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Anger, Sadness and Shame: Where are the Prophets and Visionaries?

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I cannot even begin to express my sadness but also my anger about the oil disaster in the Mexican Gulf. At the same time, if I turn on the TV, the Oil catastrophe, eruption, blow out - I refuse to call it a spill - hardly is news. Instead I see that the old game continues. They talk about money, about the financial crisis, about jobs, the economy, the big selling game, the free market society where only the market is free. It seems to me that by now the only risk that receives significant media attention and is taken seriously by policy makers is financial risk. As if there wouldn't be a real world we depend upon, as if health, sustainability, human dignity, life on Earth, the greater universe, in short, REALITY wouldn't exist. I feel enraged and deeply sorry for every single cetacean, and every bird that dies. Yet another mass murder of highly developed innocent fellow creatures. It affects me, because I am part of a species and a culture that seems to have lost - or given up - respect for life, including human life. What would the wise people of old say? The founders of our religions? Or moral leaders of the twentieth century, people like Einstein or Gandhi? Where are the Einsteins and Gandhis and Mandelas of the 21st century? We need them desperately to stop the third world war we are engaged in - the insane war against Earth itself, a war that aims at turning all of Earth into money.

According to ancient scriptures, Buddha once was asked to summarize his religion. He answered that everything that furthers the well being of all sentient beings would be a part of his religion. I don't get the impression that we made much progress over the last 2500 years since these words were uttered, although many have repeated them in different forms throughout the Millennia, and many have more concretely warned against the danger of a life devoted to money and growth. The names of those famous sages, those great men and women from all cultures, would fill pages - and the names of the unknown speaker's of wisdom surely would fill libraries. Simple truths and values we seem to have forgotten. Humility, frugality, respect - do not take more than you need.
Respect for life - whatever happened to "brother wolf"? The philosopher Mark Rowlands, who lived with a Wolf for many years, is not ashamed of using this term in his book "The Philosopher and the Wolf". Brother Wolf. The words expresses respect for the other, acknowledging he has a value, too, a value equal to our own. Brother Wolf, brother Pelican, sister Whale and - mother Earth. The word Natura means "that, which brings forth" or "that which gives birth". Like many teenagers who are (or think they are) ashamed of their uncool parents, our modern culture appears to be ashamed of having been brought forth by nature, as if it were an offense that we evolved from bacteria in tidal ponds or around deep sea vents, while, in fact, it is the most wondrous and amazing story we know about.
"Children of the Earth" merely is a poetic expression of the best scientific knowledge we to date possess. And at the same time, it also was common sense for many of the people of old.

Our time and culture at large does not care at all about the well being of any living thing. There are many individuals who do, but the apparatus of the economy centred globalized "culture" at large doesn't. Everything and every being is assessed solely in terms of its market value. And even our words are revealing, when we talk about the environment: something that surrounds us, but somehow is separate from us, like the inanimate walls of a building.
Despite the immense body of scientific knowledge available to us that proves how intricately we are embedded within the biosphere, we have not developed a modern intuition of being a part of the natural world - a natural world rhythmically flowing through as with every breath we take, with every sip of water we drink and every life giving solar photon absorbed by our skin. Instead, we convinced us that we liberated ourselves from the restrictions - but also the freedom - of the natural world, all too proud of our little technological talent we put all our faith in. The behavior of globalized contemporary mankind is akin of a man jumping out of an airplane, convinced, that he will think of something to save him on the way down.

But it is not as if nobody knew - there are enlightened economists who point out that infinite exponential economic growth is what to a natural scientist is quite obvious: a mathematical impossibility. As long as the economy is connected to the real world, to real things, real goods produced and real people and other creatures involved, its connection to energy and resource consumption cannot be broken.
This means that in the long run, no matter how clever our technical tricks become, exponential economic growth also results in exponential resource consumption, waste production and energy use, because 100% efficiency is not possible. A principally unlimited concept - money - demands the growth of something that is by principle limited: resources and critical loads and levels of ecosystems and the biosphere. The current financial system is just another attempt to create a perpetuum mobile. Like all such feeble attempts, it will not survive the collision with natural laws.

The Oil disaster in the Mexican Gulf will not be the end of this world. But with some likeliness we see the beginning of a new era in the making, with oil running out (quite literally and in supply terms), many other resources being stretched, increasing risks taken, competition of fuel and food, an out of control financial system, fish stocks stressed to their limits, human population ever rising, global change of the ecosphere/biosphere of as yet unknown proportions. The resilience of the ecosystem - and I have to emphasize again that we are a part of that system, whether we like it, or not - will dramatically decrease, and major unexpected events are to be expected - events of the unpleasant type. Faith of any sort doesn't change much, unless that faith is turned into ethics and action. I am afraid there well be no aliens nor angels to save us. Nobody will wipe our butts. There is only us. Perhaps we are unworthy, if we don't manage to save our own souls.
A recent letter of the Vatican to the Buddhists of the world emphasizes ethical similarities over religious differences. It begins with the words:

"Christians and Buddhists Respect Human Life As the Basis of Respect for All Beings".

These are important and encouraging words, but we also need action. Since around the globe trillions were spent to save the financial system, perhaps a few million at least can be squeezed out to support research into a different system - one that can grow without demanding constant growth, and while we are at it: one that gets along without spending more trillions on arms. Can we even imagine a global economy based upon compassion? Why is that so difficult? What's wrong with us? I say: if money doesn't benefit people and nature, it quite literally has no value. It is worthless. It then is not part of my religion. And if the quest for money leads to destruction that money cannot repair, its value is negative: while the debts amassed by speculators, traders and traitors to the future is immense, the accumulated social and natural debts dwarf them. And what happens? Here in Germany, where I live, the government approaches the financial crisis by taking money from the poorest of the poor and transferring it directly to the banks. Another victim of the cost reduction plans are clean energy programs, of all things. Poor families will not anymore receive heating support during winter, and renewable energy engineers might loose their jobs, while hundreds of billions are paid out to save shady financial institutions, and top managers of failing banks are suing the government to pay out millions in severance packages.

All that seems to count is stabilizing the money - money has become an end in itself. And yet - if I recall the happiest moments of my life, they had nothing to do with the stuff - the stuff that actually is not even stuff. The Happy Planet Index indicates that livelihood and happiness improve with economic growth, but only up to a certain point, beyond which they decrease again. Let us also not forget that money doesn't really exist - it merely is an agreement. And agreements can be changed. Our current agreement results in a culture entirely focused on making money that in turn is largely used to erect phallic glass towers where that money is managed. I can live without these glass towers. And so can mother Earth and Brother Pelican! Deep within I do hope - in fact I strongly believe - that people do love nature and the very planet they live on - just like deep within even the most cynical, rebellious and self destructive teenagers usually love their parents.

So I ask you, all of you, borrowing words from the Marillion song Fugazi:

"Where are the prophets, where are the visionaries? Where are the poets, to breach the dawn of the sentimental mercenary?"

We need you...


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Stefan Thiesen is a Germany, UK and USA educated earth and space scientist and science writer. He is an expert in marine science, climatology and planetary sciences, author of several popular science books in German and English as well as a novel (more...)
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