No, Really, Rome is Burning

20 Jun

One day, should it ever get there, our intergalactic civilization will look back at this period in human history as pivotal. The faces of those leading us will become emblematic, they will be remembered as Neros or Stalins. I have a sense that the main players strutting about on the stage at this moment are taking us over the edge, and there will be no possibility of full recovery. There is something frightening in the way the end-game of our civilisation is playing itself out so mundanely. Like people led to their executions, we walk with our heads bowed. Dutifully we open the newspapers, we read “financial news” as if it holds the key to our future. Clutching our ideas fearfully, we watch the storm closing in, and we tell ourselves that our house is surely strong enough. But do we really have any conception of the forces that could destroy us? We are sitting on a small rock in an outrageously hostile universe, in which we could not even survive for a second.

I wonder how many of us ever stop to say thank you to this soft blue planet that has sheltered us and given us life?

So if we ever have the opportunity to look back at this era, what will we see? Well, for the first time, biosphere changes were starting to affect us. Extinction, loss of habitat, drought, climate extremes. Millions of refugees all over Africa and Asia and the Middle East were spilling over borders, desperate for water, food, jobs… life. Somehow the reason for their migration failed to impress itself on our species. On some level we still believed that people were crossing borders because they wanted “a better life,” the implication of this being that they wanted careers and iPads and air conditioned apartments. Yet it would have been closer to the truth to say that they wanted “life” – simply to stay alive and have that welcome feeling of opening their eyes in the morning.

Here and there, academics and serious-minded people were trying to tell us that war was erupting spontaneously everywhere mainly because of a growing scarcity of resources. But no one listened to them. The “great powers,” i.e. those intellectually impoverished countries that believed in military power, were busy filling their coffers by selling weapons and missiles and nuclear technology to any country willing to pay. The “powers” jostled for the influence they felt they earned by palming off missiles or fighter aircraft or assault rifles on countries where the leaders frantically probed the ground for oil or rare metals or anything else they could sell to pay for the hardware. Whilst also keeping a cut for themselves.

We are animals. To live, we need water and food, we need a social order in which to raise our children without the presence of raging psychopaths intent on killing us, without drought and war and overbearing leaders keen to put our sons in the army and waste our money on weapons and conquest. However hard we try, no human experience will ever be more important or blissful than walking under trees by a clean river with fish in it, maybe some dappled sunlight playing across the path, a few butterflies, clouds passing overhead, the tree-tops full of birds, our children laughing and running, friends waiting at the end of our walk with food and cooking fires. Nothing can ever outdo the emotion of knowing that on this day we will eat well, we will sleep peacefully, we have what we need, and we are surrounded by friends and supporters.

Violent leaders, politically obsessed individuals surrounded by security and police and armies, are essentially parasites on humanity. They claim allegiance to that blissful existence I have described above, but they try to impress on us that in order to achieve it we must first fight for it. We must tackle those who wish to destroy us, and, once we have destroyed or resisted them, we can get on with the good things of life. Usually there is an supremacist element in their projects. Vladimir Putin recently stated that the world would find out if it put Russia to the test that “the Russian soldier will never be defeated.” Apart from being blatantly untrue, the statement is drenched in unpalatable racial glorification and aggression.

So, the argument goes that peace is only possible if decent and hard-working Chinese, Russian, American citizens – excluding of course those who are not members of the tribe – can win against their malevolent enemies, usually in some form or other described as “extremists.” This is nothing less than a corruption of a good human impulse to live among friends and supporters in a community where resources can be more or less shared.

It seems inevitable that the blasted global trio – America, jealously guarding its power and attempting to assert the established values of the 20th century consensus; China, intent on undercutting and establishing itself in the Far East to the exclusion of anyone else; and Russian, economically underdeveloped but vast, armed to the teeth, and desperate for more power – will at some point come into proper conflict.

Humans can never agree on anything, after all. In America, the endless debates on gun control and climate change exemplify the inability of people to think logically or at least to make structured assertions based on precaution and responsibility. Never in my life have I read so much nonsense about climate change as I do on the Internet. There are millions of “experts” on the subject who seem to believe they have figured out one of the most complex issues facing the planet – many of them insist there is no climate change, while some say that rising CO2 levels will simply cause forests to grow and these will soak up the excess carbon. As for gun control, well, how could anyone (say a great many Americans) believe that stricter gun controls would save any lives? Yes, what fool could ever believe that shutting down gun shops and forcing people to hand in their weapons would have any effect on homicide rates?

The apparent inability of America to regulate itself and establish good governance does not augur well when we look at a fast-developing society such as China, fraught with political challenges as we look ahead. Are we all basically incompetent?

The deeper question now is whether we humans can respect our status as animals, while at the same raising our consciousness. Must we remain locked into what has been described in Girardian theory as the “mimetic response” – so that threat must always generate an equal counter-threat? Must we always be territorial, like wolves and lions? Must we kill our rivals, sending our children to fight for us and then weeping copiously at their funerals?

Possibly we have another 100 years, and then it seems increasingly likely that the answers to our perennial and unanswered questions will come and kick us in the teeth. In effect, we will have earned the martyrdom and silence that so many of us secretly crave.

The invention of ownership, territory, and violence has brought us to this point. We can let it all go, but to do so we will have to become bigger, wiser, older humans, the sort of humans who go on to do great things; who will always, always, maintain and cultivate our blue, soft planet as if we were a part of its body. Which is precisely what we are.



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