It Was the Best of Times. It Was the Worst of Times.

“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness.”

That line from Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities helps to explain the human experience. It can relate to much of our history, but it reigns significantly true in regard to the relationships between humans and our planet. As far as I know, this is the only rock we really have a shot at life on that is anywhere close by – certainly no Virgin Galactic or SpaceX mission away. Yet we seem to treat this place as if it’s a house we’ve been invited to for an epic house party, wreck the thing, then walk away from the mess we helped create as if nothing ever happened and live happily ever after in our shiny, sparkling house down the road. But this isn’t possible (unless there have been some serious advances in the field of science and I don’t know about the discovery of earth 2.0 right next door).

Ever since we human beings took the role as earth’s dominating species, we’ve changed quite a few things, for better or for worse. Think of all the crazy advancements we’ve brought into the world. There’s something really marvelous about humanity (which is easy to forget when you’re inside of it all the time). There is something special about people – just take a look at the scale at which our brains have allowed us to create. Things the size of Tonka Toys to the Great Pyramids of Egypt; from fax machines to iPhones; we’ve created cultures, scientific theories, arts, languages, and Mozart’sClarinet Concerto. Witnessing the scale of humanity’s achievement in our creation and the interaction of that with the natural world and how it helps us to understand the natural world is awe inspiring, joyful, and reason to emanate wonder and pride. 

At the same time, humanity has done some things that I cannot fathom. As far as changing the landscape of earth, literally, we have been rather impactful. We dig large holes, build tall things, disrupt natural water flows, and knock down tall trees to clear large amounts of land. Maybe these are some of the reasons we’ve been able to generate so much of what we have now – but it’s not really sustainable. As it stands, the consumption of earth’s natural resources is at an all time high and scientist project it would take something like two-and-a-half earths to sustain. Yet nobody really seems to care.

Let me rewrite the script using some other terms. If there were to be an asteroid the size of… I don’t know, the moon or something…  headed straight towards earth and scientist were able to calculate that it will make impact in one-hundred years, the countries of the world would probably band together to figure out a way to stop this big rock from ‘rocking’ our world. Something like half of the greatest minds in the world would be in charge of finding ways to divert the asteroid, and the other half would be at work trying to come up with Plan B – come up with the best ways to prepare, adapt, and recover after such an impact just in case Plan A fails (Because I’m pretty optimistic in regard to human ingenuity, I think we’d figure out a solid solution for Plan A). 

Well that’s something like the situation we live in. It just doesn’t seem as pressing because there isn’t a definitive date as to when our natural resources will finally run dry. Scientist make projections, but these seem to be discredited year after year because twenty years ago, some scientist said we’d be out of resources in twenty years, yet we’re still here chugging right along. Nobody really knows when the tap will stop pumping, but one day it will. Advancements in technology help prolong use of many resources, but by definition, something that is non-renewable isn’t going to replicate itself to be used over and over again. When it’s gone, it’s gone for good. Think of our fossil fuels like a big barrel of water with a tap, and we cannot refill the barrel and the tap continuously drips. Eventually the barrel runs out of water to the dismay of all. For ever. Welcome to the world of non-renewable fossil fuels.

That’s only one of the issues. That’s only focusing on what we extract from the earth. What about what we generate? And what about how we treat one another? Let’s talk about anthropogenic climate change. There are plenty of skeptics to this (trust me I know, I grew up in a place where they run rampant). But when some 2000+ peer-reviewed journals say it’s so with less that 3% of opposition, I have to believe it’s so. I’m at least smart enough to know I don’t understand the science behind it all, so I’ll take what over 97% of experts in the field say is true as truth. Just to clarify what this anthropogenic climate change stuff means – humans are changing the natural systems of earth in such a way that permanent changes in climate are almost inevitable. It’s science. We’ve got to stop emitting greenhouse gasses at a rate that changes the systems in which we thrive. Every one of us is guilty, and every small adjustment does indeed make a difference. Don’t succumb to the psychology of feeling insignificant. 

Next up is violence. Or prejudice. Or war. Or whatever you want to call it. Instead of me spouting off on the subject, I’m going to relay some dialogue between two men who are relatively well known by the names of Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Long ago, in 1931, Einstein wrote to Freud for his input on a subject that was of pressing concern to him: hate. He writes, “Is it possible to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness?” To which Freud responds lengthily:

Conflicts of interest between man and man are resolved, in principle, by the recourse to violence. It is the same in the animal kingdom, from which man cannot claim exclusion; nevertheless, men are also prone to conflicts of opinion, touching, on occasion, the loftiest peaks of abstract thought, which seem to call for settlement by quite another method. 
[…]
We assume that human instincts are of two kinds: those that conserve and unify, which we call “erotic”, or else “sexual”; and, secondly, the instincts to destroy and kill, which we assimilate as the aggressive or destructive instincts. These are, as you perceive, the well-known opposites, Love and Hate, transformed into theoretical entities.
[…]
The cultural development of mankind (some, I know, prefer to call it civilization) has been in progress since immemorial antiquity. To this processus we owe all that is best in our composition, but also much that makes for human suffering. Its origins and causes are obscure, its issue is uncertain, but some of its characteristics are easy to perceive. It well may lead to the extinction of mankind, for it impairs the sexual function in more than one respect.

Freud’s conclusion resounds with discomfort in light of today’s conflict-torn world: 

How long have we to wait before the rest of men turn pacifist? Impossible to say, and yet perhaps our hope that these two factors — man’s cultural disposition and a well-founded dread of the form that future wars will take — may serve to put an end to war in the near future, is not chimerical. But by what ways or byways this will come about, we cannot guess. Meanwhile we may rest on the assurance that whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war.

Long story short, human beings have come into the picture and changed quite a few things. From climate change to oil spills to dead zones to war to slavery to garbage patches to mass extinctions and executions – we just impact a menagerie of things. We are constantly disturbing biodiversity, often reducing different ecosystems’ resiliency, which is the same resiliency we depend on for many of the natural resources we use (a vicious circle eh?). One day the system will collapse, and similar to an asteroid colliding with the earth – BOOM! – human life is severely altered or diminished. 

But it doesn’t have to continue this way. Just as I was speaking to the resilience of ecosystems earlier, human beings are a resilient, if not the most resilient, bunch. When we have problems, we seek and find solutions. We create until we have a way. This truth can be seen throughout history. We just have to have extreme focus, intention, and incentive. I believe we have enough incentive, now it’s just a matter of making the issue mainstream (similar to an asteroid coming to hit us).

Going back to Einstein for a little more wisdom, in contribution to a symposium on Europe and the Coming War in 1932, he made a moving reflection:

As long as all international conflicts are not subject to arbitration and the enforcement of decisions arrived at by arbitration is not guaranteed, and as long as war production is not prohibited we may be sure that war will follow upon war. Unless our civilization achieves the moral strength to overcome this evil, it is bound to share the fate of former civilizations: decline and decay.

If you substitute ‘war’ in this passage with any of the other monstrosities humans have created, it still propels a pretty strong call to action. People of the world can come together and do good work; civil society, governments, and businesses across borders can work together for the greater good of all – every one of earth’s citizens. It’s just a matter of getting past the differences, having good intentions, and believing that it’s possible to save our fellow human – even if they aren’t alive yet. We are here on earth to enjoy ourselves - to experience awe and wonder. We have such immense amounts of virtue, of luxury, of blessings, of interesting people and relationships - that’s worth saving, and it’s worth adjusting our mindsets for.

One day, and one day soon, let us knock off all the malarkey and work to dodge the asteroid headed right for us - in unison.