“When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
As the shadow that he himself casts.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
After the Cold War, democratic capitalism appeared to be the last man standing at the “end of history,” and the U.S., it’s most powerful example, bestrode the world as the sole superpower. But 9/11, the Great Recession, and the resurgence of nationalism and authoritarianism at the fringes of the West and beyond point to a troubling prospect: history—the perennial struggle between great powers and competing ideologies—is back. History didn’t stop; it was just on holiday.
The narrative emerging now is that the U.S is in or entering into a new cold war with China, a competition between democratic capitalism and authoritarian capitalism destined to fall into what historian Graham Allison “Thucydides’ Trap.” The conflict is real, but we must beware the story we tell about the conflict, since stories can become self-fulfilling prophecies. China is a big fish, but the time to focus on fish has passed. We can no longer ignore the sea.
The Big Story of the 21st century is not about a clash of civilizations, but of civilization against itself. Climate change is the transcendent challenge for humanity, the call of history, the summons of the sea. We will rise to meet it—as a country and as a civilization—or it will rise to swallow us whole. For centuries we have been trying to control nature and bend it to our will. But as C.S. Lewis remarks in his classic The Abolition of Man, “man’s conquest of nature turns out to be nature’s conquest of man.” Francis Bacon’s adage that “to conquer nature, you must obey her” must be put to a use he never would have imagined. Nature will be our great teacher in our attempts to save ourselves, as we figure out how to unlock the power of the sun, the wind, the earth, and the atom in order to switch from what energy scientist Amory Lovins calls “fuels from hell” to “fuels from heaven.”
Climate change is the shadow cast by civilization. Humanity is not the enemy, as some environmentalists believe. But if we wish to clean up the mess we have made of the planet, we have to clean up our collective psyche and do some shadow work, quit blaming other nations, stop projecting our faults onto them, and take up arms in the great struggle of our time. Ronald Reagan famously remarked that if only aliens would arrive from outer space, it would help us unite across nations and focus our hostility outward. How funny, then, that the threat with that potential to unite humanity proved to be not extraterrestrial, but terrestrial.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”