Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Sinking Feeling

Do you ever get that feeling in the pit of your stomach, like you've just gone down the slope of the roller coaster except that you know you're sitting still?  I've been getting it a lot lately.  I get it whenever I'm reminded that the lifestyle I enjoy, and the feeling of security I have, is based on a global system that is profoundly unsustainable.

I got it again last week.  At the same time I was reading Albert Schweitzer's description of Jesus as a harbinger of the end of civilisation as he knew it, I was also reading Richard Ellis's The Empty Ocean.  Each chapter of this book is a variation on the one theme.  Not too long ago, the ocean teemed with huge populations of cod, tuna, albatross, seal, whale, dolphin, herring, etc etc.  Then within a few decades humans exploited the species to the point of extinction.  Some species are rebuilding after strong conservation efforts, others are not.  Undeterred, we plough on with our exploitation of the next species, deaf to the warnings of impending collapse.

What gets me despairing is the sense of helplessness.  It's the same feeling I had during the Copenhagen Summit.  Despite the obfuscation, everyone knows there is a problem, and the solutions to it are clear, although not easy.  But when it came down to it, competition triumphed over all else.  Our leaders could not reach agreement.  In effect, they agreed to go on being stupid, to go on failing to act in the face of overwhelming evidence.  Just like Ellis's fishermen.  Just like our governments who keep building more roads despite the looming decline of oil stocks.  Just like the loggers who go on felling rainforests despite our alarming loss of biodiversity. 

One of the most profound things I've ever read in my life is a passage in Henri Nouwen's Reaching Out.  I came back to it again and again.

The greatest obstacle to our entering into that profound dimension of life where our prayer takes place is our all-pervasive illusion of immortality.  At first it seems unlikely or simply untrue that we have such an illusion, since on many levels we are quite aware of our mortality.  Who thinks that he is immortal?... Although we keep telling each other and ourselves that we are going to die soon, our daily actions, thoughts and concerns keep revealing to us how hard it is to fully accept the reality of our own statements.

As with each of us, so with all of us.  We know our lifestyle is unsustainable, that our civilisation has to change to survive.  Yet day by day, year by year, we keep going in the old way, shutting our eyes to the coming end.  The sad thing is that while our individual deaths are inevitable, the suffering and chaos of social collapse can be avoided if we so choose.  But will we?

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