The Question of our Age

Published September 5, 2013

With apologies to Charles Dickens, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times. 

We are surrounded by miracles and wonders that would have dazzled the most indulged monarch of any earlier era. And we are preparing for ourselves a tribulation commensurately greater than any in our species’ record. A time of disruption which may, indeed, bring that record to an end (really, this time).

What to do? What to do?

These are the defining facts and central question of our age. We each get to answer them in our own way. But after a working life spent questioning the world around me and trying to organize its responses into coherent narratives that fit as many facts as I knew, this is one way I am answering them: by trying to interest you in the existential dangers that most of my colleagues in journalism are obliged to overlook, and in the brilliant opportunities that we are also, by and large, neglecting.

In taking up these subjects, I proceed from two basic beliefs: that human exceptionalism is an error; and so is that heroic, solitary and single-mindedly selfish human actor idealized by much of the political right.

Humanity is social; to be human is to participate in a team sport. But the habitual human belief in our own specialness is likewise deluded—and dangerous. It inclines us to denial of our circumstances.

Those circumstances are entirely novel in the history of our species—and no, not only because of the Internet.

In just a generation, since about 1980, we have passed through an event horizon: one of those thresholds which carries you forward with no possibility of return. We have gone from a state, continuous since we emerged as species from some earlier race of primates, of nature surplus, to one of nature scarcity. This had occurred from time to time over the centuries at local scales. It has never before in our experience been true at global scale.

Yet now we are over-consuming the planet’s life supportive capacity by approximately one third. To state the blindingly obvious, this cannot go on. It is well known that habitat loss is the greatest single cause of extinctions. Humanity has no special dispensation from this rule. 

This is a dimension of the human condition I describe as our ‘Natural Security’—and it will be an ongoing preoccupation of this column.

It is analogous to that much more celebrated aspect of our safety, national security, only, frankly, rather more important. Secure borders mean little when the people within them are starving, or can no longer sustain their livelihoods. (Indeed, even well-guarded borders seldom endure long under those conditions.)

It is already becoming clear that our natural security is severely compromised. Forest fires, unprecedented storm surges along coastlines, harvest failures, floods and droughts, are all reflections of its decline. If the habitat that sustains us fails entirely, we will flicker out with the same finality as a collapsed bloom of algae in a sea starved of oxygen. 

Yet we are mostly unmoved by the evidence that our natural security is dwindling. 

I can understand why. It’s hard to grasp when your own immediate reality is filled with an unprecedented over-abundance of stuff. It’s probably no easier to grasp when your life is without literacy, or is a daily struggle for simple food and shelter. It may well take generations before we fully accept the transition we are passing through. 

But it’s important to recognize the centrality of this transition to, and its determining influence over our many other problems—because it illuminates the opportunities we are also overlooking. 

Those exist because of my other fundamental premise: we are a social species. The narrative of humanity reveals an evolution from smaller and simpler social orders, to more complex and larger ones. We went from wandering family groups to towns to complex metropolises—not the other way around.

Likewise, the perimeters of shared social orders, expressed in common practices and routine exchange, have extended more often than they have contracted, to the point that they are now, if not yet entirely universal, nonetheless inclusive of the great majority of humanity.  

This is good, because large-scale violence is on the whole less likely within a shared social order than between one such order and a rival. That has always been the argument in defence of empire, from Pax Romana to Pax Americana: order, even when imposed, is good for prosperity.

Only since 1945 have we experimented with social orders at imperial scale based on contract instead of conquest. Europe, the continent most devastated by conquest’s ultimate failure, has taken this furthest. But the emerging structure of international law embodies the same evolution. 

The opposite of security is vulnerability—to pain, injury, hardship and death. Those will be the inevitable consequences of our diminished natural security: the tribulations ahead.

But our triumphs, in these best of times, are also instructive. They are, as they always have been, the product of collective action—of ‘team work,’ if that feels less ideologically loaded to you. From the pyramids, to the age of exploration under sail, to the iPad, humanity’s achievements are group efforts.

It is not naïvely idealistic then, to say “We’re all in this together.” It is the bluntest statement of fact.

In future instalments of this column I hope to explore both these themes: how ‘this’ looks—the state of our natural security—and things we can do about it, may already be doing about it, together. 

Copyright © 2013 Chris Wood