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I hoped to write regular articles while here in Western Australia, but life is just too full to fit in everything. I haven't digested this flood of stimulation, experiences, and activities yet. And so this article began as bits of flotsam drifting to the surface of my mind but I see a theme emerging now …
Climate change again
My last entry was mainly about climate change, and the challenges facing Bangkok and Perth. My host here, Prof. Jorg Imberger, is a distinguished water scientist who was awarded the Stockholm Water Prize a few years ago, has helped brief the British Government, and has been invited by Prince Philip to give a prestigious address in London soon. In his opinion, the Earth is well past the climate tipping point. Warming has already caused increases in emissions of greenhouse gases from the tundra, oceans and other natural sources that far exceed human emissions. Even if we could reduce anthropogenic emissions to zero now, the Earth would keep on warming for a long time to come. And we have no idea what the new equilibrium climate will be, or how long it will take to stabilise. In consequence, he believes we should pay less attention to reducing emissions from the use of energy, and start paying more attention to adapting to the inevitable changes in sea level and climate.
This is scary stuff, and I’m not sure I fully agree with him. I agree that further climate change is inevitable and that we will have to adapt to more frequent events such as the Burmese hurricane, and huge numbers of refugees from low-lying areas. But I still think we should do all we can to reduce carbon emissions by protecting forests, reafforestation, and reducing our profligate use of energy. The last will be forced upon us anyway by rising fuel prices as we pass ‘peak oil’. We can’t prevent climate change in this way, but any reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will help to constrain the amount of future warming.
Incentives for action are another important reason for sticking with emission reduction policies. Mitigation of climate change requires global action, and is only possible if all nations cooperate. We are all in the same boat and no country can go it alone. There is thus a strong incentive for the peoples of the Earth to unite for the first time in history. But adaptation happens largely at the regional and local level: changing food production and water supply systems, protecting coastal resources, and so on. So if the goal is adaptation, it is possible for a single nation to go it alone. The incentive for global cooperation is thus weakened, and there is a greater risk that the rich will ‘pull up the drawbridge’ and leave the poor to their fate. In my view, this would be a recipe for long-term disaster, feeding resentment and terrorism on one side of the moat, and draconian security measures and the loss of civil liberties on the other – not to mention the suffering of billions in the greatest catastrophe the planet has ever seen.
Where will we find the wisdom to choose the right path?
Wisdom and Integrated Human Studies
On a different track, I’m heartened by a new development on campus that couldn’t have happened 5 or 10 years ago. An old friend of mine has been beavering away for a decade, and has finally managed to establish a Centre for Integrated Human Studies, with substantial support from the University hierarchy. The Centre is now in the middle of its inaugural seminar series on the theme of Seeking Wisdom – the University’s motto is Seek Wisdom. I’ll be giving a talk later on the topic “From Information to Wisdom.”
IHS is a sign that the fragmentation of knowledge amongst ever-more arcane disciplines may be near its peak. IHS is the ultimate in interdisciplinarity, with representatives from all the University’s schools. It’s mission is to study and teach the breadth and depth of what it is to be human, human wellbeing, and the future of humanity. They’ve developed the curriculum for 2 courses for first-year degree students as a broad basis for later studies, and are now working out how these can be woven into the University’s course structure. These courses go beyond the usual disconnected contributions from existing disciplines towards an integrated presentation based on several universal aspects of human existence, such as the experience of time.
I’m excited that something of this kind is now possible in the academic world, and that similar initiatives are happening at other major universities such as Kyoto and Oxford. It’s a step towards finding collective wisdom, but it still has a long way to go to escape the dominance of the mind and become truly holistic. I’m looking for ways to support this initiative and be involved in its future development.
Another change of subject, but there is a unifying thread in the search for wisdom. I’ve been fortunate to hear Noel Nannup, an Aboriginal spokesperson, speak twice recently on Aboriginal spirituality and wisdom. He is a gifted storyteller with an impressive, quiet presence that reflects his statement that “I know who I am” - despite growing up amongst all the challenges facing his people.
Pre-European Aborigines are generally seen as a collection of separate tribes with many languages rather than a nation. But Noel spoke of how 4000 Dreaming Trails from all over the country converge on Uluru (aka Ayers Rock) in the red heart. A key myth is the Caterpillar Dreaming, whose origins Noel has traced to his own Noongar people of south-western Australia. In this myth, the women’s ‘totem’ is the butterfly, a symbol of living lightly on the land. As Noel says with quiet emphasis nothing, NOTHING touches the land more lightly. The men’s ‘totem’ is the moth, symbol of humility - an unusual male virtue to westerners. The depth of this humility is reflected in the story of European settlement.
When the tall ships arrived, word rapidly travelled down the Dreaming Trails to the centre via messenger birds and trees. The elders learned that the whites were killing the men, but sparing the women. And so they entrusted the Lore to the women so that their culture could survive. What humility, to hand their sacred right and duty as men to the women! And the women held that trust until recently. After ‘Sorry Day’, the much-reported national apology to the Aborigines, a ceremony was held to hand back the Lore to the men.
What a story!
Noel also spoke about how the Aborigine is inseparable from the land. And how the rocks and trees and rivers are sources of knowledge and wisdom. They know from listening to the land that things aren’t right. They can hear the climate changing.