For millennia, philosophers have debated and pondered the “meaning of life,” as though such a thing were an inherent aspect of existence. Yet it seems far more reasonable and logical to discard the question itself. Oh, life does have meaning, let’s be clear about that. It has whatever meaning we choose to give it.
In every age, in every culture, even in every sub-culture, meaning is essentially a construct. That is, what a given people in a given time decide is important, unimportant, essential or non-essential, gives rise to the meaning of life within that specific culture, and therefore is in fact a construct – an agreed-upon reality. Out of these agreements arise all aspects of the given culture – law, religion, commerce, entertainment – everything evolves out of these initial agreements.
For example, when the Pilgrims sought the sanctuary of a new and unknown land, and began the process of building their new culture, they carried with them many such hard “constructs.” Their religion, obviously, but also every aspect of their lives was formed within the British culture. But the very act of fleeing what they viewed as religious persecution, and arriving in what was essentially a tabula rasa (not withstanding the fact a set of unique cultures already occupied the same place these religious zealots had invaded,) they found themselves engaged in the creation of a new set of agreements. Those agreements, though they could not know it at the time, led to the construct of the United States of America, and eventually to the U.S. culture as we inhabit it today.
While it seldom happens that new agreements are woven whole cloth, instead arising as a gradual, cumulative process that is always “polluted” somewhat by other cultural strains entering the newly arising, primary strain (think “melting pot” or “diversity”), the effect is the same. Each human is born into their given society (we obviously have no real say in the matter) to find the culture already in progress. To the degree any one of us exerts influence on the dimensions and directions of our culture is what may cause both subtle and major shifts to occur in said “agreements.” However, the result is always the same – a slight, or major, shift in “meaning.” Thus, a construct.
The meaning of life arising as it does out of cultures formed out of temporary agreements within that culture can, and has in fact, always proven to be quite different culture to culture, era to era. The ancient Mayan’s ideas about meaning are different considerably from feudal China, which is different again from 12th Century Iceland. One cannot fail to note one persistent feature in nearly every culture, in whatever era – each tends tend to think their “meaning” is the only true such construct, though they have most likely never thought of it as such. More often than not, it arose from “ancestors”, “gods”, and, most frequently, from conquering armies. And, as is amply demonstrated by the present day culture of the U.S.A. (itself an amalgam of numerous sub- and sub-sub-cultures, shifting histories, mutable ideologies, and more) believe their “meaning” (read: ideology) is the one true, best ever “way of life.”
One of the effects of this facet on our present era is, most interestingly, the appearance at least, of a return to a kind of tribal world. Despite our thinking of this era as the era of nation-states, slowly evolving into a global “one world” super village, the opposite appears to be unfolding. Even as the planet is rapidly evolving mass communications vis-à-vis the World Wide Web, rapid travel, always-on digital phones, rapidly expanding trade, it is at the same time breaking off chunks of itself forming into ever-smaller tribal groups, made easier, of course, by the Web itself.
Google provides an excellent example of both an accelerator of, and a disintegrator of, the very idea of unity, of cohesive cultural agreement. Even as Google accumulates greater amounts of data and information, individual nations are joining in with their own voices and visions. In some cases governments of a more repressive, controlling nature are tending to both expand access while restricting content, giving rise to ever new attempt to subvert such control. One effect this has, as in the case of China, is somewhat ironic: the drive to subvert the control of the government is causing a re-birth of the original idea of the cell, or troika in its original incarnation, the very tool that gave Communism a boost against the regimes they overthrew. By putting pressure on a culture while simultaneously reducing the means of relieving that pressure, and concurrently luring each and every member of that culture into dreams of unfettered growth amid the post-modernist “now,” the reemergence of the concept of the cell is, perhaps, inevitable.
This is not an argument that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, though in fact it may be, but rather an observation of present and growing forces that are serving to accelerate changes throughout all prior agreements, whether cultural, political, religious, artistic, or psychological. The toxic combinations of, and confluence across, multiple threats facing the world today portend an unstable period ahead. Ecological damage, food and water scarcity, drought, global warming, inter and intra-national terrorism, and the likely proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially in light of the current world-wide fiscal crisis, mean, at least in the near term, greater fracturing both within and between cultures across the globe.
When we look at what was once the “American character,” for example, we see it now obscured by a near-uncountable number of subcultures. These subcultures range across ethnic, ideological, sexual, political, artistic, and religious lines, among many others. As the Web grows, so too do the fractures. There are now subcultures within subcultures, themselves experiencing rapid “cell division.” Social networking Web sites have exploded, allowing any one individual to create any number of fractured cells within their own life – any grouping of “contacts” or “friends”, can be assembled out of every interest each of us has. I can have one group just for my closest friends, another for people I work with, and still others around music, art, politics, any segmented aspect of self I desire to share with others doing essentially the same thing.
Tribalism is even being embraced intentionally, as with the example of the Burning Man festivals, itself a constantly mutating tribe with cellular divisions both intentional and unintentional, that serves to hold and give rise to many smaller tribes in a fluid and temporary construct. This phenomenon is in my view merely the physical manifestation of what is slowly occurring all over the planet. See the constant shifting enmities and alliances within the Muslim nations, not entirely disconnected from their tribal cultures to begin with. They are today being forced to face that very tribal history as both the reminder of their failure to evolve new agreements, and as sanctuary from the rest of the world, and from the “other.” And now in 2011, we see the eruption across the Islamic world that no one saw coming even a few months before a fruit-stand operator in Tunisia melted himself into history, and lit the ever-evolving conflagration of change. Much has evolved out of that act of ultimate frustration, and that force is not going to expend itself anytime soon, from the looks of the situation.
If indeed “meaning” is a construct, and we are now entering what may be an extended period of loss of cultural cohesiveness (however artificial that may have been initially,) we are almost certainly in for a rough ride. One of the ironies here is just when we most need global cohesion, nearly every other instinct is toward continual fracture, to commit to a form of mass mitosis. And despite the entirely new and somewhat astonishing development of a global Web, we may in fact be slipping into another Dark Age. This possibility is itself a set of agreements, ones we are free to make or unmake, influence or be run over by as the storm gathers. Again, any one of us may be a key influencer of how the agreements are shaped. But that does not imply such change will be without its own pitfalls. Many, I believe, will come to regret deeply the various forces they have sought to unleash.
You might say I am too bleak in my assessments, while others may say it is not enough so. Hope is a word used far too much in the past eight years, and freely bandied about during the past silly season of rites of succession, which itself is an indicator of how nearly all of us are unconsciously acknowledging the steady decline in the collective trust of prior agreements. As the American Empire erodes in the minds of others around the world, so too does the American Dream falter. Meaning, such as it is, is steadily, inevitably, fracturing, bifurcating, drifting aimlessly.
This loss off coherence, this breakdown of the story we have all agreed to live within, is not a new phenomenon. The Dark Ages easily comes to mind, the fall of the Roman Empire, as well. It can be argued what we call the Enlightenment brought Europe out of the Dark Ages, injecting reason and rational thought, the beginnings of science supplanting religion as an increasingly dominant story, guiding the hopes and dreams of all who yearned for a light at the end of that dark tunnel. Yet as much as there are historic precedents that might serve to guide us through and beyond our present crisis, human beings have shown a remarkable tendency to cling over-long to a clearly broken narrative. The Church, through liberal application of the Inquisition, is to date the supreme example, but a more recent example may be pre- and post-war Japan, where the story rather abruptly changes from an Imperial nationalism, to a conquered and castigated island state. Though this latter example was more abrupt, and to a relative degree, more violent, the effect was the same. In both instances, those who were able to grasp and embody the new agreements succeeded and flourished, while those who could not let go of the prior set of agreements became fodder for historians.
Post-war Japan serves as an example, as well, of how the new agreements change cultures and in the process cause a ripple effect influencing similar changes in other cultures. Not only the United States benefited by the rapid rise of Japan as a technological innovator and competitor, but the rest of the world, as well. In fact, it can be argued that along with a number of key innovators in the U. S. and the newly emergent Germany, Japan laid the foundations for what eventually became the World Wide Web. Meaning begins to shift from industrial to digital, from domination to collaboration. Even where collaboration has been reluctant or resisted, ideas inevitably cannot be held in check, they must out. The meaning of life is and has always been fueled by ideas, the method by which minds cross-pollinate, and which inescapably lead to the rise of cultures. Where agreements provide foundation, ideas propel the culture forward, or back, even sideways, as the case may be.
Each era has it’s dominant themes, whether they be religion, science, art, or politics, and each of these over-arching themes give rise to cultural memes. We can see the beginnings of the shift in theme as the memes begin their own shifting, fracturing the pool of ideas, where emergent problems overwhelm the extant agreements within and between cultures. We see the unfortunate example in Africa, once a vibrant if highly competitive grouping of cultures, today stumbling from one regional crisis to another. Certainly Africa’s unraveling was hurried along by colonialism and the slave trade, but there exists within many African nations a seeming dearth of new ideas, a parade of failed regimes followed by other failed regimes. Even nations such as Ghana, once thought of as the great post-colonial example of progress on the continent, have stumbled, whether through revolution or coup, and most of those countries are still struggling with their chaotic legacies, post-colonial or otherwise. What few examples of a contrary nature exist on that continent are in large part the result of costly and sustained outside aid, though it can be argued South Africa is the one, shining exception. But here, too, massive intervention, vis-à-vis the Boer War and eventual settlement of Europeans, accompanied by an equally massive application of repression and cultural genocide, had much to do with their successes. Yet it was the inevitable dearth of new ideas by the white population of that country that allowed the emergence of new ideas from the repressed majority, brought an end to apartheid, and allowed for the beginnings of a new set of agreements to be considered. It remains to be seen (and the visibility ahead is at the moment somewhat murky) how these agreements will re-shape the culture of that country, but the experiment, a newly-evolving set of constructs, may give rise to an entirely new example for the rest of that continent.
During the past few decades in the U.S., the idea of Globalism has emerged and been heavily promoted, often in a blinkered and arrogant manner. That the cheerleaders for this idea have failed to work at building consensus from the ground up is likely the degree to which this idea will falter. The current debacle over debt, and the rigid ideologies especially on the extremes of politics and culture, coupled with the slow unwinding of the Euro experiment, do not bode well for the eventual full expression of globalism. While there seems an historic inevitability for a global paradigm to arise out of the prior (and extant) nation-state paradigm, this is not necessarily the right time, or the right story, or indeed the proper set of players, in which globalism will have a possibility to take root. With the current set of problems besetting the planet, true globalism may be far off. What occurs in the interim is anybody’s guess.
Neither Luddites nor Pollyanna’s will slow the collapse, nor speed the recovery, from this current global dilemma. Terrorism, belligerent states such as Iran and North Korea, or newly emboldened Russia, whose current pique at the West has more to do with a smoldering resentment at having lost the Cold War than with anything in the way of new ideas, are all potential capsizers of the ship we all sail toward the Byzantium of a global future. The near future on this planet presents a fragile and bleak landscape, where any one event might tip the balance between an arising paradigm, and a reversion to a non-optimal tribalized world. That tribalism is itself a growing face of most cultures around the globe at present may be only a harbinger of what is to come.
Numerous questions emerge from this scenario, not the least of which is, are we too late? Global climate change, as much as it is still being debated (a debate of dubious motivations,) may indeed be the final determinant of where this ship someday arrives, if it arrives at all. Nature, as it is said, always bats last. We can see the battle between those who say we must act now, and those who still refuse to believe human causation, and therefore, seek to delay or obstruct movement toward solutions, as a prime example of the fracturing of agreements, where old ideas resist emergent thinking, possibly to the peril of all. Scientist understand that large, chaotic, and mostly unknown systems require both massive and careful interventions, lest we face catastrophic results. The pronoun is indicative of the depth of the peril wrapped around the failure to act: “we” are in this together. The irony, that climate change is itself the one true globalism, cannot be sidestepped. The scientists also know that, like this ship, uneasily sailing toward a mostly-illusory globalism, our planetary ecosystem requires a long time to show evidence of turning in any direction, for good or ill. One argument for haste in this matter is this very fact – to wait until more evidence is “in” may mean we pass the point of no return, as it were. Once such a massive system moves past some unknown tipping point, no amount of intervention will slow its downward course. Not necessarily a problem for the Earth, but clearly a problem for those who ride it’s back.
What, therefore, is the “meaning of life,” when life as we have come to know it is in decline, or if you prefer, in great crisis? When the argument that every life is sacred blinds those who hold that view to the potential for no, or seriously depleted, life to exist at all, one is left to wonder why we are so reluctant to address the single most inevitable force likely to push us past said tipping point, and that is population. We are currently engaged in an extended debate about both cause and response to this crisis. And make no mistake – global climate change has the clear potential to overwhelm any and all systems of response. It has the potential to deplete the coffers of every nation, as disaster piles on top of disaster, a cascade effect we are helpless to slow or stop. We cannot know when that tipping point will occur, and that should give us all pause – it is entirely possible we have already passed such a point.
New ideas are arising on how to deal with energy, pollution, effective use of resources, and a plethora of linked issues. Yet there is, strangely, no discussion, no new ideas pertaining to this issue of population expansion. We are exceeding our capacity to support ourselves. Malthus, for as much discredit and disparagement he has received over the intervening centuries, suddenly has relevance to our ”new” ideas. While his notion of a population catastrophe may not be inevitable, it cannot any longer be dismissed as a faulty premise. Whereas most Western nations have seen a decrease in population, due in no large part to the advent of effective means of birth control, most developing and fourth world nations are seeing significant rises in population, with concurrent stressors on resources said population requires.. While these nations are aware that means of birth control exist, many are either unable to afford the cost, or unwilling to shed old agreements, permitting population booms to overwhelm available resources, despite decades of war, famine, and political/religious instability already taxing the strength of such countries.
A common counter to Malthus’ runs that we do indeed have the capacity to feed the world, but lack the will. And this might be true were the conditions we face roughly that of, say, the Sixties. At least in that era there was more political will, but there was not the looming threat of global warming. That this is a game changer is an understatement. The increasing instability of all interlocking systems – atmosphere, ocean, and as a consequence of rapid polar melt, a dramatic increase in Earth’s albedo – such unpredictable local collapses can have a cascade effect, serving to overwhelm our ability to respond and restore such critical infrastructure as food production and potable and sufficient water. This scenario, once dreamt of only in science fiction, has become a very real possibility. Malthus may have had at least partly the right idea, but at the wrong time.
Meaning, whether construct or inherent ( a highly arguable assumption), fails to foster agreement where it fails to serve the extant culture. Increasingly, we see meaning erode at multiple levels, both between and within cultures. Such erosion, while not inevitable, might be seen as early signs of both local and global shifts, as a faltering of old agreements and the slow rise of new ones. How we get there, and in what condition, is the great unknowable story. But be certain it is the story we are all writing: though we may not know it, or choose to believe otherwise, story is an ever-emergent force, outside of any individual, or individual culture’s ability to direct its outcome. Story, or meme, has always been the driver of culture, and the meaning each culture applies to itself.
Life, and its narrative, is at the precipice. To paraphrase Dr. Patrick Overton, "When we come to the edge of all we know, and are about to step off into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing one of two things will happen: There will be something solid to stand on, or we will be taught how to fly." There is, in fact, a third option, and faith may do us less good, in this instance, than reason and action. Let’s hope we are of the mind of Archimedes, and have lever enough to move first ourselves, and then the world, as that is indeed what is at stake.