How thin is the crust of western civilisation?

Now the title of this post is rather overblown for what is basically a bit of idle speculation .. but sure idle speculation is underrated, it’s better than watching Match of the Day last night and Man Utd being horribly lucky yet again.

Maybe it’s a legacy of reading The Road and (to my mind) the far more terrifyingly scary and apocalyptic Oryx and Crake by the marvellous Margaret Atwood, but have you ever wondered how ‘thin’ the crust may be on our western civilistation?

It just takes a volcano with an unpronounceable name to spew out ash for a few days and suddenly a whole assumed way of life just, well, stops. Cheap air travel and the idea of foreign holidays for the masses has been a definining characteristic of western life for the last 50 years (which of course is just a blip in time, but now feels like a basic ‘human right’ ). Our culture, our economies, and our lives have been shaped by the ability to go pretty well anywhere, fast and we’ve loved it (I sure have, I love seeing different parts of the world).

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a theory about ‘Black Swans’ – unusual and unforeseen events which change things in fundamental ways that no-one could imagine or forsee. Such Black Swans leave our perception of reality altered. The one sure thing we can know about black swans is that one will come along sooner or later …

A post-carbon burning future is still pretty well unimaginable, but it ain’t in the realms of science fiction. Peak Oil may already have arrived. The global Credit Crisis all but collaspsed western capitalism.

The unpronounceable volanco is a baby black swan that helps us begin to imagine a world without air travel – but is also a reminder that its big brother or sister may be along another time.

All this is another way of saying we are in post-endless-optimism times. The modern western world was built on the vision of endless progress and a massive confidence in human ingenuity to solve any problem. That world confidently thought it had all the answers – and primitve stuff like belief in God could be dispensed with. That world has been blown away by the horrors of the 20th Century and the deep uncertainties of the 21st.

And so we are now in the era of despair and gloom (hence books like the Road and Oryx and Crake and The Book of Eli and any other number of other apocalyptic end-of-the-world sort of films). Optimists are a dying breed.

Christians are neither over-optimists (Christianity has a realistically sceptical view of human nature) or over-pessimists (Christians have deep grounds of hope that the future is in God’s hands and it is an ultimately good future of a renewed heavens and earth).

So – yes the crust is a lot thinner than we like to think. And yet, that points us a renewed and deeped faith in God, not ourselves.

Idle speculating over (for now).


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