Saturday, 21 February 2015

World Diagram #1

I've often thought the world can be described in a single diagram.  After all, how complicated can one planet be?

This is not it, but it's a little bit of the way there - a diagram which explains how we need to understand current world events by means of a pyramid.  If I was really clever I'd make it an iceberg with the top item and half the second sticking out of the water but if you want cute and pretty you'll just have to look elsewhere.  (If you click on it, at least you'll see it full size).

The idea behind this diagram is that we spend a lot of time focused on surface symptoms of deeper problems.  Because we spend so much of our effort on the symptoms we often fail to see what lies beneath them, so we opt for superficial solutions too.  We focus on cleaning up after natural disasters, playing with monetary and fiscal settings to smooth out fluctuations in our economy, surveillance and policing to prevent terrorist attacks, "stopping the boats" in response to the global refugee crisis and so forth.  These actions seem to relieve the problems in the short term, but they keep recurring.

Beneath these symptoms there lie a series of more fundamental and intractable issues.  These include things like our ongoing state of war, long-standing ethnic and religious tension, economic inequalities and the perseverance of absolute poverty.  We are generally aware of these issues but we don't necessarily understand them very well and they are often surrounded by mythology.

For instance, when we see Islamic State carrying out religious persecutions we attribute this emergence to Islam.  In focusing on this we forget that Islam has been the dominant faith in Iraq and Syria for over 1,000 years and is only now beginning this religious cleansing process.  Why now?

In the same way, we are aware of poverty as a phenomenon but only poorly understand the dynamics of trade, colonialism and resource distribution that bring it into being, so we tend to act as if it can be solved through things like child sponsorship and community development projects.  We respond to the immediate need, or the immediate crisis, without understanding the root causes of the problems we are addressing.  This means that often our good work can be undone.  We build peace and understanding between communities only for war to break out.  We educate children but then find that they are unemployed.  We build community enterprises only for them to be destroyed by civil war.

Part of the reason that these efforts are so fragile is because there is a set of even deeper issues that underpin them.  These are first, physical and then, beneath these, psychological or spiritual.

Physically, in the 21st century we are reaching a number of hard ecological limits.  Our use of the atmosphere as a dumping ground for carbon emissions is causing irreversible climate change.  Oil production has reached its historical peak and will soon begin to decline.  Fish stocks are collapsing in many parts of the world as a result of factory fishing.  Population growth is placing strain on our agricultural resources, and factory farming is depleting many areas of arable land.

The effects of our reaching these limits are behind many of the problems that plague our world.  Climate change drives the increased severity of natural disasters, while population growth and inequality means that they impact more people, more severely.  The struggle is intensifying for access to the world's remaining oil resources, and this struggle lies at the root of much of what appears on the surface to be Islamic militancy, and of our inept responses to it.  Many of the civil wars that plague Africa revolve around control of scarce arable land and water by increasingly poor and desperate populations.

We could leave it there, were it not for one thing.  Our reaching and exceeding  these various limits is not a matter of chance, random fluctuations or inevitable natural processes.  It is caused by decisions made by human beings, often in full knowledge of their consequences.  Why do we go on acting in this apparently foolish way?

I believe at least part of the answer is that we act on the basis of a number of pervasive illusions.  If you like, you could call them forms of idolatry - false and destructive world-views.  We eternalise our nations and cultures, acting as if they were invulnerable.  We worship the gods of progress and unlimited growth, believing we can go on taking more materials from the earth without them ever running out.  We have faith that every problem has a technological solution.  In a sense, be believe ourselves to be gods, in charge of the earth and the universe.  These illusions blind us to our true situation and prevent us from changing course.

The scale of this problem, the complexity of the layers of meaning and the pervasiveness of our illusions can leave us feeling hopeless.  Should we just give up and let what happens, happen?  Should we stop doing acts of charity, or trying to work for a fairer distribution of wealth, and focus purely on the ecological or spiritual plane?

For me, looking at the world in this way is certainly humbling and more than a little daunting.  It forces me to acknowledge that I, and my friends and fellow-travellers on this journey, have only limited influence.  We cannot save the world, hard though we may try.

However, this truth can also set us free.  This becomes more than just a form of words.  Although we can easily be drawn back into the illusions of our time and place, we are also able, at least a little, to escape them.  We are able to act on the basis that our society and its driving ethos are transitory, that the way we live now did not always exist, and will not exist forever.  Our choice is not between change and no change, it is only between better change and worse change.

Our efforts, whether simple works of charity and kindness, political actions to redistribute wealth, ecological actions to reduce pollution, or intellectual and spiritual efforts to unmask illusions and shine a light in dark places, can all make it better, even if just in a tiny way.

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