The scale of the problem

Dad, I have come to terms with the inevitable ending of the human race. However, I refuse to come to terms with the thought that I may, one day, have to become a fucking shaman!

So ended the interesting conversation Sam and I had over washing up after last night’s meal. It began when I explained that I had been thinking about the importance of considering scale when thinking about life’s difficulties. I think that we often make mistakes about the scale of problems. These mistakes leave us feeling disempowered and despairing. In contrast, the application of scale can unburden and lighten us. Oh, and please forgive Sam’s swearing. I have to take part of the responsibility – I drove him to it.

This morning, like yesterday, like the majority of April this year, was sunny and splendid. The birds were singing madly, blossom clothed the trees, my nose tickled with hints of hay fever, the swallows swooped around the shed and, everywhere, life was bursting out. Spring springing. All set and ready to go. On a planetary scale everything seems fine and as it should be. The seasons are turning and Nature is working.

Yet, walking with a friend and fellow dog walker, conversation turns to the recent earthquake in Nepal. My wife and I were in Nepal only a year ago. In the Annapurna. Trekking to raise money for Parkinson’s UK. Walking in the mountains where the earthquake hit. Walking through the streets of Katmandhu. Streets that have been ripped apart. Devastated. Nepal is the most beautiful country. We found the people to be gentle, kind and hugely hospitable. We were struck by their joyfulness. We loved Nepal and hope to return one day. So, when I read about the extent of the destruction in the weekend papers, I was horrified and wanted desperately to help in some way. But, aside from sending a donation, what could I realistically do? A 52 year old man with Parkinson’s and few practical skills of any use? I felt powerless. To simply give a donation and then forget about it, go on as if nothing had happened, seemed disrespectful. Inadequate. It was a feeling I had felt before. When the tsunami struck the coast of Sri Lanka and took so many lives. It is hard not to feel helpless when Nature strikes with such ferocity.

But, after much thought, it occurred to me that the despair arises because of a confusion about scale. Earthquakes and tsunamis are events on a planetary scale. The Nepal earthquake happened because the plates in the region are moving. It is a geological event. On a geological scale. We cannot judge it on a human scale. We cannot control those sorts of events. They just happen. They stand outside our morality. They are not “wrong”. They are just part of life when viewed on a planetary scale. There is no sense in getting upset about them occurring. On a planetary scale it’s pretty normal. Business as usual. So, don’t lose sleep over it. Don’t despair. It’s all just part of the process of being a planet.

But, at the same time, it is entirely appropriate to respond to the consequences of natural disasters on a human scale. When we see other human beings in distress, it is normal, right and good to want to do what we can to help. The same paper I read to find out about the earthquake in Nepal carried another story. I read about the Greek soldiers who saved the drowning migrants after their boat had run aground on rocks. This was a situation on a different scale to the earthquake. The migrants were drowning because of a series of human decisions. The decision to get on the boat. The decision to flee their country. Their Government’s decision to engage in conflict and create a situation which caused them to want to flee. But, whatever your opinion about those various decisions, whatever the Greek soldiers’ opinions, when faced with another human being drowning in front of you, the human instinct is to save that person. To do what you can to help. You are not responding to the human decisions. The causes of the situation are, in that moment, irrelevant. What matters, what you respond to, is a human need.

So, please, do not feel powerless despair in the face of the Nepal earthquake. Respond to the human need and do what you can. That may just mean giving your attention to their situation for a moment longer than usual. That is still giving something. In fact, it may be the most valuable thing you can give. But, if you do want to give money, here is a link to consider:

Natural disasters are always going to happen. They are events on a larger than human scale. We can only accept that they will happen and respond as best we can on a human scale. Other disasters are, however, definitely on a human scale. They are caused by the actions of humans. And, when not just the consequences but the causes too are on a human scale, we have the choice (and I would say the responsibility) to act. Wars, for example, are human scale disasters. We always have a choice about whether or not to go to war. Trouble is Government and Media will often present human scale problems as if they are larger scale, Nature scale, problems. In doing so they give the impression that we can do nothing about the cause of the problem. Often they do this because it suits their purpose to do so. Because, if a situation is “Natural”, there’s no point trying to tackle the cause. Best limit yourself to dealing with the consequences. Not so long ago, slavery was seen as “natural”. Women being denied the vote was “natural”. It was “natural” that only the rich and powerful have the right to vote. It took a few brave men and women to stand up and point out that there was nothing “natural” about it. There was a choice. There still is a choice.

Which is why it is important that, if you live in the UK, you vote in the upcoming election. I like Russell Brand. I think he is funny and he has some interesting things to say. But I cannot agree with him that it is a good idea not to vote. I understand his viewpoint that it makes no difference and, yes, we do need a new kind of politics. I live in a constituency where the vast majority of voters will vote in a candidate and a party with whom I disagree profoundly. I know that. I know that my vote will make no difference. But I will still vote. Because men and women died so that I now have the right to do so. I feel that it would be disrespectful to them not to do so. And I will vote because I fear that, if I do not exercise that right, it will be taken away from me. Because I fear that those in power would be all to happy to take that right away from me. Not voting would just provide them with the evidence to prove what used to be seen as “natural” – that the commoners don’t have the inclination, knowledge or intelligence to vote. Our version of democracy is far from ideal but it was hard won. I would hate to see it easily lost.

But we live in a unique age. For the first time, the actions of humans are effecting things on a Natural scale. Our use of fossil fuels has been such that we have begun to have an impact on Nature. We have actually begun to change the atmosphere. Our actions will, for the first time, have an impact on a geological scale. For the first time in our history, we will not just be the victims of a Natural disaster – we will also be the cause. We, therefore, have the choice to do something about it. For the first time, we can choose to stop a Natural disaster. So what do Government and Media do? They ignore it. Pretend it isn’t happening. Because they cannot conceive of how to deal with a problem whose causes are human but whose consequences will be on a global scale. Climate change is a problem on a whole different scale to the economy or immigration or any of the other pet concerns around the UK election. It is way, way bigger. If we fail to deal with it, the economy and immigration will be out of our control anyway. Climate change trumps everything else. So, why are none of the parties (not even the Greens for God’s sake) talking about it?

To be fair, no Government before has had to deal with the knowledge that their decisions will have consequences on a greater than human scale. Not in this way. And they are having big problems up grading the scale of their thinking. They are stuck on the human scale. They need to think way bigger.

Which brings me back to Sam. My son, I find, is convinced that we have already gone to far in our consumption of fossil fuels. Convinced that one of the consequences will be that, sometime in the next twenty years, the Gulf Stream will stop. Which will herald in a new ice Age totally transforming life as we know it. He feels that Humankind will survive. But civilisation as we know it will not. Millions will die. Infrastructures will crumble. Those that survive will be living in Stone Age conditions. It’s a pretty bleak outlook. And to think, all my generation had to worry about was Nuclear War.

Sam wants to be an actor. On stage and on screen. He now sees this as unlikely in a future where, in his eyes, there will be no theatres, no films, no cameras. He sees subsistence farming as a more probable career course.

In an ill judged attempt to lighten the situation I pointed out that every society, even Stone Age society, finds a place for artists and performers. There is a fundamental human need for what those people bring. Those who draw on the cave walls. Those that lead the ceremonial singing and dancing. Those that create and preserve rituals. Those that make life meaningful for the tribe. The holy man. The sage. The shaman….

One comment

  1. I will be voting too, Andy, also not for Dunne. Though I do wish that we had a fairer voting system. At least I don’t feel as if I have to vote tactically and can vote for the candidate whose policies I most believe in.


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