I just received a long, unsettling email from an old friend who wonders if there is any way out of the horrendous mess so many politicians and billionaires have been pushing us into for their own selfish gains. It seems they have stacked the deck more egregiously than ever before, and it’s hard even to visualize a way out.
I empathize with my friend’s concerns, very much. What follows is my reply.
My dear friend,
The first thing that came to mind was your notion that “everything we do is destructive.” It’s true, but it’s not hard to see that Nature works in a frighteningly comparable fashion. Even at the level of the most profound natural laws—the second law of thermodynamics, the basis of entropy—there are balancing forces of creation and destruction. Ilya Prigogine, the great Russian expat (to Belgium & the USA) Nobel-winning physicist, said, in effect, “living systems drink orderliness from their environment.” He was describing how all living systems work, in contradistinction from entropy, which appears to be purely destructive and utterly irreversible. A car (high level of organization and orderliness) will always, eventually, turn into a pile of rust (no orderliness), but a pile of rust will never turn into a car. And yet, in the face of this, living systems take in structured forms as nutrients, and emit less organized forms as waste. And the product of that process is evolution itself. It’s no surprise that this occurs at the social level as well.
That said, of course we are making a colossal mess of things, producing far more waste than could possibly be justified, but I wanted to point out that destruction, per se, is truly the way of things. Or half of it, anyway. I’m often struck by the way the animal kingdom has evolved on the basis of what—to us humans—seems heartlessly cruel and vicious. Everything alive is busy killing and consuming everything else. Even unthinking structural entities like viruses and prions are hard at work propagating themselves at the expense of higher and spectacularly higher forms of life. Predation, from below or from above, is inherent in living creatures on all scales.
I like to think that there is a level of evolution in which anything remotely cruel, destructive, or predatory has no place, and perhaps there are epochs in which the lion lies down with the lamb and peace reigns, but obviously we’re not living in that age.
So the challenges seem to fall in the area of understanding (or coping with) the chaos and pettiness that characterise much of modern life, and in the area of doing something about it.
I have been dismayed to learn that much of history shows vindictive, puerile, muck-raking, self-serving, dishonest, mean-spirited, domineering behavior in every generation. I’m tempted to conclude that it’s really not significantly different in ours. As a child, I could never understand why the adults I respected were so disillusioned and hopeless in their reaction to current events. Now I understand. After a few decades observing how things work, anyone not asleep tends to realize that it’s an ugly mess, made worse by incompetent opportunists at every level.
However, I would submit that this is only one view. It’s the view from a perspective of how things ought to be, not how things are, and it colors all our perceptions of everything else going on in the world. Although Fox and the media in general bury us in endless negativity and simplified fake issues and insoluble conflicts and partisanship, alongside actual disasters and criminality, these are not the things that characterise human life. Truly, they’re not. They characterise some of human nature, but the people I meet, and work with, and serve or patronise, are not despicable politicians and bank robbers. They are three-dimensional human beings, not the clown car buffoons served up by the muck-sucking media in every election. They are people who mean well, try hard, get confused, help each other, fear strangers, and aid the weak. They are not well represented by their clergy or other community leadership, and they are victimized throughout their lives by those with the power to do so, but they soldier on and seek something better for their friends and families.
Indeed, “is the destructive force greater than the constructive force?” I suppose on a purely physical level, ultimately, it has to be, since we more or less know that the universe does run down, to total entropy or unbounded dissipation or collapse, and not many beings, however benevolent and evolved they may be, will survive beyond that. Is the Earth really falling victim to our formerly naive, now irresponsibly stupid, approach to civilization? I’d have to say no. We can destroy our own habitat, perhaps to the point that we don’t survive our own mess, but the Earth will just erode it all away and new epochs will roll past without even a blink in geologic time. Terra has been through much worse than anything humans can throw at it. Even the ultimate doomsday scenarios of all-out global thermonuclear war wouldn’t actually pollute the entire planet for more than a few millennia. Flowering plants began to appear almost 50 million years ago, when the Indian subcontinent was driving up into Asia and forming the Himalayas. Nothing we can do will interfere with processes operating on that scale.
But indeed, we haven’t learned the simplest rule—don’t shit where you eat. So there will be consequences, many of them tragically unnecessary.
What can we do? What scale can we have any effect at all? The choice seems to be utter ennui and cynicism in the face of insurmountable evil, or — curiosity and inspiration and innovation in the face of those challenges which exist within our sphere of influence. Each of us has some reach into the outlying chaos, some just among family and immediate friends, others among larger groups of co-workers, compatriots, fellows, members, etc. And others, of course, achieve significant influence through their own brilliance, through discovery, through achievement, through classrooms and lecture halls, and through politics and pulpits. We must play the hand dealt us, and if we are to be effective, we must keep our sights above the horizon and not spend our good energy digging bunkers. Someone else will dig his bunker, but we can only influence someone we know or interact with.
What we put our attention on in life grows stronger. If we dwell on doubt, we become paralyzed, helpless victims. If we dwell on possibilities, we become inventors, entrepreneurs, leaders, or just a small, personal inspiration to someone on his way to decide the fate of hundreds we don’t even know.
The sphere of influence we project is our only real weapon or defense. We must use it wisely, for good, and not waste its resources on what seems to be going wrong. We can get things done, sometimes just by smiling at someone, sometimes by taking an extra minute to empathise, or to comfort, or to commit those famous random acts of kindness.
In the end, what’s driving society into the gutter isn’t really the nefarious two-faced politicians and corrupt corporate moguls. It’s the collective consciousness of the people, who tacitly tolerate behavior that would be unthinkable in their own personal lives. So the ultimate solution, if there is one, lies in that domain: consciousness. The collective consciousness of a society, however abstract that may seem, can be and is influenced by the behavior, and the attitude, and the tiniest actions, of every citizen. For vast, unfathomable systems we must inevitably speak in wide, sweeping generalities, but that doesn’t impugn the truth of these broad statements. Much of the physics of the entire universe is summed up in Einstein’s simple equation. I submit that much of the path to correcting the group calamity we still call America also lies in one spectacularly and misleadingly simple admonition: Do your best.
There are many levels to this homily. If we take it to heart, we can tell, throughout the day, whether or not we’re doing it. If we get enough rest, keep ourselves healthy, avoid cynicism, and hold our sights well above the horizon, we can move mountains.