Saturday, May 10, 2008

Hawaii (and the end of the world)

In a couple days, I make my first trip to Hawaii, to visit a friend I've known since my year at Yale 3 decades ago. He's recently moved to Hilo on the Big Island. So firstly: I've got no particular plans on what to do, and welcome any recommendations that readers may have, either by commenting or sending me an email.

My friend is among those who believe that our planet is rapidly advancing towards disaster, what with oil and resources running out, financial crises, Mayan predictions of apocalypse in 2012, etc. My visit is motivated by our long-lasting friendship, my current freedom from employment... and also by his encouragement that it may be now or never (i.e., that very soon there won't be enough oil for such casual globe-hopping).

One of the reasons my friend chose to move to Hilo is his belief that it's a good area to soon buy some land and set up a self-sustaining, off-the-grid retreat. He's got great skills in agriculture and construction and such, so if anyone is capable of creating a survival haven, it's him. Like myself, he's devoted to meditation practice, and all other means of examining the great questions of life. He's looking to connect with others who might have interest in buying/building such a retreat, so again, if readers have suggestions about "spiritual" groups on the island that we might visit, I'll appreciate any feedback.

As for myself, I question whether I have what it takes to live through planetary disasters. I love stories about stuff like Everest climbs... yet when I read a book or watch a movie about the heroic efforts that some people have made to survive in such conditions, I can't imagine myself doing so. I can see myself as more likely to relax into death by freezing, rather than struggling for hours and days to a miraculous rescue. Likewise, if civilization is truly collapsing, I may just go down with the ship, and leave it to hardier souls to play Adam and Eve.

Who knows: when faced with my demise, maybe some biological imperative will take over, and I'll become Survivorman. Still, I can't help but noticing that among friends and acquaintances, there are some who are passionate about living as long as possible through all challenges, and others who are more indifferent, ready to welcome life or death each day as it comes. And the ones who are prepared to die at any moment appear paradoxically happier.

It's interesting to watch my own mind as I hear from my friends who believe that the world will soon end. It certainly rattles my mind to think that I may be unlucky (?) enough to live during the endtimes. I mean, jeez, of all the millennia that human beings have crawled on this planet, is it too much to ask that my own little lifespan won't be the point where it all collapses?

I repeatedly remind myself of Buddha's teaching that everything is impermanent. Don't I realize that this body will most certainly turn to dust within a few short decades? And doesn't that mean that my world, anyway, is headed for dissolution without a doubt? Maybe my interest in apocalyptic predictions is a way to cautiously approach a consideration of my body's mortality. Maybe the end of the world is somehow easier to look at than my own death. (I do have a tendency to, e.g., not want to leave a party too early, since I want to be there in case something particularly fun and interesting happens. In that sense, the end of the universe may be psychologically easier to approach, since at least I'll know I won't be missing anything.)

Ultimately, everything leads back to this very moment as the fundamental truth. Maybe all of this appears out of emptiness, and returns to emptiness, over and over. Trying to hold onto the existence of a self or a world is a hopeless dream, and indeed the source of all suffering. Nothing to gain, nothing to lose, nothing to do... except do the best I can to connect clearly and compassionately with "just now."


Doug said...

I'm headed to the Kona side of the big island next month for my honeymoon. :) I've been told it's imperative that I visit the volcanic park, on penalty of a big ration of shit from my friend when I get back if I dont. :) I also recommend renting a kayak and snorkel gear and heading to Kealakekua bay. You can paddle across the bay and visit the monuments to Captain Cook (he was killed there,) and the shoal protecting the obelisk has some of the most amazing snorkeling to be found anywhere. I have never seen so much amazing sea life as in that spot! By far the best books on visiting Hawaii are found at

I'm much more of an optimist than your friend. With the pace at which science is progressing, I suspect we'll be able to overcome the energy shortfall, if we ever reach that point to begin with. By which I mean that oil is not nearly as scarce people imagine it to be. The Saudis sit on 300 billion barrels of proven reserves, and that's just what they tell us about. There's even more than that stored just in the territorial U.S., think ANWAR, Offshore, and oil shale. The only reason we aren't tapping those is government regulation. Environmentalism or no, if demand gets shrill enough, the politicos will cave. :)

And back to my first point about progress in science, the CERN research facility is set to open soon, and they'll either make rapid and massive advances in our understanding of matter and the nature of the physical universe, or destroy the world in a blink. =D If string theory turns out to be correct, how long will it be before we figure out ways to play in the plethora dimensions, and 'create' consumable energy that way? Far from retreating from it all, I want a front row seat. :)

Enjoy your trip!

Stuart said...

Doug, I've printed out your comment so I'll have it handy as I explore the island!

It's good to have some optimism on the future of our species. At least to balance out the pessimism in the air, and bring my mind back to zero.

I've also read some wildly optimistic predictions from Ray Kurzweil. The brilliant Mr Kurzweil is convinced that the advancement in technology will lead to artificial intelligence and robotics that will solve humanity's most vexing problems within the next 20 years.

Unlike the Lefties who surround me here in Berkeley, I see a big-picture positive movement over the course of human history. It may be slow and choppy, but tolerance and humanism have made stunning advancement over the centuries.

And technology is overall a huge plus in improving ordinary life for more and more of us. Movies about past societies may look romantic, but we tend to forget that not so long ago, everyone reeked from primitive sanitary practices, and suffered from e.g. painfully inadequate dental and medical care.

Kurzweil's view is that if we graph tech progress over history, the double-exponetial pace of progress seems unaffected by everything else, including the worst political trends.

Congratulations on your marriage; now that's an act of profound optimism! Particularly if you plan to procreate. It may be too late for old-timers like us... but Kurzweil makes the straight-faced prediction that kids born today will have the chance to live forever.