Will human beings wipe themselves out or link up to form a global brain? This month's books include two attempts to change our perceptions about the planet to save it from destruction; plus a resource book for teachers of development issues.
Editor: Anuradha Vittachi
At the crossroads
The Fate of The Earth
by Jonathan Schell
Picador(pbk) UK: £1.95
The Awakening Earth
by Peter Russell
Routledge & Kegan Paul (pbk) UK: £4.95
‘More than any other time in history,’ wrote Woody Allen, ‘mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.’
Maybe Woody Allen is right to mock our current obsession with planetary doom. Facing the facts doesn’t have to mean facing them negatively. Two books that illustrate opposite approaches to safeguarding the future are Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth and Peter Russell’s The Awakening Earth. It’s obvious even from the titles which of the two is fearful and which hopefuL The cover designs confirm the suspicion: Russell’s book has a black background, like jeweller’s velvet, all the better to show off the glistening blue pearl that is the planet Earth; Schell’s cover is just plain black no planet, no nothing.
But which approach is the more useful as a campaigning tool, for persuading people to take the future of their planet seriously? My suggestion would be to offer the Schell book to readers given to dismissing world peace movements as youthful brouhaha. The book paints a horrified picture of a post-bomb world and has aroused unprecedented interest in more conservative circles. In contrast, a young CND supporter to whom I lent the book dismissed it with a yawn: ‘Not another” what if a bomb fell on New York/London/Tylers Green” scenario.’
Perhaps, I replied jokingly, Schell is pushing forty and getting worried in any case about time’s winged chariot... And flipping to the biographical box, I discovered to my surprise that Schell was, indeed, born in 1943. Perhaps if you are on the sunny side of 25, like the CND supporter. Schell’s book may seem irrelevant; but to someone already acutely conscious of his or her mortality, it may strike a memorable chord.
Russell’s book, on the other hand, is likely to be dismissed by many, both young and old, as Utopian fantasy. Russell is the first to admit to his idealism. But, as Buckminster Fuller said, the world is now too dangerous for anything less than Utopia I found it one of those rare books that send a tingle down the spine. It’s very much like Small is Beautiful; like Schumacher’s book it could become and I hope it does a sign of a crucial shift in perception as to what is valuable in human life and how it can be attained. An incidental plus: he writes extremely well much better than Schumacher.
Russell is a scientist a physicist who is fascinated not only by matter and energy in the material world but in their links with the human brain and consciousness. The first part of his book is a crash course in the evolution of human beings, starting at the very beginning with the Big Bang, the inception of the universe. He explains how at key stages energy transformed into matter, matter into life, life into self-conscious life. Now, he says, we are at yet another key stage in this evolutionary process. (It’s that crossroads’ again.) We can make another jump, this time into realising unii’ersallt’ the truth that scattered idealists have been pointing to as individuals: that the whole earth and all that exists on it is are parts of one complex, living system. To hurt one part is, therefore, literally to hurt the whole: like cutting off my thumb hurts me, not just my hand.
I fwe do make this jump in consciousness the human species could become a kind of ‘global brain’, a cortex that envelops and protects the living body of the earth: if we don’t, if we continue to behave in destructive opposition to the earth and to each other, we will be behaving like a cancerous growth, each cell undermining the body still further.
Since the crises of the world are caused by human selfishness, Russell argues, they can be unmade by humansbut not if living more cooper atively is seen as a deprivation. Self-discipline through guilt wears thin as anyone knows who has been on a diet. What is required is a satisfaction of a deeper kind; if the hunger for meaning which is never satisfied by material possessions is fed, then choosing to live more simply is no longer such a problem.
Russell’s book is a brave attempt to give the - one world’ vision a scientific edge. No doubt he will be attacked. I hope he won’t be ignored
Down to earth
People, Problems and Planet Earth
by F. Hutchinson and L. Waddell
Aus: Macmillan (pbk) $9.95
People, Problems and Planet Earth is a book of study units for senior secondary and junior college students. Written by two teachers in New South Wales, it is particularly useful as a resource book for General Studies, Social Science and History in Australian schools, but is relevant to any group interested in ‘one world’ issues. Topics include Knowledge and Human Enquiry, the Computer Revolution, the Nuclear Energy Debate, Human Rights. Mass Media, Religion and Society, Gaps Between Rich and Poor Countries and the Nature of Modern Warfare. The book contains a rich mix of resource material and is presented in a variety of readings, diagrams, cartoons and articles. Each unit includes activities and a Resource Guide. Because People, Problems and Planet Earth has been written by teachers out of their own teaching experience and using their own teaching materials, it is a real treasure of practicability that should be very popular with other teachers. The fact that agencies dealing with the issues presented are already receiving more enquiries from schools is an indication of the usefulness of the Resource Guide. The authors have been careful that what they suggest is readily available to schools and community groups.
I found a little disappointing the section on Religion and Society which provides an introduction to the great world religions. I would have expected to find more on the response of these great world religions to the pressing social justice issues of our day. Perhaps some comparison of responses to issues on peace and development might be included in a later edition.
Therese Woolfe is Narional Co-ordinator for the Mission and Justice Education
Programme ofthe National Catholic Missionary’ Council in Australia.