Work in progress
The principle of Yin and Yang continues to underpin the conduct of our human society. The question that confronts us is how to manage our society in a manner that provides balance between these two elemental forces.
On one hand, society is in decay. People faint in the crush to get a new BlackBerry at half price. Divorce is up across the country as families implode as a result of the stresses and temptations of life.
The situation is no different elsewhere: In Washington, the Democrats and Republicans bicker over ways to cut the national debt; Europe is in chaos.
Yet in the midst of all this evidence of impending collapse, there is hope that positive minds are creating a wave of change that will help put our species back on track, as well as evidence that sections of society are actively engaged in creating a sustainable, gentler society. At the Durban climate talks, one young woman is moved to stand up in front of world leaders and call for a different approach to the world’s problems. And they listen.
In my seniority, I have become something of a Malthusian. The concern is not that the world will become over-populated and unable to feed itself, but that we have transformed our biosphere so radically over the past 200 years that it begins to seem that some sort of collapse could be facing us.
There will be many who scoff and argue that human ingenuity is boundless and that a way forward will be found. I hope they are correct, and it is certainly true that positive forces are at work in the world we inhabit.
Anyone who denies the reality that we are doing damage to our ecosphere is ignoring witnessed truth. In my own life I have seen the world covered in concrete and palm oil plantations, the forests and their biodiversity shrinking dramatically. Forty years ago I traveled up the rivers of Sumatra, through jungles where in one village a huge python was trying to escape from a crowd of angered villagers, whose chickens it had just eaten. Nostaliga, now threepence off.
Flying into Jakarta one day, there is a 3,000-meter cloud of pollution blackening the city. Bali, the supposed island of the Gods, is an uncivilized hell where the beaches are too often filthy and aquifers are running dry as hotels and homes pump water out of the ground.
I have been to worse places. Dhaka in Bangladesh, where the air is filled with dust and even the rich suffer from respiratory disease, let alone the poor, so many of whom cram onto the streets to beg; Aboriginal settlements in Australia where people were born without a culture, because it was stolen from them.
A friend calls from Quito in Ecuador: “The city has become so crowded and polluted,” she tells me, and we talk about the value of a spiritual element in our effort to create that balance between Yin and Yang.
Compounding our errors
The problem we face today appears to be that we face not only severe ecological decay but also a profound moral decay, a failure of governance. Throughout history mismanagement, largely as a result of ignorance and often as a result of greed, has caused the collapse of societies.
With the ecosystem under immense pressure and the world population about to peak, the excesses of the thieves, liars and murderers who strip the world for nothing but their own personal gain is the last thing we need.
But there is good news. Take just one example of constructive engagement: Joko Widodo, the popular Mayor of Solo in Central Java, has thrown his hat into the ring for election as the next governor of Jakarta, and the groundswell, if not the political backing, that greeted his announcement is witness to the enthusiasm for change of civil society. Strikingly, he is known for his clean record and efficient administration. Faisal Basri will try to run as governor again but the economist, known for his no-nonsense manner, will not get party support.
Successful or not, the challenge that is being made by people who believe in constructive solutions and a search for sustainability is developing momentum that we hope still has time to save our plant from decay and possibly systemic collapse. Can we still create a workable balance in the continuum of our existence? A civil society is still possible, but the problems are daunting.
History is full of stories of societies that collapse, and it would arrogant of us to assume that we are smarter than all those other smart managers who created vibrant cultures in the past only to see them collapse, their peoples tumbling into some sort of Dark Age. There is at least a risk that it could happen to us.
Like many societies before ours, we have made our society extremely complex and it is not clear whether we are competent to manage it. The evidence of both ecological and moral decay, and all of the ramifications that they bring, do not present any confidence that at the end we will not prove to be just plain stupid.
The decay is not purely ecological, although that is an important element of the problem facing us. The 2008 mid-prime crisis in the United States represented grand theft, and no-one went to jail. The Bank Indonesia Liquidity Scheme in this country just over a decade ago was theft on a similar grand scale, with supposedly respectable bankers cutting and running with the billions injected to save their institutions from collapse. They ran, and the country collapsed.
We have built houses of cards, complex, intricate systems of engineering that tower mightily above the earth, but which are now being gnawed away at their foundations by our own short-sighted greed, like a bunch of hungry rats devouring their own bodies.
The results of the just-concluded climate talks in Durban, South Africa, fell short of hopes on a way to deal with emissions. Both developing and the (now not so rich) countries continued to balk. “Countries in Africa and Asia that bear the heaviest toll of climate change-related vagaries like droughts and famine fear that the momentum towards a new climate deal has stalled,” said one pro-green website. “Political, ideological and economic interests were the major hurdle to creation of a legally binding treaty,” said another.
Canada even went into reverse. Withdrawal from the Kyoto Treaty, it said, would save it $14 billion in penalties for not achieving its targets. Shikha Dalmia, writing in Reason Online, states that “the Durban talks were saved from total collapse after India and China agreed to language that accomplishes the remarkable double feat of ensuring that the world will never do anything to avert climate ‘catastrophe’—while keeping alive the illusion that it will.”
In response to this apparent reluctance of nations rich and poor to genuinely improve global governance, Abigail Borah, a US youth delegate at the 2011 Durban climate conference stood up in front of a session and told the learned delegates she was scared for her future. Much to her surprise, they listened.
Claiming to speak on behalf of the United States of America, she said the “obstructionist” Congress had “shackled justice and delayed ambition for far too long.” This is radical talk.
So much of the debate about how we manage our society is obstructionist and damaging. A far more logical course of action would appear to be attempt constructive solutions. I am writing this as Christmas approaches, recalling the refrain “Peace on Earth, Good Will to All Men.” Achieving that, and balancing the good and bad in the world at a sustainable level, is a work in progress.