Recently, Stephen Hawking, the physicist, said that humanity is at risk of scoring an “own goal” because of dangers of our own making. Indeed, there is a lot of informal talk that the apocalypse is around the corner – that the state of the world has taken a much greater turn for the worse. Almost everywhere we look, matters appear unhinged. There is a large undoing of behavioural norms. And there are no clear references.
That sense of foreboding – some stemming from excessive negativity and panic whipped up by our bad news media culture – may not be off the mark. After all, how often are we faced with a series of global challenges all at once?
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Virulent nationalism and its violent consequences, religious extremism, massive and growing economic inequality, resource depletion, large-scale corruption, technological innovations that alienate and subordinate us as humans, and climate change.
That’s quite a set for even the best of us to get our minds around. The question is: are we in the least bit ready to meet these challenges successfully?
Cyclical collapse of societies
To be fair, there are indications that some things are getting better. Psychologist Stephen Pinker, for instance tells us in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that violence in the world has declined in the long run.
Although this may be true, it doesn’t ameliorate the sense that many of us have that the global situation, as a whole, is spiraling downwards, faster than it ever has.
Unlike in the past, when the cyclical collapse of societies occurred in isolation and many regions were spared, we’re now connected to the point where decline and collapse threaten the whole world. Today we are more susceptible as a race to suffering setbacks together.
Unlike in the past, when the cyclical collapse of societies occurred in isolation and many regions were spared, we're now connected to the point where decline and collapse threaten the whole world.
The crucial issue, however, is not just the challenges we face, which are mostly of our own creation, but our capacities to respond to them. There does not seem to be much indication that most people appreciate, or even care, that we may be barrelling towards extinction.
Even if that thought does come, it’s quickly lost in the oblivion of distraction, and to competing sources of stimulus: “Have comment, will tweet.”
Screen-induced trances, celebrity news, the unrealistic demands of the daily work grind, a dependency-based apathy, and “capture” by false prophets make many believe that the world is someone else’s problem to fix.
This condition is tantamount to “being asleep” while the house is on fire. Those most vocal about “doing something” tend to propose reactionary, unhelpful actions – the Donald Trumps, the nationalists – that only inflame situations.
The end result is that, even though there are many genuine people striving in many fields to put out these fires and improve the world, there are simply not enough of us – yet.
Creatures of habit
The likely reality is that we will not “wake up” in large enough numbers until the combined threats are cresting like a big wave about to crash upon us. That is, until it’s too late.
This is part of our make-up, but only part. Our brains are hard-wired to respond to threats that are immediate and urgent – and not problems that are slower moving and percolating.
We are also creatures of habit. We have a fundamental preference for the known and familiar, and so we are deeply averse to changing our systems, our environment, and above all our assumptions. When things are easy and stable, why bother?
But, if we are to survive the present and move into the future, we absolutely need to “up our game”. The shift has to take place in the toughest yet most rewarding place of all: in ourselves.
Only we can solve the problems that we have largely created. We need a new perception set, a new survival awareness designed for today, and these are the better parts of our nature.
First, we have to wake up to the fact that there are indeed dire problems that ripple and impact on all of us equally. Second, we have to get beyond the massive distraction stream of screen addictions, the entertainment news, the narcissism, the boiling nationalism, and the petty dramas that hijack our attention and energy.
To awaken and focus, we have to override the auto-pilot that makes us look the other way
Greys in the world
To awaken and focus, we have to override the auto-pilot that makes us look the other way, that rationalises the threats by telling us that they’re not so serious and that they’ll go away on their own; or that there’s a more important and tasty morsel of excitement just over there.
For this to happen we need to slow down, cultivate calm, widen our perceptions, see the greys in the world and work through holistic approaches that address fundamental causes.
Impossible, you say? The alternative is clear and present: a further slide into chaos and collapse. A creeping apocalypse whose vanguard has already reached places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia – if not also our sleeping minds. Welcome to the sharp arc of descent.
This critical shift will hinge on whether we become truly aware that we even have a problem. Making a sincere effort at awareness and care are the only possible first steps on the long road to repair, towards a massively untapped human potential.
John Zada is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.
John Bell is director of the Middle East programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat and served as political adviser to the personal representative of the UN secretary-general for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.