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One of many aphorisms about problemsolving goes something to the effect that the first step to finding a solution is proper identification of the problem. The redneck version of this is, “Well, that there’s yer problem!” as though all problems were duh! obvious. Both presuppose the existence of the problem and an eventual solution, getting cart and horse, chicken and egg, cause and effect, and other teleological dialectics hopelessly mixed up. If you’re a business guru, an image consultant, a press agent, a campaign manager, an ad man, a lobbyist, or a lawyer, you can simply sidestep redefine problems as work to be done, an opportunity to seek profit, or a messaging issue, any of which causes mouth-breathers to go chasing after misdirection, much like an errant charge of racism completely derails rational thought. Those with a few still-functioning synapses are more likely too gobsmacked by your own idiocy to retain focus. Same result.

Inside the Beltway — a proxy for the halls of power distributed predominantly along the East Coast and populated by an insane clown posse coterie of one-percenters who truly do regard setbacks as profitable opportunities in disguise — the preferred term is optics, meaning that any given problem is really only about visual appearance, and even then, only so long as it stays in the public’s fickle viewfinder. Thus, we get meaningless canards such as “clean coal” and “energy independence” that fly in the face of, oh I dunno, physical reality? We also get the impossible levitating act of fiat currency and indeed the entire growth paradigm. Yes, the growth paradigm, stated here accurately and succinctly as “grow or die.” Alternatives probably don’t include a steady state, frequently greenwashed as sustainability, because all species expand and contract their populations according to available food/energy. That’s just basic biology, and homo sapiens are crowning proof of it ever since we figgered out how to exploit ancient sun-blood in the form of fossil fuels and went into full-blown population overshoot. Well, let me suggest, that there’s yer problem!

The problem begs for a solution, of course, but aye here’s the rub: all things have their moment, and ours is running out. Our civilization will inevitably join those before that have sputtered and spluttered out (though ours probably has a few loud bangs left in it), and far and away sooner than expected, homo sapiens will join the pantheon of species to fall into the dustbin of evolutionary history, meaning quite plainly that we go extinct. That’s a whole different sort of existential crisis from the one that defines (among others) the human condition: præscientiam mortem or foreknowledge of death.

Lest anyone believe that this is a new problem, let me point out that from at least the beginnings of monotheism millennia ago, the response has been the same: launch a public relations campaign and adopt new optics. For the Christian faithful, that means being saved from death and delivered to eternal bliss in the company of god. For the Islamic faithful, the afterlife specified by the Quran — at least for male martyrs — is 72 virgin maidens in paradise. (Female martyrs can expect to find their husbands in paradise, which sounds like a cruel joke to Westerners.) Maybe that’s not so bad, except that the mutual exclusivity of such dogma guarantees that they are in fact just publicity, grappling with the problem of perception. Who’da thunk, then, that atheism, which calmly insists that this life, here and now in all its earthly manifestations and embodiments, is the real show, the only show in fact, so let’s try to do it right and equitably and with what integrity can be mustered, who’da thunk that atheism would turn out to be a better expression of humanity than the various rape-and-plunder-the-earth, go-forth-ye-and-multiply versions of faith?