01.07.2007

The Hard facts

The more grounded we are and willingto face those "inconvenient truths", the closerwe come to truth and happiness, suggests Eric Harrison.

Wethink of wise people as being grounded, down-to-earth,in touch with reality, and willing to call a spade aspade. They disdain hype and spin, and unerringly honein on the hard facts of any matter. They can't helpbut see things "as they really are".

This doesn't make them popular or admired, however. The truth is often inconvenient,as Al Gore says, and about as welcome as a brick wall.The Book of Tao says a wise man is unsophisticated andclose to nature, like an uncarved block of wood. Wisdomoften has a childlike, gauche quality that can be offensiveto our fondest hopes and illusions.

The Book of Tao also says that if stupid and powerfulpeople did not ridicule the truth, it would not be thetruth. I personally have arguments with the wise partof me all the time: 'Of course I know that, but . ..' Although the facts may be perfectly obvious, I preferto hope and dream. Unfortunately, the hard facts usuallywin out in the end.

For example, we are made of earth and will returnto earth. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,"says the Bible. Our bodies and brains and even our thoughtsare all constructed from the same elements that we findin a handful of dirt. Of course, the miracle is in theway they are combined. Although every living thing isinfinitely more than the sum of its parts, we stillcan't do without the raw ingredients.

Some combinations of elements make giraffes and mosquitoes.Others make symphonies and cruise missiles. Some constructGod and economic theories. All of these are utterlyreliant on atoms of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogenand a few trace elements. All will dissolve when theatoms that form them go their separate ways, as theyinevitably do in time. As the Buddha said, "Everythingthat has form is bound to decay".

It is both self evident and profoundly shocking thatnothing lasts for long, with the exception of the atomsthemselves. Even the most perfect idea or spiritualconcept has a limited life span. Mythology is litteredwith the corpses of "immortal" gods.

This quandary is at the heart of philosophy and religion.Heraclitus said, "You never step into the sameriver twice". He said that the nature of life isto perpetually consume itself, the way that fire does.The Buddha said that a deep understanding of transienceis the wisdom that prompts you to forever reject theworld.

Parmenides, on the other hand, said that death is anillusion. He said that it is impossible to imagine notbeing here. In whatever way we try to imagine beingdead, we have to be alive to do so. 'Death' is thereforea logical impossibility. In fact, said Parmenides, welive forever and nothing ever changes.

We can all sympathise a little with this absurd idea.We instinctively feel that something must be eternal,be it God or the soul or the cosmos or the law of physics.There must surely be something solid and enduring underour feet. Unfortunately, not even our profoundest convictionsare necessarily true. Even though our imagination caneffortlessly fly in the realm of the eternal, the Earthliterally drags us down. Our bodies are heavy. It takesvast amounts of energy, 2000-3000 calories at least,to hoist our 60 or 100 kg out of bed in the morning,and cart it around all day long. No matter how muchfood and coffee we consume, we have to periodicallysubmit to gravity, and let the Earth and the night claimus. One day, they will claim us forever.

Although our spirits fly, we are hostages to the Earth.We all need a place to stand, to lie down on at nightand a place to work. Yet, how secure do you feel onthe ground you now occupy? For most of human history,that right to be here was self evident. If you wereborn in a village you were automatically a part-ownerof the common land, and of the pastures and forestsaround you. No one could tell you to move on. That wasyour place.

We tend to take this right for granted, but for somehalf a billion people throughout the world, it is notthat easy. Immigrants, refugees, the people on temporaryvisas, the newly arrived slum dwellers, all strive tooccupy and feel safe on their own little patch of earth.It can be a desperate struggle to pay for the twelfthpart of a room, or even a body's length of filthy pavementat night. Nothing is free for those who have no legalrights.

As an immigrant myself, I was delighted when I couldpurchase my flat in Subiaco, in Perth's western suburbs.The day after I moved in, I realised I saw the suburbdifferently. As a ratepayer, I now partly owned thestreets, the lampposts and the parks. I had purchasedmy right to be here. But I also know that as a citizenof the First World, I am depriving others of that right.The more land I take, the less is available for others,and I'm not just talking about my flat.

Each day, I consume about a hundred times more of theworld's resources than the average Nigerian. My lifestylehas a large footprint. It requires factories and farmsand oil wells in foreign lands. I demand climate warmingcarbon emissions every time I send an email or buy atomato or make a phone call. Altogether, my lifestylerequires the produce of a hundred times more land thanthe Nigerian is obliged to scrape by on.

I live a modest life by First World standards, yetthis level of per capita consumption already exceedsthe carrying capacity of the Earth. If everyone on theplanet lived like me, we would need the produce of threeor four Earths to support us all. And there would beno room for wild animals.

Although economies boom on credit, and my shares irrationallyincrease in value, the world resources are always finiteand shrinking. As those resources decline through overuseand plunder, this means that the rich (that is, youand me) require an ever-increasing percentage of theworld's productive land to support us. We do this atthe expense of the poor, who literally lose the groundunder their feet. In practice, they flee or are drivenfrom the dying countryside, and have no option but tobattle for a toehold in the world burgeoning megaslums.

Fortunately, this doesn't mean that the poor have tobe miserable. One simple requirement for happiness isto live in and for the present, whether we live in aslum or a palace. We can't postpone happiness till retirementor even until the weekend. We find it in this cup oftea, or this can of beer, or not at all. Yet this truthhas a very dark side to it. For the sake of happiness,we ignore the long-term consequences of our actions,as we have always done. Ever since our first ancestorsemigrated from Africa, we have exterminated the biganimals, killed the last fish, cut down the last treeand stripped the soil from wherever we were, for immediateadvantage. After all, if we didn't, someone else would.

Since the birth of agriculture only 7000 years ago,we have destroyed more arable land than we currentlyhave available to us. It is quite possible that thereis no such thing as sustainable agriculture, exceptin theory, if we calculate all the costs. Even the mostbenign forms of farming seem to eventually degrade theearth and damage the environment they rely on.

Although our human cleverness is also a curse, we nolonger have any excuse. Even the most short-sightedpoliticians now know that we have to listen to whatthe planet is telling us, or face the consequences.

Similarly, we each have to listen to that small partof planet Earth that always belongs to us, namely ourown bodies. Our brains are enormously clever and canprocess vast amounts of data, but only our bodies canmake sense of it all. We can't reason our way to wisdom.The issues are too complicated.

Our thoughts are noisy and cocksure but, far belowthe surface, our bodies are always telling what is goodor bad, true or false, valuable or useless. These messagesare faint and subtle, but invariably accurate. The bodydoesn't lie, although we can easily ignore or misinterpretwhat it tells us.

Whether we are rich or poor, the essence of good judgementis to be grounded in our bodies, in touch with reality,and to be willing to face the inconvenient truths. Itpays to be down-to-earth and to call a spade a spade.Hoping for the best, like living on credit, is muchmore attractive, but the hard facts can't be avoidedforever.

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