The Only Human Crisis

Various pundits have been putting forward candidates for the big human crisis confronting us. They all agree that something is, but can’t settle on one or another.

Throw a dart. Is it human rights? Terrorism? How about “the economy?” Not many people talking about the fisheries, though you could make a good case for a collapse of the ocean biosphere. Or how about one that effects us all — climate change?

The crisis facing humanity is not any of those. The crisis is “waking up.”

We have slept over the past thousands of years, with our little dreams, our amateur class plays of wars and histories and arts. While all this went on, our mother earth uncomplainingly fed and washed and cleaned up after us.

So long as the “house” was big enough and we were small enough so our messes could be absorbed, we have had a lot of room to do what children do – learn and grow and break things. (I have a theory that breaking, burning and cutting things is a indispensable part of childhood. How else can you learn the properties of materials like sticks and vases and your little sister’s hair?)

Well, the clumsy, drooling baby stage is over. The kid’s gotten to be big and strong, destructive, creative, with the flashes of insight and compassion that presage adulthood. The baby is now a teen. Be afraid.

The teen years are the time of maximum health and energy, combined with intelligence, ingenuity, and the tendency to make disastrous decisions. Research has shown that the human brain doesn’t really come fully online until the early 20s. We’re not there yet, believe me.

Luckily, although our species as a whole shows many teen-like qualities at the moment, quite a number of individuals have progressed into adulthood. We know what it looks like. This goes for nations also. In particular, the Scandinavian countries seem to have a grip on the concept of adulthood.

Don’t kid yourself that we will evolve out of this teen stage. As a species, biologically we have scarcely chipped our way out of the eggshell. Instead, the genius of our species is to devise and put in place social structures that preserve a shared memory and channel us towards some behaviors and preferences, and away from others. This genius, unfolding some 40,000 years ago, has allowed us to blanket the world with our species in every niche in every continent except the Antarctic. It’s the equivalent of the baby growing up into a teen who can raid the fridge and enjoy the entire house, coming and going as he pleases.

The last step to adulthood has nothing to do with claiming the privileges of adulthood while still assuming that mom will keep the freezer full and your clothes washed and folded. As we have gotten bigger, mom has got littler. Compared to us, she’s so shrunken now she can hardly keep up with our messes – and man, we have gotten messy.

Here’s our challenge. We need to grow up, and grow up fast, and it has to be done through social structures, ideas, and vigilant consciousness of all the ways it can go wrong. It will require embracing limits and looking far into the future. It will require wars, of some sort, to keep the juvenile delinquents from taking over the house, eating all the pizza and burning the place down in an angst-ridden snit. It will require seeing truly, acting ruthlessly, and living modestly. And damned if I know how we will manage it.

Moving our species smoothly into adulthood will mostly look boring. But taking the path of perpetual teenhood, though it would be very exciting indeed, can easily leave us with no home, just a smoking ruin without even any hot dogs or marshmallows.