By Stan Hirst
If there is one thing that Elders might be better at than other folks, it is awareness of change. For one thing, we have a longer time frame for comparison of the "then" and "now". For another, it seems to be a basic human characteristic to hanker for the good old days. Thanks to a very well developed sense of selective recall, most of us are pretty good at comparing the "now" with the "then". For me, the "now" might be a few minutes in the company of my grandchildren and their electric guitars, and the grateful "then" would be my dusty collection of Willie Nelson CDs.
Change is a theme that has attracted most of the well-versed philosophic Elders. More than two millennia ago, the Buddha stated it quite plainly: "Everything changes; nothing remains without change." A few thousand years later, the famous "weeping philosopher", Heraclitus, underpinned his doctrine of change being central to the universe with his famous saying, "You cannot step twice into the same river." On into the 19th and 20th centuries the theme was picked up by philosophers (Alfred North Whitehead: "The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order."), biologists (Charles Darwin: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.") and statesmen (Abraham Lincoln: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.").
Getting a little closer to our own times, probably the most famous modern statement on change was that by Rachel Carson:
"Change is the only element of life which is constant. Though it sounds contradictory, it is true. Change is the most important element of life. It is this change that defines life. Had there been no change, life would have become still. We can see that change occurs in all natural phenomena such as weather and time. Change is also a vital element in any relationship. If there are no alternating periods of highs and lows then any relationship will become stagnant. Change keeps the relationship and life going and gives reasons for living. Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species — man — acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world."
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We might quibble with Rachel over her presumed "constancy" of change; in fact, it's anything but constant. She probably meant continual, but the power of her assertion is unquestionable.
So, if change is such a salient feature of existence, why then do we have such difficulty in dealing with it? We obviously dig the benefits of change. Technological change has brought so many benefits — think CAT scans, Hubble, wi-fi and iPads. World poverty levels have dropped 80 per cent over the past 30 years. Just a quarter century ago, do you think the miners in Copiapó, Chile, would have been found and brought out alive? And with more than four million web page views per minute of the event on the Internet?
But we don't deal well with the flipside (Heraclitus stated that too). Global biodiversity is declining as a result of our activities, and so is freshwater availability. The climate is changing from our huge reliance on fossil fuels, and so are the ecological factors that relate to climate — storm frequency, drought frequency and intensity, permafrost melting... the list goes on. Many of the technological changes that have brought significant benefits have brought major disbenefits as well — think heavy metal pollution from gasoline burning and carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic compounds in the water resulting from oil extraction.
So, it seems there are a few fundamentals about change that we are not handling well. Firstly, our social, economic and environmental systems don't deal easily with the complexity of change. The natural world is unavoidably complex, thanks to a few million years of physical, chemical and biological evolution (=change). It is a very intricate system of cause-and-effect pathways, interactions and limits. It is absolutely unavoidable that large-scale changes in one part of the system will cause corresponding effects elsewhere. Our Palaeolithic ancestors probably made a horrible mess of the places they tilled, burned and hunted, but they numbered in the hundreds of thousands, their implements were too primitive to affect more than very small areas, and their ecosystems were resilient enough to cope with the changes. By contrast, we are now running for seven billion souls world-wide, our ecological footprint is truly huge, and our ecosystems are very obviously stressed to the limit.
Secondly, we don't seem too adept at predicting change. Journalist Dan Gardner, in his new book Future Babble, says that scientists, economists and the rest all suck at it. Well, all right, he didn't say it quite like that, but Erin Brockovich would have.
Thirdly, we seem to blindside ourselves in assessing change. We put huge stock in the perceived economic or political benefits to be gained from some or other action and then we downplay the equally obvious disbenefits. The Iraq War has always been a source of amazement to me. There are something like 1,100 think tanks in Washington, D.C., all full of very smart people (they show up on PBS from time to time; hell, they are smart!). Presumably they all think. Now I ask myself, if a doddering elder like me knows something of the history of Iraq and the deep-rooted historical conflicts between Sunni and Shia and can see the obvious, then couldn't these smart Washington folks have foreseen or forestalled the inevitable loss of more than one million lives and the expenditure of $1.2 trillion that would result from a military invasion of this complex country?
Fourthly, we may be uncomfortable with change per se, but it seems to be the rate of change that really freaks us out. Intel co-founder Gordon Moore made himself a household name when he came up with the observation that the number of components in integrated circuits had doubled every year since the invention of the latter, and he made the accurate prediction that this would continue for at least 10 more years. A similar exponential rule is surely being applied in the global ecosystem now, as human numbers increase to the breaking point, and the rates and intensities of negative feedbacks accelerate. But we can't get our minds around it all.
So what do we do about it? Darned if I know. I don't work for a think tank. But one thing is for sure. A man has got to know his limitations. Was that Heraclitus again? No, that was another elder: Dirty Harry.