February 27, 2010

Reading the Litany and Counting the Bodies

I have become sensitive of late to what I have come to think of as the "reading of the litany" or if I am feeling more grumpy "counting the bodies".  I first became aware of this at the recent NCSE meeting in DC during Gus Speth's acceptance address.  While I had heard bits and pieces of the litany earlier in the day, Speth gave a extensive reading of the impacts that humans have rent upon the Earth with their implications of impending doom growing with each entry.

More recently, Dan Brayton generated a similar list for the oceans as part of his argument that literary critics should pay more attention to the oceans than they do.  He also showed pictures with the same accusatory message as Speth's list.

I too have done this sort of thing.  In the mid-1990s as we were building the Earth Institute at Columbia, I compiled lists of human impacts and was aghast at their implications.  My sensitivity now is that litanies are read for and with those who are already in the church.  I know that humans now have the upper hand over Mother Nature.  I am worried about it and I have plenty of guilt.  More to the point, the litany is starting to wear me out.  I know things are bad and to a certain extent I have to turn off that knowledge in order to get out of bed each day and attempt to do something about it.

Filling out my title, consider briefly my body count metaphor, which is where this line of thinking actually started.  Think about the following:  If you are getting your ass severely kicked, which is the better strategy: 1) devoting energy to a thorough and ongoing assessment of your losses; or 2) putting full energy into figuring out how to end the beating.  Personally I am going to try to end the beating first and worry about the detail of my losses much later.

I know, part of the reading of the litany is the hope that we can scare people into fighting back through fear of eternal damnation.  Against that though, I recently heard someone note that if the only futures we image are dystopic, we are likely to end up in a dystopia.  And here in lies a great part of my concern:  If the only pictures we paint of the future look like Road Warrior, I am afraid that we are likely to end up in the Thunderdome.

This state of affairs suggests to me that we should spend more time imagining futures that we want rather than obsessing about the futures we don't want.  What if our litany included more items like "All children on Earth receive a free education through grade 7", or "All humans on Earth have access to enough clean water to supply their dietary and sanitary needs."

What we need now is not body counts, but vision.  And not just any vision, we need strong and powerful visions of positive futures.  We need imaginations that are creating and holding on to those visions.  And we need institutions that are preparing future citizens who can bring those positive visions to life.