Remember that scene in American Beauty when the intense, borderline-creepy, documentarian-obsessed teen is showing his girlfriend a video of a plastic bag blowing in the wind, and marvels about how beautiful it is? He says: “… And I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.” As 2015 draws to a close, I had to rack my brain to remind myself of the beauty that remains in the world, and what positive permanence it brings to my own life, and even more so, our global citizenry.
New York Times posted their astonishing 2015 year in pictures, and the gallery begins with this statement: “This is the year of the great unraveling.” Most of the photos were tinged with some hopelessness, sadness. While I don’t want to be overly dramatic and pessimistic as we enter 2016, there were good things that happened, and that did matter, at least, to me. Here are a few that come to mind:
- Ebola was essentially eradicated in West Africa. A miraculous feat considering some of those countries affected by the virus are still recovering from intense years of conflict. Although the death toll was significant, and apathy towards that toll was overrun with fear of containment and keeping it “over there”, there in the heart of darkness, things could have been much, much worse.
- The United States, in all of her slow breakdown, had one gleaming light of hope for social justice and equity: The landmark Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage. One up for LGBTQ rights and equity in the eyes of the law. Sometimes, she can surprise…
- Science continues to amaze me, and I hope the world appreciates what it brings. This summer, we pulled a Top Gun, and did a flyby of Pluto. While we may question whether that is a good use of resources, seeing this icy world, with its many moons and mountains, was pretty spectacular. The human body is also pretty amazing – we are learning more and more about the virtual organ called the microbiome that reminds us how little we know about our complicated selves. We also can thank science for gene editing (raising more ethical debates), a preliminarily effective Ebola vaccine, and the discovery of what may be the oldest known Homofossil, dating to 2.8 million years ago, in where else? Ethiopia, the mother land.
- Bad politics come and go. Canada was in desperate need for a new Prime Minister and they got a younger, liberal, and more modern one. Nigeria had a fair, democratic election. Nations came together at least in spirit, to sign a climate change agreement in wracked Paris and new Sustainable Development Goals. While both global accords may not live up to their promised potential, which could be catastrophic but realistic, at least there was intention. I think we can call that progress.
Later that night, i held an atlas in my lap, ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered, where does it hurt? It answered, everywhere everywhere everywhere. – What they did yesterday afternoon, Warsan Shire
Unravel it did. I reason we can officially concur that the United States is lost. I won’t even bring up the pending election of 2016, because that is just too depressing to think that this is the best that America has to offer. We have bigger catfish to fry. Social exclusion, disadvantage, and inequity have reared their ugly heads: guns, police brutality and mistrust, hatred of other races, religions, sexual preferences, and of women. And then there are drugs, religious ideology, and incarceration that all eat away at the fabric of “the American dream.” All sitting on a bed of poverty with a cherry on top. Lives matter, be they black, white or blue, and the only way to address this is through organized social change and a not-so-quiet revolution. As Martin Luther King said: “We cannot walk alone” but I think America has forgotten how to walk, to move one foot in front of the other.
Our justice, health and food systems are the most strained. From my perspective, food is a lens through which to view the most important problems of society. And the future of food is a cause for concern: not enough of it, not the right kind, not equally accessible, and a lot thrown out. Diet-related non-communicable diseases, like heart disease and diabetes, along with obesity statistics are alarming. Blame it on salt, sugar and fat and our deceptive food environment. We have reached a tipping point on the scales, and on life span as well. We are in a free-fall, and this young generation will not live as long as my parents will live. And to think that it was food that did us in. Go figure. I recently wrote about the moral implications and obligations of achieving global food security and our decisions about what to eat can have profound societal impacts that are far reaching. Eating indeed is an ethical act. As Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote: “We all have a moral responsibility to do our part.”
Looking beyond the U.S., geopolitical conflicts and civil wars, terrorism, and refugees are some of the issues that stayed with us in the headlines. With climate disruption and variability, and more extreme and unpredictable weather events, we will witness more conflict over natural resources like food, water, and land. More war. More displaced, landless, and sometimes nationless refugees. We are no longer in a world of climate change. We are in a world of everything change.
I am convinced, now more than ever, that the biggest driver of these tribulations is the ever-expanding, exponential growth of the world’s population. We are at 7.391 billion. This clock that keeps track of births at earth shattering speeds freaks me out. I was born when the population was almost half of what it is now = 3.71. You can feel that 7 billion everywhere you go, in everything you do. There is no place left un-crowded, un-touched, un-tourist-icated, or un-monetized. How much more can humanity and the planet sustain?
Biologist Paul Ehrlich doesn’t have much hope, at least from the perspective of feeding ourselves. When writing about the future of global food security, he calls for a “revolution” that includes getting engaged in family planning and population control. He wrote: “Achieving universal food security is a staggering challenge, especially in a world with an expanding population, accelerating consumption, and many signals of a deteriorating global environment…Meeting the challenge of food security demands a revolutionary change in human society, necessarily one as far-reaching as a combination of the agricultural revolution, now 10 millennia in the past, with the industrial revolution and the multiple transitions to more democratic governance that started three centuries ago. We urge policy makers around the world to move this issue to the top of the political agenda. Anything less is a recipe for disaster.” Heavy indeed, but not too far off the mark.
“…Is our world gone? We say “Farewell.” Is a new world coming? We welcome it and we will bend it to the hopes of man.” – Lyndon B Johnson. (This quote is actually in the U.S. passport, along with other meaningful quotes by our fine forefathers about social justice and equity).
I am trying reeeeal hard to be the shepherd and welcome this new world. But the new world is one in which we are less social, less observant, and more depthless. What happened to tangible, face-to-face human contact? Maybe there are just too many of us now and connecting in real-time is too overwhelming.
Instead, we seek out our pleasures in the privacy of our lighted screens and feel the need to display and share the mundaneness of our every day lives on apps in the hopes that we will get voluminous likes, hearts and favorites. I am guilty of it too. George Monbiot about ecological boredom: “Technologies that promised to save time and free us from drudgery fill our heads with a clatter so persistent it stifles the ability to think.”
How have we become so self-consumed, with selfies and those stupid selfiesticks, snapchats and other social media shenanigans, to the point of numbness? Think we are far off from the benign replicants in a Blade-Runner-esque world (which takes place in 2019 FYI)? Think again. Although I don’t think we can claim to be half as glamorous or introspective as Sean Young or Rutger Hauer.
So I ask, where have we gone? I just don’t know.
And Then Some
“I still do not know myself. Perhaps I never will.” — Sylvia Plath
I could continue to rattle off the many micro-miracles that make you realize there is humanity, somewhere, out there in the ether. I could take another path, and continue to focus on the daily atrocities that are committed upon each other. We must remember though, not everything is lost. Although the media paints an ominous picture, Steven Pinker, author of Better Angels of Our Nature, says that overall, violence in our society is on the wane, with widespread peace and progress. I want to believe that he is right. Besides, everyone always believes that their time is the worst, the most tumultuous, the most despairing.
The human species is good at keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew. I believe, I must believe, there is still so much to do and see. There is still wild nature to experience and fascinating cultures to bear witness to. Sometimes so much so that it is overwhelming, all consuming. I think this is what drives me forward: the opportunity to see this crazy world — the good, the bad and the ugly.
This year we traveled over 100,000 kilometers and slept in 65 different beds to see some of this craziness. We went to some new places like West Timor, Stockholm and Hong Kong and went back to old haunts like Nepal, Aspen, Italy and India. I feel fortunate. We missed Africa for a second year in a row, but that will change in 2016. We (permanently) left NY for the third time (Oh, will I ever get over you?) to live in Chocolate City, our nation’s capitol to focus on issues of ethics, and international affairs. I am now endowed, thanks to Michael Bloomberg.
So while I may seem negative, and full of trite, I am actually quite hopeful that this world and humanity has something left to give. At least, I plan to keep searching and exploring…