Norway -- And the Fate of the Human Species

I have been thinking about those dreadful events in Norway and following their aftermath with the same kind of horror I felt when the World Trade Center was attacked, now nearly ten years ago. When you think of it, proportionate to the population, the death toll was even greater for that country than ours. From this distance, those small Scandinavian countries have seemed like peaceful Edens, protected from the turmoil taking place in the rest of the world. Now that illusion has been shattered, too, even for those of us so far removed from that corner of the world.

The poison of extreme right-wing conservatism, it seems, is seeping into every part of the global body. We have seen its effects here in the U.S., not only in the mass-murderous bombing in Oklahoma City 1995, but also in more recent acts of violence, like the attacks on doctors at abortion clinics. On a less murderous though still inordinately destructive scale, it now pervades the U.S. Congress and threatens to mindlessly destroy the country's already fragile economy. The right, of course, has no monopoly on violent or other extremist tactics, but it does seem that the current manifestations come from that direction. Even the religiously-inspired fanaticism originates in fundamentalist rather than progressive thought.

But the phenomenon runs deeper than its political or religious pretexts. The toxicity of extremism is produced, as I see it, by human fear. We fear the Other, just as we fear what we don't know. For this self-appointed Norwegian executioner, it was the fear of immigrants, fear of Islam, fear of multi-culturalism -- a fear that morphed easily, it seems, into its dark side, hatred. We have been hearing and reading about the spread of this particular poison on the European continent in recent years, and about the alarming return of right-wing conservatism. "Return" is perhaps not the right word, because this is something different from the territorial nationalism the produced the scourge of Nazism; this conservatism is pan-national. It is sadly as rife in my own "old country", England, as it is in France, Germany, the Netherlands and other European nations. And it is inspired chiefly -- if I have it right -- by the rising tide of immigration from the south and east, from Africa, and the Middle East, from Pakistan and South East Asia.

I'm no expert in the migration of populations, but I believe that our species is witnessing a major, millennial evolutionary shift in this regard. To support the exponential growth in our human population, we have exploited the planet, its climates and its resources to the point where the inhabitants of vast areas of the globe can no longer find the means for survival in their ancestral location. In desperation -- and, interestingly, as in ancient times -- many are forced to migrate in order to ensure their own survival, and in increasingly alarming numbers. There is a seemingly unstoppable population shift under way; people with different mores, different religions, different cultures, different dietary habits are moving in mass into areas that do not understand or welcome them. The resultant friction can turn, as it did in Norway, into a volatile explosive force.

Is it possible for us to turn an instinctive fear into tolerance and acceptance soon enough for the species as a whole to survive? Do we have that wisdom and that will? This is a serious -- well, a deadly serious -- question. On this score, my sister is more of an optimist than I am. In our past conversations -- she in England, I in distant California -- she has expressed her belief that we're in the midst of a great, paradigmatic shift in human consciousness which might lead -- and here I extrapolate -- to a more spiritual orientation and a more mutually tolerant world. If she is right, we could envision a world where wealth and health, material well-being and the resources to support it would be more equitably shared.

I tend to be less of an optimist. It's clear that, if it is to survive, humanity will have to re-think itself and the systems it has developed for its safety and survival. Capitalism, as a financial system, is creaking at the joints and shows signs of collapsing in unmanageable national debts and deficits and no longer "fair" but wildly unbalanced trade; and communism is all but dead. Traditional political systems are likewise failing under pressure: the distinction between liberal and conservative has become, depending on how you look at it, either non-existent or so vast as to be unbridgeable. Social systems are similarly no longer as functional as they once were in organizing societies and providing a network of security; the definition of "classes" is blurred beyond recognition, and what once were sturdy barriers no longer hold. Even the concept of "family" is changing, with divorce now as commonplace as the extended and, more recently, the non-traditional marriage.

No wonder there are those of us who are clinging desperately to the past and seeking its reinstatement. But there's no going back. These changes -- good or bad, no matter -- have taken place, are taking place before our eyes. To deny them is to deny reality, which is unhelpful. When I say we need to re-think ourselves, I'm envisioning the need for adaptive changes so radical as to be almost unthinkable. The current stalemate in "the greatest country in the world" suggests to me that we are approaching a no-exit situation; that we shall all, increasingly, find ourselves at loggerheads, unable to find our way around our own prejudices and certainties. I have to say that given what I know about human nature, I see no good outcome short of wars and famines, climatic disasters, and other thus far unimaginable catastrophes.

The planet, of course, will survive with or without us. It may be better off without our troubled and meddlesome species. It would be a shame, however, to squander all the extraordinary achievements we have made in our arts, our science and technology, just because we have failed to learn how to manage our small selves a little better. It's past time for us to look our fear in the face and acknowledge that it is capable of bringing about our imminent destruction.

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