This essay has been translated into Croatian.
“Things are getting better and better and worse and worse faster and faster simultaneously.”
– Tom Atlee
Was the year 2013 a cause for hope or a cause for despair? Were the positive developments signs that the world is turning the corner? Or were they delusionary exceptions to the downward spiral into tyranny and ecocide?
The case for pessimism is hard to refute. We have the good news, like outbreaks of people power in Turkey, in Brazil, in Thailand and the Ukraine, juxtaposed against the collossal disappointment of the Arab Spring to bring economic, social, or political justice to the Mideast, as Egypt slips back into dictatorship, Bahrain further into autocracy, and Libya into chaos.
We have the good news – for the first time, solar and wind power have reached grid parity with fossil fuels – paired with record demand for oil and the vast expansion of fracking and tar sands exploitation, as CO2 levels topped 400 ppm for the first time and the Warsaw climate talks imploded.
We have a rennaissance of cooperative economics in southern Europe, even as austerity deepens, youth unemployment hovers near 50%, pensions are cut, and professionals flee.
In the United States, the moribund labor movement shows signs of life with strikes at Wal-Mart and McDonalds, while at the top of the pyramid, the rich get richer and Wall Street perpetrates on even greater scale the same kinds of abuses that precipitated the 2008 crisis.
Uruguay, Colorado, and Washington state legalized marijuana in 2013, yet the militarization of police forces reached new levels. Edward Snowden exposed the surveillance state to the public, yet the capability of governments to monitor people continued to grow.
Sometimes the positive developments look like pinpricks of light under a blanket of darkness. The points of light are tiny in comparison to the injustice and the ecocide. Let us not delude ourselves: Nothing substantive has really changed. The environment continues to degrade. The ocean grows more acidic. Drought spreads across the globe. Life dwindles in the oceans. Military spending increases the world over. Fukushima keeps leaking. Concentration of wealth intensifies.
The points of light, however, are not merely temporary exceptions to a negative trend, isolated bits of good news. Many of them signify a deep and ongoing tectonic shift in the psychic and ideological foundations of our culture that, while it has yet to substantially manifest in our systems and institutions, portends vast, nearly unimaginable changes in coming decades. That is why, unreasonably, these pinpricks of light inspire such hope within us.
Here are a few examples. Cannibis legalization might seem a drop in the bucket compared to the vast systemic injustice that pervades the United States and the world, but here is what it portends: (1) the demise of the ecologically destructive cotton and wood pulp monopoly for fiber and paper, as industrial hemp comes back; (2) the social acceptance of altered states of consciousness that, unlike those offered by caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, tend to accompany withdrawal from a violence-based, hurried, linear, machine society; (3) the acceptance of herbal medicine – cannabis, the first herb in a century to enjoy widespread medical use, might be a “gateway herb” at a time when conventional medicine is failing to address so many chronic conditions.
Second, consider marriage equality for gay people. The cynic might doubt whether this victory for a relatively privileged group of North Americans, with no disruption to business as usual, really deserves so much more attention than, say, ending human trafficking or sweatshop labor or water privatization or predatory lending. It is no accident, say the cynics, that the powers-that-be have channeled reformist energy into this relatively innocuous arena. I beg to differ, because gay rights is an outcropping of a deeper vein of principle that holds all human beings equally deserving of every right. Social acceptance of gay marriage marks a momentous retreat from the “othering” of people who are different from oneself – and this othering is the basis of war, punishment-based “justice,” discrimination, and to a large degree, economic exploitation.
A final example: For the first time I can remember, in 2013 public pressure averted American involvement in a war (Syria); it also reversed the trajectory to war with Iran. Insignificant, perhaps, in the context of unabated drone strikes, conflict in Afghanistan, and military bases around the globe, but rather than see Syria as an exception that proves the rule, we might see it as the start of a new trend. It foretells the end of the age of conquering the enemy, a time in which we know we are, as the Black Eyed Peas song puts it, “one tribe, one world, one people.”
Could we be seeing the next stage in the obsolescence of war, that began when the hydrogen bomb made total war between the great powers unthinkable? Could it be that the ecological crisis is making concepts of “America's adversaries” ring hollow and obsolete? Could it be, as the $15 minimum wage movement and European unconditional basic income movement suggest, that we are beginning to assert the right of every person to be free of material want? Could it be that the rights of nature, as written into law in Ecuador and Bolivia and the subject of Europe's ecocide initiative, are becoming as self-evident as the rights of man?
Of course, none of these possibilities are original to the year 2013. My point in illuminating them is that we treat these positive developments as harbingers of the future, and stand firmly in the energy of their possibility. They are not distractions from despair's version of reality; they are heralds of a more beautiful world. As we move into 2014, let us ask, If these are possible, what else is possible?
(Photo Credit: Dan Foy)