Watching the world is like closely examining a printed photograph of a human face. In a newspaper or magazine, a photo is made up of dots, or pixels, and a small piece seen close up is unrecognizable. In today's world, each of us receives vastly more bits of information than earlier generations did, but those bits are like the dots in an increasingly enormous picture. From where we normally see it, the world is incomprehensible. But stand back far enough, and the larger picture comes into focus. Multiple declines become visible as a single decline. It becomes clear that we are in a mega-crisis of our own making, and that we have a chance to escape it before it destroys us—though the window of opportunity is closing fast.
How to see through that window before it's too late? One way that human societies have long dealt with issues critical to their survival and future is to tell eye-opening stories. These myths, legends, and songs open minds by telling of unanticipated events, astonishing ordeals that serve as insights or warnings.
For such a story to work, however, the setting in which it takes place—the geography, climate, or culture—must be familiar. If you have experienced rain, for example, you can mentally extrapolate to a catastrophic flood. But if you have lived all your life in a place where no water has fallen from the sky and no sudden rivulet has run across the ground before you, the idea of a terrible flood may be impossible to grasp. Where there are no familiar conditions, there may be no galvanizing shocks. In a time of increasing disturbance and discontinuity, that perception paradox poses a growing threat to our ability to plan.
Earth's 6 billion natives are confronting a blitz of biological and physical alterations in the world that has sustained us in the past. This profound change is so completely outside our collective experience that we don't really see it, even when the evidence is overwhelming.
Environmental scientists have made it emphatically clear—about as close as scientists ever come to shouting—that we are in trouble. They describe four megaphenomena: rising carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, rising rates of extinction, rising consumption of resources, and rising population. Yet few people see a problem. Why are we not astonished?
There are several reasons. Although we have access to vast amounts of information, its quality is increasingly questionable. Real news is buried under a landslide of prepackaged news planted by corporate PR, ideological groups, and others interested in manipulating how we act and consume. Meanwhile, much important information is hidden—by spreading privatization (secret corporate data), by incomplete accounting (economic data that doesn't include costs to other species or generations), and by the expanding global shadow economy (underground or "informal" commerce). Information explosion has become information obliteration.
Our sources have become less trustworthy. Once our parents, elders, teachers, neighbors, and others we spent time with helped form our beliefs. In the past half-century we've shifted to surrogate sources: TV parents, often depicted as amiable fools or foils for the dominant youth culture; inspirational televangelists; morally outraged radio ideologues; and charismatic authors of best-selling "success" books.
Stressed out by unprecedented levels of environmental and social destabilization, we often react by fleeing—not just physically, but emotionally and cognitively. We entertain ourselves in artificial environments—stadiums, auditoriums, the interiors of cars—instead of canyons, vales, and dells. Perhaps because we're constantly cut off from the world, we no longer have strong expectations. Systemic misuses of technology make disconnection worse; automated toys and games provide the propulsion, conflict, and imagery once provided by children's arms, legs, and imaginations.
What to do? Most analysts approach this question in terms of policy. But policy has to reflect prevailing consciousness—beliefs, attitudes, values. So, just as pollution is more effectively attacked at the source, we must attack attitudes at their sources—in the education of kids by parents and schools, in university curricula, in media accountability. Today's average upper-middle-class college grads know much about entertainment and technology but have a medieval understanding of the world that won't get us through the next century.
Here are a few steps we can take:
These ideas are fundamental shifts in how we learn and perceive—and, possibly, in how we make policy. We may make more progress toward stabilizing climate change and biodiversity loss by focusing our efforts on parenting and primary schooling—and on our own enlightenment—than on trying to reform hidebound legislatures and bureaucracies. Once we make these shifts, two things will change quickly. First, we will break loose from our current jaded, dazed condition—in which, paradoxically, nothing surprises us, thus making us dangerously vulnerable to surprise. Second, making policy for a sustainable world—a job that has been bogged down or ambushed at almost every turn—will move forward more easily and speedily, as it must if it is to succeed.
Ed Ayres is editor of World Watch. Adapted from World Watch (May/June 1999). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (6 issues) from Box 97108, Washington, DC 20077-7799. The essay was originally excerpted from God’s Last Offer: Negotiating for a Sustainable Future (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999).