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

Whose Truth Will Survive?

It has been stated countless times, including here in this blog, that history is written by the victors.  Whatever any of us knows of the past has been determined by what we’ve been taught by our parents, teachers, and elders.  And they have simply passed down to us their own understandings, their own truths, based on what they, too, were taught.

In short, what we think we know to be true about our society has been filtered through many lenses—cultural, racial, gender, socio-economic, and political.

There have been attempts at presenting alternative-history scenarios, fictional representations of what might have been, ‘if only…’.  Harry Turtledove, for instance, has written books about what happened after the South won the U.S. Civil War, and after Germany won WW II.  H. G. Wells wrote about an alien invasion of the planet, The War of the Worlds, which, when adapted by Orson Welles for radio in 1938, caused near-panic among the populace.  In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth described events after Franklin D. Roosevelt was defeated in the 1940 U. S. presidential election by Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh.  And Margaret Atwood devastatingly described the misogynistic society of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, about subjugated women in a patriarchal society.

These alternative histories are fiction, of course, although all too real in their telling.  But across the millennia, there actually have been innumerable alternate realities experienced by people of the time—realities which, although true, were never recorded and passed down the generations because they were on the losing side. 

For example, I was taught, as perhaps you were, that Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492; in truth, what he did was discover it for the white, colonial, commercial powers of Europe.  The Americas had actually been discovered eons earlier, maybe 33,000 years ago, by Asian nomads who crossed what was then a land bridge where the Bering Straits exist today.  I was never taught about those people and their descendants, nor about that version of history, true though it is.

I grew up with an implicit understanding that the great figures of the past were men, not women—white-complexioned, European men who stood fast against the barbarian hordes, mostly people of different colour and religion, who were intent on assailing the established order.  It remained for the adult me to learn about such people as Gandhi, Mandela, MLK, Margaret Sanger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Tommy Douglas, Gloria Steinem, Cesar Chavez, Germaine Greer, Nadia Murad, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, and others too numerous to list who have fought for equity for all.

Growing up in the 1950s, I was taught that communism was the great evil of our time—the relentless enemy of capitalism, the system I was taught to believe would raise us all to a marvellous standard of living.  Today, for many of us, that has proven to be true; but what of those for whom it has not?  What will be written of their history, if anything is written at all? 

I would never proclaim myself a communist—the whole ideology has become irredeemably politicized and villainized.  But I confess an affinity for a socialist-democracy, where every citizen is considered worthy of support and respect, over what has become a capitalist-democracy, where the very few prosper, a larger number just get by, and the majority contend with poverty.  For those whose motto might be I’m alright, Jack, such a status quo might be fine.  But any society, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link.

I wonder, too, about the history my great-grandchildren (and their children) will learn, beginning perhaps thirty years from now, about the times we are presently living in.  Will it be a history of the life I am living?  Will it be a history of the lives led by the homeless in our cities?  Will it be a history of ethnic minorities who are being subjected right now to genocidal actions by oppressors?  Will it be a history of the demise of democracy in favour of authoritarianism?  Whose truth will survive?

More existentially, I wonder about the future of the planet itself, and whether our depredations will allow it to sustain human life as we have known it over the past hundred years.  I saw two pictures recently, taken from the same location one hundred years apart, that drove home the point very viscerally. 

Just as our human species has evolved (for better or worse) over the span of our history—and continues to evolve—so too does the planet continue to change.  And not necessarily for the better.  Are such evolutionary changes inevitable, beyond our ability to control, dooming our descendants to a dismal future?  Or is it within our capabilities and purview to act now to preserve a habitable planet for them?

Most of us govern ourselves by the values and truths we have come to accept, based on our accumulated experiences, which for the most part is conducive to social order.  But danger arises when we close our minds to the values and truths espoused by others, without trying at least to understand them.  At such times, we need to de-centre from our own perceptions of things, and try to see the world as those others see it, based on their experiences.

We need not necessarily accept those alternative views, but by understanding their genesis, we can contribute to a more harmonious existence.

And then, with any luck, we can acknowledge our differences, while at the same time recognizing the perils we face collectively.  That is how we shall survive.

And that is how there will be a history to pass along to those who will come after us.  Whatever the truth will be.