Magazine article World Watch

Why Are We Not Astonished?

Magazine article World Watch

Why Are We Not Astonished?

Article excerpt

Watching the world is like closely examining photograph of a human face, as printed in a newspaper or magazine. The photo is made up of dots, or "pixels," and a small piece of the photo seen close-up is unrecognizable. In today's high-speed world, each of us receives vastly larger numbers of "bits" of information about our world than earlier generations ever did, but those bits are still like the dots in an extremely tiny fragment of an increasingly enormous picture. From where we normally see it, it is incomprehensible. But stand back far enough, and the larger picture comes into focus. The world's multiple declines become visible as a single decline. It becomes clear that we are in a mega-crisis of our own making, and that we have a chance now to escape it before it destroys us - but that the chance won't last long. The window of opportunity is closing fast.

How to see through that window before it's too late? A clue can be found in the ways human societies have long dealt with the things most critical to their present survival and future hopes: they tell eye-opening stories, whether in the form of myths, legends, or songs. Many societies, for example, have passed down stories of great floods. The Chewong people of Malaysia, the Koyukon of Alaska, the Maya of Mesoamerica, and the Christians and Jews who spread out from the Middle East all have told of great inundations. Whether those accounts contain dim memories of some prehistoric event that actually occurred or some intuitive grasp of what we can bring upon ourselves if we disrespect the powers of the world into which we were born, is hard to know. But that these stories offer something more than mere entertainment, I think few would deny.

Such stories may open eyes or minds by telling of events that were not anticipated - astonishing ordeals that might now serve as insights or warnings. For a story to be truly eye-opening, however, requires that much of the setting in which it takes place - the geography, climate, or culture - be familiar. There is a continuum of rising intensity between a light rain and a catastrophic flood, for example; if you have experienced the rain, you can mentally extrapolate to the flood. But if you have lived all your life in a place where no water has ever fallen from the sky and no sudden rivulet has ever run across the ground before you, you might find the idea of a terrible flood impossible to grasp. There is a paradox of perception here: that where there are no familiar conditions, there may be no galvanizing shocks. In a time of increasing disturbance and discontinuity, that paradox poses a growing threat to our ability to plan.

The records of history, as well as of recent psychological research, suggest that on those extraordinary occasions when people arc suddenly confronted with something that is utterly alien to their experience, they may in effect go blank while the neurons race around in search of a familiar pattern of synapses - some memory, or myth, or clear expectation. Consciousness is a connecting of sensory stimuli and meaning, and if no connection is made, there may be a failure of consciousness. You may not see anything at all.

An incident that occurred more than two centuries ago, but was carefully documented at the time, illustrates what can happen. For millennia, the Aborigines of eastern Australia used small bark canoes to fish off the coast of their isolated continent. They had no contact with whites. But on April 29, 1792, the British sailing ship Endeavour, under captain James Cook, sailed into a bay and encountered a group of natives - the first known contact between Australians and Europeans. One of the passengers on the ship was an avid botanist, Joseph Banks, who was keeping a detailed journal of everything he saw on the journey.

To the natives, the sudden appearance of this ship would have been as unprecedented and inexplicable as it might have been for today's New Yorkers to look up and see a city-sized space ship blocking out the sky. …

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