The Western capitalist model has enveloped the globe, catalyzing a dramatic increase in the consumption of natural resources, with its implicit promise that the future offers greater prosperity and happiness for all.
In recent decades, this rampant consumption has begun to take a drastic toll, raising such specters as a massive extinction of species, a global freshwater crisis, and runaway climate change.
In “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a famous poem written by Goethe, an apprentice, left alone for the day, tries to use his magic to command a broom to fetch water from a nearby river for a bath. At first, things go wonderfully. The broom fetches water with a bucket and fills up the tub.
However, as the tub begins to overflow, the apprentice realizes he hasn’t mastered the spell to stop the broom. It keeps going back to the river, fetching more water with every bucket, bowl and cup available until the entire house is flooded.
In desperation, the apprentice chops the broom in half with an ax, only to watch, to his horror, as both halves continue to inundate the house, now at double the speed. Fortunately, the sorcerer eventually returns and recites the spell that puts everything back in order.
Goethe never suggested his poem as a metaphor for society, but looking back, it is tempting to see it as a compelling depiction of our current state of affairs. The apprentice, like so many of us in the modern age, is at first dazzled by his power over the natural world. However, at a certain point he begins to realize he’s unleashed a force over which he has inadequate control, only to discover that his desperate attempts to contain it actually increase its powers of destruction.
Has our global civilization found itself in a Sorcerer’s Apprentice dilemma? Has the technological magic unleashed by scientific knowledge placed us on a trajectory accelerating ever faster out of control? Or do we have it within ourselves to find the sorcerer’s spell that can restore balance in our world?