We—the world’s population, that is—seem to have fallen victim to what is claimed to be an old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” The curse, of course, implies that “interesting times” involve deep troubles, crises and dangers shall beset its victims.
On the other hand, we may want to turn to the ancient Chinese book of changes, the I Ching, for reflection on the exigencies of living in times of crisis. We live in a time of great changes, many of which most of us refuse to acknowledge. The greatest danger of change lies in our failure to recognize and act upon it.
I have written many blog posts and some magazine articles and newspaper opinion pieces on the various converging crises of the industrial era. Some folks have accused me of spreading too much “gloom and doom.” I get that, but I see it somewhat differently.
The Curse and Opportunities of Social Reality
So much of today’s human predicament is of our own making, and there is plenty of “blame” to go around. Yet, to deal with the “interesting times” in which we live, we must be realistic about the facts. So, why is that “doom and gloom”?
Many folks addictively watch the evening news or their favorite cable-channel partisan rants. Every verified fact they do not want to face, they label “fake news,” a horribly destructive reaction when committed by a president. That kind of know-nothing unrealistic attitude occurs when we are too fatalistic—it breeds hopelessness, fear, and anger.
The I Ching has another approach. I have enjoyed its enigmatic adages and its ambiguous meanings. They get one thinking about all the possibilities of life. In a way, the I Ching mirrors its reader’s mind. One of the puzzles its hexagrams reflect is the relationship between danger or crisis and opportunity or success.
Opportunity and Necessity
We tend to see change as danger, and often as a threat. Fatalism, whether in the form of optimism or pessimism, sees only one kind of outcome. However, life is all unknown futures. In every danger lurks some opportunity not before available or known.
The I Ching urges us to look at the whole picture. That is why I like the idea of hopeful realism. Be realistic about the facts, however hard to face, and search for whatever opportunities you can find in the situation, then take action accordingly.
It struck me how amazingly similar are the Coronavirus pandemic and the emerging new great transformation of our place on planet Earth, at the center of which is the climate emergency with related crises of ecological collapse, food insecurity, financial instability, and growing societal chaos. The pandemic is playing out in days and weeks, while the climate crisis has played out in decades. Yet, their relationship to our attitudes is the same.
Which crisis poses the greatest danger to humanity? The answer lies in the fact that the danger of both depends in great part on our response. South Korea and Italy have already demonstrated how the seriousness of our response determines just how much damage the pandemic inflicts upon us. In the next decade or so, whether humanity is able to transform industrial civilization into local-regional ecologically sustainable communities will determine in a similar way the fate of our species on the planet.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given us the opportunity to see how terribly fragile the political and economic structures we take for granted really are. It is also demonstrating the remarkable recovery of the atmosphere and waterways when the industrial-consumer system partially shuts down.
The greatest danger offers the greatest opportunity. Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate emergency are indifferent to our denial or our excuses for failing to act. Only out of action comes the creativity we so sorely need, and the opportunity to transform our lives, if only for our survival’s sake.
If we can muster the creativity to reorganize our societies on ecologically viable grounds, we will live very different lives in very different ways. Of course, if we let either of these emergencies just run their course unimpeded, we will have let them destroy us without a fight. That alone would be the saddest outcome.
Instead, we can rise to the occasion and find great opportunities emerging from the existential necessity of great change. Then we will embark on a new human adventure we cannot yet even come close to imagining.