August 31, 2007

Party Time on the Titanic

An apt metaphor for the state of the Earth in these early days of the Third Millennium is the ocean-liner Titanic. That ship, you recall, was the epitome of human technological achievement in its age—a floating marvel, the fastest ship on the seven seas. Besides its giant size, it had steam-turbine engines, sealable bulkheads, opulent accommodations, and the latest communications invention—wireless radio.

Today, humanity is swollen with pride in its technology—gadgetry that starts off promising to free us, or enable us… and ends up enslaving us. We, the great middle class in the ‘Western world’ are the second-class passengers, enjoying unprecedented celebration in the ballroom. The lookout has already spotted the ice-field; has already notified the officers on deck of the danger. In response, the officers have ordered no change in course, and full speed ahead. Down below, the music blares on; the liquor flows copiously; the good fare-paying folks are having a great time, oblivious of the fate that awaits just the right moment.

That’s our world, spaceship Earth, at this moment. Yet, just try to inform anyone that this is our condition, that disaster looms. You know the reaction. It’s either pitying looks and patronizing comments that imply, or assert, that you must be certifiable; or it’s vehement argument that you’ve got it upside down. It’s classic ‘denial.’ Let’s take a look at why otherwise rational people are so set in denial.

For many in the affluent West, the best reason for denying impending doom is that everything’s coming up roses! At least on the surface, it appears that this is the best of times. In Canada, the economy is cooking like it hasn’t perhaps ever done before. Unemployment is at record lows; inflation (we are told) is low; consumption of goods is keeping the engine at high revs. What’s not to like? While we hear about geologic and weather calamities in far-off places, things are pretty peaceful, pretty normal, here in Lotus land. Politically, we don’t particularly care much for our electoral choices—the parties all seem to be populated by unabashed opportunists, whatever their campaign rhetoric; but we can still exercise our vote, and protest government policies. When you look at the big picture like that, does it not appear to be as close as reality allows to utopia?

It is, indeed, a fine veneer… but a thin, very fragile one. Look below the surface (those who dare). In the economic sphere, forget for a moment about ‘corrections,’ recessions, and the impersonal ‘business cycle.’ We now have China and India, each with a population exceeding one billion souls, each in a headlong dash down the yellow brick road of capitalist progress. Neither seems ready to moderate the pace of growth in deference to considerations of health, safety, and environmental integrity. Consider the effect of adding two billion more voracious ‘consumers’ to the global economy; consumers bent on emulating the nations that presently consume more resources per capita and absolutely than any other. It simply is not sustainable! Sure, the optimists are confident that our magical technologies will come to our rescue and pull a fresh rabbit out of the battered hat. Remember the Titanic? That technological marvel was sent to the bottom of the watery abyss by nothing more than frozen water! It’s time for the ordinary passenger to understand—there will be no magical solution. In fact, the world’s systems are already overextended and operating on razor thin margins of safety. In his book, ‘The Ingenuity Gap,’ author Thomas Homer-Dixon argues that we’ve stretched our faith in technology so thin that it’s only a matter of time before the result is major collapse (be it economically, or ecological, or whatever).

The freedom from natural disasters is more of a relative phenomenon and, for Canadians, a bit of colossal good luck—so far. While the narrow band of populated Canada that stretches horizontally just north of the US border has enjoyed basic ‘normalcy,’ things are far from normal in the far north. The sub-Arctic has been experiencing unusually warm seasons, resulting in premature melting of ice-roads; thawing of permafrost, with consequent problems with houses and infrastructure; displacement of flora and fauna; and general disruption of ancient patterns. To the south, in the USA, there are numerous natural disasters that cause loss of life and serious economic losses. Besides spectacular incidents like hurricane Katrina, there are swaths of destruction in the wake of tornadoes, severe floods in low-lands and river margins, sweeping bush fires in the Southwest, and always, rumors of smoking volcanoes in the Northwest and of earthquakes on the Pacific coast. Because these events are ‘regional’ in extent, those in unaffected areas simply watch the clips on the news, and carry on blissfully or resolutely.

Many in North America have family ties to Europe, so what’s happening in Europe? In Britain, there seems to be no end to the threat of ‘mad-cow disease.’ More than that, though, we saw massive flooding take place in the midlands in the summer of 2007… while continental Europe baked in a heat wave that took its toll of mostly elderly residents. Again, the regional nature of disasters allows those unaffected to carry on with their lives, and pretend that ‘it won’t happen here.’ The unsettling observation of anyone who can deny denial is that things are afoot on planet Earth, and it’s only a matter of time before ‘my region’ gets hit with a disaster of some kind… or the disasters become more than regional.

On the political front, the appearance of normalcy that prevails as of this writing (Aug/07) belies the turmoil that churns beneath the surface. Few citizens (in Canada, at least) seem to notice the curious abandonment of the good ship Bush even as it sails towards the expected end of its mandate. Numerous White House staff have taken their leave (the latest luminary, Alberto Gonzalez, hard on the heels of Karl Rove) before being rewarded with golden parachutes or awarded new posts in a renewed Republican administration. What do they know? What do they hope to escape? The less na├»ve reader knows that the Bush cabal is the most criminal gang ever to inhabit the White House. Their list of indictable offences grows with every passing day. Yet, incredibly, even the cynics and the knowledgeable persist in the odious and monstrous pretense that everything is, more or less, normal in the good, ole US of A. Why? It’s not an easy answer, but it has to do with preserving a grand illusion beyond all reason because so many depend on, and profit handsomely from it. To do the logical, reasonable, legal thing would be to risk unleashing the demons of civil chaos. No one can predict how the masses of Americans would react to revelations that their emperor has no ethics, the economy is rotten and crumbling, and everything they thought they believed about the righteousness of America and its governance is a pile of lies. No; it’s far easier and expedient for those privy to the truth to hold their nose, and more effectively, block or ignore the Decider-in-chief until his horrible term is finally over and he is retired to the revered ranks of former presidents.

The captain is drunk on the bridge—drunk with the heady fumes of delusions of grandeur and impervious to any news that would contradict. The band plays furiously, trying to drown out the cries of third-class passengers dying of hunger and disease, collateral damage to conflicts inflamed from the seat of Babylon. Out in the cold, clear, starry night, great forces are unfolding and giant hunks of natural matter make their impersonal way through the vast seas of fate. Quick—there may be time for one more boogie.