Ten Billion

Two books called Ten Billion, referring to world population, one assuming we exceed it come 2020 with increasingly catastrophic consequences, the other confident the increase will tail away before we reach ten billion.

I took a look at both books.

Stephen Emmott: ‘unscientific and misanthropic’ according to the Guardian. ttp://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jul/09/stephen-emmott-population-book-misanthropic

Danny Dorling: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/a7e5ba20-e7e4-11e2-9aad-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2ZuTyiwcG

I’ve heard Dorling talk (via an RSA video): eminently sane. Emmott I haven’t heard, but suggestions are he’s seriously OTT.

I’m for Dorling. ‘It is possible to paint a picture that has a rosier, less optimistically combative and less pessimistically catastrophic ending than many presume.’ He’s an avowed optimist but we’ll still need a huge amount of vigilance to avoid catastrophe. And that’s the line I take.

I’m as agonised about climate change and melting Arctic ice, eroding coastlines and higher sea levels as anyone, and yet the only approach is not ‘we’re fucked’ or ‘buy [your child] a gun’ (Emmott) but get engaged, work for a saner world, take initiatives. Happily it seem more the older generation who take the ‘we’re fucked’ line, or the alternative at the other extreme, ‘what problem, I don’t see one’ (paraphrasing Nigel Lawson).

Optimism and ‘can-do’ have always been more the domain of the younger generation and this old fogey (almost old, almost fogey) is more than happy to take their side in this case.

Quick plug: there’s no better way of getting informed than the Population Matters website. See http://populationmatters.org  They are kinder there to Emmott than I would be, but it’s full of good things.

On the taiga with a bottle of vodka

Thinking of Silvain Tesson he took vodka (many bottles of) and cigars with him for his six months of isolation on the taiga adjacent to Lake Beikal.

He walked, he read, he communed, he let the simple things fill his day and yet, on 20th February, ‘I get out of bed so hung-over I’m almost upside-down’. This isn’t, M. Tesson, the eremitic path! But … we can be so prissy about all this. Each to his own.

Find your cabin and cave and do it your way.

Before questions get asked I’m not planning a drunken carousal with nature somewhere. I just like M. Tesson’s style.

Too much talk

I’m sometimes accused of talking too much. There is of course no truth in this. But maybe when I espouse the virtues of silence, of retreats, wide open spaces, quiet reflection in holy places … maybe I do use a few too many words.  When talking with another there’s a vacuum to be filled. When you’re alone there are no dualities, only yourself, the wide world, God in whatever form he manifests himself.

There’s a lesson for me in Silvain Tesson’s The Consolations of the Forest. Mischa is driving the author out to the cabin on the shore of Lake Beikal where he’ll spend the next six months on his own.

The landscape is bleak: ‘the ice rather resembles a shroud.’

Mischa: ”It’s dreary.’ And nothing more until the next day.

And the next day, the ice cracks, and ‘fault lines streak across the quicksilver plain…’

‘It’s lovely, ’ says Mischa. And nothing else until evening.

How does anyone in the company of another inhabit such supreme reticence, such silence?

Should, I wonder, I look for the answer in discussion with another? Tempting.

A tree of life

‘The giant fig, which looks like a huge grove in the distance, is at least as old as man’s recorded history on this plain… the size of six ordinary figs, it is a tree of life.’ There are, Peter Matthiessen (The Tree Where Man Was Born) tells us, no other trees for miles around.

Whether baobab or fig or in other cultures banyan, in our own a great oak or weathered yew, these are the trees that define life in our world. Life takes no grander or literally more rooted form. All manner of creatures live in or under, we ourselves find shade and shelter under them, we may eat their seeds and fruit and only in madness would we cut them down.

We need more such trees and yet – they take hundreds and for some thousands of years to become what they are. We cannot accelerate time and create an arboreal world at will but we can resist our urge to wipe out time, to wipe out time past and replace with our own feeble and transitory wisdoms.

Go shelter under the great fig, as other creatures find shelter in its branches and sit in wonder and stall your thoughts of conquest of self or others or mastery of this or that skill or fad.

Under such trees man is not only born – he finds wisdom.


Religion will be with us a while yet

Writing in his preface to Jerusalem Simon Sebag Montefiore comments: ‘Religions must explain the fragile joys and perpetual anxieties that mystify and frighten humanity: we need a greater force than ourselves.’

Religion will indeed never go away, despite the best efforts of campaigning non-believers. True it’s more divided, but in division there’s strength. Old-style belief systems and liturgies still have loyal followers but many look for more personal, more tailored versions, liturgy less important, individual morality (taking ownership of life) more so. Evangelical  churches are thriving, with their prescriptive, literalist approach. For others (including myself) religion is better defined as a sense of otherness, of truths (rather than some entity) beyond our comprehension, but which nonetheless define our lives. And at a practical level religion is a spontaneous celebration of life – of living with others, of human connection. If that’s not common ground between all believers of all faiths we need to take a hard look at ourselves,

The major churches and religions have in the past have been the ‘greater force’ Sebag Montefiore refers to.  That force is now more personal, found within each of us, or within our own personal responses to sacred texts.

As a warning, there’s the deep irony of the Buddhist and Muslims (Rohingyas) violence in Burma, the Buddhist perpetrators substituting a national/cultural for a religious identity. But it’s also of course about fears of survival – higher Muslim birth rates. We have the same worries. Cultural survival: Buddhism was all but wiped out of course by the advance of a resurgent Hindu culture. Islam took over the Christian Middle East and Asia Minor.

Religion ties closely with nation and culture but true religion stands apart.

The ‘new atheist’ approach to all such issues is mired in academia, in squabbles (Richard Dawkins and  EO Wilson aren’t too friendly) and assertions and misses a simple reality – religion is about connection, celebration, wonder. It’s more about others, less about ourselves, about God defined in many ways from the – by definition – unknowable to the intensely personal.

I’ll always argue passionately for rational solutions, I’m not comfortable with the idea of an interventionist God. Natural selection is why I’m here and the path life has taken to culminate (in my mind) in the brief moment of my own existence is inspiring beyond all awe and wonder. But nothing explains life, and by that I don’t mean simple consciousness. I mean life in an experiential sense: our capacity for thought and understanding, for joy and wonder, for love and compassion, our capacity to synthesise and however temporarily make sense of the world. That sense of ourselves in silence, at peace, at one with the world, with the flow of the world. We are where we are because time has brought us here and yet we’re beyond time. We are each of us unique and extraordinary and in that very fire of life lies the only ultimate unquestionable truth.

Religions express that sense and embody it in myriad ways, and they will always do so. If they do so with connection and love and warn us all the while against false instinct and phoney intuition, if they support and intertwine with reason rather than resist it, then generations to come will only benefit.

In the best sense that will be the triumph of religion. God in a different understanding will to the chagrin of the (late) Chris Hitchens and Philip Pullmans of this world be uncaged and be great again.