07 May 2007

Doomsday Revitalized?

Giving the modern equivalent of “fire and brim stone” a second chance!

Earlier I wrote about the irrelevance of doomsday from the perspective that I gleaned from the books Collapse by Jared Diamond and The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg. What that post focused on was how the two authors arrived at the same principle of conscientious action from exactly opposite approaches to the theme of doomsday. The authors are generally portrayed as if they are at opposite ends of the spectrum for and against environmental doomsday scenarios, but a closer reading shows that they both accept the inevitability of doomsday, though they disagree on the timeline.

I recently read an article by Derrick Jensen in the May/June 2006 Orion Magazine entitled Beyond Hope. This is a wonderful exploration of the problem of having hope in the face of overwhelming and intractable problems. To quote the article, “Hope is, in fact, a curse, a bane. I say this not only because of the lovely Buddhist saying ‘Hope and fear chase each others tails,’ not only because hope leads us away from the present, away from who and where we are right now and toward some imaginary future state. I say this because of what hope is.” (italics in the original)

Then he goes on to describe how he, with the help of an audience at one of his talks, came to understand that “hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.” So Jensen, a verifiable doomsday scenario artist, is promoting his art as a cure for this dreaded lack of agency caused by hopefulness. However, Jensen himself provided the Achilles heal for his own argument.

Notice the Buddhist saying that he deems “lovely” in my quote above. If hope is a curse of being taken out of the present then the problem is not hope at all, it is not being present. The same problem of fear and hope is not being fully present to what is in the moment. Thus, the doomsday scenarist Jensen is guilty of the very crime he proposes to solve. Doomsday scenarios are predictions of the future that induce fear. His publishers insist that he induce hope. He’s in a bind.

Let’s take a closer look at doomsday. It’s not just the mundane concept of personal death, but the death and destruction of everything beyond oneself. It seems to me to be the ultimate transpersonal death. Therefore, if your investment in life is based on leaving a legacy then this concept ruins the foundations of your existence.

So if the possibility of doomsday is a fact of our earthly existence then the question is, how do we utilize this dangerous gift to effectively change our behavior? How do we use doomsday judiciously in the service of fostering action, instead of preventing it?

If people were motivated by fear, then we should be trumpeting doomsday from the mountaintops. Occasionally people are motivated to act out of fear in situations involving very clear physical danger, but that is rarely true in facing large scale societal issues. Besides, many traditions warn against the dangers of acting out of fear. In my martial arts training it became abundantly clear that those who are acting primarily out of fear and anger can be the easiest to fight because they lose control of themselves. Of course, they are still very dangerous but as long as they didn’t hit you out of pure luck, they are quickly overcome if you remain in control of both your feelings and your actions.

How can we use doomsday to plug us into inspiration that puts us in touch with the present reality of our situation? The problem is neither feeling hope nor fear, so long as those feelings help us to be in touch with the reality of the present moment. The challenge is staying in touch with reality regardless of whether the stories you hear are tales of an inevitable doomsday or a rapturous utopia.

The most useful doomsday scenario would establish clear chains of causal relationships as a clear path to destruction, but also reveal a set of clear interventions into that causal chain to disrupt certain links and redirect events towards a better outcome. The greatest challenge for this scenario is the integrity necessary to present the facts in a manner that activates people’s core values in a truly meaningful way, not just their emotions.

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