Our collective future follows from the way we have lived. The extraordinary levels of personal comfort and convenience we have achieved over the past three hundred years have resulted from the ways in which we have exploited the natural world and the lives of those we call the less fortunate. Now we can’t imagine living differently, even as we recognize the dangerous consequences of what we have done. Now our inner resources—our capacity to observe, reflect, empathize, consider, analyze, be open to sudden insight and inspiration, even the capacity for prayer and vision—all seem inadequate to the scale and complexity of our terminal, man-made future. Thus our culture is failing us.

Mass public culture forms, such as films, pop music, computer games, sports, and TV are created by the employees of large corporations and are ultimately intended for economic gain. Our corporate culture encourages passive participation, immersion in communal delirium. In the entertainments that fill our home life, we can ignore what we cannot face. Sounds and images of overwhelming intensity and unrelenting violence provide oblivion from isolation and a brutal fate. We can hide in the noise from the anxiety, indifference, and powerlessness that are the truth of human existence.

Historically, however, culture has consisted of the ways we cultivate, the way we develop our perceptions and awareness so that we can share the things we find meaningful or simply enjoyable. Culture is not merely the creation, ownership, and appreciation of high-status objects. It is the ensemble of beliefs, values, and skills that enables us to connect our inner and outer worlds, to share our lives with one another and to find the continuity of past and present.

Human cultures create portals into continua that enable us to extend our understanding, our sympathy, our awareness far beyond the constraints of time, place, and individuality. Out of solitude and love, the deep bond of our humanness allows us to share worlds that might otherwise be inaccessible. Accordingly, might it be our obligation as human beings, even on the point of extinction, to continue in this endeavor?

Su Tung-p’o was an exemplary scholar-poet-official of the Song dynasty. His life was subject to the rigors of looming military threat and political instability. His accomplishments were scholarly and artistic, as well as administrative, which last included redesigning the system of dams and channels in the West Lake district. He wrote many poems, among which was “On a Boat, Awake at Night”:

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