But in these plethoric times when there is too much coarse stuff for everybody and the struggle for life takes the form of competitive advertisement and the effort to fill your neighbor's eye, there is no urgent demand either for personal courage, sound nerves or stark beauty, we find ourselves by accident. Always before these times the bulk of people did not overeat themselves, because they couldn't, whether they wanted to or not, and all but a very few were kept "fit" by unavoidable exercise and personal danger. Now, if only he pitch his standard low enough and keep free from pride, almost anyone can achieve a sort of excess. You can go through contemporary life fudging and evading, indulging and slacking, never really hungry nor frightened nor passionately stirred, your highest moment a mere sentimental orgasm, and your first real contact with primary and elemental necessities the sweat on your deathbed. -- H.G. Wells
I was walking through a cemetery in São Paulo last week, thinking about the lives of the thousands of bodies laid there. Many there experienced waves of depression and military rule; the world wars and their lopsided aftermaths; and life-shattering changes from the rise of capitalism and information. Even if any of them could have been sheltered from these, they no doubt had their own stories of unrequited love, self-fulfilled betrayal, lost childhoods, and nights of drinking they wish they forgot. Life is complicated, parts full to overflowing and others empty and walled shut, full of trials and hard-won wisdom, and then its over.
As with many people working in technology today, aspects of my life are deadly comfortable. I'm in debt, but not burdensomely so. If there have been weeks I could only afford Ramen, they're far-outnumbered by the times I've eat out. I can travel and live in economically stifled areas, and the only personal cost to me is in sympathy to others who don't have my privileges.
It seems that technology and economic stability also teaches us to be miserly with our emotions. So much of contemporary life is the life of an ant. Most of us are asked to behave and produce at the will of impersonal systems for our jobs. Almost every interaction we have except amongst friends is through roles we've learned to play, like the public transportation passenger and the store goods purchaser. To bring personal emotions into these situations-- that is, to act human-- would be a social crime.
But we crave more: the life of true danger and true potential. And everywhere companies are happy to oblige. Cars, sports, cruises, and beer all promise to give us the thrill we seek. They each promise to introduce us a new, wonderful god into our lives, for a price.
We're in the middle of an economic crisis. For many people, that means less opportunities to purchase outlets from the drone of life, and more time lost to patterned money-making. Money has stopped making money, so we horde as much as we can, to brace for the uncertain times ahead.
But the economic crisis is just a cog in a far more dire crisis happening now. The world-wide environmental crisis is all around us, and it promises more death and misery, more life-altering and culture-stifling changes, and longer and further-reaching ramifications.
It's likely that the world population will drop dramatically-- at least 20%-- in a generation. That means wide-spread famines, water shortages, and break-downs of civilization-- if not huge natural disasters-- across the globe. Our eco-system is falling apart, and it's getting worse fast. Last year's increase in CO2 was more than many "worst-case" projections. Half the people I've talked to who should know say that Brazil's rain forest will be gone in 50 years.
Every moneyed transaction you engage in is part of a world-wide system, and much of that system is bent to stripping the world of its natural resources. If the economic crisis means cutting corners to save money, we're going to accelerate our doom. If we direct our savings in conservative investments, it will stifle the changing action that needs to happen now.
I have friends who have been hoping for the right answer to come from a Marxist or anarchist revolution-- saying that capitalism is the problem (I agree it's one of the problems). Other friends point to improving technology as the answer.
But we can't wait any more.
These are the days told of in legends. We are knights and kings, and there is a maiden of great beauty in distress. A dragon of our own making is ravishing our countryside, and we can no longer spend our time merely preparing to fight. Every day now we will be asked to exercise deep courage and wise judgment.
The choices we make now will, in no uncertain terms, determine the fate of the world. The solutions are known, but they need to be used-- to be invested in, in the deepest sense.
Everyone of us needs to take a hard look at how our choices-- our jobs, our money, our leisure time-- are impacting the world. The world needs all our help, and all our skills. How can the institutions we work for be bent to saving the environment and promoting justice (for they go together)? How much can we afford to give to charity? The US has the strongest economy in the world, so why is it the second biggest polluter? We need to not simply pollute less, but use our power to offset developing nations. What can we do in our free time? With the amount of time people in the US watch TV, the whole of Wikipedia could be reproduced (every edit, every line of code) 2000 times a year. There are thousands of projects that need our time, and they're easy to find. The resources of the world are beyond sufficient, but they need to be better used, and we're the ones guilty of their misuse.
Don't ask yourself what you can't afford to give. If you give more than you can afford, the gods will provide. If you don't, they may leave you dead even if they keep you alive. It's time to stop the life of "fudging and evading, indulging and slacking, never [being] really hungry nor frightened nor passionately stirred" or you'll lie on your deathbed, wondering why you didn't do more.