Our book shelves are full of volumes telling us how we arrived at our modern predicament, but Eleven, a new book by Paul Hanley, takes on the tougher task of meticulously describing the present moment and then weighing it against a future where we will have 11 billion people sharing this planet. Astonishingly, brilliantly, and quite convincingly, he arrives at a balance that is more optimistic than you would expect.
With the popularity of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and more recently, Collapse, as well as Ronald Wright’s A Brief History of Progress, we are seeing a resurgence of what has been called “apocalit,” narratives predicting the end of civilization. As fascinating, important, and erudite as these books may be, they fail or do not even attempt to offer any fresh ideas on what alternate pathways might be taken. (While Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything could be included in this genre, she does get around to discussing the grassroots movements that provide a glimmer of light in dark times.)
To a Christian, “apocalypse” is supposed to mean more than the end of things; it is literally a time of revelation, of unveiling. Thanks to modern science and the Enlightenment — the precocious offspring of a world transformed by powerful ideas contained in Greek, Hebrew and Christian texts — we know things now that we did not know before. Diamond and Wright argue that our civilization is heading where all civilizations head, but there is a difference. Today, despite the smoke blown by corporate-sponsored professional deniers, we know that we are destroying the earth, and that humanity is using the resources of the planet at a rate that can only end in disaster.
The trick is to get from knowledge to belief and transformation. French-American thinker Rene Girard wrote, “ours is the first society that knows it can completely destroy itself. Yet we lack the belief that could bear up under this knowledge.”
Hanley, well grounded in belief, has found ways for us to bear up under the knowledge that we are heading toward a human population of 11 billion people. Instead of merely detailing the potential for disaster, Eleven looks apocalypse in the face and unflinchingly opts to believe in the human heart and the possibility of transformation.
The book divides evenly into three sections that look in detail at our potential to transform culture, agriculture and the human race itself. To most modern ears, that will sound too “idealistic,” a term we often use to dismiss efforts to imagine a better way forward. But Hanley points out that it is precisely our capacity to imagine other ways forward that “makes humans a unique order of being” (p. 314). “People differ from animals in their ability to use the elements of culture — from language, shared tools, and institutions to philosophical enquiry and the scientific method — to shape a reality partly of their making. We are human because we do not entirely accept the fate of animals, to live immersed in an environment to which they merely adapt.”
In a review, it is nearly impossible to do justice to the range of argument and surprising insight offered in a book such as this, but here are a few pieces that give a sense of the spirit afoot in Eleven:
“Ultimately, it will become apparent that the transformation to a post-growth, post-consumer society is not a project to be achieved by means of economic policy and technology so much as changing our mental infrastructure” (p. 49).
“Deaths in war have seen a long downward trend (with spikes along the way). Genocide statistics are down too; while the 20th Century had big genocides, it was also the first period in which genocide was identified as a bad thing rather than something to boast about. Even Hitler tried to hide it” (p. 105).
“One of the key themes of this book is that the critical problems testing humanity — such as feeding 11 billion people on a deteriorating land resource under threat of climate change — are the very factors that will trigger the next stage of human evolution. Perversely, it appears the human psyche works in such a way that without these challenges transformations don’t happen; the increasingly desperate struggle to deal with these fundamental crises will call forth the capacity needed to solve them” (p. 184).
“To make the world work for 11 billion people, we will have no choice but to create a civilization in which agriculture and farmers obtain a status commensurate with their importance, and where the agrifood system is designed to serve the greater goal of the human project, i.e. enlightenment for all in a sustainable global civilization” (p. 202).
“It is not possible to fix a degraded landscape without fixing the community that has degraded alongside it: ecological and socioeconomic transformation go hand in hand” (p. 205).
Eleven is many things, but for me Hanley has offered an inspired map of the road ahead, drawn in lines of truth we turn our gaze away from every day. More than that, though, this sweeping book makes an audacious but coherent and thoroughly researched case for the possibility that, by awakening to the reality of what we are doing to the earth and our own souls, we may already be getting ready to walk the road with our “better angels of our nature” fully in charge. We must all pray that it may be so.