For the better part of a month, I focused on creating a presentation about my work on understanding the relationship between population and consumption. It started out as a review of what I already knew, but the more I tried to explain it, the more doubts I had. I was asking and answering critical questions right up to the deadline, burning the proverbial candle at both ends.
The result, I think, was worth it. My model was totally revamped, fit into a larger context of values that had driven my research in the first place, and had a lot more explanatory value than its predecessors. I even opened up a promising new line of investigation. With excellent feedback from the live presentation, I then wrote a set of notes that described the concepts better than ever, which I posted on my Web site. The conclusion was inescapable:
The main thing I've learned since my Settling Space presentation is that our population might crash a lot sooner than I expected, likely due to our overwhelming the Earth's ecosystem. I also now consider the prospect of settling space much more improbable, and even unwise until we can at least tame our ravenous desire to consume everything. Even if a few of us do go into space, billions are stuck here, for better or worse.
Clearly, we are inflicting a great deal of harm on this planet's life. That can't continue, both because it is wrong and because it will result in our own destruction. Reducing our consumption seems like the only rational course, but we need to do so without killing each other. In the language of my model, we must reduce our extraction mass. Doing so is likely to come at a price many of us may not be willing to pay. The link between consumption and our own quality of life is, I believe, inescapable, and we will need to sacrifice some life expectancy and happiness in order to improve the chances of survival for us and future generations.
Our challenge as a species and as individuals is to transition to a way of living that is as responsible and as fulfilling as possible. Do we have the character, the courage, and enough time left to do so? One thing's for sure: We'll all be living -- or dying -- with the answer.
Following the presentation, my back went into a state of constant spasms that varied in magnitude but has continued to this day. A combination of stress-induced muscle tension and poor posture pinched a nerve in my spine, which I'll now need drugs and physical therapy to deal with. When I even think of some of the issues I raised in my research, pain intensifies in my back, shoulder, and right arm. I interpret it as a physical manifestation of the helplessness I feel about stopping the horrible things we are collectively doing to the world, which we will likely pay the ultimate price for in the not-too-distant future.
Especially here in the United States, we have selected sociopathic behavior as a prerequisite for success in our economy, our politics, and many aspects of our daily lives. As a consequence, we are forced to act as if we are in a state of perpetual crisis – the classic condition for increasing stress. The “games” we are playing to “win” are ensuring that the most enduring legacy of our hard work will be a swath of destruction that none of us who remain sane could ever honestly be proud of, if we could stop long enough to think about it.
I have thought about it, a lot, and like the spasms in my back, the resulting pain is trying to restrict motion. Unfortunately, because survival demands more motion, I was ignoring the pain and trying to continue business-as-usual. Until, that is, the pain became too great. Our civilization is rapidly approaching the point where the pain will be too great. When we get to that point, we will either have to slow down (as I'm doing by recuperating at home), or suffer in ways that are beyond the imagination of most of us in the “developed world.” The macho part of my own brain which drives me to “play” when hurt is like the sociopathic leaders who care more about personal power than the fate of those whose lives they're affecting; if we push beyond the pain threshold, we increase the risk of catastrophic failure (as if I tried driving while distracted by pain, and then caused an accident).
It's been tempting to try to think “happy thoughts,” putting out of my mind the issues which have contributed to my stress. If I was still a Christian and thought I could offload my concerns to an omnipotent, caring deity, my life might feel a lot easier. Instead, I've chosen a path where I have to define the destination, the approaches to it, and take responsibility for everything that happens along the way that I might remotely have some control over. I realize that asking others to do the same, either directly or by challenging their beliefs, is to invite more stress (and its attendant pain) into the world.
As my back spasms remind me, pain has a purpose: to force us to either eliminate or escape its source. Pain medication, like delusions of divine aid and pleasant distractions, should only be used to manage the pain while the source is dealt with. If we become too comfortable with it, or are blinded to the existence or identity of the source, then we risk many more problems that we may not be able to mask, or even deal with effectively when we choose to face them.
I'm personally going to take a lot more breaks, focus on getting healthier, and look for ways to do both while continuing to face the problems that loom over all of us.