“The arrogance, rigidity, and blazing enthusiasm of religious fanatics who see in every hurricane and cosmic upheaval a sign that we are at the brink of apocalyptic catastrophe only alienate the shipwrecked and heartbroken.” – Brennan Manning, in ‘Ruthless Trust’.
A few years ago I realised that since my childhood I had believed I would not live past my 30s or 40s. This unquestioned assumption was not actually a morbid belief that I would die ‘before my time’ though – it was a product of growing up in the 80s, when media/ music industry campaigns like ‘we are the world’ highlighted the plight of drought-stricken African countries; and environmental campaigns aimed to raise our consciousness of issues like the hole in the ozone layer; while others claimed we were running out of fresh water (at the time, the estimates were ‘within 50 years’ – i.e. by 2035).
I remember feeling quite discouraged at the thought of living my latter decades (if I survived) in a bleak, post-apocalyptic world, like most dire Sci-Fi movies depict… This assumption that the world would not be around much longer, or at least the life on it might not, translated into a long-held assumption that it was highly unlikely that I would marry or have children (and pointless, surely, if the world was doomed to a dismal end soon after the children were born) – and certainly I would not live to be a grandparent, or need to plan for retirement… I wonder how many others of my generation may have felt this way?
In my teen years, my cynical yet naïve belief in this impending environmental apocalypse was further strengthened by being bombarded with the highly questionable but very popular religious ‘end times prophecies’ which some of my family members followed zealously. These were essentially the widely-loved (even outside of religious circles) conspiracy theories about ‘The Illuminati’, and speculations as to ‘the mark of the beast’ being barcodes on everyone’s foreheads or microchips in hands – without which you would not be able to buy food…
One such theory I remember very well, held that the world would be ending when the ‘New World Order’ was established, and that this was clearly going to be in 1994, when the agreement establishing the European Union was to be signed. I was told this just the year before, and although I was by then extremely sceptical of all of these ‘demon behind every bush’ stories, I couldn’t help wondering if perhaps it might be true, and feeling a pang of sadness at never being able to live my life beyond my school days, which had only just ended…
Well, 1994 came and went, and last I heard we were not about to run out of water in the next 20 years, although ecosystems are severely stressed and resources clearly limited… So a few years ago, I came to the strange realisation that I had held this unhealthy unconscious assumption all my life: that I would not reach old age, not be a grandparent, perhaps not even a parent…that my life would be cut short…that the whole world, in fact, was about to be wrapped up any minute now…
I had to stop and re-evaluate… EVERYTHING.
This new-found realisation that I could actually be around to claim that ‘super’ (retirement/pension fund money), to grow old and grey and look on as the world changed, and even to have children who would grow up and have their own children…that these were all possibilities for me… reshaped my worldview quite dramatically.
More recently, I have come to ask myself, why had I unquestioningly embraced such a negative foundation to build my life upon?
Sure, the environmentalists and the religious doomsayers adopt these extreme positions to raise our awareness of all that is wrong in the world and legitimately needs ‘fixing’. The belief that radical and urgent action is required to turn around the ship that appears to be sailing towards an iceberg, results in a lot of ‘shouting’ and panic, and understandably so. For this reason, the possible disasters in our future are painted in the starkest terms, in order to (it is hoped) scare us all out of our complacency, and into desperately needed action.
But as I concluded in my Masters dissertation on Climate Change communication in the media (which you can read here), this actually has the opposite effect on people – it discourages and therefore disempowers us – we end up doing nothing, because the problem seems too big, too overwhelming… most people think “where would I start – what possible difference could my little bit do to change the way we appear to be headed?”
Fear is actually our greatest enemy – far from being the strong motivator some hope it will be. In fact, fear campaigns have even been intentionally used, historically – by those in power, to keep the people from rising up and bringing about true freedom and much-needed social changes.
In fact, I am still not completely free of these nagging doubts about the direction the world is heading in – in 2012, I found myself wondering if the Mayans were right, then the world was ending sometime towards the end of the year…? I shuddered every time I heard that ‘prediction’, and wondered if they could in fact have tapped into some ‘collective unconscious’ or other freaky thing, and be right. Well, here we are in 2013, so of course it was all misguided fear-mongering…
More seriously, the recent upheavals in the financial world again fed into my previous expectations that the world is heading towards some sort of collapse… A world system that is rotten to the core cannot last long. At some point the structure will collapse because it has shallow foundations – credit, corruption, exploitation, ‘gambling’ with futures, lacking wisdom in how money is invested, lacking justice and accountability….
Like an unjust ruler, eventually ‘they’ – the financial tyrants, will be toppled. Either by people or by God – because for those of us who believe in an all-powerful, moral Creator of this universe, rather than randomness and amoral chaos, the very fabric of the universe is woven according to God’s principles of justice and love.
As Martin Luther King famously observed:
‘The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice…’
So yes, I still find it hard to shake a lifelong, inbuilt pessimism about where we are headed – spiritually, socially and environmentally. But you might ask, why fixate on these sorts of things – after all, what good can it possibly do? Even if the doomsayers are right, there is nothing you or I can do about cataclysmic events scheduled to interrupt our lives and make a mockery of our plans and dreams…
However, if that cataclysm is potentially of our own design, then we all have a job to do – from preventing further climate change, eliminating pollution and improving our use of resources on this planet; to eradicating preventable diseases; and feeding, clothing, housing, educating and empowering our fellow human beings…
From this perspective, it was with a mixture of interest, disbelief, relief and confusion that I encountered the following books (have a read of them if you are looking for some good news for a change):
1. ‘It’s getting better all the time – The 100 greatest trends of the past 100 years’ by Stephen Moore, 2000; and
2. ‘The improving state of the world – why we are living longer, healthier, more comfortable lives on a cleaner planet’ by Indur M. Goklany, 2007.
Now my view on this is perhaps a bit more nuanced than it was before, or than the views of these writers: even though I feel that the world is unquestionably in a bad state – environmentally, socially, and economically… we don’t have to give up.
We absolutely mustn’t give up. There is much work to be done. And we won’t get anywhere with moping and griping about it all!