It has been apparent for years that nothing we are doing about climate change and the host of other global issues we must contend with will spare us from troubled and turbulent times. Rather, the crises will powerfully influence the course history takes, the shape of things to come after the turmoil. They could help or hinder: provide the moral force for urgent action, or preoccupy us with emergency management.
In coming to this realisation, I have taken heart from writers who 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 can also lay bare the social conditions and choices that often cause or contribute to disasters, delivering a societal shock that makes change possible.
Increasingly, the leadership is coming from the sciences, humanities and arts. This is perhaps not surprising.
Writer and academic Junot Diaz, writing in 2011, used the 2010 earthquake in Haiti as a sign of what was to come. Even before the earthquake, Haiti was reeling, and it needed only the slightest shove to send it into catastrophe. In the process of causing things to fall apart, he said, apocalyptic catastrophes also 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, he writes: "chances for us to see ourselves, to take responsibility for what we see, to change."
And so it is with the bushfire calamity that has enveloped Australia. Beyond the environmental, social and economic causes and impacts - and their politics - we also need to realise that the fires reveal a civilisational challenge. Even in accepting the role of climate change as a contributing factor to the fires, we need also to acknowledge that what we are doing about climate change is not working, and will not work, because it does not go deeply enough into the nature of our civilisation.
The bushfires could - and should - help to strip the "veils of denial" from our eyes.
I once described two scenarios for the future - "cheap thrills" and "inner harmony" - based on two family holiday experiences: a visit to Dreamworld, the large amusement park on the Gold Coast; and a walk along a bush track to Chenrezig , a Buddhist retreat in hills inland from the Sunshine Coast to the north. The scenarios - we could call them parables - reflect the growing and conflicting trends in modern life that are producing an increasing tension between our professed values - a desire for simpler, less materialistic, less fraught lives - and our lifestyle - one encouraged, even imposed, by our consumer economy and culture.
Dreamworld - like all such places, huge retail/leisure centres included - is a good metaphor for the current preoccupations of modern Western societies: the quest for evermore forms of consumption that offer pleasure, fun, excitement, and even promise happiness. Chenrezig - with its sign requesting no drugs, sex or killing (of anything), its tranquillity, and the Buddhist recognition that suffering is rooted in unceasing desire - is about something entirely different: developing a new (from a modern Western perspective) awareness of ourselves and our relationship with nature
"Cheap thrills" does nothing to address the challenges we face. In fact, its appeal lies in allowing us to avoid such issues, in celebrating the power of technology to distract and amuse. "Inner harmony", on the other hand, reflects an emerging global consciousness, environmental sensitivity and spiritual awareness - a transformation of the dominant ethos of industrialised nations in recent centuries.
The structures of modern societies, especially politics and business, are still driven by the old ethos. In the spaces between these structures, at deeper levels of our psyche, the new is emerging. We need to acknowledge this, to recognise in our social and political analysis and commentary the importance of richer philosophical, historical and scientific insights.
It is the continuing failure to have this deeper and broader discussion that has led to the crises we now have. As I wrote then: "In ordinary times, it is perhaps normal for different planes of perception and understanding of the human condition to remain relatively separate and distinct, with little friction, or influence, occurring between them. In transitional epochs, when what it is to be human is undergoing profound evaluation and radical alteration, these planes of perception need to come together in a single, interwoven, public conversation. Ours is such a time."
Our political culture is ill-suited to offering leadership in this conversation. It is at best indifferent, at worst hostile, to such reflections, becoming increasingly preoccupied with more immediate, specific, transient and even more trivial concerns. The result is a dislocation that jeopardises democracy.
Increasingly, the leadership is coming from the sciences, humanities and arts. This is perhaps not surprising because it is, at heart, their role in society: to allow us to see reality more truthfully.
- Richard Eckersley is an independent researcher and writer on progress, sustainability, wellbeing and the future. richardeckersley.com.au