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The State of the Universe
— in which Dr. Dirt contemplates his expanding navel and other forms of entropy —
It’s great to feel idealistic, with body and mind suffused with the joy of hope and pulsating with the excitement of possibility. This frequent hallmark of a person’s twenties (at least of those whose basic necessities are fulfilled) is heady while it lasts, but may fade as life becomes “normalized” with career, family, age, mortgage, and life’s vicissitudes. The twenty-something is just leaving a constricted adolescent pupa and beginning to spread her/his brilliant wings and take flight. The world is bright and new. Problems (personal and global) may be difficult, but they seem clearly solvable with effort and determination.
Now, I might have begun this article otherwise, with the fact that I was born a pessimist. Inside the dank dark cellar of my mind, another word for pessimist is realist. I mean, wake up and smell the latte! The world’s ice is melting at a rate extreme even across geological time (400,000-plus years); the last two decades have produced the ten hottest years in recorded history (except where it’s radically cooling); extreme weather events are becoming the norm (Katrina, Sandy, November’s massive typhoon in the Philippines; unheard-of tornadoes in New England and Europe; record droughts in the West); desertification continues to spread across terrestrial habitats and croplands; we are witnessing the sixth great extinction of species; the growth of nuclear power plants is off the charts, in spite of the facts that some nuclear plants have melted, no storage exists for a half-eternity of nuclear waste, and nuclear weapons are proliferating; wars are on-going around the globe, in many cases triggered by malnourishment and famine – a sixth or more of the human population of seven billion is undernourished. So, as a realist, I’m pretty darn pessimistic.
This is not a happy place to live. One of the problems with pessimism is that it can spiral into a maelstrom of depression and paralysis. That doesn’t do anyone much good. Being right may be a temporary ego booster, but that’s not worth much if you’re drowning. And it’s not the best motivator of action in the larger world: the existential truth that reality bites doesn’t fuel many revolutions. Grand changes require a stark realism coupled with hope.
So now we’re back to optimism. Faced with the gnashing teeth of reality (it bites, remember?), the only way we get anywhere – we as individuals and we the planet – is to have a hope, possibly futile, that things can get better. Too much of that, though, and you morph into Pollyanna, another inactive state, characterized by a persistent vacant smile and an empty cranium. To come to a full boil, activism may require the heat of both pessimism (reality bites) and optimism (change can happen).
Over the past year, I think I’ve been heating toward a boil. On top of my genetic predisposition to pessimism (a sensible evolutionary balance, btw, to the Pollyanna’s in a tribe), I’ve been infected recently by glimmers of optimism and hope. If I reflect on my six-plus decades (a growing hobby of the geezer set), my life has been blessed: I have never been deeply worried about food/clothing/shelter/friendship. I’ve been short at times, but never seriously threatened in terms of survival. And in recent years I’ve had occasional moments of what I can only call bliss: my glass is not merely half-empty or half-full, but full up and overflowing. Then, I feel a deep sense of balance, clarity and hope. (This is not drug-induced, but if anyone cares to share, I’m open.) The state of bliss is temporary, fleeting, and perhaps it’s all delusional. But it sure feels good.
And as I write this miscellaneous brain-humping, the world is changing, very rapidly. In addition to all the negative and terrifying shifts, many positives are happening too, on many levels. Some governments and large corporations are promoting sustainable regenerative operations on large scales; sustainability-based non-profits are multiplying like symbiotic bacteria around the globe; human population growth in a number of countries is below replacement level; a new focus on the local and the small is gaining ground; the Millennial generation (born ca. 1980-2000) is fired up by the idea of grass-roots change (eg, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement).
Like the photon that is both particle and wave, like evolution both complete and ever-changing, like the human species both good and evil, like paint on a park bench that is both dry and (dammit!) wet: with the same information I live my life as a pessimist and as an optimist. Recently, for a multiplicity of reasons and beyond conscious control, I’ve been shifting to a more optimistic world-view.
To jump the metaphor shark, I’m building up to a metamorphosis, from pupa to … something. I just hope it’s not a cockroach named Gregor. Whatever the final form, I won’t be pupating. It’s time for action. Look out!
Dr. Dirt is mildly worried about John Hart, Professor of Horticultural Technology, Thompson School of Applied Science, University of New Hampshire, Durham.