We're changing but, unlike the progression of change over the past three centuries, this time we're having increasingly less control over the pace and direction of changes that are, well, overtaking us. If you're fond of big surf, you'll know the feeling.
The environment is changing, moving surprisingly rapidly toward a new steady state, an epoch that has already been named the "anthropocene." All we seem to do in response is bicker about 'drop in the bucket' proposals that never get off the ground. Global warming isn't coming, it's here, and even if we could break our civilization's carbon addiction today, the warming would substantially worsen for another century.
And, even as the environment changes, the effects are compounded by overpopulation, over-consumption and over-contamination of our increasingly unstable biosphere, Earth. More billions of people with ever-increasing consumption habits results in ever greater contamination or pollution of the soil, water and atmosphere. It generates civil unrest and regional instability hallmarked by revolt, violent suppression, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and regional arms races now underway.
It's quite reasonable to expect that the magnitude of the environmental change coming our way will direct, even perhaps define, the political, military, economic, industrial and social structures and institutions of the 21st century. "Adaptation" (a delightfully benign and non-threatening synonym for 'survival') will probably supplant the concept of growth in driving our decisions.
When you're on a ride like this, you have to think and act well ahead of events if you're not to be overtaken by them, if you're to retain the initiative to act, control. The surfer analogy works again. They have to sit and study the sea behind them. They have to identify that one swell that will transform into the best wave to ride. They have to anticipate its approach speed and then paddle to gain enough speed to catch it and then surf it. The whole exercise is a culmination of a series of correct assessments and decisions. Get it wrong and you're left with an entirely different slate of options, none of them particularly pleasant.
Of all the things the best surfers have that our political leadership lacks, vision is the most critical. Our political class is myopic, a condition arising from perpetually gazing at its feet. It doesn't look out to the horizon, it doesn't focus to infinity and, hence, it doesn't see or question or evaluate or anticipate or plan for what's coming. Yet only our political leadership has the authority, resources and the powers to undertake a chore so Herculean. I understand they're apprehensive of the consequences of shaking the boat but the boat is already rocking if only they could get past their denial.
I thought I should add the following insights from U Calgary, professor emeritus Phil Elder who sees centuries of human nature standing in the way of action:
The scariest thing is that this potential threat to civilization, created by the wealthiest countries, gets a big shrug from many sincere, well-meaning people who are living happily in a state of denial. Yet despair leads to self-defeating paralysis (which may account for young people’s abstention from politics). Disaster is not inevitable; with political will, we can prevent it.
Why are we so slow to respond decisively? Human nature? Our species, accidentally created in Africa by evolution’s dumb engine, has opposable thumbs, powerful brains, and self-consciousness. But, at the same time, our mammalian bodies house strong, embedded instincts, which could endanger our survival.
Originally small roving bands of omnivores, humans now live in mega-groups and have so overrun the planet that civilization may be endangered. True, our intellect and technological creativity have created an unprecedented standard of living for huge populations. But, as Roland Wright suggests in his book A Short History of Progress,
… to use a computer analogy, we are running 21st-century software on hardware last upgraded 50,000 years ago ... . This human inability to see ... long-range consequences may be inherent to our kind, shaped by the millions of years when we lived from hand to mouth by hunting and gathering.For eons, change was so slow as to be imperceptible, except for decade-by-decade fluctuation of game resources. Therefore, long-term thinking had no survival value. When things got tight, bands moved on to more favourable territory in a limitless world, and, if other humans were already there, violence decided who would survive.
In these circumstances, we developed strong, embedded, aggressive instincts; fight-or-flight adrenaline; “nature, red in tooth and claw”; a need for short-term survival, regardless of tomorrow. Yet this mindset is deeply unsuitable for the modern world, which needs long-term planning and co-operation.
We also became mistrustful of outsiders and fearful of change. Defence mechanisms like denial, rationalization, and magical thinking were helpful comforts. So were greed – for our extended family, if not just for ourselves – and a willingness to exploit others.
Addressing these challenges isn't Apocalyptic. Ignoring them may well be.