Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall

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This time of year in New England is full of contrasts. One day the leaves are green and the next bright red. We are up in Maine for the last time until next May. Yesterday when I put my boat to bed for the winter, the ocean simply glittered and the air was crisp as a Macintosh apple (A real one). It was one of those days that makes leaving so hard. Today it has been pouring without a constant stream. The dampness permeates everything. Our cottage can’t hold its own against a combination of late autumn cold and downpours. Days like this soften the sadness and ease the closing up of the place. They also force me to sit quietly in front of the fireplace and reflect.

I have been reading some pretty heavy stuff lately in preparation for a course I intend to lead next semester. I spend a day a week at one of the many Institutes for Learning in Retirement that are springing up in many places. The courses are led by members of the group and are aimed at mixing learning new things (even at our ages, you can teach old dogs new tricks as long as they are very easy) with an opportunity to get into discussions with your classmates. Our course is going to probe our search for and reliance on certainty, so central to modern cultures, and how it has brought a mixed blessing to the West and now to all four corners of the world. Prior to Columbus, most people were certain that the Earth was flat, and a few remain today. We can be more certain about much of the world out there today than those who lived in Columbus’s time. The tools and methods of science can produce evidence that we interpret in ways that tell us how much of the world behaves. We act on our knowledge about the world with certainty that the outcomes will be just as we expected it to be.

That’s fine if we limit our focus to parts of the world we can isolate and study in their entirety. Much of what we really care about can’t be crammed into one of these isolated parts, but comes forth from the whole complex world. We know, for certain, that that world is changing as a consequence of our activities on the planet. We can reveal changes that are threatening our ability to enjoy the benefits of knowledge and progress, and that threaten the likelihood that our progeny and theirs in turn will enjoy many of these gifts. We can’t predict with much certainty how serious these consequences will be or when we will need to head for higher ground—both in real terms and also metaphorically. There’s nothing much new about this situation: seers and mystics and scientists have been making dire predictions about the future from time immemorial. Now the evidence of these unintended consequences has become certain enough that we have labeled our concerns about them with the overall term of “sustainability” and talk about them in private and public.

Our conversations about sustainability are almost always ironic, but ironic in a way that is rarely seen as that. The causes that threaten sustainability, the ability of the earth to continue to support human and other life in the way we have come to expect (at least in the West), are closely connected to the failure of our technology and societal machinery to produce what we were certain would follow from their uses. Yet almost al of the approaches to delay and reduce the onset of serious challenges to our way of life employ the self-same forms of technology that we know deep-down are the culprits. It takes only a small jump to realize that it’s not the particular forms of technology that are at cause, but our certainty that we know enough about this complex world to design new chunks of it that will enable us to manage our way to a future we want. I would like the rain to stop today so I could leave here with a memory of a beautiful glistening sea. I know with certainty that I cannot, and I realize my only certain choice is to be at home in the rain and cold. This is what sustainability is about. Our failure to be at home in the world as it is is one of the deep-seated roots of the loss of sustainability.

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Melissa D'Souza said:

This book is amazing! Just having so much insight into what everyone does and the connection the book has to achieving sustainability is done very well. My quick question is that do you think sustainability is actually possible with today's increasing demands placed by society?