The Big Picture Burden
I regularly read Dave Pollard’s blog How to Save the World. While I don’t always agree with some of the arguments he puts forward I greatly admire both the vigour with which he presents his positions and the depth and breadth with which he supports them. Dave doesn’t just post posts, he crafts essays and usually accompanies them with handy graphics and lists. If you have the time, HtStW is worth checking out every so often.
There’s one particularly brave post that I’ve been meaning to comment on for a couple of weeks now. I say brave because it deals with, well, the fall of civilization and it confronts us with a pessimistic prediction of the future that few (rational) people care to acknowledge: end of life as we know it. Having also recently read A Short History of Progress (which he cites) and, as I have a habit to do, constantly scanning news headlines and informing myself of developments on such matters as peak oil, weather patterns, viral epidemics, moral politcs, empty/scandalous leadership, genetic research, and so on, I can well understand the hopelessness that one might feel about the prospects for the world – however you’re looking at it. Indeed, how can one engage in processing everything going on with the world and honestly not feel some sense of disappointment and dread? It’s certainly not all good.
And I wonder: Is this the generalist’s curse? Is this simply the downside of grasping wholes and systems and the long view? Is it a burden carried by those who care to look at the big picture? Maybe the naive and ignorant know something the rest of us don’t.
What strikes me is that generalists, as idea people, tend to be some of the most enthusiastic, positive, constructive and idealistic folks out there. In their own way, they too want to save the world. But at the same time they know the broader context better than others and frankly don’t like the odds. It’s the dark underside we all try not to turn over in conversation because it’s just too daunting, not to mention flat-out depressing.
Not that that stops thinkers with a strong handle of synthesis and context from bringing it up from time to time – David Suzuki’s columns, Noam Chomsky’s lectures and Thomas Homer-Dixon’s books immediately come to mind. Jane Jacobs, perhaps one of the greatest generalist minds anywhere and most certainly someone interested in solutions, cheerfully titled her last book (which is a tying together of several loose ends, including education, urban design, government, family life and science) “Dark Age Ahead” and has stated in interviews, “We are in trouble. Anyone who thinks about it and looks at life knows that we are in a lot of trouble.” The Big Picture Burden.
But then, in the same interview, Jacobs also said this:
We are living, I am convinced, in one of the most intellectually exciting times the human race has ever gone through. We are emerging from this linear cause-and-effect way of seeing the world into a way that has really been led by the ecologists, into a Web world, beginning to understand relationships in quite a different way. And it is affecting everything. And no end of people have grasped this and are seeing the world differently and analyzing things differently and seeing possibilities differently–basically in a very hopeful way. And I think this is awfully exciting. People who are younger than I am, you are lucky. You can play a part in what I think can be an extremely hopeful stage.
And perhaps that’s the healthiest way to look at it.