Once—millions of years ago—oxygen was a poisonous gas produced by the first bacterial life on Earth. It became concentrated in the atmosphere and threatened to suffocate the tender life below. You might call it the first gigantic environmental crisis. Salvation came through the development of organisms that took in that oxygen and started “breathing”—organisms that lived on oxygen. We owe our existence to an unprecedented environmental disaster.
These examples of advances in civilization blooming from decay and defeat are everywhere. When hunting and gathering became unwieldy for the growing population, agriculture was born. Harvesting crops made it possible for people to settle in one place. The industrialization of the past century was an answer to the social constriction of the feudal agrarian society organized around small villages with a great deal of social control. The rise of industry brought with it the free life of the city. With the Industrial Revolution came human rights, democracy and even the welfare state, but since then material progress has run aground in social alienation. At the same time, consumer society is suffocating in worldwide pollution. Thus the same industrialization that once offered an innovative breakthrough for society is creating more problems than it solves. It is hard to imagine that more technology, better iPads, provide an answer to this systemic problem.
It is more likely that Albert Einstein will once again prove right: Problems cannot be solved at the same level at which they were created. Like the bacteria that transformed themselves into breathing organisms, life must develop to survive.
Perhaps environmental pollution, global warming and the painful gap between the rich and the poor do not constitute the major challenges of our civilization. Perhaps the real challenge lies in the way humankind meets the world—that is, in human consciousness. Consciousness is what makes us unique in the history of evolution. But we have yet to embrace fully what it means to be human.
Humanity stands at the threshold of a new era: the era of consciousness. After conquering the external world, we are ready to discover our inner selves.
Join Ervin Laszlo, Claire Zammit, Lynne McTaggart and others in a weekly discourse hosted by The Intelligent Optimist called The Consciousness Conversations, starting in March. To find out more, click here.