Asking the new Big Questions

This is a time for asking Big Questions. Not just the old, time-honored big questions, like “How do we live honorably and well in the face of our own inevitable death?” That was easy compared to the questions we are faced with now. The new Big Questions seem to be, “How do we live honorably and well in the face of our (apparently) looming species extinction? How do we make sense of our (apparent) incapacity to alter our behavior in light of this fact? Are we going to mimic the fate of every successful species before us, expanding to the limits of our petri dish until we collapse under the weight of our own success?” These questions are so big, and so scary, that we have met them with a steely culture of denial. Rather than face the reality of climate change, we have simply invented an alternative universe in which reality doesn't apply to us. 

There are signs that this culture of denial may be cracking, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, like a dam giving way to a reality bath that even our most alarmist climatologists did not see coming quite so soon. Bloomberg Reports cover story just before the election announced that crack in the dam. It's Global Warming, Stupid.

Writing in the Nov./Dec. 2012 issue of Orion Magazine, Charles C. Mann approaches this question head on. Looking at the history of ulta-successful species who have experienced this fatal collision with limits, Mann points out that “Not one has voluntarily turned back." "Not only is the task daunting", says Mann, "it’s strange. In the name of nature, we are asking human beings to do something deeply unnatural, something no other species has ever done or could ever do: constrain its own growth.”

Our collective denial has granted climate change an enormous head start. In the shadow of this denial, the likelihood that we will take our place in line behind other failed species grows with every passing season.

But there is a fascinating paradox built into our human dance with reality, and herein lies a slice of human nature that offers some reason for hope. Even the most painful truths become instantly less daunting when we turn toward them, rather than squandering our energy in fruitless resistance and flight. This is true even when that reality is a life-threatening illness, or the loss of something we dearly love. The critical moment comes when we embrace the painful truth, and begin applying our creative intelligence to working with what we now accept as true. The poet Rumi counseled 700 years ago, to “meet [our difficult truths] at the door laughing, and invite them in”. To do so with a curios mind and open heart does more to change the outcome in positive ways than a thousand doors barricaded against that same truth.

In his Orion piece, Mann finds hope in the sudden shifts of longstanding cultural attitudes toward slavery and women's rights during the previous two centuries, attitudes that had gone unquestioned for millennia in virtually every culture across the globe. When the moment was ripe, these attitudinal shifts came with stunning speed, and (despite small pockets of resistance) have spread worldwide. William James' notion of “behavioral plasticity” describes our uniquely human capacity to re-invent ourselves, indiviudally and culturally, in light of ever-changing circumstances. If we prove, according to Mann, unable to marshal this capacity toward self-correction with our own species cliff looming, “we would be, at last count, not an especially interesting species.”

I think we can still show ourselves to be more interesting that that.