Rumor has it that things aren’t looking good for the biosphere, which of course means that things aren’t looking good for us. Even people with their heads in the sand have a suspicion that something just isn’t right. To put it simply, all the curves are bent in the wrong direction. Population, climate change, habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, loss of fresh water, lifestyle disease, social inequality, mass migration and dislocation: all these trajectories point towards a deepening crisis. There’s no need to rehash the specifics. Let’s just say that the entire human/biological system is under immense, unprecedented stress. 

At times like these, many of us resort to metaphor. Some speak of lifeboat earth or spaceship earth. Others say we’re at a tipping point. But I prefer to take a page from academia. That is, I like to describe this predicament as our final exam. If we’re going to get the diploma that says Homo sapiens in a fancy typeface, we’re going to have to step up and start exercising some practical, courageous wisdom. 

But beware: this is no ordinary mid-term. This is the ultimate high-stakes test and it’s a real monster. It’s not multiple choice and it’s not open book. You won’t be able to cheat off your neighbor or download someone else’s essay from the Internet. You won’t be able to get the answers in advance or game the system with some kind of tricky algorithm. No, this one is strictly practical and performance-based. There will be no sliding scale, no grading on a curve, and no grade inflation. This one is strictly pass-fail. 

Some will call it an intelligence test, but that’s not quite right. In fact, if we approach this biospheric final strictly as a matter of data-gathering and number crunching, we fail. Intelligence counts for something, but it’s only necessary, not sufficient. All the analysis in the world isn’t going to count for much unless people actually change their behavior. And behavior will only change when people find the courage to face our predicament head on. 

Ultimately, this exam is really a spiritual test. It’s a test of courage and adaptability, creativity and culture. It’s a test of our willingness to challenge the status quo and live in some new way. It’s a test of our ability to relinquish some measure of security in exchange for our continued existence. 

If this makes sense to you, you might be inclined to wonder what exactly we’re doing in our educational institutions. The final exam is looming, but we persist in teaching things that have nothing whatsoever to do with it. We teach “subjects.” And we profess to prepare our students for the “real world.” 

But the “real world” is on the verge of collapse and it’s calling for skills and aptitudes that are relevant to that condition. No matter how events unfold, our students are going to need the personal, physical and spiritual skills of adaptability, creativity and resilience. And these reside in the body, not in the abstract domain of cognition. In other words, our training needs to be both neck-up and neck-down. We need more experience and less information, more time in the world and less time in our heads. 

Meanwhile, the days are counting down and exam day is looming. Unfortunately, our collective exam prep is looking sketchy. Some of our fellow students have actually been practicing their skills. They’re keeping their eye on the challenge and making actual changes to their ways of living. They’re taking notes and staying up late in study sessions with their colleagues. They’re actually curious about the course material. 

But sadly, most of our classmates have been on extended spring break. They’ve been down on the Gulf, living on the beach, intoxicated around the clock, amusing themselves while the clock runs out. In fact, we might well describe our entire culture as one extended spring break, lost in distraction, avoidance and willful blindness. Say what you will about the current candidates in our presidential race, the most notable and disturbing fact of this election cycle is that journalists aren’t even asking about the hard realities of climate change, habitat destruction or threats to the global environment. We are all on a protracted bender of denial. 

It remains to be seen how many of us will sober up before exam day.