Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Reflections Upon an Arbitrary Occasion

We happen to make a major division of our calendar at a time of no particular significance, 10 days after the solstice. Here in North America the days are growing longer but what is normally the coldest part of the year is still ahead of us. In other times and places, people have started the new year at planting time, or allowed it to rotate through the years with the phases of the moon.

Perhaps the turning of the calendar at this time is appropriate for us. The tendency to hibernate is conducive to reflection, as is the challenge of confronting the cold for those who choose resistance over accomodation. I tend to do a little bit of both.

This year, so far, has been the winter that wasn't in southern New England. Yesterday and today have been the chilliest days so far, but that isn't saying much -- temperatures have been in the high 20s overnight and near 40 in the afternoon. A dusting of wet snow yesterday was the first we've had all year, now nearly gone with the morning sun. Even milder weather is predicted for the coming week, beginning with a rainstorm tonight.

And that brings me to the greatest difficulty I have faced as an activist scholar in the past year. It's awfully hard to stay focused and energetic about the issues I study and write about professionally, as important as they are, when the whole world is studying a menu of profound crises, starting with the climate. The health of people who are among the wealthiest, healthiest and longest lived in history just doesn't seem all that important when the planetary biosphere is critically ill.

I console myself for the narrowness of my concerns, and my impact, with the reflection that it is all connected. Injustice, inequality, and unnecessary suffering persist in the United States because our public priorities and political discourse are so perverted. For a fraction of the wealth and passion we squander on creating and wielding instruments of violence, we could readily solve the problems that absorb my energies. The threat of climatic and ecological catastrophe obviously threatens public health, but more than that, the potential solutions also hold promise for mending other deep wounds.

The future of humanity depends on universal acceptance of the power of human reason and its greatest cultural achievement, the institution of science, to explain the world and guide our endeavours. Invading Iraq was a crime, but denying the truth of anthropogenic climate change, along with the underlying foundations of geology, cosmology and biology, was by far the Bush administration's greatest crime against humanity. The criminal conspiracy in the White House denied basic truths about the universe in order to win the votes of people who are exploited and misled, but more directly to protect the wealth and privilege of its sponsors in the oil industry and agribusiness.

The great world historical challenge of our age, to find an accomodation between humanity and its planetary home, is also our greatest opportunity. If we undertake it with clarity and humility, we will win universal cultural acceptance of the habit of seeing the world as it is, as it reveals itself to our senses and our reason, and not as we would like it to be, or have been told it must be by prophets and authorities.

A future habitable world will also have to be a world in which we accept limits, and negotiate to share fairly what we may have.

It will have to be a world without sexism, because equal status for women is the indispensable key to social progress and to a sustainable human population.

It will have to be a world with an appropriate mixture of global, regional and local institutions, both economic and political. We will need to coordinate and arrange our affairs on a planetary level, as one species; while gaining autonomy, community, and local self-reliance as diverse peoples.

It will have to be a world that directs the vast wealth and power we have gained through technological advances and capital investment into human development, including universal educational opportunity, cultural efflorescence, and exploration of the universe, because the ends to which we direct our powers now -- militarism and private acquisition -- are unsustainable.

It will have to be a world without war.

It will have to be a world in which humans live humbly and responsibly, with respect for the ecosystem that makes our own existence possible.

I believe we will achieve all of this because we have to.

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