The one thing we know for certain about the universe is that it is unfathomable. We try to come to terms with this fact by telling stories, by creating narratives that are an attempt to abstract general principles from day-to-day events. In fact, making narratives is the primary way in which we transform brute events in our lives into what we call experience. Experience we can remember and reflect upon. Experience is the stuff from which we derive great artistic and scientific expression.
The inability to narrate the events of one's life creates a mere jumble of disconnected elements in the mind, a source of mental anguish and even mental illness. In fact, I have come to believe that so basic is our need for narrative that a good portion of all human illness, physical and psychological, finds its origins in the inability to narrate our lives fully and comprehensibly.
Having said all this, there is always a danger that we will come to believe that our narratives represent the true and possibly immutable nature of the universe rather than a dim and possibly misleading snapshot of its current state in our immediate region. Frequent readers of mine may wonder what this rather abstract discussion has to do with peak oil, climate change and the whole raft of sustainability issues. They will no doubt want to know whether I believe that peak oil, climate change and the entire range of ecological ills from which we suffer are "mere" narratives.
That we are in trouble as a species is palpable. If you cannot feel it in your bones, no amount of narration is going to convince you. Most of our understanding of the world is nonverbal, visceral even. But for the small portion that is verbal, the key question is exactly how we are in trouble and how can we address that trouble.
Keep in mind that when I say verbal, I include all of mathematics and science as ways in which we narratize the world. Scientific knowledge is not a set of facts about the world we live in. Rather, it is a set of inferences based on various related methods of observation, experimentation and measurement, inferences woven together into theories that are essentially stories which science tells us. I am not accusing science or scientists of being sloppy or imprecise. On the contrary, they tell us some of the most precise and testable stories available to the culture. But they remain stories, narratives, nonetheless.
So now I arrive at my purpose. No matter how many narratives we construct, literary, historical, scientific or religious, the universe will remain unfathomable. In a sense it partially mocks our narratives, and we feel it most when we get something wrong. But it can also validate them. We can rarely be sure ahead of time which it will do.
Those who proclaim that the human species, or at least human civilization as we know it, is completely and utterly doomed by the myriad onrushing ecological catastrophes we face know no such thing. There are those who proclaim that human nature is such that even though we know how to build a sustainable society, we won't; and, they say they know this because our evolutionary psychology has made us little more than automatons unable to make the hard choices needed to get to such a goal. But, these people know no such thing. Those who proclaim that our future is bright, filled with endless growth and technological fixes for all our problems, they, too, know no such thing.
Each group proffers us a narrative which we can only judge against our visceral experience and other narratives which we know. For now, on our current trajectory as I perceive it, the prognosis is not good. But the unfathomable universe may yet offer a way forward for it has always been and will always be full of surprises. This is no reason for complacency. The way forward may require extraordinary effort and sacrifice. But such a way, if it exists, will emerge from our own actions and interactions with each other and with the natural world. The fact that we cannot know what the future holds is neither cause for unwarranted optimism that everything will somehow work out nor cause for a doleful and apathetic resignation that becomes the engine for a self-fulfilling prophecy of annihilation.
To say that our collective human fate lies somewhere between complete destruction and an endless cornucopian future is yet another narrative. Even so, such a narrative requires something the other two do not, creative engagement with the still unfathomable universe. That may be the one thing that emphatically recommends it above the alternatives.