|A Czech friend of mine sent
an email during the recent NATO summit as American fighter jets
stood by and riot police filled the streets of Prague. "Sometimes",
she wrote, "I feel as though the world has gone mad."
Her words spoke my own thoughts so clearly it was as though
I was reading a message I'd sent to myself from a village in
||"Seeing both the vulnerability
and the possibility of our times -- that's what causes
the anguish, isn't if? If you understand what is at stake
and can see at least a few steps ahead toward safer ground,
it's hard to watch the people around you standing still
or even moving in the opposite direction."
Do you sense it too -- the recklessness of this moment?
How can people talk this way -- as though Deep Earth Penetrating
nuclear weapons, unmanned drones, stockpiles of smallpox virus,
and people exploding themselves on crowed street corners are
solutions to something ?
As though the acid rain falling onto our forests and the
carbon dioxide warming our planet are related only abstractly
to our lives?
As though it is the price of progress that our breast milk
As though nothing precious is vulnerable.
We all bleed and break. Can't we just admit that?
Whatever it is you love, it rises out of the secret dances
of rock and ocean and microbes. It depends on the paths that
clouds take as they float over the land. It depends on the
life expectancy of honeybees, the fish that lay eggs in marsh
grass, the quiet creation of soil.
We are the embodiment of vulnerability - we have everything
riding on things beyond our control.
We are all made of lungs and livers, nerve fibers and muscle.
So much that matters --music, Sunday dinner, a baby's grin
- depends upon the molecules of our body doing the right thing,
in the right place, at the right time. Five fingers extending
off an embryonic arm. Heart valves being sculpted just so.
A certain number of cell divisions and no more. It all has
to work pretty well before music, or sonnets, or even a grin
For all the dazzle of biotechnology we are nowhere close
to understanding such things. But we do know enough to see
that our bodies are not prepared for some of the chemicals
we've created -- the ones that damage DNA, the ones that confuse
hormone receptors. We are vulnerable in the face of this new
chemistry of our own creation.
With missiles that can send devastating weapons hurtling
across oceans and viruses that can be released on the subway
we face another vulnerability, of course -- the chance that
someone crazy or desperate will launch something flaming or
crushing or infectious in our direction.
I don't expect a world without tragedy and loss. But the
warfare, the toxins, and the changing climate are not out
of our control. They are not like a tornado or grandmother's
inoperable cancer. They are like the house falling in because
you didn't patch the roof, or grandmother growing frail because
there is no one to cook her supper. It's not a matter of destiny;
it's a matter of will.
We need the Earth's climate to stay more or less constant.
Well, there are things human beings can do to increase the
chances of this. We know these things. Switch from coal and
oil to solar and wind power. Invest in public transportation.
Our bodies can't handle heavy metals or dioxin? That may
be true, but we can reshape our chemistry in nature's style
and use the fibers, proteins, sugars, polymers, and dyes that
life has already "invented".
None of us are safe while governments and factions use violence
as a tool. We don't have to be trapped in escalating violence
as more and more powerful weapons end up in the arms of more
and more volatile leaders. We could shift our priorities,
invest in peacekeepers, negotiations, and the enforcement
of international law.
We are vulnerable, but we are not without options. Seeing
both the vulnerability and the possibility of our times --
that's what causes the anguish, isn't if? If you understand
what is at stake and can see at least a few steps ahead toward
safer ground, it's hard to watch the people around you standing
still or even moving in the opposite direction. It's hard
not to wonder if the world has gone mad.
But, if you are willing to look at our vulnerability you
also get to see the miracles. You understand the fine line
we walk. You hear it in the perfect heart valve pumping away
when you press your ear on your daughter's chest. You see
it in the spring when the same gentle warming wakes up the
pollinators and opens the apple blossoms. Knowing that a climate
change could disorient the apples or the bumble bees helps
you see the wonder of their partnership in the first place.
If you are willing to believe that we could live in different
ways you have the chance to discover them, little by little.
You get to have butternut squash cooked in a solar cooker
on your doorstep. You get to try in your own relationships
to resolve conflicts the way you hope they could be resolved
across the world. You get to teach your children how to light
a fire in the woodstove with logs that they helped you to
Butternut squash and apple blossoms don't sound as though
they will change the world. But in my mind they stand for
our only hope -- people who can look straight at our vulnerability
and still see our power.
Previous articles by Beth Sawin
Beth Sawin is a mother, biologist and systems analyst
who lives in Hartland, Vermont and works at the Sustainability
Institute. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
to receive a monthly column on systems and sustainability.