Soundtrack in my head: Dar Williams, “Mortal City”
In my last “paper swimming pools post,” I wrote about how I, as a child got over the fear of deep water through play—making “swimming pools” out of paper and having little toy figures “swim” in them until finally, one day I got my courage up and jumped off the diving board. In this post, I will write about other fears—and not necessarily of the childhood variety.
In junior high and early high school, I learned that there were (at the time) enough nuclear weapons to kill every man, woman and child on the earth five times over. I became fascinated with the notion of nuclear holocaust. Like my mother, I was already reading a bit of science fiction, and I became fascinated with near-term, post apocalyptic science fiction. However, as I did so, I also became more afraid that this science fiction could become reality. I found myself worrying about the day that those sirens might start going off, and I’d go to sleep at night with the blanket pulled up over my face as if that might somehow protect me from the blast, heat, and radiation. “The Day After,” a 1983 made-for-TV movie that created a “what-if” scenario about nuclear war, only reinforced fears I already had.
I was on the high school newspaper at the time and I interviewed a student who was involved with a nuclear disarmament group at school. I remember asking her whether getting involved in the issue made her more afraid of nuclear war. She said that it did at first, but then she felt less afraid because she felt she was doing something about it. I found that to be true when I myself became an activist at college a year or so later. Our nuclear disarmament group would bring lecturers to campus and hold rallies. We held “die-ins” timed with the monthly testing of the emergency sirens where we’d drop screaming to the ground as if dying from a nuclear blast, and trace the outline of our bodies on the sidewalk with chalk.
Unfortunately, the list of potential things to be afraid of has only grown. At the end of the 80’s, we began to hear more about the environmental crisis. In the mid-90’s, I found myself worrying that globalization’s “race to the bottom” would have us all working in sweatshops, or perhaps even cause the economic collapse of the global economy. Starting with 9/11, I found myself worrying not so much about terrorism, but the prospect that the government might use the prospect of terrorism to impose martial law and worse. Now there’s a lot of renewed talk about global warming. And as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I have reasons to believe that recent rise in energy prices is just the tip of the iceberg, and that we could see more shortages and dislocation as a result. Then, there’s a lot of talk about avian flu or some other superbug causing millions of deaths worldwide and perhaps even shutting down economic activity for months.
The extent to which any of these apocalyptic prospects are realistic is subject to debate, (and a few of this things I do have some skepticism about) but there is no doubt that we human beings have created a capacity to destroy ourselves that is unprecedented in history. Maybe us human beings will find the capacity to successfully combat global warming or energy shortages—certainly we are capable of it–but right now, my bet is that things will get worse before they’ll get better.
Most people respond by not responding. The reaction is denial, resignation, or just deciding that it’s not polite to talk about the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the room. I can’t hold that against people–it’s all too easy to do.
There are also people who go to the opposite extreme—who look at every hurricane, earthquake, major wildfire, and civil disturbance as further proof that the end is nigh. I’ve even seen people use that fear to manipulate others into blind obedience of religious doctrines and authorities, and certainly our government has been guilty of the same thing. I find such practices despicable.
It’s heartening to know that we’ve appeared to be at “the brink” many times without crossing over. At the same time, it would be foolhardy to think that this will automatically happen in the future.
Looking back, I realize that a lot of the choices I’ve made in life have been influenced in part by worries about the future. I spent nearly seven years working for the environmental movement, and my twelve-year fundraising career was indirectly spurred by this desire to make a difference.
Yet I find myself these days feeling kind of overwhelmed by what is happening in the world. I think that my efforts to live simply, communally, and spiritually help to some extent, but I often question whether that is adequate preparation for the challenges that we might face in the future. Sometimes I feel paralyzed by this fear.
Lately, I think my right brain, the creative part of the brain, has been kicking into gear to deal with these fears. In recent months, I’ve felt motivated to undertake a number of creative endeavors. In the last few weeks it’s occurred to me that these creative endeavors may in fact be “paper swimming pool” endeavors designed to, once again, help come to terms with the fear within me.
For example, I’ve been recently motivated to read the book “Dies The Fire,” by S.M. Stirling. My mother gave me a copy of this book shortly before she died—she was a big fan of the author. The premise of this book is that a mysterious electrical storm somehow triggers a change that renders all electrical devices in the world useless—suddenly sending humanity back to the Middle Ages technology-wise. While the premise of the book is far-fetched, the response of characters and human society to the events seems fairly realistic, and gives me food for thought when thinking about the future. I’m a little more than halfway through the book right now.
There has always been a part of me that likes to dream about new worlds and alternative realities. Recently, I’ve felt motivated to create a narrative future history, maybe in the form of a novel or short story, trying to map out plausible changes in society over the next ten, twenty and fifty years, and figure out what impact such changes would impact our world politically, socially, and in our day-to-day lives. At first I thought it was just play for Steve’s geek mind, but I realize that I’m quite motivated to be as realistic as possible with it, and this might again be a “paper swimming pool project” without my consciously realizing it. I don’t know if it will turn into a writing project or be used in some other way. Maybe it might even be useful in life planning–when I saw the documentary, “The End of Suburbia,” one of the documentary’s participants urged people to think about their careers and what kind of skills and specialties will be sorely needed during more difficult times.
Weird stuff, but certainly there is no harm in letting the child within the adult mind play with these things. Perhaps the right brain, the one associated with artistic endeavors and creativity, is the best one to grapple with these issues right now. Certainly I see no harm in it, and who knows—maybe creative ideas for the future may reveal themselves…