The world is at a turning point. From climate change to COVID to conflict, the future looks not only uncertain, but fraught with danger.
Surely every age has its own catastrophe or imminent death. The twentieth century was a bloodbath and the world lived in the shadow of the nuclear bomb throughout the Cold War.
However, this was also an age of endless horizons, new discoveries, journeys into space, and the computer revolution.
Yes, there were prophets of doom like Paul Ehrlich who half a century ago was warning of a population explosion. He said that the world could not live more than two billion people.
Now we’re approaching eight billion and Ehrlich is still predicting the collapse of civilization.
However, in the 1970s, the world could still ignore the worst. Progress cannot be stopped. We’d watch The Jetsons cartoons and dream about bundles of space planes and personal robots.
Since the steam engine and the industrial revolution, mankind has believed that it is the master of its own destiny. Nature had to be subdued. We wanted to get richer, live longer, and consume more.
But there was always a cost. Even as we thought we could delay the payment.
The waves are coming
In 1800 the world population exceeded one billion. Since 1861, Irish physicist John Tindall has spoken of the “global warming effect”.
A few years later, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius showed how burning coal would speed up global warming.
By 1960, the population had exceeded three billion; The US government was warning that the global warming effect was a real concern.
A decade later, the United Nations held its first climate conference. By that time, the phrase “global warming” had become in vogue.
Now, CSIRO has put climate change adaptation on top of what it identifies as the Seven Megatrends that will define our destiny. We need to be “smaller, cleaner, greener”.
Population aging and chronic disease, along with mental health issues, put unsustainable pressures on health care.
CSIRO says health spending will exceed GDP in most advanced economies.
Our chief scientist and CSIRO chief, Larry Marshall, says we’re stuck in an ocean rupture. It can drag us into the sea and die, or we can learn to use it.
What we can’t do is sit on the beach, says Marshall, an avid surfer. The waves are coming.
Marshall believes in science. Technology and artificial intelligence present opportunities, even as they swallow jobs and change the way we live and work.
It’s a paradox. The future belongs to science, even as science itself has brought us to this crucial point.
We dealt with the devil
Science has accelerated the world’s population, reduced our world, made us richer, and brought us closer to each other.
However, science has put in our hands the power to destroy life on this planet. This is our deal with Satan: untold riches at the expense of our soul.
Author Karen Armstrong tells us we need more than science. Science will not save us. We need to rediscover ourselves. We need to bow to the thing we’ve crushed on: nature itself.
We are “essentially absent,” Armstrong says in her new book, Sacred Nature. “We are walking in a very beautiful place while talking on our mobile phones and browsing social media.”
“We feel alienated and lost,” she says.
It is the bane of modernity, especially the modern West. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, we have replaced the word “logos” with the word “mythos”.
We invented a world in which the mind was God. From the scientist Isaac Newton and the philosopher René Descartes, the schism between the divine and the mind was laid.
For Newton, Armstrong says, “nature no longer has a sacred essence.”
For Descartes, the word “I” came before everyone: “I think, therefore I am.”
This is the legacy of the Enlightenment.
We must rediscover “nature’s veneration.”
Armstrong is a former nun who left the convent because she felt her religion had no place for kindness. She devoted her life to writing about all religions, questioning the role of faith in violence.
I have investigated how Jewish and Christian ideas about human domination of nature contribute to our separation from nature.
I have sought to look beyond the religion that divides, into a world of wonder that connects us. We must restore the power of myth, she says – “we must get rid of the fallacy that the myth is untrue.”
The myth must be reconnected with the ritual. In a secular world where the West is increasingly turning away from religion, Armstrong asks, “Can education be sacrosanct?”
It echoes the seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who suggested that mind and matter are one. We are joined to nature. God is in everything but not above him.
Therefore, he was exiled from his Jewish faith and his books were banned.
Armstrong’s idea is not an argument for turning back the clock. Progress and science have given us a world that is wondrous and yet a world devoid of wonder.
She says we need to “reclaim nature’s veneration.”
Those who sounded the alarm for centuries have been ignored. Like the Greek goddess Cassandra, who possessed wisdom but was cursed that she would not believe.
The flag – the logos – has taken over the myth.
Now we need stories older than modernity.
Stan Grant is ABC’s international affairs analyst and presenter for Q+A Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. It also presents China Tonight on Mondays at 9:35 p.m. on ABC TV, and on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC News.
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