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Sunday, 4 November 2007

Fear, and its banishment

It's quiet here tonight. Hot. The air is heavy, humid and still. Michelle has suffered in the heat today and, having had little rest for the past day or two due to an unsettled infant, she took the opportunity to retreat to our air-conditioned bedroom around 6:30 when Asha finally went off to sleep herself.

I helped the other two kids peacefully through dinner, teeth brushing, stories and bed time. Now it's just me in a house so quiet I can distinctly hear the clock ticking in the dining room a dozen or more meters away. So you'd think I'd be feeling reasonably relaxed. A quiet summer-ish evening, alone with nothing much required of me. Perhaps time to read a book, listen to some music, surf the net. But inside I'm pretty tightly wound.

With my family all sleeping there's nothing much to distract me, and the knot of fear that's gradually developed over the past couple of years is combining with general weariness and the oppressive heat to produce a kind of heavy feeling in my stomach and a tension through my whole being.

It may be that I'm particularly vulnerable to fear, having lived for my first 30 years with a deep conviction in the absolute power and infinite love of an almighty God and then suddenly, this year, having to learn to cope without that psychological refuge after my faith simply shattered. But in a curious kind of way, my unanticipated unbelief highlighted and reinforced many of the values and principles which I'd previously justified on the basis of a moral God. In the end it sort of came down to a conscious choice to live and to devote my own life to the benefit of all life, though first and foremost to my children.

So it is that I find the state of the world today deeply terrifying. My own perspective on the size of the inhabitable universe has been dramatically reduced: I used to believe in an immortal soul and a boundless existence in a spiritual plane, but now there is simply Earth and everything that lives upon it.

For all practical purposes, the entire living universe is here, now, in an incredibly thin shell wrapped around an otherwise unremarkable 4 billion year old rocky planet. Humanity's influence within that tiny universe has grown to become powerful, pervasive and almost completely unchecked. We literally have the ability to destroy the world, to cause a mass extinction such as has required the force of an asteroid or an epic ice age in aeons past. The trouble is we are at serious risk of actually doing this as a result of too much power and too little intelligence.

When I type "power" there I mean that in the literal, physical sense. Homo Sapiens dominates this planet because we discovered how to harness sources of energy and apply them for our own immediate, personal benefit. Ironically it's our relative intelligence compared to other species which gave us this competitive edge. Unfortunately we have been insufficiently smart when it comes to understanding the long term and widespread consequences of our actions. Our perspective is too limited in both time and space. And so we have come through countless multiplying generations, burning wood, burning coal, burning oil, burning gas, as disruptive to the millions-years-old patterns of energy flow from Sun to storage as a sharp pin is to the steady state of a blown-up balloon. With this explosion of unexpected energy input, humanity has devastated the finely balanced, self-sustaining systems of life on the planet that gave it birth.

It's so hard to find any good news, any hope in all of this. If we continue down this path unchecked then (whether you believe that human activity is causing climate change or not) disaster is unavoidable. It's small comfort that one particular "check" is just starting to make itself felt - Peak Oil might put a stop to humanity's expansion in time to save the biosphere from total destruction, but so dependent have we become on energy derived from burning things that it might just about put a stop to humanity as well.

So here I am, keenly aware of the loss of a deity, the fragility of life, the distress of the planet, the stupidity and the power of my own species, and the three precious children sleeping peacefully in my care. How could I not be afraid?

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I almost left it at that, but I think a short post-script is in order.

Fear should probably be considered a friend rather than a foe. What happens to the fearless? They do unwise things. They get hurt. They die when they could otherwise have lived. When it's both timely and appropriate, fear is an emotional signal that can help you to minimise or avoid a bad outcome.

Fear isn't always good though. Too much fear is crippling. Misplaced fear is usually counter-productive. And fear that hits you too late to allow you to escape trouble is just bad news.

I'm pretty much convinced that my own fear for the future is appropriate, but there's a lot of uncertainty about whether it's too late. But for now we're all alive and I can't see what else to do but to try and apply what energy and intelligence we do have towards avoiding catastrophe.

And in typing that I have had a sudden flash of inspiration for the world of 2050. It is my desire to build a world where children and parents can both sleep peacefully in the knowledge that the world is well and life will indeed go on. I had that once. If I'm lucky I may experience it again one day, but regardless it sounds like a bloody good thing to word towards.

Goodnight for now.

2 comments:

Crazy Mumma said...

Hi Terry :-) I can completely relate to your post, I struggle with feelings of fear for my kids's future on a regular basis. Fear is a form of stress though and *some* stress is good for us, otherwise we'd become complacent and uninterested. Fighting the urge to become overwelmed and/or despondent some days isn't easy though, is it?

I like the quote attributed to Helen Keller: "I am only one, but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something". It makes me feel more focussed and motivated.

Cheers, Julie

Chile said...

Well said. It sure seems like everyone already aware of peak oil and climate change issues is reaching a critical level of weariness and fear. Humans are not designed to handle unrelenting stress at these levels. Short bursts of adrenalin to deal with an immediate danger - yes. Ongoing and consuming fear - no. I suspect those of us in the know are currently are higher risk for heart attack than the general population!

Deep breaths, Terry, deep breaths.