An Age of Avalanches

I streamed the epic movie Everest a few days ago. I ended up watching it twice: first to admire the photography and feel the windstorms and avalanches whipping in my face, and then a second time to carefully follow the characters and the plot. It was during the second viewing that I began to understand what the movie is really about.

"Everest" reenacts a real-life disaster that occurred in 1996 when too many people showed up for that year's annual climbing season, straining the crisis management capabilities at base camp as things inevitably begin to go wrong. There are two rival expedition leaders, each responsible for the welfare of several high-paying clients with amateur-level climbing skills: the calm and sensible Rob Hall, played by Jason Clarke, and his more unpredictable and blissed-out competitor Scott Fischer, portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal.

These rival expedition leaders hate each other as the movie begins, though they manage to pull together once the dimensions of the problem they are facing begin to sink in. Through most of the movie the two competitors work together as friends to hold off a tragedy. But they can't hold off the tragedy they began. "Everest" is a disaster movie without villains, other than nature itself. When mass tragedy finally strikes, one bitter day near the summit peak, it's really nobody's fault. Everything falls apart with the slow cosmic irony of a Sophocles finale. It comes down to our fatal flaw ... but we often don't get to find out what our fatal flaw is until after the flaw becomes fatal.

In July 2016, the world feels insane. Gun-drenched racial violence in public places, bombings in Istanbul and Baghdad, NATO escalating against Russia, creepy fascist politicians rising in power in England and the United States. We sometimes appear to be at a tipping point towards unhinged violence, and so many people feel so helpless in their fear of this coming violence that they appear to be trying to wish it into being, as if just to end their fear.

In fact, it is our ability to remain cool in the face of uncertainty and fear that can save us, and we must never forget this even for a moment. We live in an age of avalanches, and it is our responsibility to take the challenge of our era deeply seriously. But we seem to be doing the opposite, and sinking into the brainless escapism offered by the likes of Donald Trump and Brexit.

Perhaps it will pique our lost sense of grave responsibility to take a broad view of recent history and think about how fast our society is changing right now, and to realize that we live in an age of cultural avalanches. Think about how many improbable transformations have occurred during our own lifetimes: the fall of the Soviet Union, the birth of the Internet, the attacks of September 11 2001, the Iraq War, the global economic crash of 2007/2008, the election of Barack Obama, the rising challenge of climate change, the explosion of mobile/social media.

These are some of the larger avalanches that have crashed gloriously (or gracelessly) around us, and we can each add our own private shocks and surprises to the list of avalanches. A new Star Wars movie. Peace with Cuba. The Bernie Sanders campaign. Drones and self-driving cars. One thing is for sure: things are in fast, fast motion around us. It's happening. We live in an era of major unpredictability — a time when history is being made (for better or worse, and often it seems worse) nearly every week.

In the movie Everest, the climbers in the vicinity of the great mountain peak are often unsure whether they should be climbing up or down, whether they are rescuing others or being rescued themselves. This is a kind of frozen motionlessness that I can relate to sometimes as I try to figure out what I can do with a website about pacifism during an era in which people's thoughts seem to be more warlike and paranoid than I can ever remember before.

When I launched this site, several months ago, I thought I would use the Pacifism21 Twitter and Facebook accounts to post relevant items about global war and peace with a few updates every day. Hah! Once I started systematically tracking relevant news updates about war and peace from around the world, I suddenly realized I was inside a different kind of avalanche, because there are far, far, far too many seriously important links to post every day for me to even begin to find a structure with which to make it all make sense.

We all care deeply about our lives, our families, our human race, our planet. What we need in the crazy summer of 2016 is seriousness, a willingness to think fast, a willingness to forgive past offenses and work together. In the movie Everest, the two rival expedition leaders created a disaster by bringing too many climbers to the mountain, and then discovered that even their noblest efforts to head off the disaster by working together were doomed to fail. Half of them survived.