Outside the Box; Contemplating Nested Challenges

At the beginning of March,2020, while riding the Corona chairlift at Eldora Ski area, I caught the bug.  No, not “that” bug (some joking on the lift notwithstanding).   I was re-infected with the love of wild winds, deep snow and the greens, whites, blues and greys of the Rockies.    The slopes were almost deserted, affording me a lot of solitary time to contemplate.  But the remarkable, thrilling day also energized me to think hard about matters that put us all in great peril and also to see some lights at the ends of those tunnels.

My initial musings went viral, and not just because of the Corona lift.  When news of this epidemic first broke, I had been in the middle of the book, “The Plague,” by Albert Camus.   As Coronavirus spread and as I continued reading, I was struck by how relevant this 1947 book was to the present-day contagion and so much more.  “The Plague” offers insights into aspects of human nature that intersect with catastrophe of just about any sort.   If you don’t want to read “The Plague” at this particular moment in history, perhaps check out the Wikipedia site as it does the book reasonable justice.  And, for some thoughts on how the novel can speak to us in any age, see this 2015 review, “Albert Camus’ The Plague: A Story For Our (and All) Times.”   The author writes “Like every good metaphorical or allegorical work [“The Plague”] can represent beyond its intentions; including pestilences both moral and metaphorical that have happened after Camus’ own lifetime.”  I agree, and will consider three of these pestilences in this essay.  But I’ll also offer a few rays of hope and a way we might address all three of these challenges at the same time.

Back to the slopes . . . as the exhilarating sensations of flying down the mountain were juxtaposed with moments on the lift contemplating “The Plague,” I began to feel, viscerally, the loss of freedoms that might accrue as society tries to control a voracious disease.   Those losses are now mounting in our real lives every day.   But, having finished the book, I could also imagine a time when life will begin to return to normal as well.   “The Plague” instills the horrors of lives lost and permanent pain for many, but also the restoration of freedoms and almost rapturous joy of heavy burdens lifted as the contagion subsides.

On to pestilence number two.   I also recently re-read the book, “1984” by George Orwell which describes a plague of a very different sort that could threaten our lives and freedoms just as surely as a potent virus.  “1984” is another sobering, even stultifying classic that you may have read (but, if not, check it out on Wikipedia).  When I read it first, during a period of relative social calm, it seemed somewhat abstract.  Over the past couple years, though, I’ve had a looming sense that we are headed towards an Orwellian world in which almost all freedoms are lost to an authoritarian state.   A quintessential line from “1984” helps capture the dark world we could face – “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” This line is part of a savage diatribe delivered to the protagonist, Winston, by his captor and torturer, O’Brien, who pontificates that “The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy—everything.” This kind of terrifying world could easily be just a few political decisions and inactions away.

If you are skeptical of this analysis or think I’m just a worrywart, do a couple things.   First, consider how we are now actually in the midst of a surreal emergency that would have seemed unimaginable until very recently.  Then Google “1984, relevance today” and peruse the 82 million or so sites that come up.   A large number of these websites have been put up in the past 3 years – there are, indeed, flashing red lights all around us warning that we could be heading towards an Orwellian world.  It’s being built, brick by brick, even in the midst of our COVID-19 challenge.    Watch any presidential news conference on the Coronavirus and contemplate the ongoing lovefest with our leader no matter what he says.  Our President’s constant self-aggrandizement and breathtakingly vindictive behavior and revisionist statements in the midst of this crisis are rivaled only by the fawning deference and praise heaped upon him by everyone around him.   Having grown up in South Korea, this strikes me strongly as the kind of language and behavior that North Korea’s “great leaders” have demanded and gotten for decades, and it feels to me like we’re heading in that direction.  Our President is steadily removing as many checks to his power as he can in an obvious attempt to consolidate power.  Its progressing so rapidly that its hard to keep up.  As of this writing, one of just many stories is that the President is “considering taking the unprecedented step of adjourning both houses of Congress in order to make recess appointments to fill government posts, citing the emergency created by the coronavirus outbreak.” See this link).

I’m not writing these lines to antagonize anyone or because I hate President Trump.  I’m writing them because the trends that emerged before the pandemic already portended looming authoritarianism and we’re still on that path now.  These are my sincere and respectful opinions and I would sincerely and respectfully engage with anyone who worries about my motives.  We’re heading down this dangerous path together.  No matter in what shape we emerge from the Coronavirus emergency, the real prospect of totalitarian rule will still remain a colossal threat unless we take steps to head it off.  Since those on the right traditionally value freedoms in America, if you identify yourself as such, I hope you’ll be on the lookout for and stand vigilant against such possible loss of all freedoms.  Those on the left bear equal responsibility to prevent a slide into an Orwellian World.   See how it is coming to pass under our very noses.   Then vote and tell others to vote.  Don’t discount this threat.  I’ll leave you with one additional quote from “1984” and leave this second pestilence at that:

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

 It may seem strange or even dour of me to have been so preoccupied by great contagions and pangs of an Orwellian world while in the midst of stunningly beautiful surroundings and enjoying the luxury of flying unfettered down a mountain.   Well, it didn’t feel that way to me.  Quite the opposite.   Just being outside anywhere is a much healthier setting in which to contemplate problems – whether one’s own or the world’s – than on a couch, in front of a computer or otherwise cut off from the forces of life we have evolved with.  In this case, the heightened forces of Nature matched and surpassed the tempest of apprehension and bestowed an uncanny calm. The wonderful winds were change embodied.  The brilliant colors – those greens, blues, whites and greys I so dearly love – balanced the dark deliberations my brain was entertaining.   The skyline of ancient rock and the guttural calls of ravens playing on the gusts provided an ancient backdrop to the current state of affairs.   It’s true.  I write these lines not to poetically rationalize gloomy ponderings but to encourage a perspective that will allow us to wrap our minds around the third and biggest “plague” we will have to deal with.

A brief rest, though.   The wind dropped a bit by midday.  My cells called for nourishment and a relief from the  wastes that build up in one’s system and cry out to become nutrients for the rest of the world.   I ditched my skis and clomped into the mountaintop grill to find a bathroom, eat my lunch and order a beer.   The view from the mountaintop restaurant was spectacular.   Vast ranges, near and far and laden with snow dominated the alpine world.  Swaying spruces and firs cast ephemeral shadows.   A tiny chickadee fought its way from branch to branch.  Persistence.  Survival.   The setting was awesome and restful at the same time, echoing my day so far. With the inspiring surroundings as a backdrop, my morning ruminations of world woes found a new life in my mind.   But that was alright.   I was fortified and ready to consider them again.

It occurred to me that the energy I’d used driving up to Eldora, being hauled thousands of feet up by chairlifts, enjoying warmth and food way up in the midst of blowing cold . . . that just this single day of energy demand was more than most people for most of history have used over years or even a lifetime. The excess stuff and waste in my life is unparalleled in human existence.  Even as a conservation-minded person, I am an energy glutton, a destroyer of life.   But trying to broach these ideas let alone address them is amazingly difficult even among those who express a concern about environmental trends.   Not being able to engage on these matters with even people who are close to you is a helpless feeling, rather like watching helplessly at a fire or a plague when possible remedies are at hand.  In the midst of hardship, it seems that people are often more stressed out by talking about real needs and a vicious circle ensues.

But, perhaps . . . just perhaps . . . there are glimmers of hope that this cycle can be broken.   In the midst of the COVID-19 emergency, some of the barriers to serious consideration of challenges at hand are beginning to dissolve.    When your community really is threatened, when your children are at risk, your aversion to talking about real threats starts to give way to survival instincts.    Can we channel those instincts in service of a third and most existential plague?   Think of some place near your home that has its own beauty, whether subtle or stunning.    Imagine a sunrise or sunset on your horizon.  Conjure up the taste and other sensations of a wonderful meal.  Look into the eyes of someone you love.   Hug your children. Get outside as often as you can and think about the living world as our home, our existence.  See it, feel it, treasure it.

It’s all in danger.   Living systems that support us are in a state of great disruption.  Even if we’re able to beat the virus and also successfully return to a semblance of rational thought and democracy, that will just return us to the place of possibly being able to address the state of the world as it was unfolding before these recent messes.   How will we deal with climate change, soil depletion, loss of biodiversity, mass migration and, yes, plagues and immense human cruelty of the future?  “How do Earth’s living systems work and how can our human systems fit in?  If we do not come to terms with and devote ourselves to dealing with these questions, we’re in for suffering that will make Coronavirus seem mild.   But COVID-19 could potentially change our minds and maybe our hearts, potentially revealing a new outlook in the midst of suffering.

The author of that 2015 review of “The Plague” I mentioned earlier – “Albert Camus’ The Plague: A Story For Our (and All) Times”  – wrote that one of the “plagues” that Camus observed in modern society was “repugnant materialism.”   The desire for all manner of stuff and comfort and the insistence – embedded in our economic policy – that we must have more and more of it forever is a greater danger than the Coronavirus.  In fact, as we continue to degrade the world with our insistence on growth at all costs, we create conditions in which plagues and other diseases are more likely.  Repugnant materialism tears at the circle of life upon which we depend  and melts away our humanity as surely as the glaciers. But it’s true – our experience with the COVID-19 pandemic could change our minds and hearts, potentially revealing a new outlook in the midst of suffering.

One of the most clear-eyed treatments I’ve come across of our imbalance with the living systems that support us – and how to begin to address them – is a series of 4 short videos (each about 20 minutes) that covers the main points of a course at the University of Minnesota called “Reality 101.”  It is presented by Professor Nate Hagens, whose creative and sometimes quirky style compels one to seriously consider the points he is making about evolution of human behavior, energy, the state of the world and ways to think about solutions. Hagens’ background is in finance, but he followed his experience and schooling in this area with a PhD in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont.  Over and above all the links and books I’ve incorporated into the essay so far, I most highly recommend Hagens’ four videos.   (https://un-denial.com/2019/08/08/by-nate-hagens-reality-101-short-courses/).

If you view the videos, or read any of the links or books I’ve noted, allot some time to mull them over and to consider their implications and applications.   Go outside. Enjoy a sunny afternoon or a biting chill.  Immerse yourself in the forces and sensations that our species has evolved in.   During this Coronavirus emergency, we have opportunity to slow down and get outside a whole lot more; to spend our time fixing things rather than buying new things; to envision ways to live with less negative impact and more regenerative effect.   Our challenge is to understand how the living systems of Earth work and how our human systems fit in.   Can we nurture this kind of thought in each other, especially young people and most especially high school students who are one step away from heading off on their own futures?   If you know a high school student who is open to this exploration, pass on this blog Environmental Literacy and ALL Careers.

My day on the slopes ended with a breathtaking view through amazingly clear skies a hundred miles out into the eastern plains.  It offered a metaphorical “long view” of dangers and possibilities as well.  After the experiences of that day and now the mounting Coronavirus emergency, I’m a bit more worried about each of the challenges that face us but also full of optimism for how we might turn the tide on them all.   We’ll never return to the same “normal” we left in February, 2020.  So, why not create a new normal that’s good, healthy and long-lasting?   In freeing ourselves from growth for growth’s sake economic policy that has so entrapped us and creating new ways of work and play, we’ll also be able to slow down, reimagine democracy and responsibility, take care of each other and the Living Planet of which we are a part.  Let’s think outside.  Let’s think outside the box.  Let’s solve these nested challenges together.  It might seem to be a double black diamond slope, but the alternative is a cliff, so let’s go for it!