Living in the End Time

What shall we do until the world ends?

Recently, I watched a video with the daunting title, “A System Dynamics Perspective of Sustainability.” It’s produced by two Georgia Tech professors, Willard Fey and Ann Lam. The message of the video is that our present rate of production and consumption, technological development, and population growth cannot be sustained and, if not radically altered, will lead to catastrophe sometime within the next 100 years.

Frankly, the video is rather dense stuff, consisting entirely of charts, graphs, and monologue narrative. Being personally mathematically challenged, I found it hard to follow the path that leads to the inevitable conclusion. But the conclusion is straightforward enough. At the close of the video, the authors say:

“Continued consumption growth will inevitably lead to an environmental catastrophe.

“Everyone is so committed to consumption growth that growth cannot be stopped.

“Trying to stop consumption growth will cause economic, social, and military calamities.

I’m sure these conclusions are open to argument. Undoubtedly there are scientists who will provide data to counter these grim conclusions, assure us that technology will provide, and all will be well. Some of these scientists reach these happier conclusions by starting in different places and following different paths. Others reach more reassuring conclusions because they are paid by their corporations or parties to reassure us that their products and policies are not leading us down the garden path to hell.

Given the level of dysfunction of the left hemisphere of my brain, it is not for me to attempt to separate the prophets from the rogues by analyzing and comparing their data. What I do have at hand is intuition and common sense. Granted, one person’s common sense is another’s folly and intuition is slippery stuff indeed. Still, my intuition and common sense are linked to the intuition and common sense of millions of others through a process, fortunate in the absence of hard data, called “intersubjective verification.” Put simply, intersubjective verification means that what I feel in my gut is felt by a substantial number of others

Our shared intuition and common sense tells us what may elude us in more academically-couched warnings–that we simply cannot go on increasing consumption exponentially, over-populating the earth with ever-more consumers, stripping the vegetation from the earth, and blowing pollutants into the atmosphere. It is also quite clear–according to the intuition and common sense of me and my compeers–that we are most likely going to continue to do all those things. The vast majority of people–nations, corporations, and individuals– are not going to change the behaviors which will, inevitably, lead to catastrophe.

Why will we continue in that behavior which will clearly lead to disaster?

First of all, we are remarkably complex beings. Our brains are perfectly capable of arriving at conclusions which are spectacularly contradictory– and they can do this for the simple reason that our brains have competing masters. Our brains are devices driven by such intangible forces as will, desire, fear, greed, hope, and so on. These “drivers” are frequently, in ordinary human beings, in hopeless conflict.

We have, on the one hand, the more mature will to survive, to live personally into the future or to at least enjoy a vision of the future. And we have, on the other hand, the infantile will to have whatever we want whenever we want it. For some, the will to survive gets the edge over the power of gratification. For others, the power of self-gratification simply overwhelms any reason the brain can offer to deny, sacrifice, or delay.

Let me offer myself here as the microcosm of the macrocosm: Everyman, if you will. I have heart disease. I have had by-pass surgery and three angioplasty procedures. I have diabetes and all the ailments associated with the obese aging male. The risk factors are all there. Yet I continue to allow myself to be a good forty pounds overweight. Why is that? Very simple. Though I continue in the mighty struggle, I have yet to be able to deny myself gratification, to sacrifice the satisfactions of the moment, give up the foods and the eating behaviors which make me overweight and multiply the risks. The self-appointed Apostle, Paul, writes in the Christian scriptures, “That which I would do, I do not. That which I would not do, that I do. Wretched man that I am!
Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Now, I probably would not be confessing my failures here if I were not aware that they are by no means purely personal and idiosyncratic perversions. I share my weaknesses with most of the populace of the western world. This is why catastrophe is perhaps inevitable.

It’s simply common sense that our earth cannot sustain the present levels of depletion and destruction of resources. Who cannot be on the downtown connector at rush hour and not experience a foreshadowing of imminent doom?

“Oh, the sky is falling! the sky is falling!”

Yet Who in the world is going to voluntarily give up his and her car– get a bike, carpool, walk, use mass transit? Have you read in the past week of all the people who cannot, will not, stop watering their lawns? And we expect them to stop using paper, plastics, fuel, wood? Breathes there a bulldozing, tree-toppling, paving-over developer who will first cry enough? Of course not.

There is another reason why our suicidal behavior is not likely to change. And that is that we simply will not allow the idea that our behavior is, in fact, inevitably, suicidal to penetrate deeply enough to make a difference.

The theologian, Paul Tillich, pointed out that it is all but impossible for us to contemplate our own non-existence. Even when we say, “I shall not exist,” we use the pronoun “I.” We are not constructed to consider a future without “I.” Ironically, that quirk of consciousness is probably a survival mechanism. If we cannot consider and embrace our own non-existence, how shall we consider and embrace the non-existence of the world as we know it? Does the smoker believe smoking will kill him? Not really: because he cannot really conceive of his non-existence.

Does western civilization believe our rate of consumption will out-run the resources that sustain us and the earth? Not really: because we cannot really conceive of our non-existence. Not only can we not conceive of our non-existence, we can barely conceive of our existence in any way, shape, or form than “how we live now.” The food addict cannot change until he can conceive of himself without burgers and fries. The smoker cannot change until she can conceive of herself talking, drinking, working without a cigarette (I know. I’ve been there, too).

Therefore, we do not change. Therefore, it is unlikely that enough change will take place in individuals or in nations to ward off some catastrophe coming some time soon. Oh, some will join the few in revolutionary gestures: some will give up at least one of their cars, bring their own unbleached cloth bags to the supermarket, disconnect the air conditioner, carry their scraps out to the compost pile.

The well-founded suspicion, though, is that all that will prove to be too little, too late.

How, then, shall we live in what may well be the end time?

Those of us who do believe it’s likely all going to hell in a hand bucket in a few generations should continue to do what we are able to do, to give up what we are able to give up, to live as if our enlightened behaviors will make a difference. At the very least we should admit that there are, in fact, choices and make a good confession that we’re not making the right choices. And why should we do those things? Because what we do or do not do, regardless of outcomes, defines us as human beings.

I remember a TV skit performed many years ago in which a comedian–I think it was Alan Young– portrayed a British officer on a submarine under attack. Just as a torpedo burst through the bulkhead, It turned tea time. The officer buttoned up his tunic – spread out a linen cloth. Got out the porcelain pot and cup and proceeded to have high tea while the sea rushed into his doomed boat.

“Carry on regardless” is the watchword. In the face of all that is and of all that might be, we have the choice to affirm and assert our humanness. Whether or not our choices will ultimately save us or even make an appreciable difference, we are called to conserve and preserve, we are called to protest and cajole, to boycott, teach, and preach –because we are human beings and we define our humanness by creating values and living by them and acting on them–whether or not they save us. It is, very simply, the right thing to do and there need be no other reason.

If you refuse the unrecycled paper bag, if you carry your vegetable scraps to a compost pile, if you lug your cans and bottles to a recycling center, and bundle up your newspapers, you do it, not because you are saving the earth, but because you wish to affirm and re-affirm, that this is who you are that, in fact, this is a ritual of your religion. Therefore, the mission of religious community is nothing so ambitious as saving the earth. Frankly, if a group were to ask me to join them in their mission to save the earth, I would politely decline. Such a reach is too grandiose for me. The more reasonable mission is to make the choice that saves the moment, to make the choices that salvage the day. The mission is to promote respect because respect of the web–of which we are a part– is the respect, the valuing, of ourselves. In the end time, we declare our humanness and define it by the values by which we live –whether or not such living will ultimately save us.

We also live in the end time by hope.

The theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime, Therefore we are saved by hope.” Now such hope is not the pitiable wish that, somehow, things will turn out all right. We cannot live as valuing human beings by continuing to behave in whatever way suits us in the hope that something will come along to make it all right that the trees are gone, the waters are permanently poisoned, and the air is unbreathable. The hope put forth by Niebuhr is akin to the principle of “carrying on regardless,” the principle of living “as if” how we live will, in fact, make a difference–whether it will or not. We are saved–made whole, redeemed, made human– by living as if our living will save the future generations. Hope, understood theologically, is not mere wishing. Hope is living by vision– with no promise of its fulfillment.

And we live, by choices made again day by day, by promises, resolutions, and intentions day by day broken and renewed, moving, like Moses, toward a vision of a renewed earth –a promised land– we ourselves may not see completed in our lifetime. If we do indeed live in the end time how else shall we live except as if how we live makes a difference and because how we live makes us who we are?

Here’s a funny word: Eschatology.

Eschatology is one of the major branches of theology and it has to do with the future–or “the end time.” Eschatology is a theology of the future, that is, the establishment of value-based concepts for living in face of what lies ahead. In traditional Christian theology, eschatology would have to do with concepts and propositions about how it’s going to be when Christ comes again and about how to live until then. Some scholars say that all of Jesus? teachings were eschatological, that is, all his teachings were intended for what he believed would be the brief time before the Kingdom of God came about on earth. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was “at hand.” In Aramaic and Greek, the term means “imminent,” so close that, like the wind before a storm, it already affects the present.

I read something the other day in which a Unitarian minister was saying that Unitarian Universalists do not need an eschatology –a theology of the future– because we do not believe in the Kingdom of God. I think he’s very wrong about that. We may not believe that battalions of angels are going to descend upon the earth in Armageddon, in a final, inconceivably horrific cleansing of the earth. But, unless we are deaf, dumb, and blind to the realities, we do live in an end time, a time before catastrophe, a time of radical, perhaps inconceivable change. We do need a theology for this time, an eschatology. We do need a religious, that is, a value-grounded, spiritual, that is, all-encompassing, way of living in this time.

It is said that the story of Job is one of the oldest stories in human memory. The story of Job was told to teach the lesson faith is not affirmed in the good times, the times of many sheep and many tents, of Landrover and higher-ceiling-than-thine. Faith is affirmed in the testing time, in the end times, when the wheat shrivels, when the air goes foul, and the creatures do not return.

I don’t know for sure that the sky is falling. I do know that, as a race, we are not living so as to bring about Eden for some untold generations yet to come. As a race, we are not living so as to create a future. The religious life, then, must be lived in personal commitment, borne up and sustained by communities of religious people. The religious life is a life of day-to-day choices of ordinary individuals living in the end time as if they were making a future.