Riding the apocalypse
Pessimists have a habit of being right - in the end. Photo: Louie Douvis
Afew years ago, I took part in a panel discussion on the future as part of the Brisbane Festival of Ideas. My two co-panellists quickly declared their optimism (although both were fully across the challenges). I'd decided that morning to ''come out'' and admit I was a pessimist. ''Pessimist'' was a pejorative term, I said, but pessimists had the consolation of being right.
I realised more than five years ago, with the evidence of the growing effects of global warming, that we'd left it too late; and we are continuing to leave it too late. As well as being a real threat, climate change is also a symbol of humanity's wider predicament.
We are now facing our fifth decadal deadline for dealing with global environmental problems such as climate change, land and water degradation, food security, peak oil, population growth, and biodiversity loss. As each deadline passes without the necessary action being taken, we defer it another 10 years. With the failures (or at least limited achievements) of the 2009 Copenhagen conference on climate change, the 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit and the recent Doha climate change meeting, we are still waiting.
Indeed, one of the most striking things when we look back over the past 50 years is the resilience of the status quo, the persistence of a politics in Western democracies that, explicitly and implicitly, sees no need move beyond a worldview of unending material progress, despite the disenchantment of their citizens and the evident failure of material progress to deliver on its promise to keep making life better.
It is not that nothing worthwhile has been achieved with ''politics as usual'' approaches. And there are many good news stories - for example, the rapid growth in solar power.
But they all run up against huge-scale anomalies: the yawning gulf between the magnitude of the challenges and the scale of our responses. In addressing this chasm, we need to pay more attention to the psychosocial dynamics of our situation, not merely the geopolitical manoeuvring and the biophysical constraints and limits. In particular, we need to do more to link the debate about future threats to the current and growing costs of material progress and our high-consumption lifestyles to our health and well-being; it's not about a trade-off.
Our immediate, personal experiences count for more, psychologically, than abstract statistics and future uncertainties. People discount global threats for several reasons: a human bias towards optimism (she'll be right, we've overcome problems like this before), perceived uncertainty (there is a history of failed predictions of global collapse, and experts disagree), and system justification (a tendency to believe in and justify the way things are, and to not want to change the familiar status quo).
Surveys reveal deep social pessimism and public unease in developed nations, including Australia; pessimists outnumber optimists about our future quality of life.
But environmental and resource issues are not the main reasons. The concerns are more immediate and personal; more social, cultural and economic; more about the quality of relationships than material conditions. We need to show these are all part of the same predicament.
Dealing with this situation means going well beyond specific issues and policies. The magnitude of the necessary transformation will be akin to that from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, from the mediaeval mind to the modern mind.
The seeds of the Enlightenment were sown in the Middle Ages, including the turmoil of the 14th century and the devastation of the Black Death. So, too, are the seeds of a new consciousness being sown in the chaos of modern times. While the earlier revolution spanned centuries, the advances in education and communication could allow a new cultural revolution to happen in decades.
Christianity provided ''the matrix and law of mediaeval life, omnipresent, indeed compulsory'', the historian Barbara Tuchman has said. Its insistent principle was that ''the life of the spirit and of the afterworld was superior to the here and now, to material life on earth … The rupture of this principle and its replacement by belief in the worth of the individual and of an active life not necessarily focused on God is, in fact, what created the modern world and ended the Middle Ages.''
We now face another rupture or discontinuity in our view of ourselves, in what it is to be human, that will change profoundly how we live: one that will renounce the present excessive emphasis on the material and individual, and better acknowledge the importance of the communal and spiritual. There are signs this process has begun, although its direction is not yet established, and it remains largely invisible in politics and public affairs.
The emergence and growth of a new ''human story'' will not - now - spare us from troubled and turbulent times. Rather, such events will powerfully influence the course the transformation takes, the shape of things to emerge from the turmoil. They could help or hinder: provide the moral force for urgent action, or preoccupy us with crisis management. Several writers have described the revelatory, and potentially revolutionary, nature of disasters.
Not only can they bring out the best in us, and connect and empower us, but they also lay bare the social conditions and choices that often cause or contribute to disasters, delivering a societal shock that makes change possible.
As Junot Diaz says, apocalyptic catastrophes give us ''a chance to see aspects of our world that we as a society seek to run from, that we hide behind veils of denial''. Apocalypses are also opportunities: ''chances for us to see ourselves, to take responsibility for what we see, to change.'' Creating a new human story, a different awareness of ourselves, represents a ''no regrets'' strategy. It might no longer allow us to avoid global mayhem, but it would mitigate the effects by enhancing our personal and social resilience and preparedness.
But even in the absence of the threat of catastrophes, it would improve our quality of life. Even if we did not confront social, environmental, and economic limits and breakdowns, optimising our health and happiness requires transformational change. We may no longer be able to get out of the mess we're creating for ourselves, but we can still get through it.
Richard Eckersley is an independent researcher and writer (www .richardeckersley.com.au), and a director of Australia21 Ltd, a non-profit, strategic research company (www.australia21.org.au). This article draws on a longer essay, ''Whatever happened to Western civilisation?'', published in the November-December 2012 issue of The Futurist, the magazine of the US World Future Society.