It may be the hardest lesson of all to learn, but it’s probably also the most important one for any of us to master: in a life in which one is taught to bond with so many others in order to get by, as a way to stave off loneliness and gnawing isolation, and is trained to accumulate a vast amount of stuff to handle awhile before discarding in an ever-growing if personally unseen pile or trail, how can the will to relinquish all these ties and entanglements prevail?
Hmmm, that’s a good question. Can I get back to you on it with an answer a little later? Thanks a million!
In the Chinese naturalist philosophy of Taoism, there’s an excellent concept known as wu wei, or “actionless action.” It has to do with doing things without ado–in other words, without making a fuss. It’s precisely the opposite of the way most of us are raised to act, whether in private or in the world around us. At least its absence leads some of us to make the kinds of sweeping statements I just did in the last sentence. What good are generalizations if everyone’s an individual? They ain’t good for shit, blood.
But if you’ll bear with me for a moment, I think you’ll agree that the world we’re living in has become so technologically anal-retentive and nature-flouting, that it can’t help but eventually fail. (Lao Tzu writes in the Tao te Ching that “That which goes against nature cannot endure for long.”) The world today resembles a Jenga game with too many blocks removed. Or another game called Kerplunk, in which the players take turns withdrawing sticks from holes in a cylinder, the dwindling star made by the shrinking sticks precariously supporting a bundle of marbles that threaten to clatter to the bottom of the tube.
(Our individual lives, meanwhile, dictated by time, as Philip Larkin so aptly put it, more strongly resemble a game of chess, in which most of the pieces disappear, whether rapidly or gradually, depending on whose life you’re talking about.)
It’s not just the strain the growing human population is putting on the finite planet, with our infinitely increasing artificial needs inflamed by overexposure to advertising and primal wants compounded by media-fueled dreams of excess–a self-centered glory born of insatiably tenacious plunder, but also a ham-fisted militaristic approach to problems that require diplomatic solutions and self-restraint, instead of remote-controlled attacks and terrifying displays of devouring firepower that guarantee a self-fulfilling prophecy of blowback in a spiraling cycle of never-ending violence.
A piece on the International Herald Tribune‘s website yesterday claimed that the world faces ever-increasing shortages of food that will come just in time to greet swelling populations of hungry young stomachs. The need for more farmland for giant agribusinesses to grow crops to keep some of us either fed or fat will require more leveling of forests, which will result in greater levels of global warming (which will lead to more acid in the ocean, hence fewer fish, hence less food, along with rising sea levels that will swamp coastal cities, further displacing newly homeless multitudes, creating fresh hordes of environmental refugees–not that the article goes into all these details of the budding crisis).
Of course, since the shit may not really hit the fan until later in this century, it’s going to require a kind of unprecedentedly heroic display of global altruism and stunning selflessness on the part of us gluttons here in the Idiocracy to save our species (not to mention all the others who act as supporting cast members in this production) and dislodge the earth from the invisible toilet it’s now stuck in.
As Stephen Emmons (I may have the last name wrong; I’ll have to double-check), who handles geographical statistics for Microsoft, says in his new book Ten Billion (the world’s estimated population by mid-century):
Meanwhile, people snap selfies while driving cars, plowing into pedestrians. A man who was locked in solitary confinement for forty years for a crime it turns out he did not commit was released from prison for an operation on his liver only to die three days later. Overzealous policemen immortalized in website headlines shoot the family dog. While thousands of people starve all around the world, succumbing to famine, Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger live on, fortified by their own immunity to care and their (and my) nation’s allergy to justice.
Another Herald Tribune article announced that three countries–China, Russia, and Ukraine–had stonewalled during global talks to establish an ocean sanctuary in Antarctica, leading the talks to stall and collapse. It turns out they just can’t let go of their fishing stocks. They’ve learned too well how to cling from their unacknowledged role model, the good old U. S. A. (Not that we’re the first ones to have introduced greed as a way of life and a cultural value; we’ve just perfected it.)
About a month ago I wrote a piece saying why I didn’t want to have children. It occurred to me that in the kind of world we’re living in today, I would prefer not to be born if this were my literal birthday. I also don’t think I’m big-hearted enough to take proper care of a child suffering from autism or Down’s syndrome; my wife and I are both old enough that we’d have to factor in that possibility if we decided to spawn.
Not to worry: geoengineers will solve the problem of climate change. Nuclear disarmament will take place the day after tomorrow, seconds after all the Israelis and Palestinians step back from their group hug with a big sigh. People wearing turbans will be invited to work as airline pilots in the United States. The National Rifle Association will voluntarily dissolve. The air force will retire its drones, letting the generals’ kids disassemble them for their allowances. The religious right will shrug and admit that they’ve been wrong, giving gays the thumb’s up and trading in their bibles for copies of Richard Dawkins’ latest book.
The revolution will take place without a shot having been fired. The White House will be transformed into a homeless shelter whose residents will be paid to take care of the place. Jesus will come back to earth, see that the coast is clear, and go back to heaven to resume his arm-wrestling match with God (with the Holy Spirit acting as referee). Men will no longer rape women, treating them with the utmost respect, never slandering them again. Bullies will take up meditation. Golf courses will become national parks. Highways will evolve into nature trails.
The world will be a lot safer, quieter, and happier.
In your dreams.