I’ve just returned from California, where I was combining a series of speaking engagements and spending time with friends, old and new.
It was an intense time to be in the US. No matter where you are in the world, you may well have heard about the wildfires that have been ravaging California, from one end of the state to the other. These are largely due to the prolonged drought in that part of the world, which has left huge areas as dry and volatile as tinderboxes, and has killed an estimated 102 million trees, just when we most need their contribution to carbon drawdown. The wildfires will have claimed many more. The human toll has been terrible, but so has the toll on an ecosystem already under pressure.
Then there have been the shootings. Last week I spoke in Thousand Oaks near Los Angeles, the night after a shooting in a bar less than 6 miles away took the lives of 12 people. (A couple of days later the town was evacuated because of wildfires. They were having a really terrible week.) This, in a place that earlier this year was designated the third safest city in the US. This was the 307th mass shooting (defined as more than 3 people dead, not including the shooter) in the US so far this year.
Also while in the US, I was on the East Coast during the mid-term elections, when a record number of women (but still not enough) were elected to Congress, increasing from 84 to 102 out of 435 members.
When I hear about headlines like this, I get curious. These visible events are just the tip of the iceberg, and the media often doesn’t dig deeper. So let’s look deeper now. I should emphasise that this is my blog, so these are my theories. Feel free to disagree and debate. I’m always interested in getting closer to the truth.
Trends: are these becoming more, or less, frequent? Definitely more. And more deadly. (See Time article: California’s Wildfires Have Become Bigger, Deadlier, and More Costly. Here’s Why.)
Causes: dead trees and dry grass due to prolonged drought. What causes the drought? Could it be climate change? How are we as humans creating, promoting, or allowing these conditions?
Underlying narrative: assumption that nature always has provided and always will provide for humans, no matter how many of us there are, or how much we compromise our ecosystems
Events: mass shootings
Trends: are these becoming more, or less, frequent? Definitely more. And more deadly. (And yes, I know those are the same words I used about wildfires. See article in the Washington Post: The Terrible Numbers That Grow With Each Mass Shooting.)
Causes: some theories are put forward in this article in Psychology Today: Mass Public Shootings Are On The Rise. I also think there is a gender issue here. According to Statista, less than 3% of mass shootings are committed by women. Negativity and isolation are reaching epidemic proportions in so-called “developed” societies, and speaking generally, in women this negativity is internalised in the form of depression, while in men, it is externalised as anger. If these issues are primarily expressed in developed societies, we have to ask ourselves just what it is that we are developing. Not widespread sanity and sound mental health, that’s for sure.
Underlying narrative: in a purported meritocracy, everybody is “entitled” to get what they want – money, success, fame, sex, whatever. And if they don’t get it, they get frustrated, then angry, then explosive.
(And I’m certainly not having a go at the US here. We in the UK have our own problems with the rise in stabbings. Same problem, different access to weapons.)
And now to something more cheerful….
Events: more women running for, and being elected to, office
(some very encouraging stats here, not just about the quantity, but also the quality, of female candidates)
Trends: not only more women, but also more gay, trans, indigenous, Muslim, and other minorities (CNN)
Causes: elected officials need to look more like the people they’re supposed to represent
Underlying narrative: “Well, heck, I can do better than THAT guy” / “If you want something done properly, do it yourself”
Clearly, we as a species could be doing things better. Some trends are heading in a positive direction, some not so much.
What vision should we be aiming for? I’d like to offer a book recommendation – a quick read, and for once, fiction. Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, published in 1915. It’s only 146 pages, but if even that is too long then check out the Sparknotes. The premise is that three male adventurers fly into an isolated country populated entirely by women, who have created a paradise of orderliness and good sense, where food production, reproduction, clothes, education, child-rearing and everything else are designed in an eminently sensible way.
We will never know if this would indeed be the case, and I doubt it would be fun to find out. But it’s an intriguing thought experiment.
P.S. In poignant juxtaposition to the destruction wrought by the fires, the book I was reading while in California just happened to be the most beautiful and fascinating tribute to trees that I have read: The Hidden Life of Trees, by a German forester called Peter Wohlleben. I highly recommend it. You will never look at a tree in quite the same way again.