“The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”
Genesis 3:21-24 (NIV)
You and I live on the real world. All seven billion of us are living either on, or within a relatively few feet above or below, the surface of the solid Earth. Oh, we might be in a high-rise, or we might occasionally spend a few hours in an airplane. A few people dig away in mines maybe a thousand feet or more deep. A handful have even gone to the Moon for a few days. But don’t get picky here. We live on the real world. We’re not going anywhere else, either up or down, any time soon.
We live on the real world – not in any Garden of Eden. In the Garden of Eden, resources were both limitless and free. The environment was unchanging, and benign, as were all its creatures. There may have been labor, but labor without vexation. There may have been labor, but it never lacked purpose. It was never meaningless. Work bore fruit. By contrast, in this real world, labor brings thorns and thistles, dissatisfaction, no end of weariness. The boss doesn’t value our work, and the world doesn’t value his or hers. Our company or our federal agency or our university is dysfunctional, struggling to match the competition. We are overwhelmed by the brokenness we see around us – brokenness on a personal level, and brokenness in our institutions.
There’s much good, much to like, but for most of us, most of the time, the curse is that we’re blinded to the good side, and see with way too much clarity the bad. Doomsaying is a growth industry.
In this real world, extraction of resources (water, food, energy, materials) comes at a price – destruction of habitat, landscape, the environment, ecosystems, biodiversity. And this real world never proves entirely benign. Conditions are rarely just right. Most of the time, we’re suffering drought or flood, extreme cold or scorching heat. Storm clouds always threaten on the horizon. At any instant the Earth beneath us can shake us to death, swallow us up, trigger a tsunami, let loose a mountain of magma with violent fury. The real world does its business through extremes…and most of these extremes, most places, pose a danger.
That Garden of Eden? The image is always at near at hand. We see it in our mind’s eye. Can’t get it out of our head that sometime, someplace, there was a better existence, and somehow we either lost it or we were kicked out. We keep trying to break past those cherubim, muscle our way back in.
Or, more precisely, we attempt to construct our own, new Garden.
Think of three phases of this Back-to-the-Garden-of-Eden Project in human history. The first? The cultivation of crops and domestication of livestock – and close behind, the birth of civilization, some 10,000 years back. According to the archaeologists, the anthropologists, the evolutionary biologists, it took us maybe 100,000 or a million years to get to that point, but we did it. We got past the clans and the tribalism, and we constructed empires.
The second phase? Maybe ten thousand years later – over the past 200-300 years or so – the Industrial Revolution. As I write this – and probably as you read it – we’re in a controlled environment, a virtual climate that we’ve engineered to our liking. I’m writing in a heated/air-conditioned office (can’t open the window), looking out at an urbanized, high-rise landscape. People are walking from place to place, but only for the shortest of distances. A steady stream of cars and buses are carrying the street-level traffic. Ten or twelve stories down, the Metro rumbles past every few minutes. The water? Comes from a tap, and is always safe to drink (unless you count a little lead; this is DC). Food? Plentifully available, representing a world of cuisines, from vendors and restaurants at street level. Surely this is Eden?
Ah, but we’ve actually been in a third reality this past decade or so, haven’t we? [The pace of innovation and social change is gathering speed.] Those people on the street? They’re talking, but look and listen closely. They’re not so much talking with each other. They’re on their smartphones, reaching out to friends and relatives who may across the city, or even half a world away. And though I have an office window, in 2011, it’s not entirely an asset. I can’t look out; I have to focus on the LCD monitor before me. In fact, I’d be better off closing the Venetian blinds and shielding my computer monitor from the ambient light. Why do I even need the outside view? I can call up the world’s most beautiful scenery, in high-def-, even in motion, with a few key clicks. And more and better technology is coming. Smarter phones. Streaming video. More capable and extensive social networking. Shopping. Games and recreation. Entertainment. Telecommuting. The world’s information, the world’s pulse, everything I need, at my fingertips. Eden? It doesn’t get any better than this.
Not so fast. Even as the developed world is settling in to this human-constructed Eden, Human-Eden-Version 3.0, old troubles stubbornly hang around, even as new signs of trouble are emerging, intruding via those same smartphones and laptops. The person at the other end of that phone? We’re not getting along with him or her any better than we did when we met face-to-face. That physical fitness we maintained back pre-Eden just trying to stay alive? Now we have to go to the gym. Work? It’s still aggravating and broken. We can be given meaningless tasks, even without our permission, in multiple ways now. We can still expend massive amounts of effort only to see our toil come to nought. While our company was struggling to make a go of it, those Wall Street wizards found a way to use the Internet to construct a whole bunch of financial instruments that somehow lost us trillions upon trillions of dollars in just a few months. Just a sample, but you get the idea.
And that internet information stream? It’s hinting that the real world on which we depend is not so robust in the face of seven billion of us tromping about as we might have hoped. Food? After years of ample stores courtesy of the green revolution, spot shortages and rising prices are more of a problem. Groundwater supplies are being depleted. Our city water supply? It’s water that’s been cleaned up from earlier use upstream. Full of endocrine disruptors, antibiotics, and more. Habitat is disappearing, and with it many endangered species. Resource extraction is getting more problematic (think the Chilean mine disaster or the BP oil spill, or the Fukushima reactor collapse). Disasters – triggered by hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes – seem to be getting bigger in scale and impact. And all these threats are emerging even as we’ve lost our first-hand experience of the Earth, now that we’re living in this third-generation artificial environment. For the majority of us, the information is has been sanitized into bits and bytes – an abstraction. We struggle to comprehend the enormity of what is going on. Only a handful of us are out there experiencing these problems on the ground. Many of those best positioned to see the problems are in such straitened circumstances – malnourished, living in poverty – that they are in no condition to care, or sound an alarm. And all this is occurring even as we seem to be losing our ability to trust, to be committed, to love one another – which is the basis for any kind of chance we have to work together and meet these challenges.
In the next post…why this opens the door to the possibility of good news. [Hint: think Shakespeare.]