Interesting Times: Save the people, too
But what will provide meaning in modern society once we do?
A poll by the Pew Global Attitudes project revealed a clear and, to some, startling result: People in free, wealthy countries are much more pessimistic about their children's future than in poor, often dictatorial, nations. When Western parents look ahead to their children's generation, they see a more dangerous world, a shallower world.
Last week I tried to explain why this is so from a strategic perspective, namely, the failure of Western leaders to give their peoples a clear theory of victory over the global challenge from Islamofascism. Now I would like to tackle another facet of the picture, beyond physical security, concerning the fabric of modern societies.
The first thing to point out is that Western gloominess is probably mistaken as a prediction, and to the extent it is not, is certainly remediable rather than a mark of inevitable decline. I believe that what Winston Churchill said - "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing: after they've tried everything else" - applies to the war against Islamofascism. In some ways, the greater and related question is how the West confronts modernity itself, not its discontents.
FOR A SMALL signpost in this ongoing struggle, we need only go to the August 16 issue of Time, where Joel Stein reports on "How Zac Ephron Became the Cutest Guy Ever."
"Past teen idols often got famous for delivering slightly gritty entertainment: a hip swivel, a risquÃ© rock song, having sex on a sinking ship. But now that there are enough cable stations, websites and radio stations to give tweens their own swath of broadband, the kids have chosen to be on the far right of all right. For their generation's defining piece of art they overwhelmingly chose last year's High School Musical, a song-and-dance movie made for the Disney Channel that is so wholesome the Amish community playhouse could put it on.
"None of which got in the way of its enormous success: The sound track was the No. 1 album of 2006; more than 2,000 schools have put on productions of the show; a series of books about the characters sold 4.5 million copies; the concert tour sold out all 42 of its arenas; the live show is touring 70 cities; and, of course, bucks are being made on High School Musical: The Ice Tour. Efron... [who] plays a jock with a bowl haircut who just wants to save money for college and sing about it to his mathlete girlfriend - is among the biggest stars tweens have had since they wore bobby socks. Which, at this rate, they'll probably be putting on soon."
People are hard-wired to be intrigued by raunchiness, but this human tendency is balanced by a yearning for wholesomeness. Culture is not a one-way slide downhill. Even rebellion can go both ways: toward the shedding of standards and toward the pursuit of excellence.
The advent of modernity did not change human nature. In one of the best-selling books of all time, Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes of the psychoanalytical school he founded: "Logotherapy... considers man as a being whose main concern consists in fulfilling a meaning and in actualizing values, rather than in the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts."
In the pre-modern era and in the developing world today, the struggle against poverty, disease, and tyranny provided a natural source of meaning. The challenge of modernity is what to do in places where the basic physical and even political goals of humanity throughout history have been fulfilled.
THE POPULARITY of environmentalism, under the banner of "saving the planet," points to the need for precisely such a vacuum-filling moral cause. This is good news because it proves that the desire for a cause, despite global culture's supposedly nihilistic slide, is alive and well. The bad news is that environmentalism falls short as a source of meaning that will comprehensively improve the world.
The quest to "save the planet" suffers from a similar moral confusion to the "war on terrorism." The former seems to attach greater moral significance to the planet than to the people on it, especially those people that the planet needs to be saved from. The latter euphemistically avoids naming the enemy by labeling a means of attack while granting the attacker valuable anonymity (as Daniel Pipes put it, this would be like calling World War II the "war on tanks" without mentioning Nazism or fascism).
This is not to suggest that the passion for a cleaner environment should be minimized. On the contrary, it should be expanded to include people.
About half the world's population - 3 billion people - live on less than $2 per day. According to UNICEF, 30,000 children die every day from poverty-related causes. A billion children live in poverty, 400 million of them without access to running water.
It would seem that saving people, particularly children, should be given at least the priority and passion dedicated to protecting the planet from the people, as important as that is. Indeed, the purpose of environmentalism should be to make the planet a better place for people and other living things. Poverty, moreover, is the greatest environmental problem, since the pattern is that countries pollute horribly as they develop and clean the mess up when they get rich enough to do so.
But if our young people were being taught to save the people on the planet and not just the planet from the people, even this would not be sufficient to fill modernity's meaning vacuum. Within a century or so, this job will be done. Then what?
THOUGH THE "end of history" has not come and perhaps never will, the real challenge of modernity will be how societies cope with a shrinking world population (average world growth rates are going down and will likely, as in Europe today, drop below replacement levels), and drastic reductions in poverty and tyranny.
Some day, the easy part of "saving the planet," including the people on it, will have been used up as a source of meaning. This will not be a problem for our children, but it could already be for their children. Once people can cleanly sustain themselves, their spiritual needs may not only be unfulfilled, but become more urgent.
The ultimate crisis of modernity is not sustainability or sustenance, or even peace and freedom, but meaning and civility.