The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk – Hegel
Which is, at one level, a posh way of saying that it’s easy to be wise after the event, but taken differently might suggest that the end of an historical epoch is the best time truly to understand it – and which, in the case of our present economic, ecological and climate crisis, is no bad thing because we’re not choosing between two sorts of cornflakes but trying to figure out how we can even continue to exist. Or in Joni Mitchell’s words:
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
So we’re talking 53 years ago for Joni Mitchell’s song, 57 years since Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring” and 62 years ago Vance Packard published “The Hidden Persuaders”. I ask myself the question that I fear my grandchildren will ask me one day – “What on earth were you doing all that time?” because I know that any response which suggests that my personal behaviour didn’t cause the problem, or that I was one of the good guys, an avid recycler and all the rest misses out the crucial fact that I was there the whole time. Of course there must be degrees of complicity in the unfolding disaster but the bitter fact is that in a thousand tiny ways I looked away, grumbled about the plastic tide but carried on buying, drove around more than I strictly should have done and never took my protests beyond grumbling to a few trusted friends when I knew something was wrong; and so – just as it happens in a human body – the damage slowly accumulated and we said “we must stop all this one day soon or it will go badly for us”: and now it has.
The question – “What shall we do?” comes easily and steals the best parking place in the argument, but it’s not the best question. Doing things is lovely, it suits our activist, technology driven culture because as long as we’re doing things we don’t need to think about them. Someone; the experts, the people in the know, will sort things out and in ten years time we’ll be wondering what the fuss was all about. Except the owl of Minerva has taken flight and suddenly we dimly understand that the clock can’t be rewound to the time when the party was going well and no-one had fallen out, started a fight or puked on the carpet. If I was going to the place I want to get to, I wouldn’t start from here.
So let’s ask a different question, like – for instance – “what shall we be?” What kind, what shape, what measure of humanity will serve us best. This, by the way, is the beauty of Philip Pullman’s recent books, because they examine the same question. For him the Magisterium seems to be modelling some kind of religious organisation like the church, but the real church has nothing but the rags and shreds of its former power. The Magisterium is the corporation, surely?
But something is stirring and the Magisterium is putting up a fight that, for the moment, it is winning. Those who can see the clouds gathering feel as if they are being slowly squeezed out of the argument. But the old era is coming to an end, and for the rest of us it should be both encouraging and galvanising. Hand wringing won’t do it.
The climate and the environment aren’t the only things that can reach a tipping point. Whole cultures can reach them too. Our strategy shouldn’t be confined to shouting facts and data at people and hoping they’ll understand and change. We need to change perspectives, embody a new vision and live it out.