The world is moving so fast. Its pace is matched by its exponentially increasing size and complexity. All together it’s not an easy task to make sense of it all. A huge amount of observation, study and contemplation is needed to even get a little bit of understanding happening. I think I’m just beginning to understand the 1970s, and I wonder whether this 40 year lag between events and any substantial form of true awareness – about what the heck is really going on – is normal. If so, this would explain, to some extent, why the people who are protesting the state of the world, and who are wanting positive change, are having such a tough time of it. The current crop of change agents (the awkward but so far best attempt to describe themselves) have strong and honest gut feelings that the world is upside down, but without the luxury of 40 years of hindsight and consequent wisdom they struggle to explain, in any simple and convincing way, that the world is actually broken and that we are madly accelerating to an unimaginable, but certainly unpleasant, future.
Most of us, even with the “something’s not quite right” nausea kicking in, find that it’s much easier to be pragmatic, to not ask too many questions, and to commit oneself to playing the game of life as hard and as clever as possible. The fear of drowning – in measurably rising waters – feeds our frantic struggles to stay afloat and dulls our curiosity to wonder “why is this so?” The frequent lament that it is the conservative controlled mainstream media that keeps us toiling in the dark, by selective editing and downright lies, is becoming a tired old excuse when deep down we know that the truth – when eloquently and sensitively articulated – will spread faster and permeate deeper than any sensationalised headline, titillating celebrity gossip, or cute internet meme that goes viral for a day or two. At least that is my opinion. I propose that, as yet, no one or no group has been able to voice, in a universal and profound way, the what, why, who, when, where and how of the current state of human affairs. With the ever-increasing pace required by us all to maintain a foothold, even for basic needs like a roof over one’s head, it can seem unlikely that philosophers and artists of a new breed are waiting in the wings to appear and shake us all fully to our senses.
In 1970 I was nine years of age, that’s about when I consider myself as having some degree of consciousness, or some level of free will, or whatever you want to call it. I had already rejected God and religion as a source of knowledge or meaning, and was diving into “The Golden Book Junior Encyclopedia”. It was an American publication and I – for a while – could name the capital city of every state, and most of the state birds. Forty years later, with a somewhat bigger picture view of the world, I can see that the 70s was a time when humanity was really starting to pick itself up again after two world wars. It has been argued that these devastating events signalled the end of a long history of tyranny of one sort or another. By tyranny I mean the acutely hierarchical societies which evolved from flawed human beliefs and ideologies built around concepts of religion, or bloodlines, or brute force, or survival of the fittest, or some nasty combination of two or more these crazy or corrupted ideas. The rise and fall and rise of hierarchical civilisations appears to have dominated the world for most, if not all, of recorded history. One of the most obvious and abhorrent features of any tyranny is that primarily each and every individual’s status, role and destiny, is largely pre-determined at birth. Gender, race, nationality, religion, genes, and family history are some of the attributes one is born into and, these often permanently recorded labels are extremely hard, if not impossible, to change, lose or deny. Most civilisations have tales of heroes who rise above their lowly rank to conquer the oppression of the state, but for the masses these myths typically serve to instil a false sense of natural justice in obviously corrupt and dysfunctional societies. It was about 500 years ago that some big thinkers started to get some well-ripened public attention and sympathy after the centuries aptly named the “dark ages”. Slowly but surely the enlightenment managed to wake up the Western world to the injustices that became inevitable when we structured society as a rigid pyramid of hierarchy, from an absolute authority on top of everything, all the way down to the very lowest class of human; secular humanism was born. Since then, tumultuous periods of high drama and massive change ensued. An optimistic view of the world today can quite confidently report that, by and large, many of the injustices of the past such as slavery, racism, sexism and poverty, if not totally eliminated, are well on the way to becoming history, once and for all. On closer examination though, it can equally be argued that the rise of secularism, the increasing freedom of the individual, and the equality of both wealth and opportunity for all peoples actually peaked in the 1970s. And the decline of these conditions has been steady ever since.
The 1970s can also be viewed as the decade when our understanding of ourselves, as a species interdependently connected with the finite earth and its other inhabitants, blossomed. In the 1960s the public was exposed to both photographs of earth from space and a series of environmental catastrophes. The evidence of our place in the universe and our impact on the environment was so compelling and irrefutable that it was taught in public schools. I myself, with a youthful and innocent trust in the public education system and the popular notion of Australia being pretty damn lucky, eagerly looked forward to the modern life on offer, and consequently dived right in to participate in just about anything and everything on offer. The promise of science and technology to give us unprecedented comforts and increased leisure time in this life, without having to wait for some post-death paradise, was a pretty easy sell. The optimism of the era was reflected in a confidence and belief in ourselves that we had the capacity as intelligent and industrious beings to find new and better ways to eke out a harmonious existence on this, our only planet.
The vision of the future on offer back in my high school days has spectacularly failed to materialise. On two measures alone – the distribution of wealth and the health of the environment – we have collectively failed. Sure, there are good news stories – on the material or money side of things we hear tales of rags to riches, the triumphs of modern medical science and the adventures of ordinary people creating and ticking off bucket lists. On the environmental front, small wins against big corporations, advances in solar technology, and successful breeding programs in zoos, are examples posted occasionally on the telly or in the daily rag. This is mainly a sedative for a public waking up to alarm clocks and commuting to “jobs”. Any serious analysis clearly shows that the exceptions are not the rule. The so-called winners love the world, thank God, and preach that anyone with hard work and determination can achieve their wildest dreams. Excuse me while I just step outside to vomit. The celebrities of the modern world have come up with all sorts of mythologies to justify the human race to succeed at all costs. They aren’t often asked, but when they are they invariably invoke some flawed logic or metaphysics to ignore the widespread atrocities still being committed by the successful upon the earth and its inhabitants. And worse than that, they encourage the rest of us to follow in their footsteps.
What has gone wrong? With the eradication of the old-style tyrannies, has a more subtle but equally devastating hierarchical tyranny risen up to coerce us all into a diabolical trajectory toward self-extinction? (If you think I am being a bit dramatic here, pull out your Year 11 Biology prac book and look over the bacteria population experiment in a petri dish of nutrient agar). Has all serious collective dialogue about the human condition died, just as God died with Nietzsche? Has this vacuum left only the possibility of an individualistic free for all? Have the historical failures of large collective efforts permanently replaced the notion of “we” with “me”? Have we taken the notion of liberty, enshrined in the classic enlightenment documents, too far? Has the power and experience of working together for the common good devolved into a world of over seven billion emperors and empires of the self? The distrust and disdain for our most basic collective power base – democratically elected governments – as demonstrated by the popular and brag-worthy pastime of beating the taxman, is symptomatic of a world of individuals out there acting purely for themselves. How ironic that a species that evolved successfully largely due to social cooperation has culturally evolved into a society of “every man for himself”, or “dog eat dog” if you prefer, that is destined to annihilate itself. The modern affliction of ignorance of our own humanness is not the basis upon which some vision of a successful life ought to be built.
If my personal 40-year lag in getting some sort of handle on what the world is really like is the norm, then maybe our species with its current breakneck rate of acceleration is doomed. Humans are adaptable and we will no doubt cling to survival for as long as possible. Psychologically, we are good at washing our brains so that we don’t go stark raving mad at the horror of it all. Drugs, religion, sex, celebrity, fashion, technology, and the relentless pursuit of money, are some of the major distractions that keep us half asleep at the wheel while stomping down firmly on the gas. The latest panacea being touted as the most likely salvation for naughty humanity is for the internet (along with burgeoning catalogue of sleek and shiny devices) to hook us all up to some utopian world of social media. Is the World-Wide Web really liberating us from mindless participation in a global economy that benefits the very few and is fuelled by the destruction of the earth’s life support systems? Or will it be 40 years before we can really understand how the advent of the internet did not, as predicted, save the world, but was just another distraction that further divided us, rather than uniting us as a force to conquer the latest tyranny – the tyranny that we haven’t even got a name for yet?
PS: I am working a bit more conscientiously on understanding the 80s and 90s in an attempt to reduce my 40-year hindsight time lag. Join me if you so desire!