May we not live in interesting times

I’m sure you know the expression “may you live in interesting times”. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the Chinese Curse’. On the surface, it seems to be a positive wish, it’s typically used ironically with the “interesting” bit referring to moments when there is disorder and conflict rather than peace and stability. I should point out here that the cultural appropriation appears to be … er … not cultural … as there is apparently no known equivalent translation in Chinese.

Anyway, I’d say we’re certainly living in interesting times. In fact, you could likely put up an argument these are the most interesting times ever. In the proverbial sense, it doesn’t get much more interesting than the prospect of cataclysmic climate change that we’re facing, not to mention the seismic shifts going on in politics around the world.

In this sense, my last couple of months could also be described as “interesting”. I’ve been to three conferences focussed on sustainability and social justice issues, joined 40,000 others who marched to our Parliament building in Wellington’s Climate Strike, learned a useful new word,  Zweckpessimismus, and sung in a big production of Carl Orff’s immortal and highly bawdy Carmina Burana. You might struggle to see the connections, but ‘bear with’ …

With the exception of singing Carmina, which was tremendous, the common denominator linking the other threads was how easy it would be to get cynical and lose hope in the face of all the issues. For sure, the various conferences dished up some inspiring instances of people who clearly give a lot of damns doing amazing things, they also underscored a few home truths. While a lot of it was stuff I already knew, such as the awful state of our oceans with all that plastic choking the life out of everything in them and the shame of places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it’s still shocking to listen to researchers who’ve seen these horrors up close and personal and measured the impact. I knew it was bad, but the scale is staggering. And that’s just the oceans!

I was a bit depressed at the end of this run of events, wondering if it really is possible for us to get the lid back on the Pandora’s Box we’ve opened. Wondering why so many people are still in denial that it actually exists, let alone has been opened? Then I came across the concept of Zweckpessimismus which helped me understand why so many of us seem transfixed like  deer in the headlights, unable to pull their heads out of the sand.

Zweckpessimismus is one of those complicated German compounds which translates as something like pessimism on purpose. In other words, the attitude of expecting the worst in order to feel relief when the worst doesn’t happen. This is undoubtedly one way of coping in a very uncertain world, but it seems like the sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that we should avoid like the plague.  Surely, we should be going hard out for the opposite — what can go right will go right?

Zweckpessimists, with their doomsday thinking are actually dangerous in these super-intersting times when we need hope and optimism above everything else. While it might be a wonderful feeling when you have expected the worst and it doesn’t happen, it is pushing out a form of negative energy that infects others with alarm and fear. Instead, let’s pool all the good vibes we can call forth to create an unstoppable wave of positivity to inspire our Simian ingenuity and creativity to find solutions. Perhaps then, the tipping point we seem to be reaching, will skew in the direction of a world we would like to see. Let’s opt for uninteresting times and be bored in perpetuity by the serenity of global peace and ecological abundance rather than the dystopian alternative that is the other option.

Coming back to performing Carmina Burana. It was a true celebration of what people can achieve in harmony.  Without blowing my own trumpet (both puns intended), it was a great night. Close to 2,000 people — audience and all the performers — left the concert on a high. This high — a palpable energy buzzing around the auditorium connecting us all — stayed with me long after the strains of the music were done. I hope that is true for others who were there. If we could always feel this way, how amazing would our lives be? Imagine the transformation that would follow if every Zweckpessimist out there expected the best instead of the worst. Someone should coin a word for that!


Wag the (alien) dog?

I just read a wonderful hypothesis outlining a genius way of mitigating the threat of global warming. The hypothesis is that we need to invent a new and super-scary existential threat — like aliens threatening to annihilate the world if we don’t instantly come up with a convincing plan for drastically cutting emissions. Think about it for a moment, it’s a perfect concept!

The central tenet of this inspired piece of thinking is that we need a total “re-imagining” of the world political order. That business as usual just won’t cut it if we are to do enough, quickly enough. While that’s not exactly visionary — I could have come up with that bit — I wouldn’t in my wildest dreams have imagined inventing a threat from some green-minded ETs to get us fully focussed on the important stuff.  As far as I am aware, this let’s pretend it’s aliensthat are causing all the problems thing is genuine blue sky thinking by NY Times OpEd writer Farhad Manjoo.

But why on earth (pun intended) would we do that?  Well, according to the marvellously creative Mr. Manjoo, our current reality of fake news, alternative facts and outright, barefaced lying opens the door to bending the truth for the greater good. Let’s face it, playing ‘let’s pretend’ for something of paramount importance would be a refreshing take on the now seemingly acceptable art of the untruth.

In Manjoo’s Wag the Dog scenario (by the way if you haven’t seen this marvellous Hoffman/De Niro black comedy about a spin doctor and a Hollywood producer who fabricate a war to distract voters from a presidential sex scandal, you really should — it’s hilarious) the threat of an alien invasion is the lever to get humanity off its collective arse and working together to save it’s collective bacon. Imagine if you will, the world receives a tweet from the alien leader “We will boil your planet alive. Only a carefully designed plan for cutting and capturing emissions will save you now, suckers!” It might be a bit of a stretch that said alien leader has such a good command of the English vernacular. Maybe she was equipped with one of those Babel Fish so useful to travellers in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? You know the ones, when played in your ear, these clever fish will live there and translate any form of language for you. Yup, I believe everything I read.

All joking aside, we humans have always been stellar at responding to external threats. We’re not so flash at changing our own behaviours, particularly if it means trading off some of our comforts and taking decisions that will hit our wallets. But seeing off a threat from potentially “murderous aliens” to save the planet might just galvanise us.As Manjoo says, “Even for people who do believe in global warming, pretending that aliens are attacking the earth accomplishes a neat mental trick. It helps to frame the scope of the threat — civilizational, planet-encompassing — while also suggesting how we might respond: immediately, collectively and for as long as it takes.”

And it could work! All you have to do is consider the hysteria that broke out in the US on October 30, 1938, when a 62-minute radio dramatisationof The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells (confusingly produced and narrated by Orson Welles) was broadcast. Apparently even people who had never heard Welles reading the HG Wells story about invading Martians wielding deadly heat-rays later claimed to have been terrified. Welles used simulated on-the-scene radio reports ostensibly by the military and air force about aliens advancing on New York City to pep up the story. According to popular myth, thousands of New Yorkers fled their homes in panic, with swarms of terrified citizens crowding the streets in different American cities to catch a glimpse of a “real space battle”. While this over-reaction has lately been outed as largely urban myth it’s not hard to imagine something similar happening in our current reality. I’m thinking about the arsenals of special effects available to film makers that could achieve genuine mass hysteria and harness it for good. Sadly, it’s also totally imaginable that we could harness it for worse, but let’s give humanity the benefit of the doubt here and assume we’d do the right thing.

OK so this is just fantasy, but it’s the most engaging solution I’ve read so far. Let’s face it, if we hit or exceed two degrees further warming, the scale of potential devastation will be catastrophic. This is not something even progressive governments can tackle in isolation, however well-meaning. Mitigating climate change is no longer just one item on a governmental ‘to do’ list. If we don’t act now, it will become the only thing that matters a damn. The build a wall thinking, the isolationist ‘dwarfs are for dwarfs’ ignorance imaged in C S Lewis’s Narnia finale The Last Battleunderpinning MAGA and, slightly differently, BREXIT, will be patent nonsense in the face of what is to come. Go aliens — pretend or otherwise — save us from ourselves.

P.S. Farhad Manjoo’s articleis entertaining and (by my way of thinking) totally on the money if you have a few minutes to spare.