Hercules and the Hydra: the Seven Crises of Humankind

by on Tuesday, 11 August 2009 Comments


When I was a child, I enjoyed reading the tales and legends from the Greek mythology. Young boys are especially mesmerized by the Twelve Labours of Hercules, a hero not so smart, but so brave and enthusiastic… Among the Twelve Labours he had to accomplish, Hercules fought a hydra with seven heads – or nine heads according to the different versions. In fact, there are several different tales of the fight. The most common one tells that the seven heads of the hydra would grow back after being cut and Hercules had to sever the heads one by one to prevent their growing again. One of these heads was even immortal and Hercules had to bury it under a rock. Curiously, the version I kept in my mind is different: each head would grow up if cut separately, and Hercules had to sever the seven heads at the same time to defeat the hydra… Each version of the same myth has its own coherence and its own significance, thus it is the latter version that I choose, to make Hercules be the symbol of mankind struggling with a multiplicity of crises and challenges…


The Crises are systemic

The lesson to be drawn from the Hercules’ story that I recall, is that we should view and tackle problems in their globalism. Nothing is more dangerous than the international community twirling around the crises, without solving any of them, while leaving aside a universal view of the planet’s situation.

We are not only living a time of recession. We are not only going through one crisis. We are facing an era of crises. Their complexity and their overlapping are entirely part of the challenge met by the global community now, at this time in history: the crises of the global financial system, global warming, natural resources, cultural diversity, great poverty, migrations and world governance… All these crises are systemic, they retroact on each other and they require us to think and ponder on a global level in order to really confront each of these crises in their entirety.

Certainly, technical solutions must be defined and adopted for each particular challenge. But when their interactions are ignored, the problems that appeared solved just re-emerge even more acutely. The present recession is a good example of this phenomenon: after the alert of the Asian financial crisis and the “Internet bubble” collapsing, around year 2000, the economists were professing to understand so perfectly the international system that another recession was not conceivable. But the lack of concern for ethics (the exhaustion of our “cultural resources”) and the excessive deregulation (sign of the global governance deficit) have broken this unwarranted self-confidence.

And yet, humanity has proven its capacity to reflect collectively as a global community on the significance of the times. An important step for this reflection on a global spectrum was taken with the ‘Millennium Goals’. Here, international institutions stated, in unison, the planets situation then they came to an agreement on priority goals, designing an action program for a period of time following the symbolic year 2000. Their striving to make judgements and the common will, were demonstrated with vigour and inventiveness. Nevertheless; while the global community has shown its aptitude and volition, it has also shown its limitations. These are also our limitations when it comes to taking action, and more importantly acting in unison. They did not make an error with the diagnosis or the objectives as such. However the means were simply not there to put the goals into practice. Admittedly, some efforts have been made to remedy the scandalizing situation where millions of people are suffering without access to clean water, to eradicate great poverty, to promote the sharing of educational resources and in the fight against epidemics - but the resources freed up for the tasks still remain minor compared to the challenges we are confronting…thus, it may not be enough to attempt to tackle each crisis one by one, rather it is a matter of apprehending, as a system, all the different challenges presently faced by the international community. Here, I have split these challenges into seven: the struggle against global warming, the need to overhaul the international financial system, the management of natural resources, the exhaustion of cultural resources, the crisis of structural poverty which nurtures the crisis of migrations and intercommunity tensions, and the reform of global governance.


Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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