What sustains us?
The problem is you think you have time. Now whether the Buddha said this or not, in its koan-like brevity, it explains a lot; the urgency of the task before us. Sustainability has become the hollowed-out principle of our times, an earnest subject header for a thousand business decks and brow-furrowing discussions leading nowhere.
Time does not sustain us. It flows over us and through us relentlessly until our expiry date. At best it gives us opportunity for agency and yet we fritter and waste the hours of our short lives seeking distraction at any given moment, our attention spans fractured and dissolved.
If you experienced the recent six hour outage from Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp you were given a valuable lesson about life before social media — the type where you committed yourself fully to a conversation with another person in real time without the obsessive need to check your newsfeed and pull on the gamified lever for the red dot awards of affirmation.
The slab of glass and steel in your hand has a million useful functions but it serves the gods of social media the best.
Already in 1967, Marshall McLuhan was onto this when he wrote: “Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of “time” and “space” and pours upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men”. Clearly distraction sustains the nation but then again, before social media it was in Samuel Pepys’ London for instance, the coffee shop as focal point for gossip, politics, business and distraction.
People like distraction — we just went nuclear digital with it in this century.
So, distraction sustains us and so do our habits, though some practices persist that seem to defy the concept of sustainability -things like smoking tobacco, the meat industry, driving, guns… All of them rooted in history, enshrined in culture, branded and lobbied for. When I smoke a cigarette, I celebrate the perfect pleasure of its consumption willfully oblivious to the damage it causes me and likewise all the other things that bring me closer to my expiry date.
I recently witnessed a moose collision on the motorway — it impressed on me the fragility of things we take for granted as people were being ferried on stretchers into ambulances, their cars crumpled and shattered and to the side of the road a broken antler and its owner, a large bull moose, an immobile carcass, its head in relief illuminated by flashing blue lights. Was the collision avoidable or was it simply another example of random chaos? How do we make sense of such spectacles?
When I look at my 21 year old car, I salute its form and enduring quality, but I know it will be consigned to destruction one day soon enough. Filling it with gasoline one week after another seems an absurdity knowing that I am part of a problem I don’t really want to renounce. In the UK, people are experiencing firsthand the illusory reality behind supply chains that maintain any semblance of reality and are willing to fight over the pumps to get what they need.
When you find yourself agreeing with me about such absurdities, you know that the world we live in cannot be sustained in its present form.
The pandemic for all its inherent misery, could have been the necessary corrective to a continuous growth model of economics to which we have become addicted. But even 5 million plus Covid deaths globally and the denial of our freedoms will soon be swept off the road to make way for the hedonic treadmill to start again.
I find myself circling around the same themes from one blog to another, but this also speaks of unresolved issues in my own head and around me — these blogs are like byproducts of my cognitive dissonance and anxiety.
Back in April 2020, I wrote a blog that concluded: ‘We can either go deeper into the dream or wake up. Nobody here gets out alive but with gratitude, love and a common sense of humanity we can still achieve great things.’
Nearly two years later, I still believe that because I believe that despite all our cognitive dissonance-inducing bad habits, addictions, our prejudices, hatred, and ignorance, we are still collectively so much more. Simply by applying those three qualities I highlighted, we surely could find some kind of balance with ourselves and with nature.
I want that passionately, and I am sure that I am not alone. The problem is we think we have time and there is nothing more delicious and frustrating than procrastination.
Subtly, I feel the arc of history is finally turning towards justice, but it is not a product of governments or supranational bodies — it is a rising consciousness in us as individual humans sharing the same meat space as other physical entities on a rare, curious planet circling a hydrogen fusion reactor star that one day will go extinct.
I don’t believe humans are an anomaly but to the extent we have divorced ourselves from the life sustaining engines of nature, we are presently an aberration. We must lift ourselves and each other above distraction, above addiction and above illusion to make sense of our proper place on the planet.
Humans as a species have been on this earth for a lot longer than our sense of history allows us. Hope sustains us, also into the future. I read recently that experiencing awe is a circuit breaker to those centres of the brain that govern fear and enhances openness and connection. It doesn’t have to be triggered by much. An autumn walk in nature with your dog is enough or even the appreciation of a bird in flight. It’s there for you to see and experience too if you look.
Life is immeasurably short, but it’s also long enough, if you allow it.