Consider thinking the unthinkable

A week ago we were surrounded by the enduring 9/11 messages of Never Forget. It got me thinking again about how many people realize that perhaps one of Osama bin Laden’s primary goals in attacking our nation was to draw us into the so-called graveyard of empires, Afghanistan.

In general, everyone knows that waging a land war on enemy territory in Asia is a bad idea, but many nations with standing armies large enough to make victory seem plausible will try it sooner or later, some even four times in just over 50 years. Note that the first President Bush heeded this lesson by not invading Iraq.

I write this way not to make anyone feel guilty, but to highlight the problem that as human beings we often attempt projects that we should know are wrong or doomed to fail, sometimes because the alternative, that, what will actually work is unthinkable.

The last period of serious inflation in this country spanned the 1970s, and of course coincided with a discussion about resource over-exploitation. Instead of respecting other life by restricting human consumption of land, water and other earthly offerings, we have continued to drive economic growth. We thrived on continuously draining and unsustainably managing groundwater, thinning the soil and weakening its vitality. Now, Earth’s ability to sustain us is near collapse under the growing burden of humanity.

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We are also in the midst of a biodiversity crisis, most alarmingly manifested in a sharp decline in insect populations, partly due to insecticides and monocultures. Humans need insects to break down organic waste, for pollination, and as food for other wildlife. Our greatest crop is turf, the fad that first emerged in Britain and France in the 18th century and was brought to our shores by Jefferson himself and Washington’s landscapers. A penchant for dominating nature seems compatible with the imperialism and slavery of the early turf lovers.

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As far as the climate crisis is concerned, nobody knows where the point of no return for our civilization lies. We must decarbonize quickly, but that will not save our civilization from its other existential crises. As a person trained in physics and complexity science, I warmly recommend the recent documentaries available on YouTube about climate, water, soil and insect die-off crises from Deutsche Welle, a German public broadcaster. I would suggest starting with “Why can’t your brain understand climate change?”

One unthinkable alternative that might have worked in response to the 9/11 attacks was to hunt down Osama bin Laden in a more patient and subtle way, and to assume the moral superiority by repurposing a large part of our enormous investment in war, to instead advance the interests of beings less powerful than ourselves, both human and non-human. This course may have felt riskier, but actually could have turned out to be much safer considering it is also part of the process to save our civilization. We would have just started a few decades too late instead of two more.

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Like inflation in the 1970s, 9/11 was a wake-up call, but we continued to strive for economic growth. The solution to all our problems now and always has been to recognize that God helps those who help themselves by helping those less powerful. The main way to do this is to consume less. A locally popular god, childless and poor, advised against striving for wealth. If enough people heed this call, low-consumption lifestyles will no longer be despised; people will live happier lives; and our civilization can survive.

Albany resident James Lyons Walsh is the author of the memoir Proud Father of None: How I Found My Purpose by Droping Out of Religion, High School, Sobriety, and a Top Graduate Program on the Way to My PhD.

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