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I start with this premise—that humankind finds itself at a totally exceptional moment of its existence because it is confronted, for the first time in its history, with the possibility of a conscious collective death, thus a suicide.
Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute and former director of the “Worldwatch Institute“ in Washington D.C., who presented his book in the European Parliament in 2005, started his conference with the following words.
“Our global economy grows so much that it exceeds the absorption capacity of the planet. Thus, it is leading us every day closer to decline and possible death”.
It is quite obvious to most observers and to the general public that our Western model of development is polluting and unsustainable. Still, it worked well enough as long as there were only 750 millions Westerners (U.S. and EU) to create pollution and as long as we could dump our refuse of nuisances on other countries. But now that China, India, Brazil and the rest of the world align themselves with the same “unsustainable” development policy, one has to add to the 750 million Westerners more than two billion people. Thus, it becomes obvious that there soon will not be enough fossil energy to fuel the planet, that there will be even more waste and pollution, and that the agricultural fields will decrease and become impoverished more rapidly than ever before. Carbon dioxide (CO2) production will increase, climate change will accelerate, and animal species will diminish ever faster. In short, we are going straight to the wall… and doing so more rapidly than we have foreseen.
If one extends the actual evolution curve, including China, India, rare are the “specialists” who deny the existence of a serious, very serious problem.
Recently, I was reading on the train an article by Koïchiro Matsuura, General Director of UNESCO9. In the article, he says:
”Mankind, the planet, and the cities now know that they may be mortal. Sure, mankind does not live its first ecologic crisis. But, we perhaps live the first global ecologic crisis of such a magnitude. Today, we understand that war on nature is a global war…”
and he continues by encouraging us to pull out of our conservatism,
“Is this sustainable development too expensive? No, it is rather our inertia which is costing us enormously! Javier Perez de Cuellar gave a clear caution in the 21st century dialogs: “How can we know and not be able to act, nor willing to?”
To end this war on Nature today, we need a new solidarity with the future generations. To this end, humankind needs to conclude a new pact—“a contract with Nature”—choosing co-development with the planet and signing an armistice with Nature!
If we want peace with Earth, let us have an ethic of the future prevail. Because the planet
is our mirror. If it is wounded or maimed, then we are the ones being wounded or maimed.
Matsuura also proposes that we embark as rapidly as possible toward the knowledge societies which are potentially much less pollutant and even, toward a real possibility of creating a global sustainable society.
“To change course, we must create societies of knowledge to combine the fight against poverty to investment in education, research and innovation, and build a structure of a true ethic of responsibility.”
We shall return to the subject proposed by Matsuura of war on Nature, which finally is a war on ourselves. The question, which quietly tortures our civilization, is to know if we will globally move toward life or if we collectively will walk toward death? Are we going toward the irreversible destruction of our natural environment and, thus, in time, toward our own collective suicide? Are tensions, and cruel socio-economic wars and devastating invasions awaiting us? Or will we make the necessary decisions to ensure our survival… and will we make them in time?
These are the difficult questions buried in the depths, which haunt our civilization.
Our time is dominated by a collective feeling of death, which is not called as such. For instance, black has become the dominant colour in youth fashion and in the street. This was unthinkable in the 1960’s. Isn’t this fashion precisely revealing the feeling of death related to the end of one vision of life—the end of a period? Something is dying, and the agony of the system permeates the minds and clogs the horizon.
A decadent civilization has no future.
But, at the same time, in the entire world, something is being born which is thrilling but still perceptible with difficulty.
I was invited, some time ago, to give a talk to one hundred business leaders of an important French industrial group in Paris. I remember that after presentation, which considered different levels of the actual mutation I alluded to above, there was a long, embarrassed silence. Then someone asked, “Do you think that is the end of France ?”10
This type of question reveals the subconscious presence of this potent feeling of death. This question is most indicative of the underlying currents of our society; the feeling that something is dying.
The challenges to our survival that I have described above are forcing us to change. But change and transformation can be difficult. Civilizations, in general, do not like changes, and we should not feel too guilty if we, too, sense in ourselves a resistance to change.
Acceptance of changes was not easy during other mutations in History—such as at the Renaissance—for a very simple reason. Eras of major change involve transfers of power between those who maintained power in the old system and those who will have the power in the new. In all my studies of history, I have never come across a transfer of power that occurred harmoniously and smoothly. This is probably why the end of the Middle Ages was littered with so many wars and so much individual and collective violence.
As an example, consider the entrancing world of the universitas—those universities of which the professors were theologians who spoke Latin and travelled throughout Europe to exchange ideas and to enrich each other. The lives of Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Albert the Great and others are full of travels and teaching throughout Europe. It was a world truly endowed with great universal values, which died, also suddenly, without understanding why.
Justas Lipsius was chancellor of the University of Louvain11, one of the jewels of scholastic theology dominating Europe and the western world at that time. In 1606, the year of his death, he said, “Omnia cadunt”—that is, “Everything collapses!” Sixty years after the Reformation, and as printing started its irresistible ascent, it was not only the University of Louvain that collapsed, but also the whole architecture of medieval knowledge, which found itself suddenly threatened to death. Latin, the common language of Europe, gave way to vernaculars. The absolute domination of theology was disparaged by the appearance of new disciplines in the modern, laic, and humanistic University. A whole world of values, determinant for centuries, which one believed immutable, collapsed, crushed to death by its own weight.
Many did not understand and refused to change. This refusal is marked, in Justus Lipsius’ sentence, by the word” omnia”. Had he said, “multa cadunt“ (many things disappear), he would have helped his contemporaries understand the change, But he refused it, likely because he himself did not understand12.
This refusal of change, which often proceeds from an error of analysis, wrongly equates paradigm change with world death. Indeed, many human beings feel that if their world disappears, it is the entire world that is going. And this feeling manifests at the level of a subconscious anguish, which is not easy to reason with… and overcome. Such anguish often prevents those who are worried and in death from seeing what is discreetly rising in the fringes and interstices of the dominant system in crisis.
For the first time in human history, we have built a global civilization, which has achieved the technical capacity to feed itself without compromising its future… and does not do it.
There has never been so much poverty and misery on Earth as there is today. Thousands of children die every day of hunger in a frightening silence. Our planet itself is in mortal danger. The survival of all of us is at stake.
What is happening? How can we explain the gripping and revolting contrast between our technological capacities and our incapability of using them to resolve our most troubling problems? In reality, we seem incapable to direct our tools and our intellectual and collective wills toward life—our civilization seems incapable of recognizing, much less solving, the fundamental problem of its own survival. It finds itself sliding inexorably toward nonsense and death—death of nature and irreversible loss of animal and vegetable species. Millions of children are dying of hunger. Thousands of young and adults in the northern countries commit suicide. Faced with this energy of death, we are deeply divided between revolt and despair.
Such is the fundamental uneasiness.
Is it possible to change our polarity—that is, to change something at the deepest of our collective unconsciousness, at the level of prime narration and the founding myth of our global civilization? It seems completely necessary for us to pass from a death instinct to a life instinct, from a culture of violence to a culture of peace to insure the survival itself of humankind.
But how can it be done?
This question is central. Its difficulty is proportional to what is at stake. It makes us touch the roots of our western civilization, but also, more broadly, the roots of most civilizations and cultures of the world.
So why are we doing nothing?
Vaclav Havel may have best described this sickness of the soul when he said:
“This inaction is explained by a desperate lack of will and inner need, that is to say by obstacles belonging to the field of the conscience and the mind. I draw from it a stronger and stronger conviction: the reversal of the situation is possible only if a change begins in the mind itself, in man’s relation to the world, in his acceptance of the values of life, in his mentality, and in his way to be responsible.”13
These timely words make us touch the deepest level of uneasiness of our modern and industrial civilization.
Our civilization seems to have lost the spiritual energy needed to make the decisions necessary for Life. Could it have lost its soul? I am tempted to believe it. In any case, it seems incapable of this ethical leap, this refusal of fatality allowing us to reconnect with the elementary and fundamental survival instinct.
In the end, the predictions of Max Weber regarding the disenchantment of the world have become reality. The disenchantment seems to have simmered from generation to generation, deeper and deeper…into our bone marrow.
And this disenchantment paralyzes us.
At the same time that we are experiencing this profound and uneasy sense of Death, however, Life seems to be rising again, quietly, deep in the heart of all citizens (male and female) of the entire world. (I will discuss this more in Chapter 9.)
In this chapter, I have invited the reader to go deep into very the cold water of our collective subconscious. It is not an easy step, but it is an essential one.
We find much dead energy there. We touch on the roots of our civilization crisis—roots that are difficult to talk about and about which few people speak, aside for some intellectuals. We also see that the young generation is at the front line of an awakening to Life but that it also is at the front line of the sufferings stemming from this contemporary crisis.
And I identified the source of our individual and collective “disenchantment.“
Ces messieurs ont appelé dame Bess, dit-il; mais dame Bess n’est pas au cottage