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It is the Best of Times, it is the Worst of Times

The world seems to be moving in two different directions at once. Is it any wonder we feel so lost?

“This illustration depicts NASA’s exoplanet hunter, the Kepler space telescope. The agency announced on Oct. 30, 2018, that Kepler has run out of fuel and is being retired within its current and safe orbit, away from Earth. Kepler leaves a legacy of more than 2,600 exoplanet discoveries.” Credits: NASA/Wendy Stenzel.

Craig Axford | United States

 We live in an age of discovery far beyond any other our species has experienced so far, yet we hardly seem to even notice. We live in an era of staggering loss, but we seem paralyzed by the immensity of the problem. Had Charles Dickens foreseen the early 21st century, he may very well have reconsidered his opening line in A Tale of Two Cities.

Over this past week, two news stories drove home the point that we’re living in an extraordinary time. The first broke on October 29th. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) announced the results of a report indicating that between 1970 and 2014, global wildlife populations had declined by a staggering 60%. Even if their estimates are off by half, a 30% decline over such a relatively brief period would still be alarming.

The second story, coming just one day after the first, was NASA’s announcement that its Kepler space telescope had run out of fuel and would no longer be continuing its stunningly successful search for exoplanets. NASA’s Kepler had discovered more than 2,600 planets orbiting other worlds during its lifetime, further dislocating humanity from its perceived place at the center of the universe. By revealing “that 20 to 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky, planets similar in size to Earth, and located within the habitable zone of their parent stars”, NASA’s Kepler seems to support those convinced that we are unlikely to be the only place in the universe where life has emerged.

The tension these two stories represent stirs something deep within me, and not just because they arrived within 24 hours of each other. Because of their coincidental relationship to my own personal arrival on this planet, they each, in their own way, reflect the seemingly conflicting currents of history that have become increasingly evident with age.

 I was born just one month before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon. I also entered this world just a few months before the WWF’s baseline year of 1970. So the 60% decline in wildlife populations and the nearly 28,000% increase in the number of known planets discovered during my lifetime is jarring, to say the least.

 As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not fond of adopting either optimism or pessimism as default outlooks. Going through life either perpetually cheerful or gloomy seems like avoiding confronting the world on its own terms, even if an often unconscious one. Even terrible news for us is good news for somebody. If you and bunch of your coworkers get laid off, odds are the company’s shareholders are happy. Even a corpse can be a reason to celebrate if you’re a bacteria or a vulture.

 I’m also not too keen on the way we often describe ourselves as a species. We tend to point to our impact upon the planet as though it was an indication either of genius or stupidity, leaving little room for the vast landscape of complexity and nuance that lies between these two extreme assessments. It’s just trade-offs all the way down.

As the Kepler telescope and all the other probes we’ve sent into space demonstrate, we aren’t idiots. That said, as the WWF study reminds us, scaling up our civilization to this point has also too often been an ad hoc operation that fails to consider all the possible consequences of our actions or quickly correct for them once those costs have become clear.

The progress paradox refers to a curious phenomenon that social scientists have documented over and over again: that there is often an inverse relationship between objective improvements in human well-being and people’s reported overall happiness. While those living in extreme poverty will report significant gains in personal life satisfaction following increases in income and access to resources, these gains don’t continue to follow a linear trajectory as income continues to grow. Instead, people’s happiness growth curve begins to flatten once their basic needs are satisfied. For many living in the wealthiest nations on the planet, they have even take a U-turn.

In a recent article published in the October 2018 issue of Science, researchers Carol Graham, Kate Laffan, and Sergio Pinto cite both the United States and China as strong examples of the progress paradox. “The United States has one of the wealthiest economies in the world,” the authors state, “yet life expectancy is falling owing to deaths driven by suicides and drug and alcohol overdose. This particularly affects Caucasians with less than a college education.”

In China, which “is perhaps the most successful example of rapid growth and poverty reduction in modern history,” with GDP increasing “fourfold between 1990 and 2005” and life expectancy during the same period skyrocketing by more than 6 years, life satisfaction none-the-less dropped significantly as the nation’s middle class ballooned and overall health improved. Graham, Lafan, and Pinto report that there too “suicide increased, reaching one of the highest rates in the world.”

In China’s case, however, it wasn’t those lacking an education but those with one that was “the unhappiest cohorts” surveyed. While they “benefited from the growing economy,” they also had to endure “long working hours and a lack of sleep and leisure time.”

It’s difficult to appreciate all the new planets being unveiled by instruments like the Kepler space telescope when our lives here on Earth don’t even allow us to get enough sleep. Furthermore, all our city lights are blocking out the stars that our ancestors previously enjoyed: stars that we can no longer see without first traveling great distances deep into the heart of one of the few remaining desolate landscapes large enough for us to escape the nearly omnipresent urban glow.

This rapid scaling up of our civilization without regard to its toll on the individual psyche is also happening without much regard to its toll on nature as a whole. Our inability to find the time to spend even just a few hours each week outside smelling the roses, let alone spending a leisurely weekend in the woods now and then, is directly connected to our failure to find the political will to protect the environment upon which all life, including our own, depends.

In his book On Trails, the Canadian author Robert Moor writes “We can travel at the speed of sound and transmit information at the speed of light, but deep human connection still cannot move faster than the comparatively lichenous rate at which trust can grow.” As with individual connections to one another, so it is with connections to our wider world. Slowing down enough to observe and build a relationship with the earth can only happen at a “lichenous rate”.

We cannot continue to pull ourselves out toward the stars and toward an ecological crash simultaneously. Sooner or later the lights will need to be dimmed not only for survival’s sake but so that our children can again see what it is we are reaching for. Reaching into the heavens can sustain our spirits and bring us the wisdom we need to carry on, but only if we take the time to look at what we’re finding there. Ultimately, even our loftiest achievements are still grounded here on Planet Earth.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him at Medium.com

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