Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The State of the Planet

The first part of 2011 has been remarkable for the number of catastrophic events which have been on our screens and in our newspapers. Floods, cyclones, bushfires, earthquakes, and tsunamis have appeared almost in sequence within this region of the world, prompting many to pause and ask “what is going on?” The ever-present and continuous news presentations providing blanket coverage of these events has, to some extent, heightened awareness and – possibly – the sense of trauma being felt within the community. The distance from our lounge-room chairs to the flood-devastated residents of Brisbane and North Queensland, to the bushfire threatened residents of Perth, to the shaken and shattered residents of Christchurch or to the inundated residents of Japan has been greatly reduced by the wonders of telecommunication technology and the conspicuous presence of 24-hour news coverage. It is hard to avoid being drawn into these dramatic events. It is equally difficult to escape their presence. The trauma being experienced by the residents is encroaching upon our daily lives.

At one level, the sense of disaster we feel is heightened by our proximity to the events, both in vision and experience. Who can but help to be shaken by the images of waves destroying everything in their path which have saturated our screens in recent nights? How can we not be shaken to the core as we witness first-hand the distress of residents standing outside collapsed buildings wondering whether friends and loved ones are trapped inside? We experience these things in their raw state, entering ever more deeply into the experience of the residents. Not for us any longer the capacity to wait for news to reach us, often processed with the benefit of passing time. It is raw. It is filled with anguish. And the very screen which brings us into this drama also cuts us off from resources to help us process it. Aid and support workers are on the ground helping residents deal with their shock and grief, but not in our lounge rooms. We find ourselves either immersed in the trauma, or conceptually reducing it to a form of entertainment. (Remember the reminders during the events of September 11? Newscasters had to remind audiences that this was real. Note that we no longer find the need to do so.)

At another level, we seem to have been hit by an uninterrupted sequence of catastrophic events of an extreme nature. This sequence also gives rise to the question – is there something unusual about this sequence? Have we tripped off events by human action? While I resonate with Boris Johnson’s decrying of those who search for simplistic answers to this situation, I hesitate to rule out the need to ask ourselves whether our actions have somehow disturbed the delicate balance in creation to a point where the frequency of events has been accelerated and their ferocity intensified. Is it realistic to assume that we can extract billions of litres of crude oil from below the earth’s crust and replace it with seawater without upsetting the balance? Is it na├»ve to believe that setting off nuclear explosions beneath the earth’s surface has no impact on the stability of the tectonic plates? We are already pondering the impact of our carbon emissions on the planet… ought we not extend our considerations to other aspects below the surface? Of course the earth is not a person who “exacts revenge.” It is, however, a system in balance – an ever-shifting balance with tremendous capacity to adapt to changes – but one which does have limits to its flexibility. We can no longer presume on human capacity to treat creation as its plaything without some consideration of the potential consequences. Whilst I would agree that it is only human stupidity which seeks to ascribe simple or singular causes to such events, I would also suggest that it is only human arrogance that can allow us to continue as though these things were entirely matters of chance.

Yet when we hear the question, “What is going on?” echoing through ordinary conversation, we recognise the conversation being turned towards discussion of meta-narratives – is there a bigger picture of which this is part? The search for meaning is a basic human trait – that sense of purpose in life which explains who we are and why we live in a certain way. Although some might suggest that the idea of the meta-narrative has gone the way of the dodo, its resurrection at times such as this (and not only at this time) indicates that questions of meaning are still very much alive. This is why some find it irresistible to offer simplistic explanations: “It’s the judgment of God,” or “It’s the earth fighting back.” These are as helpful as Johnson’s suggestion that “we don't have to treat this as any kind of verdict on mankind's activities,” or to borrow a phrase from another politician, “shit happens.” An inappropriate response – at either end – does not invalidate the question. There is a middle ground where some thoughtful reflection needs to be undertaken about the impact of our lifestyle on the planet while we pour our efforts and resources into aid and support for the devastated regions (and not just those in the West!)

We do need to contemplate where our lifestyle is leading us, and whether these events are indicators, or simply isolated episodes consistent with the inherent volatility of our planet. Failure to even ask the question might allow us to journey into even deeper troubles.

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