Big Change is A’Gonna Come
I suppose many of you follow the current developments in climate science and perhaps have already realised, like some others, that the Paris Agreement (COP21) is just too little and too late to avert major climate change. The hopes invested in COP21 are only that it will prevent cataclysmic runaway climate change. Mitigation now means only that we hope — we really, really hope — that the unavoidable changes that are coming will stabilise eventually into a new relative equilibrium or global homeostasis, and not enter runaway. But even then, our planet will have changed drastically, and so too in necessary consequence will the human built-environment. So, it is all, in one sense, only a Pyrrhic Victory because there’s absolutely no way to avert the impending tragedy of global upheaval.
Incipit tragoedia — the tragedy begins. And, as all too often in history, human beings come to their senses too late.
Naturally it goes without saying that “the only constant is change” — impermanence. But the changes we are talking of, and which are already happening in some jurisdictions, is very, very rapid and abrupt change; a radical discontinuity. Rapid enough to be called “revolutionary” in any event, but usually described in terms of “crisis”, “havoc”, “chaotic transition”, and so on. “Paradigm shift” just doesn’t convey the kind of deep turbulence, even agony, that attends such revolutionary changes or “chaotic transitions”. But realistically, the best we can hope for at this stage of developments is to avoid runaway climate change, which would definitely be “game over” for the planet, as former NASA scientist James Hansen once remarked (and apparently he hasn’t changed his mind at all with COP21. He’s not the only one).
I think Hansen is right to conclude that catastrophic global climate change is now unavoidable. But I think it’s quite incorrect to assume it will necessarily be runaway, and that our Earth will, as T.S. Eliot once put it in “The Hollow Men”, end “not with a bang but a whimper”. (And since I just finished reading Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, I now know what Eliot meant by “the hollow men”).
The present human built-environment, along with human beings themselves, is largely built-up in the context of local climatic and biospheric conditions, all of which will change dramatically — that is to say, very rapidly. They will no longer be “fit for purpose”, as we say. And until new conditions should stabilise, no one will really know what will truly be “fit for purpose” either, whether in terms of human behaviours or the built-environment. Weather and climate chaos will be the norm for the duration of the transition from loss of homeostasis until the restoration of a new relative equilibrium. No one presently can really predict or envisage what that new equilibrium might be, and that’s what is making for a lot of anxiety about climate change. The map of the world is going to change. But so are familiar social patterns and relationships, culture, economics, etc. Conflicts, internal and external, over land, resources, water, and so on will become endemic as once fertile plains and forests become deserts, and deserts become forests and fertile plains. That mayhem has already started.
The strains and stresses on the human built-environment will be tremendous, even shattering. Many diseases, old and new, will become epidemic, for populations will have no developed immunity to them. Many wonderful species of flora and fauna will become extinct, and many new species will struggle to be born within unstable and chaotic conditions. And until (and if) the biosphere (which is an integral part of “climate”) also attains a new stable equilibrium, most of them will not succeed in securing themselves within conditions of continuous instability and disequilibrium. The same may be said for human beings, as individuals and as whole cultures. It will be a tragedy of the whole Earth.
So, if you have been fretting and worrying about what you can do to stop climate change, you can stop all that. There’s nothing you can do. At best, you can work to avert runaway climate change, but otherwise climate change and biospheric change is inevitable, and it’s going to be devastating for everything you think you know and love. Grieving will likely become the “new normal”. It’s fine to grieve, as long as that grief doesn’t slide into utter despair.
Under the circumstances, then, what can you do? My advise is: Do Nothing. After all, it’s our constant feeling that we have to do something — which we call our “busy-ness” — that helped get us into this mess in the first place. By “Do Nothing” I don’t mean remain apathetic or indifferent or standing aloof or (God forbid) what is presently called “survivalism”. Quite the contrary. It means remaining absolutely clear and open to being changed, for that is your ticket to survival, and you (or your children) will need it — radical openness. Nature, if you haven’t noticed, has a way of weeding out conservatives — the changeless ones — by sometimes brutal and harsh methods. Under these circumstances, Rosenstock-Huessy’s formula for survival knowledge respondeo, etsi mutabor (“I respond, although I will be changed”) is really your best hope of survival. You will be changed. But the manner of your response is what will determine whether it is positive or negative change, for one will lead into the Book of Life and another into grief and the grave.
By “do nothing”, though, I mean a kind of mindfulness or alertness — an “a-waring”. There was once an aboriginal radio programme on the local CBC called “Dead Dog Cafe”. Every show they would sign off with the words: “Be brave. Stay calm. Wait for the signs.” I was impressed. For in form and significance it is pretty much the equivalent of respondeo, etsi mutabor. And since we know that change, ours and the Earth’s, is now inevitable, but do not yet know what final form that change may take, all our responses during the “chaotic transition” can only be temporary, situational, conditional, and contingent ones, adapted to the exigencies of the moment until such time as the Earth, hopefully, reaches a new equilibrium. And by that time I think it’s also safe to say, that there will also be a new human type as well, since we cannot be isolated or insulated from all these changes ourselves, despite fantastical imaginings of “domed cities” and so on, which is nothing but a primal fantasy about a return to the sanctuary of cave and the cavern and grotto. It’s fantastical because that’s the meaning of the word “paradise” — a “walled enclosure”, which is also the significance of the dome on churches and mosques. Domed cities are less technological wonders than mythical symbols of a lost paradise and a return to the womb before the world began.
From the cave into infinity — that’s been quite a trip! And I might also say, (even at the risk of being misunderstood), that we now have to make a parallel journey — from the momentary into eternity. Therein, I think, is the key to understanding the human of the new type with a new consciousness. One type has journeyed from the cave into infinity. But a new type is needed to make the journey from the momentary into eternity and which will come to learn the secrets of time. And I do believe that this also is a crucial part of the “chaotic transition” — also an abrupt discontinuity in species consciousness in which temporicity, rather than spatiality, will become dominant. That’s already happening.
It’s hardly surprising to say, I think, that space and its organisation has been present humankind’s foremost and constant obsession — territories, nations, empires, demarcating private and public spaces, etc. It even treated time as if it were like space, which it isn’t. So, it might not be all that surprising to think that Nature no longer has much use for “spaceman” and is preparing a new type, a new experiment. At least, it’s possible to think of it that way. I think I could prepare a pretty good argument, too, that Nature is preparing a new species of human being, but for the time being I’ll leave that to the great Rumi to argue, in his poem “Green Ears”, and which mood was also reflected in Nietzsche’s “cheerfulness” despite his knowledge of the coming tragedy in “two centuries of nihilism”.
There was a long drought. Crops dried up.
The vineyard leaves turned black.
People were gasping and dying like fish
thrown up on shore and left there.
But one man was always laughing and smiling.
A group came and asked,
“Have you no compassion for this suffering?”
He answered, “To your eyes this is a drought.
To me, it is a form of God’s joy.
Everywhere in this desert I see green corn
growing waist high, a sea-wilderness
of young ears greener than leeks.
I reach to touch them.
How could I not?……