Perfect Storm: The Day the Universe Changed
A good friend of mine, who is the presiding mayor of a nearby resort town (and who is, like me, a prolific scribbler), was explaining to me yesterday how our communities in this region are facing “a perfect storm”. Water, which hardly anyone gave much of a thought to before, has very suddenly become a worrisome and hot political issue — an urgent and pressing conundrum of both too little, and too much which our region is ill-prepared to handle.
It is interesting how “perfect storm” has become something of a meme in the public conversation. What the term is trying to package is the intuition of a convergence or conjoining of seemingly separate and autonomous events that combine synergetically to produce completely unexpected consequences that defy the expectations of our logic and “common sense”.
My friend’s problem, as mayor of a quaint little town situated in a beautiful valley on the shores of a beautiful great lake system, is the combination of climate change, government policy, and upstream and downstream activities that are combining to have serious impacts on water quality and volume.
Let me try to explain the complexities and perplexities of my friend the mayor’s conundrum, because his “perfect storm” is also our perfect storm, and he is quite aware — at least in an intellectual sort of way — of the fact that his own “perfect storm” is just an instance or episode in a more global context in which everything is now invisibly connected in a chain of consequence, co-dependence, and co-incidence that has come to be called, more or less, “Butterfly Effect”.
As I write this, the whole Valley lake system is under a water-use ban. Record precipitation levels over the last few years have resulted in recurrent flooding. The flooding has resulted in extremely high levels of e. coli and other contamination as run-off from upstream farms and raw sewage overflow from the city. In addition, potash mines, established or planned and which require absolutely huge volumes of water in their operations, are negotiating “water rights” with the provincial government which would give industry priority drawing rights on the Lake system, a fact which has understandably upset many of the downstream residents.
Downstream, the drainage or “ditching” of wetlands and sloughs by farmers (often illegal) seeking to increase their acreage and in the name of “property rights” (or “right-to-farm”) has resulted in enormous amounts of water flow into the system that is contributing annually to record (and economically devastating) flooding in Eastern Saskatchewan and Manitoba, with over 100 communities this year declaring “states of emergency“. The increase in standing water has the added problem of creating breeding pools for biting insects, many of which carry viruses, and we are here presently enduring something of a plague of these biting insects, which an African acquaintance of mine says is worse than anything he ever saw even in Africa.
Meanwhile, in its great wisdom and in the name of “fiscal responsibility”, “austerity” and “rationalisation” policy, the government (both federal and provincial) has moved to defund environmental and hydrology science and research along with water management programmes and policies.
Everyone, each pursuing their own narrow “rational self-interest” and their own particular understanding of “the good”, has contributed to this “perfect storm”. And I cite this as another example of how this “pursuit of rational self-interest” at the individual or “I” level has become indistinguishable from the irrational pursuit of self-destruction in larger terms at the “We” or public level.
This proves, for one thing, that “we” or “public” IS NOT a simple sum total or aggregation of many “Is” or egos and their particular sense of the good combining additively to produce a “greater good”. The exact opposite is the case, in fact.
“You create the reality you know”, said Seth. Why do we not perceive then these interdependencies and co-incidences that are conjoining to effect a general crisis of civilisation and the Modern Age?
Part of the issue is definitely what I would call “the cult of the ego”, or “culture of narcissism” as Lasch called it. That is largely what Gebser means by the “deficient” perspectivisation of the “point-of-view” mentality. It is structurally incapable of perceiving the larger whole and proceeds piecemeal. Things and events which are intrinsically co-dependent and mutually entangled are not perceived as co-dependent or co-incident or even as logically connected with their own implicit logic that belies their merely apparent status as “separate issues”. They aren’t separate issues. What we lack is the “overview” — the holistic awareness of their interconnectivity.
Thus when these apparently “separate issues” suddenly conjoin to produce the “perfect storm” or “blowback”, “perverse outcome”, “unintended consequence,” or “revenge effect” we are taken totally by surprise, and usually unpleasantly so. Still, our faults and deficiencies do not lie in the stars, Horatio, but in ourselves. And we face the “apocalyptic” moment of truth when we either realise it and come to see that we were deluded in our thinking, or we fall to the delusion.
We call this conjunction of improbabilities a “perfect storm” because our received logic is incapable of accounting for their co-incidence and co-dependence. Our intellect is incapable of mastering this sudden co-incidence of what its logic told it were “separate issues”. But we are all now ourselves in the midst of a “perfect storm” and unless we develop the capacity to think in terms of the “overview” — or what Jean Gebser calls “a universal way of looking at things” — a holistic way — we of the new Planetary Era will not survive it as a species. Of that I am quite certain.
We seem, in our time, beset by crises of all kinds — the crisis of democracy, the crisis of climate change, economic crisis, terrorism, the crisis of “superbugs” becoming resistant to our anti-biotics, etc, etc, etc. At root, however, it is really one crisis — a crisis of human consciousness. These crises which we think of as being “separate issues” and which we attempt, with all the flailing futility of a drowning man, to address piecemeal, are, in effect, co-incident and co-dependent, and they are conjoining to generate a “perfect storm”.
It builds slowly, perhaps imperceptibly, until it reaches a sudden tipping point. Very suddenly, one morning, you wake up like Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis to discover you don’t live in the same cosmos that you did when you went to sleep the previous evening. The entire “gestalt” or configuration of things has changed. The old familiar universe is gone and has been replaced with something else. Something weird. Something now called, perhaps, “the new normal”.
Do you still glance worriedly and furtively into the future half expecting Orwell’s dystopia to be lurking around every turn and corner? While we were sleeping, it snuck up on us from behind, from below, from above — from every direction but the one we were expecting and were looking in. We already live in Orwell’s dark world. So you can stop worrying about what might be, because it’s already here.
There’s even a certain degree of relief in knowing that, just as the patient experiences a certain sense of relief in knowing, finally, the name of the disease that is killing him or her.
All the requirements for Orwell’s dystopia are in place and are functioning, and it is called “the new normal”. I could go through Orwell’s 1984 point by point, feature by feature to show how Orwell’s dystopia of “oligarchic collectivism” is already our present reality — that we have finally become what Orwell only imagined.
So, the question now is not how to prevent and pre-empt it from becoming, but how to respond to it now that it’s here.
“The architects of power in the United States must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.” — Samuel Huntington