Science has accelerated and highlighted the dangers of climate change, but it may not be the only solution

The world is at a tipping point. From climate change to COVID to conflict, the future looks not only uncertain, but perilous.

Of course, every era has its impending catastrophe or doom. The 20th century was a bloodbath and the world lived in the shadow of the nuclear bomb throughout the Cold War.

But it was also a time of endless horizons, of new discoveries, of space travel, of the computer revolution.

Yes, there were prophets of doom like Paul Ehrlich who, half a century ago, warned of a demographic bomb. The world, he said, could not sustain more than two billion people.

We are now approaching eight billion and Ehrlich is still predicting the collapse of civilization.

Paul Ehrlich said a “collapse of civilization” is a “virtual certainty” within decades.(Paul Ehrlich (Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service))

In the 1970s, however, the world could still ignore the worst. Progress could not be stopped. We watched Jetsons cartoons and dreamed of our space jet packs and personal robots.

Since the steam engine and the industrial revolution, humanity has believed itself master of its own destiny. Nature had to be mastered. We wanted to get richer, live longer and consume more.

But there was always a cost. Even though we thought we could delay the payment.

The waves are coming

In 1800, the world population exceeded one billion. As early as 1861, the Irish physicist John Tyndall spoke of the “greenhouse effect”.

A few years later, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius showed how burning coal would accelerate the increase in the earth’s temperature.

By 1960, the population had exceeded three billion; the US government warned that the greenhouse effect was a real concern.

A decade later, the UN held its first climate conference. At that time, the term “global warming” was in vogue.

Today, CSIRO has placed climate change adaptation at the top of what it identifies as the seven megatrends that will determine our destiny. We must be “leaner, cleaner and greener”.

Aging populations and chronic diseases, as well as mental health issues, place unsustainable pressure on health care.

CSIRO says health care spending will exceed GDP in most developed economies.

Our lead scientist and CSIRO boss, Larry Marshall, says we’re caught in an ocean tear. It can lead us to the sea and death, or we can learn to use it.

An avid surfer, Marshall says we can’t sit on the shore. The waves are coming.

Marshall trusts science. Technology, artificial intelligence all present opportunities, even as they gobble up jobs and change the way we live and work.

It is a paradox. The future belongs to science, even if science itself has delivered us to this critical point.

Our pact with the devil

Science has accelerated the world’s population, shrunk our world, enriched us and brought us closer together.

Yet science has placed in our hands the ability to destroy life on the planet. This is our pact with the devil: incalculable riches at the cost of our souls.

Writer Karen Armstrong tells us we need more than science. Science will not save us. We need to rediscover ourselves. We must bow to the very thing we have crushed: nature itself.

A close-up photo of Karen Armstrong, who has short blonde hair, blue eyes and wears pearl earrings
Author Karen Armstrong sought to look beyond divisive religion, to a world of wonder that connects us.(Provided: Penguin Random House)

In his new book, Sacred Nature, Armstrong says we are “fundamentally absent.” We “walk around a place of extreme beauty while talking on our cell phones and browsing social networks”.

We “feel a sense of alienation and loss,” she says.

It is a curse of modernity, especially of the modern West. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, we have swapped “logos” for “myths”.

We invented a world where the reason was God. From the scientist Isaac Newton and the philosopher René Descartes, the schism of the divine and the rational was established.

For Newton, says Armstrong, “nature no longer had a sacred core”.

For Descartes, the “I” came above all: “I think therefore I am”.

This is the legacy of the Enlightenment.

We must rediscover the “veneration of nature”

Armstrong is a former nun who left the convent because she felt her religion had no place for kindness. She has dedicated her life to writing about all religions, questioning the role of faith in violence.

She probed how Judeo-Christian ideas of human dominance over nature have contributed to our disconnection from nature.

She sought to look beyond divisive religion, to a world of wonder that connects us. We need to reclaim the power of myth, she says – we “need to clear the fallacy that myth is wrong”.

The myth must be reconnected to the ritual. In a secular world where the West is increasingly turning away from religion, Armstrong asks, “Can education be holy?

A young girl stands in front of the clothesline of signs holding hers, which says
Science — logos — reigned over myth. Now we need stories older than modernity.(ABC News: James Carmody)

This echoes the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who suggested that mind and matter are one. We are united with nature. God is in everything but not above.

For this he was banished from his Jewish faith and his books banned.

Armstrong is not an argument to go back in time, progress and science have given us a marvelous world but a world also stripped of wonders.

She says we need to “reclaim reverence for nature”.

Those who have been ringing the alarm bells for centuries have been ignored. Like the Greek goddess Cassandra, who possessed wisdom but cursed that no one would believe her.

Science — logos — reigned over myth.

Now we need stories older than modernity.

Stan Grant is the ABC’s international affairs analyst and host of Q+A on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. He also presents China Tonight Monday at 9:35 p.m. on ABC TV and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on ABC News Channel.

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