Many of you will be familiar with Douglas Adams’ excellent radio play and five book trilogy, “The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy”. If you’re not, and if you have a taste for the interesting, the quirky, the whimsical, and the piercingly perceptive, I strongly recommend it to you.
In it, a supercomputer is designed to find “the answer to the ultimate question – life, the universe, and everything”. After millions of years of calculation, it comes up with the number “42” as its answer.
This doesn’t seem to help much, and people decide that they must have got the question wrong. So they design an even more powerful computer (the Earth, as it happens) to spend billions of years finding out what the correct question is.
Unfortunately, just as the last calculations are being made, the Earth is destroyed to make way for a hyperspace expressway. Eventually, Arthur Dent, the last survivor from Earth, uses a bag of Scrabble pieces to come up with the question, which turns out to be, “What do you get if you multiply six by nine?”.
This doesn’t really seem to help much, either, unless you’ve got 13 fingers or toes (work it out for yourself – and even then it won’t be very helpful).
The theory is then put forward that the ultimate question and its answer cannot co-exist in the same universe. If they did, the universe would instantly disappear, and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. Some people also put forward the theory that this has already happened.
By and large, I am a subscriber to both these theories.
Our universe is infinite and inexplicable, and we, here only for a short time, can at best cope with it and, with any luck, find some joy. Any “answers” we find on the way are basically coping mechanisms, helping us to get by.
When I started researching for and writing this book, I was looking for an answer to a much smaller question, “Why aren’t I and my kind doing more about our current situation?” I think I found reasonable answers to bits of this question. Good enough at least for me to overcome most of the latent guilt about my own inaction to date, and to find a new place to stand from which I could be more active.
I talked to a lot of people who had different perspectives. I talked to a spiritualist, and to an environmental engineer – and they were one and the same person.
The people I talked to corrected some of my errors. But each of them had different perspectives, different perceptions, different things that they challenged, different things that spoke to them, and different things that mattered to them.
I have tried to meet as many of their challenges as I could in this book, but am sure I have not satisfied them all.
There was a commonness to their responses – yes, this was worth doing, yes they had each learned something new and yes, it had made them think. That’s good enough for me, I thought, that’s what I’m trying to achieve with this book.
The best writers I have read have understood all too clearly that we have a “whole system” problem. That there have been vast numbers of actions and events involved in getting us to where we are now, and setting our current direction. And that vast numbers of things consequently need to change if we are to go somewhere different.
Trying to do any sort of justice to such a huge problem is a real challenge.
I initially expected to write about 30,000 words (a very short book – little more than an extended essay). But my first draft of the book was 80,000 words. After getting feedback from my first set of readers, I committed myself to removing as much duplication as possible, while correcting errors and addressing challenges.
The next draft was 110,000 words. There was so much to elaborate on, so much more to cover. Before finishing it, I wondered whether I should ruthlessly cut my personal anecdotes and reflections out of the book, to help shorten it.
But, on considering this, I realised I was not trying to create “the truth” (there is no such thing), but trying to explain “my truth” – the results of my learnings and reflection so far. I decided not to extract my personality from the book, so that readers would have a chance to understand a little of what it was that gave me some of the views I had.
The key point is not the number of words. It is the purpose and scope of the book – what it is trying to achieve.
While I believe I have things of value to say, I do not believe I have “the answer”. There is no “the answer”, as Douglas Adams so beautifully illustrated.
My purpose has been to provide “my answer so far”, based on my learning to date. And, as I mentioned in chapter 40, I would love to be proved wrong about any of the depressing substance of Parts One to Three. Or to be shown better ways forward than are suggested in Parts Four and Five. This book has been a learning exercise for me, and I intend to keep learning – I am not arrogant enough to think that I have found a permanent or final answer.
Each of us, in the end, has to develop our own answers, our own coping mechanisms. At one level, in our minds, we are fairly cut off from each other. But our only hope as a species is to work with each other, cooperatively. Perhaps this is the ultimate human dilemma – that we MUST act as part of the collective to survive, yet we are blessed (or cursed) with very marked individual consciousness.
Most human “knowledge” is simply shared agreement on coping mechanisms – “If we see things this way, it makes most sense to most of us.” And “transfer of knowledge” is really just getting others to agree with our way of seeing things. But the better we do it, and the more agreement we share, then, barring accidents, the more certain and powerful we are. Humans working together can move mountains – literally.
If we see the wrong things, we do the wrong things, as for example with Nazism or recent capitalism. But if we see the right things together, we can do very good things.
I hope there is enough that’s common in the book to help more people in the affluent world gain more commonness of view, to get a more common view of where we are, how we got here, how things need to change, and some of the steps on the way there.
We need a new place to stand. A place that asks the best of us, not the worst. A place that sees selfishness, greed, and abuse of power as deviations from a standard, not inevitable behaviours on which our systems must be based. A place that recognises we are not masters of all we survey, but parts of a much larger and more glorious whole.
And when we are standing on that place, we will be able to do the things that are required to create a partnership with our common home that will sustain us indefinitely.