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Understanding Change: An Essay

Gitanjali 82, acrylic on paper, 9" X 9", 2003, Mark W. McGinnis

Gitanjali 82, acrylic on paper, 9″ X 9″, 2003, Mark W. McGinnis

For better or worse I have always had a desire for understanding. In different phases of my life my understanding has grown or diminished. It has certainly not been a constant upward trajectory. As our planet moves into a period of radical change, and there have been many in the four and a half billion years of the earth’s existence, I find myself trying to come to some understanding of what is going on. I began my efforts with blame. I blamed my species for overpopulation, pollution of our atmosphere and water, destruction of the environment and other species and their greed in general — all things that are contributing to the climate change that will radically alter the way life functions on the planet. As I have been able to back up and see more of the big picture I see the kind of change we are witnessing is part of the earth’s ongoing cycles. In just the past 650 thousand years there have been seven major climate changes.

Some say this one is different because it is being caused by human beings and is not natural. This suggests that human beings are not natural. It seems to me that we are just as natural as a slight shift in the earth’s orbit, a meteor striking the planet, volcanoes erupting, or any of the other phenomena that has caused climate change in the past.

If you study our species from early homo sapiens to the present, we see that the behavior of human beings has consistencies and seems to be based on polarities: greed and generosity, love and hate, war and peace, order and chaos, brilliance and stupidity and every degree between the poles. What we have done and are doing to our planet is consistent with our behavior as a species. To blame a species for what it is and what it has always been is pointless (especially when it comes from one of that species who manifests all the polarities listed above).

Am I saying that we should sit back and watch this huge, devastating change take place? No I am not. Certainly the wheel is in motion and climate change will continue to unfold. The degree of this change and amount of suffering it will impose not only on our species but on most of the species on the planet is yet to be determined. We still have it in our powers to lessen the impact of this change. The question is do we have the fortitude to make the changes needed to lessen the changes we have instigated. People of my generation and possibly my children’s generation will not feel much of the impact of these changes, but my grandchildren and most certainly my great-grandchildren will.

I was born in 1950. Human beings have made some significant lifestyle in my lifetime. I am not talking about the technological toys people often point to as the great changes of the past sixty years. I am talking about changes of consciousness and behavior. The place of women in our society, the rights and attitudes toward minorities, the change in attitudes and rights of those outside heterosexual orientation, and even the end of massive world wars have all been radical if incomplete shifts in thinking since my birth. Our species has exhibited a remarkable ability to adapt for the better as well as for the worse. That is why we gained the ability to alter the climate of our planet.

Some European countries have made large strides in reducing their use of fossil fuels that are the primary source of climate change. I find a sad irony that in our use of fossil material of previous climate changes we are creating the climate change of our time. But most of Europe is not the primary cause of our problems. USA, China, Russia, and India are a problem, and much of what was called “the third world” wants to raise their standard of living to match the “the first world” which involves much higher energy consumption. Lessening climate change is a huge challenge but not an impossible one. Will we change our way of living so future generations and other species can continue on this planet? Those who work to lessen global climate change by whatever means are certainly the most noble people of our times.

It is common to hear people speak of “saving the planet.” This may be the ultimate hubris. The planet will do just fine as it has been through considerably worse climate changes in the past. Even if we manage to eliminate most of the species of life on the Earth, more will evolve as they have so many times. It is impossible to know if one will evolve that has something like our cognitive abilities. For the sake of the other species it might be best to hope that one does not.

© 2014 Mark W. McGinnis

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