How should world society respond to the approach of human extinction compelled by implacable external forces, such as: radioactive fallout after a global nuclear war (as in Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach), or an alien invasion by a species of technologically superior beings from outer space, or an impending collision between Earth and a massive planetoid, or (as seems most likely today) by runaway and irreversible Climate Change?
The general question has long been the seed for spinning out entertaining speculations in fantasy novels and science-fiction movies, but now it has become a serious matter of immediate concern for an increasing number of geo- and social- scientists and social planners. Mayer Hillman, an 86-year-old social scientist, urban planner and senior fellow emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute in England, says (in an article published by The Guardian on 26 April 2018, https://amp.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/26/were-doomed-mayer-hillman-on-the-climate-reality-no-one-else-will-dare-mention):
“We’re doomed. — The outcome is death, and it’s the end of most life on the planet because we’re so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps. And very few appear to be prepared to say so. — I’m not going to write anymore [about the projected consequences of runaway Climate Change] because there’s nothing more that can be said. — With doom ahead, making a case for cycling as the primary mode of transport [instead of automobiles] is almost irrelevant. — We’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels. So many aspects of life depend on fossil fuels, except for music and love and education and happiness. These things, which hardly use fossil fuels, are what we must focus on. [Hillman is amazed that our thinking rarely stretches beyond 2100 when discussing scientific predictions on the increase of average global temperature.] This is what I find so extraordinary when scientists warn that the temperature could rise to 5C or 8C. What?, and stop there? What legacies are we leaving for future generations? In the early 21st century, we did as good as nothing in response to Climate Change. Our children and grandchildren are going to be extraordinarily critical. — Even if the world went zero-carbon today that would not save us because we’ve gone past the point of no return. [Action by individuals to limit their ‘carbon footprint’ – their direct and indirect production of greenhouse gases is] as good as futile. [National action by the UK along the same lines is also irrelevant] because Britain’s contribution is minute. Even if the government were to go to zero-carbon it would make almost no difference. — [The world as a whole would have to go zero-carbon, but can that be done without the collapse of civilization?] I don’t think so. Can you see everyone in a democracy volunteering to give up flying? Can you see the majority of the population becoming vegan? Can you see the majority agreeing to restrict the size of their families? — Wealthy people will be better able to adapt but the world’s population will head to regions of the planet such as northern Europe which will be temporarily spared the extreme effects of climate change. How are these regions going to respond? We see it now. Migrants will be prevented from arriving. We will let them drown. — [Few scientific, political; and religious leaders have been honest with the public on all this, in order to protect their own positions] I don’t think they can [be forthright] because society isn’t organised to enable them to do so. Political parties’ focus is on jobs and GDP, depending on the burning of fossil fuels. — [Can the now obvious signs of advancing Climate Change spark an epiphany in humanity’s collective mind, and cause it to relinquish its ultimately self-destructive fossil fueled binge?] It depends on what we are prepared to do. Standing in the way is capitalism. Can you imagine the global airline industry being dismantled when hundreds of new runways are being built right now all over the world? It’s almost as if we’re deliberately attempting to defy nature. We’re doing the reverse of what we should be doing, with everybody’s silent acquiescence, and nobody’s batting an eyelid.”
Now, let us consider the 2017 American movie Downsizing, given this context.
Downsizing is an intelligent and, by American standards, subtle cinematic science-fiction social satire about the individual’s problem of securing sufficient wealth to comfortably sustain their lives in a secure cosmopolitan community for the duration of their lifespan. This movie was conceived by Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor, and directed by Payne who has numerous successful movies to his credit: Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), The Descendants (2011) and Nebraska (2013). Downsizing was not well-received by the majority of the viewing public because it is a film about ideas, thus requiring thinking for its enjoyment, as opposed to being a cinematic delivery vehicle for emotive sensations and jolting stimuli to provide passive unthinking viewers with 135 minutes of thrilling distraction.
The central pit in Downsizing, around which the screenplay and the screenwriters’ implied social commentaries have been grown like the flesh of a stone-fruit, is that science has discovered a process for harmlessly shrinking living cells and organisms, enabling humans to be reduced to Lilliputian size so that their existing savings and equity in the “big world” can economically sustain them in lifetimes of luxury in the “small world,” because their “ecological footprints” – both for consumption and waste production – have been miniaturized. The attraction for “getting small” is basically a get-rich-quick scheme leading to an endlessly sustainable high-life coupled with the pleasurable sense of eliminating one’s big-world guilt over contributing to Climate Change and the environmental degradation of the planet, which is caused by its “overpopulation” with “big” capitalist-minded, wasteful and exploitative people. In brief: having it all.
The problem with making an expensive ($68M) artful cinematic work whose purpose is to stimulate thoughtful societal awareness – if you want to recoup your investment – is that you have to market it successfully to the masses of cinema-viewing yahoos. Downsizing was released on 22 December 2017, and as of 1 February 2018 (its theatrical closing) had only grossed $55M. It just didn’t hit the yahoo g-spot, and they hated it for boring them.
The “lesson” in the screenplay of Downsizing, which was delivered in a clear sedately-paced and understated way (which I like), is that the solution for achieving fulfilling individual lives in peaceful and comforting societies is for the people of such would-be societies to take care of one another: popular humanitarian socialism. Regardless of whether a society enjoys being situated in a natural or artificial paradise and is economically secure, or whether it is environmentally and economically stressed and doomed to extinction, the best that it can ever be for all of its inhabitants during its duration is entirely the result of its peoples’ commitment to construct mutually fulfilling lives of cooperation and compassion, instead of seeking to escape – from the masses of the less fortunate – into exclusive refuges and redoubts of enclosed privilege to continue with lives of egotistical self-centeredness and selfish indifference.
This message is ancient. It was part of the Buddha’s “Triple Jewel” teaching to his disciples and fellow monks and nuns (the Sangha), to ‘take care of one another’:
I will go to the Buddha for refuge.
I will go to the Dharma [the teachings of Buddha; the Buddhist way of life] for refuge.
I will go to the Sangha [harmonious community] for refuge.
The Buddhist sense of ‘taking refuge’ expressed here is not a running away from the rest of the world, but a commitment for living a truer life within it, based on Buddhist precepts.
There have been many book and movie stories centered on the idea of: individual fulfillment found through mutual help for securing group survival if possible, versus seeking individual escape from group peril, and from guilt over abandoning responsibility. Three such stories that came to my mind while pondering the movie Downsizing were the films: Lost Horizon (1937), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and Zardoz (1974).
Lost Horizon is Frank Capra’s film of the James Hilton fantasy novel about Shangri-La: a fabulous and peaceful Buddhist-style refuge from modern society and its torments, situated in a life-extending green valley that is hidden within the otherwise frigid and snowy expanse of the high Himalayas. But, can Shangri-La truly be an escape?
The Day the Earth Stood Still is Robert Wise’s movie of Edmund H. North’s screenplay of Harry Bates’s story of an alien ambassador, Klaatu, and his all-powerful robot, Gort (with a heat-ray beam-weapon dematerializer), who arrive in a Flying Saucer to deliver a message to humanity from an alien Federation of Planets: live peacefully on Earth and join our Federation as an independent planet, but do not militarize space with your rockets and nuclear bombs, because we would take that as a mortal threat and then our space-patrolling robot police, like Gort, would “reduce your Earth to a burned-out cinder.” Humanity’s escape to the good life, which is offered in this movie fantasy, would be achieved by forsaking war-making in all its forms to instead gain the advanced knowledge and technology of Klaatu’s interplanetary civilization, and that technology would vastly enhance the quality-of-life of the popular humanistic socialism that humanity would have to adopt as its new social paradigm.
Zardoz is John Boorman’s film about a far future post-apocalyptic immiscibly stratified static society that is suddenly ruptured by violence against its tiny elite, which results in a complete blending of humanity and a rebirth of human evolution. The Eternals are non-aging humans who live in a paradisal community, the Vortex, bubbled from the external misery by invisible force fields, and containing advanced endlessly-fueled hidden technology that automatically maintains the Eternals’ unending and idyllic existences. All the fruits of humanity’s previous achievements are now maintained in the Vortex, but the Eternals are all bored with their immortal lives of effortless omniscience and leisure. The vast expanse of the Outlands beyond the Vortex is a wasteland inhabited by the Brutals, people reduced to being isolated dumb animals without any civilization or social cohesion, scrounging through the wreckage of the previous world for each individual’s survival. Among the Brutals is a horse-riding semi-organized militia of enforcers, the Exterminators, who receive guns from Zardoz, a god in the form of a huge flying stone head that orders the Exterminators to enslave defenseless Brutals into chain-gangs to perform rudimentary agricultural labor, or other such work as mining, as might be required to supply the Vortex with what its denizens desire. The Exterminators punish any infraction and every failure by a Brutal – however trivial – with instant death by gunfire. The Exterminators, all men, also exult in their power and preference by their god, Zardoz, by freely raping and pillaging among the Brutals. Zardoz tells them: “The gun is good.” It is the hobby and amusement of Arthur Frayn, one of the Eternals, to carry on the charade of being Zardoz (piloting the stone head, and supplying the Exterminators with commands and cascades of firearms). It happens that through an instance of Arthur Frayn’s carelessness one of the Exterminators, Zed, manages to get into the Vortex and once there evolves despite an oppressive captivity, from Brutal ignorance to Eternal knowledge, and this leads to the complete and violent death of Vortex society, and transfiguration of humanity. The movie Zardoz is a dark – black – analog to the much gentler if still subtly sharp Downsizing.
The essential lesson of responding to the approach of a destructive inevitability beyond your society’s power is to engage in compassionate cooperation to make your society as good as it can be for as long as you and it can be made to last, and to find your life’s fulfillment in doing so.
This idea is captured visually so simply in the last moments of Downsizing that it remains invisible to the majority of the viewing public. And so our fractious collectivity cruises onward, untrammeled, towards its willfully unexpected collision with fate.
Societal Death or Transfiguration?, Cinema Visions of Humanity Facing Extinction
30 April 2017
Of related interest:
The Righteous And The Heathens of Climate And Capitalism
12 March 2012
The I Ching is an ancient Chinese book whose purpose is to aid an individual in making a decision, by estimating the best attitudes to adopt and actions to take in order to fare best given the nature of present personal circumstances, and their potential for improving if one adopted the attitudes and actions recommended.
This essay will briefly describe the Wilhelm-Baynes-Jung edition of the I Ching, which is in English, then why it can be useful to help guide personal action (without mumbo-jumbo), and finally the mechanics of actually using the book.
I Ching: The Book of Changes
The I Ching is a Chinese book of divination, from the end of the 2nd millennium BCE (most likely), whose interpretation was expanded philosophically during the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE) to describe the dynamic balance of opposites and the inevitability of change in the phenomenal realm. Perhaps the most compelling translation of the I Ching into English appeared in print in 1950. This particular version began as a translation from the ancient Chinese into German by Richard Wilhelm guided by the Chinese scholar Lao Nai-hsüan, and was made during the years of World War I. In about 1927, Wilhelm’s friend the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung asked one of his American students, Cary F. Baynes (the former wife of Jaime de Angulo) who worked as a translator of Jung’s books into English, to translate the Wilhelm edition of the I Ching from German to English. This effort was slowed by the death of Richard Wilhelm in 1930, the death of Cary’s husband Helton Godwin Baynes in 1943, and dislocations resulting from the social turbulence of the 1930s and 1940s. The English translation was completed in 1949, and the book included an extensive forward by C. G. Jung explaining how to use the I Ching for divining the right course of action on a question of serious personal interest to the seeker.
The philosophy of the I Ching is of the organic unity and intrinsic appropriateness of the unforced unresisted phenomenal realm, or Nature, called the Tao; and the dynamic balance of opposites of every type, the ying and yang, whose ceaseless interplay give an illusion of duality, yet which dance is really just an alternation of images of the underlying eternal monism, the Tao.
The purpose of the I Ching is to guide the seeker toward a proper psychological balance for the circumstances of the moment. Such balance is essential when making the significant decisions of a lifetime. The propriety of that balance is defined by a moral code that can be characterized as Confucian combined with Taoist flexibility. The I Ching was already ancient by the time of Confucius (K’ung Fu-tzu, 551-479 BCE) and the coalescing of formalized Taoism (traditionally 6th century BCE, more likely 5th-4th century BCE), which movement identified its founding text as the Tao Te Ching, a masterful collection of poetic logically ambiguous yet conceptually clear aphorisms ascribed to legendary author Lao Tzu. Modern scholarship is uncertain about the historical authenticity of Lao Tzu, and some scholars believe the Tao Te Ching is a collective work by now unknown authors. Regardless, the Tao Te Ching is one of the finest gems of world literature, philosophy and psychology. The Confucian school of thought is one of building up systems of social organization from simple elements and rules. Taoists see society as immersed in the organic whole of a phenomenal existence of infinite fractal complexity, hence impossible to systematize by reductionism. So, the interpretative commentaries that became attached to the I Ching during the Warring States Period were primarily written by Confucians, which infused the I Ching that has come down to us, with sensible and honorable Confucian morality.
For the man or woman of today’s modern Westernized culture, more interested in utility that in airy metaphysical prattle, the I Ching can be used for practical divination by means of intuitive fuzzy logic: a way to reshuffle the imagination to see present circumstances from a fresh perspective, and then to visualize how these circumstances could change into a specifically different situation as a result of adopting a particular attitude or performing a recommended action. The answer is in the question, and both — an illusory duality — come out of you.
The section above was excerpted from a large article on Asian philosophy, see
How To Use The I Ching
The I Ching characterizes an individual’s present circumstances — specific to the question burning in the seeker’s mind — with an image made of six stacked horizontal lines: the hexagram. The lines can be of two types: “strong” (solid) or “weak” (broken), a line with a break (blank space) in the middle. Given these two types of line, it is possible to form 64 different hexagrams.
The hexagram is an image that appears “naturally” and “spontaneously” out of the the same present reality that is expressing you along with the particular quandary that is occupying your mind. Hence, by analyzing that hexagram as a generalized abstraction of your present, you might find a helpful change of perspective that could lead you to adopt new attitudes and take new actions, which would resolve the concern in your mind.
So, that is the essential value of the I Ching: it can surprise you with a shift of perspective that comes out of your own mind as it ponders the dynamics of your own living. No mumbo-jumbo is required, the modern person can use the I Ching without skepticism, as a technique of “spinning the arrow” and “throwing the dice” in your own mind to get a fresh view of your own reality.
How do you determine your hexagram of the moment? In ancient times, hexagrams might be seen to appear accidentally, such as by a bundle of straw falling at your feet and six or more pieces of straw forming a haphazard hexagram; or the cracking of a tortoise shell, from being roasted over a fire, forming the illuminated image of a hexagram. The appearance of these accidental hexagrams would occur while you were deep in thought about some personal question. Later, methods based on randomness for the intentional determination of the moment’s hexagram were developed. I will describe the three-coin method.
Select three coins; I prefer three different types of coin (e.g., US quarter, dime and nickel). Hold them in a closed hand while you think clearly about a specific personal question or decision you want guidance about. Be serious, the exercise is a pointless waste of time otherwise. In ancient times they would have said, poetically, that the “energy” (chi) and “vibrations” (tao) expressing you while you hold this clearly focused question in mind would infuse themselves into the coins warming in you fist, so they would naturally express “you” when forming the hexagram.
Now, shake the coins in your hand, and toss them in front of you (gently so they land close by and don’t fly away). For each coin that lands “heads” assign a value of 3. For each coin that lands “tails” assign a value of 2. Add these three values to determine the numerical value (or strength) of the first line. For example: three heads has the value 9, three tails has the value 6, two heads and one tail yields the value 8, one head and two tails yields 7.
Begin drawing your hexagram, this first line is at the bottom. The line is solid if it has an odd numerical value (7 or 9). The line is broken if it has a even numerical value (6 or 8). It is useful to mark the numerical value next to the line. Repeat this coin-toss process to form the second line, which is drawn above the previous line. Continue until you have a stack of six lines (the sixth line being the top line found with the sixth three-coin toss).
Now you have your hexagram. Consult the book’s interpretation of that hexagram (and the interpretations of each line in the hexagram), and think about how the images presented could be analogies of aspects of your personal situation: THINK!
From the above, you have gained an interpretation of “you now.” What about “the future”? In the conceptions systematized as the I Ching, any solid line with numerical value 9, and any broken line with numerical value 6 were considered so charged that they could spontaneously change into their opposites: solid to broken, and broken to solid. Form a second hexagram from the first, by changing solid lines of value 9 into broken lines, and changing broken lines of value 6 into solid lines, and leaving lines of values 7 or 8 as they were.
This second hexagram represents a future set of personal circumstances that is expected to evolve out of your present, particularly if you follow the recommendations described by the I Ching in its interpretations of each line in the hexagrams as well as the I Ching’s interpretation of the hexagrams as a whole. Again, the personal specifics come out of YOUR THINKING about how the poetic imagery by the I Ching would be analogous to your situation. If you do draw a hexagram that can transform into a second one, then this “change” is the kind of future-casting that the I Ching can provide.
If you treat the I Ching as a technique (something serious) rather than a game (something trivial), you will find it helpful in many instances when you want to clear your mind of confusion, and arrive at useful conclusions. The fundamental point about use of the I Ching is not “how accurate is it?” as if the I Ching were a mysterious external agency or “black box” telling your fortune, but that the I Ching is a random-process moralistic-poetic thought-triggering technique for you to apply to yourself to aid in your own self-analytical thinking.
Try it. If it helps and you like it, then you’ve gained a new tool. If you don’t find it useful, no blame, forget about it and move on.
Repression Envies Freedom
Happiness in life comes
when you stop seeking approval
and calmly accept being a transparent failure,
while continuing with your art.
For a poet,
art comes before love,
and love comes before food.
For a mother,
food comes before love,
and loves comes before art.
Repressed people resent
those who live freely.
Happy people are untouched
by those who resent freedom.
A happy life is a free one.
17 January 2018
When Purgatory Fails
It is so sad to see karma’s futile attempts to purge some lives of their stubborn insistent ignorance, and to have your sympathetic efforts to help resented as annoying interference and hurtful contradiction, thus reducing your possibilities for compassionate action to silent compliance while absorbing repetitive litanies of self-pitying complaints. And, how enervating to remain tethered to another’s self-wounding, because of your guilt against abandoning a human bond you want to value. Many kind hearts harden over time simply from a need for self-preservation, and much love erodes over time by straining to withstand ceaseless withering rains of impervious self-defeating inertia.
17 January 2018
This is a country of very ignorant selfish people who are being exploited by very smart selfish people. I can’t do anything to change that, but I don’t have to help it along, either. I can forgo getting the best possible deal at the lowest possible price with the least amount of thought.
I don’t talk politics during the holiday season, at family gatherings, or basically ever. People believe what they want to believe, and facts don’t matter. Challenging people’s beliefs only upsets them and drives them into bunkers of defensiveness. By adolescence, people don’t change, certainly not because of what others tell them. Any change of thinking and attitude is purely a result of responding to life’s traumatic experiences, and such change is rare even when the traumas are regular.
All talk of universal cooperativeness: world socialism, population control, decarbonizing industrialization to prevent climate change, and similar visions of worldwide social justice and economic equity are fantasies never to be achieved. Individual selfishness will always trump social responsibility, satisfying immediate desires will always trump achieving long-term social improvement, confident willful ignorance will always stymie hesitant and deliberate thoughtfulness and understanding.
The fear for human extinction caused by climate change, overpopulation and nuclear war, which is increasingly expressed by intelligent, socially conscious long-range thinkers, is beyond permanent relief. This fear springs from a deep-seated belief that humanity must endure eternally, that it cannot be allowed to pass away. But why? The history of life on earth is one of species emerging, evolving and fading away. Extinction is the rule, the average lifespan of species on earth is a few million years.
A human lifetime is too brief an instant for any individual to have any impact on the course of humanity’s drift toward extinction. It is true that some individuals find themselves in positions of immense temporal power and are able to initiate, or halt, genocidal events. However, the power to cause rapid human extinction is beyond any single individual. The intentional rapid extinction of humanity requires the cooperative madness of many individuals engaged in launching the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons in one apocalyptic world war. Individual selfishness is one deterrent to the selfless cooperative attainment of this radioactive crescendo of extinction.
A better response by socially conscious people, to the realization of humanity’s drift toward extinction as a mass of insular selfish individuals ensconced in their little logic and fantasy bubbles that are opaque beyond close-in personal horizons, is to make their face-to-face interactions as compassionate, honest, honorable and calming as is reasonable given the circumstances. Obviously, sometimes conflict is necessary and right, but one tries to minimize that. This is “being peace” as Thich Nhat Hanh has written about so eloquently.
You as a living experience are peace for your own well being in the here and now, and as a socially conscious expression of solidarity with whatever individual human being you are dealing with at the moment, because you recognize the same spirit of life in them as in you, and because you realize that every other person is a bundle of largely unseen and unknowable mental fears and psychological conflicts – just as you have, largely unseen by the rest of humanity.
Be peace because that is what you can do. Forget about saving humanity, you can’t do it, it can’t be done, and it doesn’t matter. Before you were here, while you are here, and after you are gone, the universe is.
The following article (link below) is based on memories of my past, of a few of the incidents that expanded my awareness. These particular memories are between 25 and 55 years old. Reflections on nature (and hummingbirds) are a major part of the article. I allowed myself a few peppery barbs and a few artistic flourishes. Good luck.
Overtones Of Awareness
8 September 2013