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General · 3rd October 2010
Ray Grigg
A realist would contend that growing up is mostly the process of losing illusions. The fiction of the Tooth Fairy must eventually become a childhood fantasy, just as the fancy of Santa Claus must finally defer to the imperatives of space-time physics. In exchange for abandoning such innocent flights of imagination, we are rewarded with an adult's world that is equally magical and amazing. Everything that is real is as extraordinary as everything that isn't.

But all realities are tenuous. This adult's world is a place where realities are constantly being challenged, altered or destroyed, to be replaced by different realities. Growing up is a lifetime process of being tested by measures of new evidence.

The same that can be said of individuals can also be said of cultures, those communities of people who collectively comprise a distinctive way of imagining, understanding and behaving. They, too, must continually reconcile their sense of reality with the circumstances they encounter. Unfounded and fanciful illusions are not treated gently when they collide with the real world. Indeed, most human history is the wreckage of those who misread the evidence or refused to adjust their illusions to the unfolding evidence of the day.

Since neither illusion nor reality are absolute, the two exist together in a dynamic tension that we usually try to reconcile with faith, belief or trust. But this approach rarely succeeds. When the differences between illusion's constructs and reality's imperatives are too great to be reconciled, the consequences to societies are either extremely disruptive or even fatal. Because reality invariably wins, our wisest approach is to resolve the tension with new insights, strategies and behaviour.

This summarizes the present environmental realities altering our planet's biosphere – its ocean, land and atmosphere. Our old models of understanding and behaving are becoming increasingly incongruous with the new imperative of limits. Ecologists, biologists, demographers, climatologists, oceanographers, and even philosophers are warning us that this widening incongruity cannot be sustained. The momentum of culture and our traditional habits carries us forward. But an anxiety is beginning to build in us, a growing doubt about the viability of our old models of belief and our persisting patterns of behaviour.

This anxiety indicates that we are nearing a paradigm shift, a fundamental change in understanding which will be disruptive to our old sense of normal. Indeed, such changes may be so fundamental that they can nearly wreck the culture that experiences them.

But reality's imperative demands that we make these changes – our recorded history measures the relative success of these adjustments. We changed from wandering hunter-gatherers to land-bound farmers, from rural simplicity to urban complexity, and from tribal cohesion to complex individualism. We flourished with the change from an oral culture to a written one, from a craft economy to an industrial one; from a mechanical age to an electronic one. Each change required a monumental shift in consciousness and behaviour.

Consider the gradual displacement of religion by empiricism. The cosmology of the Middle Ages consisted of a flat Earth and a fixed Heaven. The three known continents of Europe, Asia and Africa corresponded to the Holy Trinity, while a fixed Heaven – the stars were holes through which the light of Heaven shone – represented the absolute and eternal verities of divine Truth. The special status of humans in the Creation story was confirmed by Earth at the still centre of a moving sun and rotating planets.

The exploration of the New World in the 16th century wrecked this paradigm. The journeying sailors did not fall off the edge of Earth into oblivion. The newly discovered continents no longer matched the Holy Trinity. Unimaginably different races, cultures, customs, religions, foods and ideas had to be incorporated into the narrow and rigid framework of the old Medieval paradigm. Then Galileo, science and experimentation collided with the primacy of belief. The result was messy, disruptive and even absurd by today's standards – during the Reformation, for example, one Protestant traveller was burned at the stake for heresy when he declared, upon returning from the Holy Land, that it was not literally composed of "milk and honey" as biblically recorded.

As a modern example of a paradigm shift, consider the energy we use to power our civilizations. Since our earliest history, we have derived energy from burning: wood, straw, dung, peat, coal, oil, gas... anything that would combust. With electricity replacing burning, we can now get this newest source of energy from chemical, solar, hydro, wind, nuclear or geothermal means. Burning is the old paradigm we must leave because its carbon dioxide by-product is inducing global climate change.

Or consider our sense of humanity with respect to Earth. We have always thought that we were insignificantly small and that our influence was too minuscule to alter the fundamental mechanisms by which it operates. This perception gave us the impunity to behave as we wished without fear of catastrophic ecological consequences. Earth's size and resilience would always absorb the impacts of our behaviour and provide us with more of whatever we might need.

Now we are discovering the reality of limits. The overwhelming evidence is that our collective human behaviour is altering the biosphere's basic operating systems, thereby disrupting the planet's temperature, weather, ocean chemistry and biota. We must now change from being careless exploiters to conserving custodians. This paradigm shift brings us a huge burden of concerns and responsibilities. But it also brings us an adult maturity that is free from outdated and dangerous illusions.