It’s a tough world. It’s always been a tough world. It’s tough for the plants and animals whose DNA has them programmed to just survive and propagate – it is, quite literally (as well as figuratively) a jungle out there. And for people? Biologically also animals, we are special. Not special in the religious way (created on the seventh day, for example, in the Judeo-Christian myth, or in any other creation myth). Not special in the pseudo-scientific model that has people as the final, ultimate, and perhaps inevitable, outcome of evolution. That story is put to rest very articulately by the late Stephen Jay Gould in his wonderful book, “A Full House”.
Gould disproves directionality in evolution, observing that evolution is a response to local conditions. The fossil record shows a moderately evolved species (say jellyfish) are just as likely to evolve to less complex as more complex in response to those conditions. “Man” is not the inevitable result of directional evolution, but a small branch – a very small twig – on the evolutionary tree. If the “big bang” were to occur again, the unique sequence of events that led to the evolution of man would be extraordinarily unlikely to be repeated. It is, Gould says, not the Age of Man, but rather the Age of Bacteria. And, in terms of biomass and ability to survive, it has always been the Age of Bacteria.
But people are special. Their massive brains and opposable thumbs have led them to achieve things no other species has approached. Not as strong or fast as many others, not able to fly like birds, with senses that are dull even compared to household pets, they have changed the face of the earth, and changed it in incredible, wonderful and scary ways. People are special.
One way that they are special is in their self-consciousness. We know we are going to die. Other animals see death, even see the death of their loved ones, but they don’t know that they are going to die. Maybe at the end, but they do not understand it and its inevitability the way that we do.
The other way we are special is in our ability – and our realization – of destroying the earth. Beyond clearing forests for fields, beyond paving over the land, beyond causing the extinction of other species, we have, through the very industries that we are proud of, poisoned the earth, polluted the earth, led to such warming that the polar ice caps are melting and the snows of Kilimanjaro are only a winter phenomenon. People act, essentially, as a cancer on the earth, feeding on it, growing, and finally destroying the host.
Yes, it’s always been a tough world, for people too. The pestilences and plagues, for time immemorial, that have killed huge parts of our population. The oppression of people by other people, by the rich and their minions from feudal times to the present, when armies exist at least as often to suppress domestic populations as to fight foreign enemies. And, of course, it is the poor of both countries who are slaughtered while the wealthy do business with each other.
It is not so long ago that the “Doomsday Clock”, maintained by the board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was created in 1947 early in the cold war, and set at 7 minutes to midnight. Or when, in 2007, other threats such as climate change were added to the calculations which, in January 2012, had the time at 5 minutes to midnight. The threat of climate change grows, as rapacious people and the corporations they lead caused the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. It has continued to cause suffering, joblessness, and homelessness – and perhaps hopelessness – for huge numbers of people while those “masters of the universe” are well back on their feet, thank you.
So why do some many people support policies of repression and austerity? How can we have an entire major political party wedded to a “trickle down” that does not trickle? Probably these folks don’t think so much about such issues but are more focused on the social issues referred to by Thomas Frank (“What’s the matter with Kansas?”, 2004) such as gay marriage and abortion, primacy of religion, of “freedom” meaning no restrictions on guns, meaning I am free to do whatever I want to do, including to restrict your freedom. This, of course, comes from fear. Fear of the truly powerful, sometimes, but guided by the powerful, through their control of media and their money, into fear of things that cannot as easily be controlled.
We could reverse Citizen’s United, and we could have public funding of elections. We could tax capital gains as income, and limit to exorbitant profits being made by the wealthy. We could have universal health care, and quality education for all, and guarantee the basic rights called for in the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights. It would not be so hard if there were the political will.
But it is harder to guarantee that no one will start a nuclear war just as we couldn’t stop the attacks on the World Trade Center. And it is really a lot harder to stop global warming. It is scary, with record warm winters and hot summers, of tornados in February and more fires in the summers every year. This, says environmental author and leader of www.350.org Bill McKibben, is what the global warming, in its early stages,looks like. (“While Colorado burns, Washington fiddles”, Guardian UK, June 30 2012).
Harder but not impossible. But harder every year. And harder as we focus on the economic crises brought on by the venality of the wealthiest and abetted by the politicians in their control. Maybe it is doomsday. Maybe it is the apocalypse. Maybe the turn to the right is an effort to blindly deny what we, not God, have wrought.