The World Has Lost Its Harmony

09/08/2017 04:36 pm ET
Mounmouni Kada, Songhay elder
Photo by Paul Stoller
Mounmouni Kada, Songhay elder

Something’s not right in the world.

In the US, Hurricane Harvey produced 54 inches of rain that flooded Houston and much of the Texas Coast. In so doing, Harvey produced massive social upheaval. People died. Many families are homeless with no relief in sight. We now have Hurricane Irma, the strongest Atlantic storm on record, which is now threatening catastrophic destruction in the densely-populated areas of the Florida peninsula.

How many people will die?

How many people will lose their homes and their cherished possessions? Chances are the toll of destruction will be far greater than our dire anticipation.

In the American West, there are widespread wildfires that have destroyed thousands of acres of forest. In San Francisco, which is known for its relatively cool and wet climate, the temperature recently soared to 108 degrees, a new record. People in other regions of California have had to live through a long irrepressible drought.

Yesterday in Mexico, an earthquake—the strongest seismic event in 100 years—killed dozens of people.

In South Asia, according an August 30 report from CNN journalists Ben Westcott and Steve George, millions of people have been displaced by the worst flooding in 40 years.

Since June, more than 1,200 people have been killed across India and Bangladesh following the catastrophic flooding which has spread across both countries, affecting more than 41 million people. According to a spokesman for the Red Cross, at least 950,000 houses have been destroyed after being submerged in the floodwaters.

Floods have had similar impacts across West Africa.

Ocean levels are rising.

Coral reefs are disappearing.

Glaciers are shrinking and disappearing.

These events, of course, are just a glimpse into a future shaped by climate change.

Meanwhile US President, Donald J Trump, our enfant terrible who thinks climate change is a hoax, is rescinding clear air and clean water regulations and promoting the coal and fossil fuel industries. In an August 7 article in the Daily Intelligencer, Eric Levitz wrote:

Donald Trump appears to set regulatory policy on a kind of reverse-utilitarian calculus, working diligently to do the greatest good for the smallest number. With the help of the congressional GOP, the president has made it easier for coal companies to dump mining waste in streams; given financial advisers the right to scam their clients; and made companies that routinely abuse their workers eligible for federal contracts again.

So, we have a government bent on implementing policies that will accelerate exponentially the effects of climate change.

Something’s not right in the world.

From the perspective of climate science these environmental outcomes are clearly linked to climate change, which in the Anthropocene, devolves directly from human activity—from the way we live. From an anthropological perspective, our political dysfunction, which exacerbates our environmental distress, also devolves from the way we live.

What is it about the way we live that has produced these environmental and political crises?

We live in a culture of speed in which it is increasingly difficult to maintain any kind of social harmony. We sprint from crisis to crisis. We race from deadline to deadline. How can we maintain a delicate existential balance in a climate of electronic distractions in which our attention is limited and our thinking flashes on the here and now. The culture of speed ensures disharmony, disconnection, mindlessness.

As The Grateful Dead remind us in one of their songs: “speed kills.”

We are beginning to see the wisdom of that piece of lyric. During my time among the Songhay people of Republic of Niger, a society that has long experienced environmental precarity, the elders continuously advised me to slow down, to prepare myself fully for life, to try to build harmony in the world. They taught me an incantation, the genji how, which uses the power of “old words” to produce harmony in the world. The elders taught me that healing can only take place in a space of harmony—a space of patience, slow deliberation and mindfulness in which the focus is less on the here and now and more on the future. This wisdom has made Songhay people resilient in the face of social, economic and environmental challenges that we can hardly imagine.

The devastating events of the current moment are s sign that we need a life course correction. Facing our own potential extinction as a species, we need a reset of our social and economic systems, a reset in which we slowly reestablish our human connection and redirect ourselves into harmonious spaces. Such an cultural course correction will be difficult. It will take time. But if we embrace the wisdom of people like the Songhay elders, we, too, can find harmony in disharmonious times. We, too, can build up our resilience and flourish in the future.

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