who will even notice that we’re gone?  Or care?  As far as we know, we are the only sentient life-form extant on this planet we call home—the only species who can think coherently, who can ponder the unimaginable, who can ask ourselves Why? and What if?

It is quite remarkable when you consider that, in more than four billion years of life on earth, it is we who are the only species ever capable of rational thought.  And irrational thinking, too, unfortunately.

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According to National Geographic, more than ninety-nine percent of all organisms that have ever lived on earth are extinct.  Yet today, it is estimated that almost nine million species of life—plants, animals, and micro-organisms—cohabit the planet, most of them unknown to us.  Many of those will probably become extinct before ever being identified.

Scientists believe that in the long history of the planet, there have been five mass extinctions, each lasting anywhere from fifty thousand to two-and-a-half million years, the fifth occurring before mammalian forms of life (of which we are but one) began to appear.  Some believe we are currently experiencing a sixth such event.

Our species, homo sapiens, has been around for approximately three-hundred-thousand years, a mere sliver in the timeline of life on earth.  In that relatively short period, we have come to regard ourselves as masters of our universe.  We are the alpha predator, almost surely; yet, increasingly, we find we are not insulated from the predations of deadly life-forms in the shape of bacteria and viruses—most of which evolve and reproduce at a much faster rate than do we.

What accounts for our air of superiority might be summed up in one word—hubris.  Hubris, defined as excessive pride, or self-confidence bordering on arrogance, has allowed us to convince ourselves of our invincibility.  To this point in our history, we have successfully erected barriers to ward off all enemies who would harm us, be they human or otherwise.

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Increasingly, however, I wonder if those preventive measures are like levees and dikes erected to shield us from the rising waters, many of which are proving insufficient to the task of protecting us.  Indeed, they may prove to be no more sturdy than the walls of Jericho.

The COVID-19 pandemic currently sweeping the world should give us pause.  Given that it is, perhaps, just one of many new viruses that will assail us as our planet warms and our ice-caps melt, how can we be sure we will avoid our own extinction?  What can we do to ensure—not hope—ensure that will not happen?

And even if we discover what to do, will we muster the determination and the courage to do it?  What do your own observations tell you about that as you participate in our current struggle?

And so, I come back to my question:  who will miss us when we are gone?

Without us, the sun will rise and set as it always has, the moon will traverse the nighttime sky.  Rain will continue to fall, grass and flowers will continue to grow, waves will continue to crash against rocky shores.  Trees will fall and rise again in forests that are rejuvenating themselves, fish stocks will multiply in the vast oceans, animals and birds will reclaim the land.

Tundra and deserts will rejoice in their emptiness, mountains will cease crumbling under incessant boring and drilling, earth and sea will no longer be plundered of their natural resources.

There will be no war, only peace.

So truly, who among them will miss us?

Alas, none.

Perhaps we do not care.  If our prevailing attitude is that we must acquire as much as we can before we’re gone, and that nothing else matters, it is hard to make the case that we should mend our ways before it is too late.  Many believe we are here, after all, for a good time, not a long time.  Based on verses from Ecclesiastes and Isaiah, we should enjoy life as much as possible.

Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

The Bean King.

It is a seductive philosophy.  And if we are coming to believe as a species that no one will miss us when we’re gone, anyway, then why worry?  Live for the moment.

But that is not a mindset to which I willingly accede.  Surely we are better than that.  Surely the best of us will drag the rest of us through the storms we face, if only we allow them.

I wonder if we can.  I wonder if we shall.

He Is Us!

Back in the late 1940’s, when I was in my formative years, a savvy and prescient social observer said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

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The speaker was Pogo Possum, an unprepossessing denizen of the Okefenokee Swamp, which straddles the border separating Florida from Georgia.  During the next fifty years, Pogo would go on to become an American icon, famous the world over for his gentle, yet scathing, commentary on the world around us.

Strangely, many people today have never heard of him, but from the time I first took an interest in comic strips, Pogo was one of my favourites.  And he remains that to this day—all the more so, considering where we presently find ourselves.

Pogo was the creation of Walt Kelly, a cartoonist extraordinaire who lived from 1913-1973, and it is Kelly’s inspiration that put words into the mouths of Pogo and his many friends and acquaintances in the swamp.

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Among them were:  Porky Pine, a gloomy, misanthropic soul, perhaps Pogo’s closest pal, an Okefenokee version of A.A. Milne’s Eeyore; Albert Alligator, extroverted and garrulous, often the comic foil for Pogo; Howland Owl, a self-proclaimed perfesser and fount of all knowledge; Churchy LaFemme, a hapless, superstitious mud turtle; Miz Mam’selle Hepzibah, a beautiful French skunk who often pined for Pogo; Beauregard Bugleboy, a hound dog who, as his grand name might suggest, fancied himself a dashing figure, often recounting tales of his own heroics in the third-person; and Miz Beaver, a corncob pipe-smoking washerwoman with scant regard for menfolk.

Pogo himself was a mild-mannered soul, described by Kelly as “the reasonable, patient, soft-hearted, naive, friendly person we all think we are.”  Almost always portrayed hanging with friends, picnicking or fishing, he seemed the wisest, most laid-back, most down-to-earth swamp denizen, doggedly determined to avoid trouble.  Alas, to his chagrin, he was often taken advantage of by those same friends.

The issues they faced in their wilderness home so many years ago presage many of those we face today—pollution, overcrowding, segregation and racism, and corrupt, self-interest politics.  Listening to the utterances of the various characters on the concerns of their day resonates as much today as when they first spoke.  Take, for example, the challenges facing governments as they tackle the Covid-19 scourge:

Y’see, when you start to lick a national problem you have to go after the fundamentables.
We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.
Having lost sight of our objectives, we redoubled our efforts.

Or, think of the swelling cries from so many, bemoaning the encroachment of government on civil liberties during these trying times, refusing to comply with measures to ensure public safety:

I ain’t said much but I is been pushed around ee-nuf!  I is gone stand up for my rights!  And I got rights I ain’t hardly used yet!
The minority got us outnumbered.

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The lovable swamp critters sometimes proposed radical solutions, just as many do today:

You want to cut down air pollution? Cut down the original source…breathin’!
Don’t take life so serious. It ain’t nohow permanent.

Occasionally, a familiar note of resignation crept into their musings:

Now is the time for all good men to come to.
If you can’t win, don’t join them; learn how to lose.

And, of course, there were commentaries on the political leaders of the day—some of which, I believe, apply to certain (unnamed) charlatans in power today:

Y’know, ol’ Albert [or a name of your choice] leads a life of noisy desperation.
In like a dimwit, out like a light.

Of all the Okefenokee witticisms, though, the one I like best, and which seems truest of all today, is Pogo’s observation that the enemy is us.  When I survey the planetary problems presently facing us—the most urgent of which right now is Covid-19—how many have we brought upon ourselves through our callous disregard for our global village and its residents?

To name a few of these enemies:  world hunger, increasing poverty, global warming, pandemic outbreaks, nuclear proliferation, mass migration, and pollution of land, sea, and air.

To pose the question in a more positive way, how many of these same enemies could we actively and successfully confront through a united effort spread across all humankind?

Most, if not all, is the answer, I believe.

Sadly, however, I fear it may never be.  For, as Pogo so eloquently told us in those bygone times, we have already met our greatest enemy.

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And indeed, he is us!

 

Anticipation and Response

The annals of human endeavour are replete with tales of glorious heroism and gallantry in the face of death.  In some cases, those involved were victorious in their struggle; in other cases, they were not.

As an example of the first, one might cite the conflict at Bannockburn in 1314 when an army of Scots led by Robert the Bruce defeated the army of England’s Edward II in a bid for Scottish independence—a battle where the flower of Scotlandstood against them, proud Edward’s army, and sent them homeward tae think again.

An example of the second is immortalized in Tennyson’s poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, describing the failure of a British attack at Baclava in 1854, in the face of superior Russian forces—theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die…into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.

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Of course, one’s determination of the outcome, whether victory or defeat, depends to a great extent upon which side one was on.  But in all such confrontations with an enemy, whether military or civil, whether in war or peace, there are at least two key factors that determine success or failure.  The first is anticipation of and preparation for eventualities that might lie ahead; the second is mounting an effectual response to a threat if it materializes.

The efficacy of the second is, to a great extent, dependent upon the effectiveness of the first.  Robert the Bruce was successful on both counts, prepared and ready to win; the British high command at Baclava not so much.

If both factors—anticipation of future threats and successful response when they occur—are to be significant, leaders are needed who embody a number of qualities; for example, a perceptive and analytical mind, a willingness to trust authoritative sources, a capacity to look beyond short-term outcomes, and the ability to act decisively.

Absent those qualities—if we are cursed with leaders who are inferior thinkers, mistrustful of others, focused on short-term gains, indecisive or erratic when called to action—the chance of a positive outcome at the end of a struggle is much reduced.

When we look at the battle currently embroiling us, combatting the Covid-19 virus overrunning the world, there are four broad scenarios we might identify:  i) nations that were ill-prepared for a pandemic and are unsuccessfully battling it; ii) nations that, although likewise ill-prepared, are responding more effectively than might have been feared; iii) nations that seemed well-prepared, but for a variety of reasons are failing in the struggle; and iv) nations that were well-prepared and are successfully dealing with the scourge.

As you read and listen to news-reporting about the surge of the disease, you may be able to determine which nations fall into which category.  Those in category iv), alas, are the fewest in number.

We might have expected that the poorest, least-developed countries would have been among those most likely to be ill-prepared and, therefore, least successful in contending with the virus.  And that seems to be borne out as the virus spreads into the South American and African continents.

What we might not have expected, however, is that a nation purported to be among the most powerful the world has ever seen would have been so ill-prepared, and would have mounted such a dismal effort initially, that it currently has more fatalities than any other nation, ranking in the top four worldwide per 1 million population.  And climbing.

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One could be forgiven for thinking that the rally-cry to make that nation great again might now be recast as a prayer to make it whole again.

Anticipation requires foresight on the part of government; preparation requires a willingness on the part of elected leaders to spend what is needed to build bulwarks against a potential calamity.  And both require courage on the part of those leaders—Churchillian courage, Rooseveltian courage.

But preparation cannot be accomplished, unfortunately, without educating a populace clamoring for lower taxes, to help them learn that protecting our future comes with a cost.  The time to build the dike, and pay for it, is not when the flood is raging.

Effective response to a threat likewise requires courage, plus an ability to recognize that threat in a timely manner, and a willingness to act decisively to combat it.  Denial delays effective action; vacillation aids and abets the enemy; inaction too often proves fatal.

We are reassured by many experts in their field that we shall survive this plague and come successfully out the other side.  But we are warned by many of those same people that the worst is yet to come, that the other side is a good way off.  I pray the first is true, and fear the second is, too.

Increasingly, my thoughts turn to the future, if we are to have one.  There are harsh lessons to be learned from this pandemic, but I wonder if we will pay them heed.  From my layman’s perspective, it seems inevitable that we shall face a similar situation again—not necessarily a plague, but perhaps a massive crop-failure brought on by prolonged drought, perhaps a critical freshwater shortage, perhaps a worldwide collapse of the fiat currencies we have come to rely on, or an unmanageable debt-crisis.

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Whatever the predicament may be, will we have leaders in place who will have anticipated it and prepared us to deal with it—perhaps soon enough to prevent its occurrence?  Will they be ready to respond to it in a timely manner, and to plan for an effective recovery?

Those questions will be in the forefront of my mind when I next journey to the ballot-box.