Too few hopeful markers for the future


His name must have been intentionally ironic. Mark Twain was a genius in his own time, which became clear as I watched the Ken Burns documentary on the man.

Born Samuel L. Clemens, Twain became the iconographer of his time, showing Americans for the first time how they appeared from the centre of their own universe—as opposed to being crude satellites of European culture. Tom Sawyer, and later Huck Finn, pointed the way toward the creation of a new American mythological hero, which led to all the American heroes of fiction and the movies in the 20th Century.

The irony of Twain’s name comes from the idea of plumbing the depths. “Mark twain” was a call to a riverboat pilot indicating a depth of two fathoms or 12 feet, safe water by Mississippi River standards. “Mark Twain,” the author, explored the unsafe depths of the emerging American psyche following the Civil War, especially with respect to racism. Yet the thing that he marked most was the exuberant growth of the American enterprise: its industry, its new-found self-confidence, its astonishingly hopeful arc of growth.

So here we are, nearing the end of that American project. The results of the era, powered by fossil fuels, have been catastrophic. Our climate is changing dramatically. More animal species are becoming extinct than at any time since the last great prehistoric extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period 65.5 million years ago. Scientists estimate that about half of all species on the planet will be extinct by the year 2100. Life is dying. Our waste fills the oceans, as in the Pacific Trash Vortex, which is now the size of Manitoba and Ontario combined.

Compared to Twain’s rapid growth era, we’re facing rapid decline. Who are our modern sages? Here in Canada there are a few, notably Margaret Atwood and John Ralston Saul. Both are establishment figures, but at the same time both are outspoken critics of the corporate sector.

Atwood has written three post-Apocalyptic novels, the first being The Handmaid’s Tale followed by Oryx and Crake and just recently, The Year of the Flood. In Flood, Atwood takes the reader into a depopulated world run by cloning corporations, religious zealots and misguided utopians—hardly the type of enchanting, endearing characters drawn by Twain over a century ago.

And it’s this difference—the sense of an emerging decline of expectations—that defines the work of our new sages, starkly expressed in Cormac McCarthy’s bleak, end of times novel, The Road.

Our current crop of politicians presents an even more pessimistic picture. In Canada, we have academic Michael Ignatieff on the so-called left supporting the interests of the Bay Street big business boys, and ideologue Stephen Harper on the real right supporting the Bay Street boys and the Alberta energy sector. The only question in the next election will be, “do we want our big business lite, or big business straight up?”

I doubt there’ll be much debate about the most serious issues we face—in particular the looming and frightening prospects of crossing Peak Oil, which is now thought to have already happened in 2005, with projections pointing toward a nearly empty tank around 2040 or so. How, we might ask our politicians, are we going to survive gasoline prices that will climb 5 to 10 times higher than what we’re paying now? How will we get to work, heat our homes, grow our food 30 short years from now?

While Canadians politely discuss issues such as job creation and mortgage rates, other regions are taking their frustrations to the street in a personal way. Ordinary people in North Africa and the Middle East want an end to rule by corrupt elites and to have a say in determining the future of their region. They clearly know, as we should from two ongoing wars, one in Afghanistan and the other in Iraq, that the future is based on access to energy, or the lack thereof.

The fear in the West, of course, is the increasing influence of fundamental Islam in the Middle East (and over “our” oil). Religion has historically laid the philosophical foundation for civilizations. So, how do our religious foundations inform us?

Philosopher Richard Tarnas writes, “Finally, in the wake of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, this privileged position of the human vis-à-vis the rest of creation was assumed and expanded in entirely secular terms—here too, partly as a result of forces set up in motion by the Western religious legacy—as the modern self-progressed in its unprecedented development of autonomy and self-definition.”

Simply put, Tarnas is observing the growing separation of the individual from the rest of life on the planet. He is referring to the Biblical idea of God giving us dominion over all things, and the end result of that entitlement. An entitlement we might now view as unwarranted.

If the philosophy of Twain’s time was attached to growth, today’s philosophy is strangled by a corporatism aimed squarely at self-indulgence.

And, at the heart of it, our addiction to self-interest is proving to be unsustainable for the entire human species. So, where is our Huck Finn to show us a new direction?


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