The Choice of Our Time
Before us is a choice that cuts to the heart of what it means to be human. What path will we take?
“Do we choose to live in and create a life-affirming world built on a foundation of love or a life-denying world built on a foundation of fear?”
This is the question that cuts to the core of every major issue facing us today. At present, our civilization is on a suicidal path to ecological collapse. We know this. What is more difficult to describe is why and how. Why is our civilization faced with a quite literal existential crisis? And how can we best navigate it while keeping our humanity intact?
Some Historical Context
To understand this, we have to understand our past. Humanity has lived in remarkably familiar conditions since the dawn of agriculture, roughly 10,000 years ago: in permanent settlements and all that comes with them, stratified societies with rigid hierarchies, and the joys, frailties, conflicts, and trappings of the human condition.
A lot has changed as well of course, with the majority of people now living in high-density cities, globalized connectivity through digital technology, and the capacity to destroy ourselves with our own technology. Fundamentally though, the human condition has stayed relatively consistent throughout it all. Or at least it had, until recently.
Throughout our history, an enormous amount of human energy has been put into making life more certain and predictable. This is one of the unspoken maxims and guiding lights of civilization and we have become quite successful at it. By making life more certain and predictable, we have eliminated a huge amount of unnecessary suffering through the struggle for the abolition of disease, famine, and violent conflict.
In the developed world, we have become so successful at making life predictable and certain that many of us have been lulled into a complacency that takes this certainty for granted. Most of us expect that if we are sick, a course of antibiotics will rid us of our ailment. Most of us do not wonder where our next meal will come from, apart from which restaurant we might wish to go to. Most of us do not live in constant fear of displacement or death from the next war or sectarian conflict.
This complacency is, of course, built on a lie. The certainty and predictability that modern life has afforded us are far from guaranteed. One’s life can easily change course in an instant and without warning. Any cancer patient could tell you as much.
We have very little control over what life throws at us; however, we can control how we respond to it. We can choose to respond to the challenges that life hands us with courage, dignity, and grace, or brutality, cowardice, and contempt.
We Need a Paradigm Shift
So back to the starting question of “Why is our civilization faced with an existential crisis?”
For countless centuries, humanity’s ancestors’ primary collective focus was survival. This served us quite well in the past, when the acquisition of resources, finding a mate, and avoiding predation took up most of our mental space.
Fear-based thinking was useful and necessary for us to survive and to meet our basic needs. It alerted us to when our needs were not being met or we were in imminent danger. Recently, in the context of our history as a species, we have mostly mastered the art of survival. We no longer have to worry about predation and can acquire just about anything (including potential partners) with the click of a few buttons and a swipe.
Our thinking has not caught up to this new reality. As a culture, we are still stuck in a fear-based mindset, but our survival has long since ceased to be our primary occupation. This has created a void or vacuum of purpose. Where our collective purpose used to be the simple act of survival, we now have nothing in its place. Creating meaning in life, fostering connection, or imagining a desirable future are all worthy and necessary endeavors for a purpose-filled life, but none of them are inherently necessary for our physical survival.
Fear-based thinking is not well-adapted for these types of problems, and in some circumstances leading a life of purpose might even be opposed to our individual survival. And yet, it is leading a life of purpose that most of us find make life worth living.
What we have, as a society — as a civilization, is a crisis of meaning, and the only path forward is to radically re-imagine what it means to be human. The alternative to fear-based thinking is thinking rooted in love.
The love we must root ourselves in is not romantic love (which is often driven by fear-based thinking) or even filial love. We must root ourselves firmly in a selfless and unconditional love that extends universally and unconditionally to all beings. This is a ferocious love that transforms everything it comes into contact with, leaving nothing untouched. It does not back down from a fight, but only fights when necessary. It is a love that is expansive enough to contain hope and despair, joy and tears.
For this type of love, the purpose of life is life itself and we live for each other as much as we live for ourselves. Such a mentality inherently brings meaning and connection into one’s life and is a far better tool to envision a future worth living in.
This will require us to question our core beliefs, our identities and institutions, and how we relate to each other and the world around us.
A Nation and World in Crisis
In America, we are raised to believe that individual agency has more influence on one’s life trajectory than the conditions of their birth. We are raised to see ourselves as individuals first and members of a society second. We are raised to believe that what is best for the individual is best for all, and we are raised to relate to the world through our consumption of it.
It is usually only by some calamity that most people begin to doubt the narratives they have been taught. When old beliefs no longer adequately describe a new reality, fear and insecurity begin to grow. One can choose to respond to the dissonance between their beliefs and reality by adjusting their beliefs or by ignoring the new reality.
The longer one ignores the new reality, the greater the dissonance grows. The greater the dissonance grows, the harder it becomes to ignore. The harder it becomes to ignore, the more fear, discomfort, and insecurity one feels in holding to the old beliefs.
The only way out of this cycle is to let go of the old beliefs and accept the new reality for what it is. One cannot “think” their way out of this cycle anymore than one can “think” their way out of a flat tire. This is because it is the way they have been thinking that keeps them stuck. Further progress necessitates action.
Our collective existential crisis is reflected throughout our society through a myriad of symptoms. They are often regarded as separate issues that can be addressed individually, but this is an incomplete understanding of our present situation.
The climate crisis, structural racism and sexism, deep economic inequality, and the mental health epidemic of anxiety and depression are all symptoms stemming from the same disease. That disease is a predatory culture that encourages the cynical exploitation of the weak by the strong and embraces an “every man for himself” attitude.
Unless and until we grapple with the toxicity of our dominant culture, we will fail in our attempts to solve any of its resultant issues. We might be successful in bringing down carbon emissions, but the same culture that brought us to the brink of climate catastrophe would soon cause other environmental issues. We might be successful in eliminating the worst abuses of structural racism and sexism, but white supremacy and patriarchy would eventually find other ways to manifest. Without addressing the culture that allows extreme wealth and extreme poverty to co-exist, inequality will persist in some fashion.
Perhaps all this is best exemplified by our attempts to treat the mental health crisis facing this country as an isolated issue. No matter how many anti-depressants we throw at the problem or how much we try to “out-think” depression and anxiety through medicalization, the problem still remains that Americans are deeply lonely, isolated, and in constant stress. This cannot be solved by an over-the-counter pill.
We are being forced to reckon with everything our civilization has ignored because the dissonance between our beliefs and reality has grown beyond our collective ability to block it out.
Our collective denial of climate breakdown and ecological collapse have reached a point of crisis. Our collective denial of structural racism, sexism, and deep inequality have reached a point of crisis. Our collective denial of our interdependence on others and our basic need for connection and belonging have reached a point of crisis.
In the midst of these crises, COVID-19 has forced us to stop our otherwise busy lives and hit the pause button. This opened up a space between our hectic lives and a culture that keeps us immersed and distracted. That space allowed us to see what we had previously been ignoring, whether we wanted to see it or not. Now we are faced with the choice to ignore the crises that face us and the culture that permitted them to arise, or to radically transform our society into one that is rooted in solidarity and compassion.
The United States cannot claim to be the land of the free as long as a racial hierarchy exists. All men are not created equal in the eyes of the law. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not inalienable rights when they are denied to so many on the basis of their birth. Our nation was built on stolen land with the blood and sweat of imported African slaves and the genocide of the First Nations peoples. We cannot fulfill the promises of this land, without recognizing that they have been denied to so many.
Throughout the world, humanity is beginning to recognize that it is inseparable from nature and that we cannot exploit the natural world without consequence. Patriarchy and gender-based violence are being recognized as destructive and harmful to both women and men. Colonialism is increasingly being recognized for the brutality it embraced and destruction it left in its wake. Borders have increasingly become meaningless in a globalized world. We have the collective wealth to eradicate extreme poverty forever, if we choose.
Placed together, it is a great deal to absorb. Fundamentally though, we must realize that institutions based on fear and control are failing and cannot stand in the new world that has not yet emerged.
How Do We Move on from Here?
As stated earlier, we do not have control over what life hands us. What we do have control over is how we respond to it. Space allows us to reflect on how we would like to respond. This is true for the individual as well as the collective.
We have a choice. Fear or love.
If we choose fear, the future is pretty straightforward. Authoritarians will grab power, and democracies will fall globally. Environmental pressures will escalate, forcing massive migrations. Borders will harden, and authoritarians will use increasingly brutal measures to maintain control. Crop failures on an unprecedented scale will co-occur with natural disasters of increasing magnitude. Novel diseases will emerge from environmentally degraded areas and industrial animal farms. Famine, genocide, and pandemics will kill hundreds of millions if not billions of people worldwide. Cascading ecological collapses will eliminate countless branches of the tree of life forever.
Humanity will emerge destitute in an ecologically ruined world. Extinction is unlikely, but so is the re-emergence of an organized global civilization. All of this is likely to occur roughly within the next 50 to 100 years.
If we choose to respond to our existential crisis with love, the future is far less certain. We would embrace solidarity, our own vulnerability, and the fight to end oppressive institutions built on a foundation of fear and control. We would engage in the difficult work of healing centuries of collective trauma and of deconstructing rigid hierarchies and power structures.
This would allow us to create a society that is truly equitable and egalitarian. We would recognize that we are inseparable from nature. We would embrace uncertainty and greet the unknown with curiosity rather than fear. We would create a culture that values cooperation, compassion, and is fundamentally life-affirming in nature.
Environmental pressure will still escalate. Many regions will become destabilized. States will fail. Mass migrations will occur. Crop failures will affect major food-producing regions. Many species will still go extinct. But all of this will occur within the context of a kinder, gentler, and more resilient world. And in this world, context is everything.
I know which future I would choose. Do you?