The crush and rewards of peak life
We op-ed people are not supposed to be confused. You come to us for our clarity; confusion is the enemy. So we give you what you need, certainty, every time. But life doesn't follow that script.
"Bewildered" might be apt. With the mind-bending complexity of our lives, it's impossible to navigate the sheer volume of information, regulations, qualifications, instructions and gadgetry attached to day-to-day survival. At what point does the crushing overload reach a tipping point?
Like why, for example, do I have to know that Mick Jagger has slept with over 4000 women, while Gene Simmons of KISS has had precisely 4897? Not to mention the niggling issue of how they keep track.
So much has changed since the 1950s and '60s, and I don't just mean by the rate at which Elvis may have bedded women. Cities now stretch in sparkling webs from horizon to horizon, we can see them when we fly at night. And when I drive down the eastern seaboard of the U.S. or from England to Scotland, the freeways are endless conduits of taillights six lanes wide, bumper to bumper.
And it isn't so much the masses of people; it's the people and the machines and the buildings and the industries all compressed. Our world is being consumed by urban development. And my personal tipping point was, predictably, a trip to India. There, the crush of human beings was simply too great to be ignored. What was unconscious became a conscious perception.
On one side is our love affair with our own ingenuity, which has created a paradise on earth for a third of the world's population. On the other side we have the crushing backside effects of our ingenuity on the poorest citizens, as well as on the other species with whom we share this rock in space.
While our souls are being overwhelmed by over-choice we crave simplicity. At least I do. Yet in seeking it, we are perhaps the most poorly-equipped generation of human beings in history. Our relentless, restless action which has become our defining characteristic.
Last night, for example, I watched Senna, the recent documentary about F1 racecar driver, Aryton Senna. Here was a guy to whom I could relate: He did his thinking at 200 plus kilometers an hour and was the consummate expert. He lived to win and die the perfect death: hitting the wall abruptly stopping his life and career at the pinnacle moment of fame.
Ironically, a lot of us have become so active and specialized that, instead of relying on our own abilities, we now have other experts to handle every important aspect of our lives.
This recent reliance on experts was preceded by an explosive expansion of the education-credentialization industry over the past 50 years. Today, there are over 2000 universities and colleges in the United States alone. It goes without saying that there are more highly educated, inventive and highly creative people per in the world now than in any previous time in history.
The problem is we're drowning in new inventions, most of which we don't need. If there is any truth in clichés, the motto should read: "Invention is the mother of necessity." Once we invent something, we start to need it. So once a thing like an internal combustion engine is invented—and adopted as the automotive standard—it becomes very difficult to replace it with a better technology. And even when the global use of these legacy technologies threatens life as we know it, we're slow to adopt newer, smarter technologies.
In the end, it all comes down to two things: there are nearly a quarter of a million more of us on the planet every day, and the more each of us has, the more we want, and that's something our economies are happy to supply. So how is it that with all this activity we still have massive levels of unemployment and inequality?
And while we're having a Back to the Future moment since we've just passed the June 27, 2012 date on the dashboard of the Delorean, (oh, wait a minute, that was a hoax and even more useless information, the date is really October 21, 2015) why don't we have hoverboards or self-tying Nikes yet? Aren't we supposed to get everything we can imagine?
But a lot of us can and do have more than we'd ever imagined. And I don't mean gadgets. Being alive today is the ultimate gift of life extension. Because of fossil fuel and cheap electricity we get to do things that not even kings could imagine.
We get to live several lives instead of one. I'm living proof as are millions of others. Almost 50 percent of us will divorce and remarry. We'll have multiple careers. Over my history I've gone from grocery clerk to artist to stationary engineer to submarine designer to strategic planner. I'm over 60 years old and have a 16-month-old baby. I've travelled from the Arctic to the equator, from one side of the world to the other. And I'm not special. Think Mick Jagger, for example.
So what if, like Peak Oil or peak resources, we've also reached peak lifestyle? In all likelihood that's a very distinct possibility. Perhaps it's best to be grateful and enjoy it while we can. Any other approach at the moment just seems to be too confusing.