Like everything else, Civilisation is in the throes of extreme societal upheaval. Of itself, this is not exactly an unknown condition. When we changed from hunter gathering to agriculture and urban living; when the Roman Empire fell; when the French Revolution signalled the beginning of the end of a settled order and the Industrial Revolution began, it must have caused each generation caught up in any one of these events to imagine that rational order was dead and gone. In each case the settled status quo was being torn up. The difference for us is that as our own status quo, the Industrial Age, is collapsing, everything is happening at a bewildering speed, beyond any previous experience, and this haste is combined with a complexity of issues that are demanding ever more urgent solutions. To add to those societal tremors, we must deal with a monstrous pandemic and the twin existential threats of climate change and loss of biodiversity, both caused by our intemperate, polluting selves. What we fondly imagine to be our continuing status quo, is already history.
Light and hope have only begun to seep through, largely because of President Biden’s wholehearted reversal of America’s policies and its effect of re-energising all of the likeminded states. In addition, our burgeoning youth, who luckily have such little respect for the certitudes and self-serving platitudes of the Industrial Age, are becoming very active. Perhaps we are beginning our move to safety.
The existential threats we must fix urgently. Although we really have no remaining need to defend the reality of those threats to our planet – the evidence is completely overwhelming – we must be prepared to suffer the arguments anyway, much as we have to tolerate flat earthers and evolution deniers. However, when the full import of the essential actions that must be taken to protect ourselves become apparent, the opposition to the necessary changes will turn feral.
That opposition will be driven mostly by those who are beneficiaries of the recent status quo, almost exclusively the wealthy. The most vociferous will include the fossil fuel companies and their shareholders, the mining and logging corporations, the financial houses. The corporations who put short term gain before public danger. The manufacturers who build in planned obsolescence. The fishing fleets. The list of such groups is legion. They will use their money and power to deny necessary action and try to obfuscate the reasons for such changes. The oil companies already boast that they will be carbon neutral in the near future but their calculations are so devious that they can achieve that target whilst increasing their levels of fossil fuel supplies. At the same time, they are vastly increasing their production of plastics. Their irrational, misleading, justifications have become a template for many others. More opposition will come from those wealthy individuals who need to own homes around the world and believe that their super yachts, private jets and Lamborghinis are essential for a decent life. After them are those of us who insist on fresh fruit and vegetables out of season. Who embrace a throwaway culture, think that doors and windows need to be made of teak and that new mahogany furniture is a sign of sophistication. It is this very large group that industry will try to persuade that the solution lies in our own hands and can be achieved by putting certain plastics in one bin, other kinds in another, (washed of course) and everything else in its proper place amongst a plethora of trash choices. Lobbyists and P.R. companies will be exhausted persuading us that our science is wrong and can be disregarded. Then there are other groups whom we might have supposed would be on the side of reason. Farmers, whose intrinsic love of the land and the animals they breed seems to become invisible when looked at through the prism of balance sheets. We cannot even depend on our major religions. Although their leaders often launch strongly worded, pious messages about the crises, unfortunately, their male driven obsession with gender and sex allows them to persuade their congregations to support any chancer willing to pay hypocritical lip service to those particular shibboleths. Far too many of those same churches are drifting into fundamentalism: the kind that suggests that the search for knowledge, even science itself, is not important. Why? Because everything humans need to know is already included in whichever ‘good book’ one believes in. None of these books mention climate, ecosystems or pollution.
Politics will of course be the real battlefield. Regretfully, they too are in chaos. The pace of change is so frenetic that fear of the future and the stress of trying to survive a present that changes every day and does not conform to the assumed givens of the familiar, result in a level of insecurity that gives charlatans their opportunity. They have taken that opportunity to persuade a great number of frightened people that the problems are mostly imaginary and are, in reality, just fairy-tale conspiracies spread by knavish liberals. The charlatan panacea is a populist one. A promise to lead us back to a safe, glorified past. The election of President Biden signalled the slow demise of those aforesaid charlatans. However, in allowing them to take centre stage we have, unfortunately, successfully mislaid our conservatives.
Their loss is a serious matter, even if a lot of liberals thank the Gods for their disappearance. But we need them! Liberals usually have a very clear idea of what they want the future to be, but like everyone else, they are not immune to following stars that lead to dead ends. They need criticism to hone their visions and turn them into realities. A tennis player does not improve their skill if their opponent is wading through six feet of water with only half a racket. Regrettably, for the moment, most of our conservatives in our most iconic democracies seem to have contracted a populist form of mad cow disease. They stagger incoherently from lie to lie, unable even to bellow properly (fortunately Frau Merkel is not infected). They put far too much faith in men who are incapable of love. We desperately need our sane conservatives back – the ones with their own hopes, visions and ideals. The ones who believe in truth.
Civilisation is described in many different ways, based on a kaleidoscope of special interests. As a non-expert, just an interested onlooker, it seems to me that the definition of the root of this very complex phenomenon is deceptively simple. That it is, in reality, a form of evolution but one driven not by genetics or the need to survive in particular niches but by the wholly unique gift of human intelligence. That it is simply the intelligent evolution of human society. Although it leaps ahead on occasion through the extraordinary minds of specific geniuses, it is a process that involves all human contributions, however small and unnoticed. It is on these, often tiny, insights that the geniuses build.
If, in our climb toward the end result of Civilisation, we fail to overcome the twin existential overhangs that we have placed in our own path, global warming and biodiversity loss, it will mean that we are not intelligent enough to survive. That we blindly accepted the norms of a status quo that failed us. We will then fade into nothingness as yet another unfit and unremembered species. The moon will shine on, regardless.
If, on the other hand, we perceive the threat quickly enough and survive it, we will continue on our upward path and eventually, and it may be a long delay, we will get to a calmer period when we can again refer to a status quo. It will be a very different model. It will not include our tribal divides between races, nationalities, genders, creeds or sexual orientation. Our differences will be cultural only. We will have broken the supposed marriage between money and work and rid ourselves of poverty, capital punishment, even guns and a vast number of our silly, but dogmatic, beliefs. The generation that reaches that stage will be quicker than we have been to realise that the past was a painful time to live. The endless fear for jobs will fade as we realise our much greater need for carers, educationalists, and experts of all sorts, and the insatiable need for people to complete the mother of all infrastructure programs: the cleansing of our home, the planet, and the recovery of our ecosystem.