TiVo and Facebook don’t mix. So writes my online friend Drew Dellinger, in response to my calling him a spoiler for posting the results of a World Cup match that I had yet to watch (on my Mac, as I have neither TiVo nor TV). Rather than blame an internationally-recognized poet for being careless with words, however, I will concede that it was my own fault. I should have known that somewhere out there on the procrastination highway I would come across a big, stinking pile of spilled beans. It didn’t prevent me from watching the game, but my heart just wasn’t in it.
Truthfully, my real interest lies not with worldly wordsmiths, the World Cup, or the world’s biggest social media network. It’s the world at large that concerns me, suffering as it is from the worst environmental disaster in decades, the most extreme weather in millennia, and the largest mass extinction event since the die-off of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It doesn’t take an international panel of climatologists to know which way the wind blows, especially when it’s blowing more fiercely than ever, and louder than an international chorus of droning vuvuzelas.
Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy calls it the Great Unraveling: a perfectly horrific storm of interrelated environmental crises threatening to tear apart the very fabric of life. The sobering details, well known to the informed global citizen and presented in my book‘s first chapter, “The Truth of Global Suffering,” need not be reiterated here. Without even considering the possibility of some disastrous turn of the tide in the Gulf, once can safely say that the weather forecast is none too favorable.
Indeed, the world as we know it is coming to an end. But here’s the good news: the world as we know it is coming to an end. The Great Unraveling finds its counterpart in The Great Turning: a revolution of the global heart-mind, away from its obsession with industrial growth, toward a devotion to a life-sustaining ethos. Macy sees it happening in the three distinct but mutually supportive arenas of activism, changing infrastructures, and shifting paradigms, while author Paul Hawken lectures regularly and optimistically about the hundreds of thousands of ecologically-oriented NGOs that together comprise what he calls the largest movement in history. Hawken likens this massive movement, which lacks centralized leadership, to a planetary immune response system, the efficacy of which depends on its diversity.
In the midst of global gloom, and often because of it, people are waking up in ever-increasing numbers. But as awareness grows, so do the challenges we face, leading to the large and looming question of our unique planetary moment: Will the Great Turning will prevail over the Great Unraveling? Although both breakdown and breakthrough are already well underway, they seem to be engaged in an increasingly tense and dramatic showdown.
On one side of the spectrum are those who insist that the Earth is due for a physical makeover of biblical proportions, as movies like 2012 are wont to depict in computer graphic detail. The planet will be wracked by epic earthquakes and tsunamis, major cities will be reduced to rubble, and millions of Earth’s creatures will perish suddenly and violently. This, or a similar scenario, is inevitable, says the cataclysm camp, whose conviction is often rooted in religious ideology. As powerless pawns in God’s game, the reasoning goes, we mortals can only pray that we be spared smiting and granted a comfy seat aboard the Fathership.
On the other extreme are those who feel equally certain that a sudden, seismic shift is indeed imminent, but that it will be metaphysical rather than physical in nature. In a cosmic flash, humanity will awaken en masse to a New Age of planetary compassion, universal love, and divine unity. This, or a similar scenario, is written in the stars, say the enlightenment crowd, who recommend that everyone just chill out and sit tight, bearing in mind that earthly existence is merely an illusion that will soon dissipate like so much ganja smoke.
Of course these are crude caricatures, meant to describe not distinct groups or individuals as much as psychological tendencies towards either dark-hearted pessimism or blind optimism. Given the precariousness of our situation, it’s natural to vacillate between these two extremes, and dangerous to become captivated by either one. They are the Scylla and Charybdis of the mind, waiting to lull us into complacency and false security, divest us of personal power, and absolve us of responsibility. Although they speak different languages, both tell the same story: the fate of life on Earth will be determined by forces beyond humanity’s control.
This idea strikes me as a very dangerous one, certain to accelerate our collective journey down the road to ruin. What’s more, it doesn’t jive with the powerful and paradigm-shifting insight of 20th century physics that reality is participatory. We are not, as the old guard preaches, feeble and passive observers of a fixed, objective order or cogs in a giant, lifeless machine. Nor are we, as the new guard intones, the all-powerful masters of our own destiny, capable of instantly conjuring anything we want out of pixie dust and wishful thinking. We are co-creative participants in a great cosmic adventure, the outcome of which must always remain unknown.
Uncertainty is not a burden of which we need to rid ourselves. It is a blessing that evokes our creativity, enlivens our spirit, and keeps our hearts in the game.
So please, for the sake of all sentient beings, don’t tell us how it ends.