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Humanity at a crossroads

Thu, May 21, 2009

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The evidence is gaining increasing clarity: We’ve reached a crossroads unlike any other in human history. One path leads to despair for Homo industrialis. The other leads to extinction, for Homo sapiens and the millions of species we are taking with us into the abyss. I’ll take door number one.


Fortunately, the former path gives us one final chance to rescue humanity. And I’m not considering merely our own species. Consider, for example, these definitions from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:
1: the quality or state of being humane (i.e., marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals)
2a: the quality or state of being human b: plural: human attributes or qualities
3: plural: the branches of learning (as philosophy, arts, or languages) that investigate human constructs and concerns as opposed to natural processes (as in physics or chemistry) and social relations (as in anthropology or economics)
4: the human race: the totality of human beings
Sure, that fourth definition matters. We’re selfish creatures, after all, interested primarily in persistence. Unfortunately for our species, we’re really, truly interested in persistence of our own selfish selves, and not so much interested in our own species. Ergo, the self-induced, greed-inspired, utterly human, generally predictable (but specifically chaotic) predicaments in which we are currently marinating.
As a society, we will not willingly halt the industrial economy. We would much rather reduce the planet to a lifeless pile of rubble than diminish — much less halt — economic growth. But, soon enough, we’ll run out of options and the industrial economy will take its last breath, thereby giving us our final, slim hope for averting extinction within the next few decades.
But I’d like to consider the other three definitions, too. If we’re to bring down the industrial economy, and therefore save our own sorry asses from our own self-induced, greed-inspired, … well, you know … then we’re going to have to tap deeply and meaningfully into definitions one, two, and three. In so doing, we just might retain the attributes associated with definitions one, two, and three. But only if we get serious about throwing large buckets of sand into the economic gears of empire.
We could argue all day about the first definition (the others, too, for that matter). Are we capable of being humane? How deeply do you have to drill into your memory to come up with a time you saw a large group of people acting compassionately, sympathetically, considerately toward other humans or animals? On the other hand — and please excuse my eternally optimistic outlook as it bubbles to the surface yet again — it’s probably quite easy to recall the last time you saw an individual human being displaying those same characteristics. Probably it was you, earlier today.
There’s plenty of evolutionary theory to explain altruism among individuals in small groups, even if the individuals do not share grandparents. That same evolutionary theory becomes tenuous, verging on useless, when group size becomes sufficiently large. Throw in all the attributes of industrial culture, nearly all of which reward competition and individualism over cooperation and teamwork, and suddenly we’re trapped beneath an avalanche of self-generated hubris.
If we manage to retain the quality or state of being humane — that is, if we are to retain some semblance of compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals — we must jump off the imperial train before it crashes in a heap at the bottom of the precipitous fall. There is some question about whether the train has driven off the cliff, but there can be no doubt it left the station quite a while ago. There is no legitimate hope for saving the industrial economy or a large proportion of the 6.7 billion humans on Earth, but there is great hope for saving the “quality or state of being humane” for relatively small groups of humans.
Will you be part of one of those groups? Will you be among the people with access to water, food, shelter, and community?
On, then, to the second definition: the quality or state of being human. What makes us human? The question is, of course, easy to address on the surface and nearly impossible to address in depth. DNA tells us whether we’re human, that is, whether we’re of the genus Homo and the species Homo sapiens, as opposed to one of the myriad other organisms on the planet. We’ll leave the easy question to gene jockeys, and take up the more difficult and deeper question: What makes us human, beyond DNA?
I’m hardly the first person to ponder that question. My predecessors include a recent special issue of Nature (Great Britain’s preeminent scientific journal), Hollywood, British television, and dozens of authors, including a passel of philosophers dating at least to Plato and Lao Tzu. I defer, as I often do, to Nietzsche (particularly in Human, All Too Human). Nietzsche recognized humans as tragically flawed organisms that, like other animals, lack free will. Unlike Descartes, Nietzsche thought our flaws define us, and therefore cannot be overcome. We are far too human for that. Although we are thinking animals — what Nietzsche termed res cogitans — we are prey to muddled thoughts, that is, to ideas that lack clarity and distinctness. Nietzsche wasn’t so pessimistic or naive to believe all our thoughts are muddled, of course. Ultimately, though, incompetence defines the human experience.
It’s a short, easy step from Nietzsche’s conclusion — we are flawed organisms — to industrial culture as a product of our incompetence. But the same step can be taken for every technology, with industrial culture as the potentially fatal blow. In other words, progress means only that we accelerate the rapidity with which bad things happen to societies. American exceptionalism thus becomes one more victim of the imperial train wreck.
If this second definition of humanity contributed to the tragedy of industrial culture — and it’s difficult for me to believe it didn’t — is it, like definition number one, worth saving? Will completion of the ongoing industrial collapse retain our inherent, all-too-human flaw?
This question is analogous to John Stuart Mill’s famous line from Utilitarianism: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” We simply don’t have a choice in the matter (and neither did Mill’s pig). We’re tragically flawed regardless of the industrial economy’s lifespan. In this case, bringing down civilization neither benefits nor harms our humanity.
The third definition of humanity: “the branches of learning (as philosophy, arts, or languages) that investigate human constructs and concerns as opposed to natural processes (as in physics or chemistry) and social relations (as in anthropology or economics).” The branches of learning are defined by the culture. In the present case, arbitrarily dividing knowledge into natural sciences and the humanities has contributed to the division we see at all levels of human interaction. Echoing C.P. Snow’s conclusion in his eponymous two cultures, Edward O. Wilson’s argued forcefully in Consilience that the separation of learning, hence knowledge, into two groups is a huge blow to meaningfully understanding the human experience. C.P. Snow was, of course, echoing Plato and Lao Tzu.
Shouldn’t we be trying to integrate knowledge, instead of compartmentalizing it? In an effort to serve the culture of death that is industrial society, we have taken the worst possible approach: We developed our entire educational system around the twin pillars of compartmentalization and ignorance. Throw in a huge, ongoing, forceful dose of opposition to integration and synthesis, and we’re left with a tsunami of incompetence. We probably stood no chance of overcoming the all-too-human incompetence described by Nietzsche, but we purposely designed an educational system to reinforce the incompetence on a massive scale. Is it any wonder we’re a nation of overfed clowns?
It’s easy to blame industrial culture for the sorry state of our educational system, and therefore for our lack of relevant humanity. But I think it’s an equally easy path toward improving education by bringing down industrial culture. A truly comprehensive approach to learning would focus on humans as part of the world, rather than apart from the world. It would strive for integration and synthesis. It would assume the learner is one part of an ecosystem, but not a superior part. It would be as unique to a specific location as climate, topography, and the durable culture that assumes its place in that place. One basis for such a system can be found here.
About that fourth and final definition, the one that absorbs our tender existential psyches: Nobody who ever gave the matter serious thought could honestly reach the conclusion that “the totality of human beings” was destined to last forever. But we would try to bring down industrial civilization if we had even a token amount of “compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals.” Our persistent, ridiculous, and all-too-human attempts to prop up the industrial economy not only reveal our stunning lack of humanity, they pose a grave threat to our species.
Humanity is at a crossroads. Let’s save it, shall we?
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This entry is discussed at The Teeming Brain, and a copy of this entry is posted at Energy Bulletin. Original version, with tiny url, is at http://tinyurl.com/p84se9

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16 Responses to “Humanity at a crossroads”

  1. matt Says:

    All interest, dividend, yield, growth, profit and ‘return’ IS environmental draw down.
    Collectively/globally, if we all invest (which we do) then ultimately
    in the end all the returns will be negative. Think about this for a moment,
    all consumption ie the production of waste is linear and in the end earth destroying.
    At the end of the day, you cannot eat money. What is the point of ‘wealth’, if
    the bio sphere is on its last legs.
    ‘Sustainability’ and yield are not compatible. We cannot maintain a healthy bio sphere if we continue to seek growth and profit. The only ‘free lunch’ or ‘profit’ on a finite planet is photosynthesis, courtesy of the sun.
    thanks again for the decant Guy and for your words,
    I will now go outside, lie on my day bed and watch my chickens :)

  2. Isochroma Says:

    the extinction of the human parasite will mean a hope for this planet
    humans are the only species that destroy their own environment
    i will be glad to watch this nasty worm, this bloated, polluting infection breathe its last and expire into the mire.
    let’s watch together in the final days
    of the past lost ways

  3. Stan Moore Says:

    Our fate was sealed when we became Homo detrivorus and began our final steep ascent through dependence on fossil fuels. Go look at the philosphical work of Marion King Hubbert (of Hubbert’s Peak fame) and contemporary Garrett Hardin. They saw this fate impending decades earlier and spoke out just as Guy is speaking out now. Then was the time to make the necessary adjustments, when human population was much lower and the planet was much more pristine.
    There is too powerful inertia now for the species to change course and a dieoff of large proportions is inevitable, I believe. But the species will likely survive.
    And the cycle will be repeated, though the capacity to damage the already-decimated planet will be different.
    I see the word “humane” as describing the best and worst of humanity. An example of our worst tendency, from my point of view, is to preserve all human life at all costs all the time, as if every single life was of equal, precious value. Some human societies knew when to let go and did not quake in fear of death as we do now. But we also seem to have a fear of underpopulation as well and think everything is better the more people we can jam into a limited space. I find it inhumane from my point of view, but society sees otherwise.
    Stan Moore

  4. Stan Moore Says:

    http://www.energybulletin.net

    Guy’s latest essay is on this important website today. Congratulations Guy! I hope this is the beginning of ongoing national and international exposure to your important intellect.
    Stan Moore

  5. Lee Borden Says:

    You write with exceptional clarity and beauty about a distressingly ugly challenge. Thank you.
    Lately, a small group of friends and I have been examining the question whether humanity needs to become extinct so the planet can survive. We break roughly into three groups: (1) there’s still time; we humans can change. I would place you in this group. (2) We’re out of time, the planet is in peril, and the best thing that could happen would be for the human race to be removed from it so it can recover. (3) No matter what humans do, the planet has the means to return to its equilibrium relatively soon (in a geological time frame) after the corruption created by humans has ended. So the planet is going to survive; the only question is whether humans will survive.
    I’ve placed you on my Google Reader list so I know when you write something next. Please don’t keep us waiting too long.

  6. Frank Mezek Says:

    Professor Emeritus: Now doesn’t that sound great and make you feel good ??
    It’s been about 10,000 years since the development of agriculture,the first step to the end,as you’ve correctly observed.We can trace our ancestry back millions of years,
    so the exponential,now parabolic descent into madness has been astounding.Probably caused by some freakish set of mutational changes in the human brain.Hey it’s benefited us,but as Ayn Rand pointed out in Atlas Shrugged,a janitor is no differnt than he was 10,000 years ago–just gone along ,and benefitted from the ride.So the vast majority of the great unwashed don’t have a clue.
    The point is that without the ability to think–to effectively use the human brain–
    the brain leads most humans into despair and mental slavery.So now that technology has viciously turned on the masses,very few can understand what is happening to them.They bought into the whole vanity,envy,greed matrix known as Capitalism,that has now double-crossed them.They have done everything they were supposed to do and how the system has let them down.So millions of them get drunk at their country club bar,or their sports bar,or at their sloburban backyard cookout.
    It’s just the usual progression of every natural organic system from birth,to growth,to maturity,to decadence and finally death.The’ve enjoyed the decadence phase so much. What a pity.Success brings out the worst qualities in a human,turning most into huburistic monsters.
    I’m not sorry to see them go,good riddance,and goodbye.

  7. Frank Mezek Says:

    —————–and they are getting it in the neck.2/3′s of the homeowners in Las Vegas have negative equity in their homes.Just saw a list showing many California counties have seen a reduction of 2/3′s in home values in one year.

  8. Stan Moore Says:

    A very good interview with Michael Ruppert is on the same EnergyBulletin.net page that includes Guy’s latest essay. Ruppert explains very well the connection between the energy crisis and the financial crisis and why the “elephants” (big banks, financial/securities instutions, etc.) cannot survive. The world of energy is changing and they cannot adapt. It is as simple as that. Ruppert also opines that our society just has a few years left before it goes down for the count. I could not find a word with which to disagree.
    More than one story has reached the ether about the vulnerability of the internet, which will be a victim of the energy crisis. The internet as we have known it uses a huge amount of electrical power, which is getting increasingly more expensive just as advertisement revenues are diminishing. The internet will die before the power grid dies, and a major collapse of the economy will doom both and sooner than most people would ever think.
    Even GPS systems are at risk because the U.S. Air Force has mismanaged a satellite replacement program and one of the major satellites on which the GPS system (used in cell phones, mapping software, etc.) needs to be replaced but has fallen way behind schedule and out of budget. This by itself will not permanently destroy GPS technology, but is indicative of a larger situation in which even the most modern technologies are on an increasingly tenuous logistics stream due inevitably to energy issues and their cascading effect.
    As Guy said, humanity IS at a crossroads and people are still looking for things to return to “normal”. And they will, but “normal” is not what life has been like in the past twenty years. That was abnormal and we are going to learn once again what normal life is like, whether we like it or not.
    Stan Moore

  9. Stan Moore Says:

    see: http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=13716
    Here is another very good essay that should be read by Obama’s delirious supporters with the theme: “Don’t be happy. Worry.”
    Alberto Gonzales is still guiding U.S. policy as Obamas’ de facto counselor.
    Stan Moore

  10. Mr. Kim Gyr Says:

    Born in Michigan and having spent 31 of the last 32 years in England and Switzerland, I have a very different perspective. I also had my heart stop for 10 minutes following a car accident in 1980, requiring that I stagger, walk and jog more than 330 miles before I could walk, speak and remember half of what was said to me. Please see my website at, http://www.greenmillennium.eu for some conclusions and graphics that come from this experience – basically that we’re no worse off than those who worked in the dark satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution, with the exception that we can see ahead, partly because of the Internet, much better!
    There are ways to use current and future technologies to make ourselves 100% sustainable for the only “things” that matter – the components of our genes that have combined and recombined ever since life first began here – they are the only scientifically provable form of eternal life, so why not do our best to make the future sustainable for them, our children?
    My open-source solutions are simple, and not that much more expensive than Presidnt Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, to give us the possibility to free ourselves forever from fossil fuels, which is the guillotine by which we will all die unless we do it sooner than later.
    Please have a look, for unless you can do better, none of our children will ever live lives like we have!
    Thank you!

  11. Mr. Kim Gyr Says:

    Born in Michigan and having spent 31 of the last 32 years in England and Switzerland, I have a very different perspective. I also had my heart stop for 10 minutes following a car accident in 1980, requiring that I stagger, walk and jog more than 330 miles before I could walk, speak and remember half of what was said to me. Please see my website at, http://www.greenmillennium.eu for some conclusions and graphics that come from this experience – basically that we’re no worse off than those who worked in the dark satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution, with the exception that we can see ahead, partly because of the Internet, much better!
    There are ways to use current and future technologies to make ourselves 100% sustainable for the only “things” that matter – the components of our genes that have combined and recombined ever since life first began here – they are the only scientifically provable form of eternal life, so why not do our best to make the future sustainable for them, our children?
    My open-source solutions are simple, and not that much more expensive than President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, to give us the possibility to free ourselves forever from fossil fuels, which is the guillotine by which we will all die unless we do it sooner than later.
    Please have a look, for unless you can do better, none of our children will ever live lives like we have!
    Thank you!

  12. Stan Moore Says:

    Note to Mr. Kim Gyr –
    After reviewing your words here and your website, I conclude that you are somewhat misinformed about what is possible at this stage of world affairs. Perhaps you should take up your architectural schemes with James Howard Kunstler, who has spoken widely about human living arrangements in our evolving world. You can check out his website at http://www.kunstler.com
    Good luck!
    Stan Moore

  13. matt Says:

    Those images read like overly photo shopped
    under grad architecture projects. It aint gonna
    happen. The future will be more like the past.
    Less energy = less of the fanciful, we have simply run
    out of time for that, as optimistic as they may seem.
    Recently I went to a book launch at my old uni,
    in the architecture department.
    The book is entitled ‘eco urbanism’,
    It is a collection of essays by academics
    about sustainable urbanism. I have not
    read the book, but I can imagine
    any number of French theorists have
    been quoted. No doubt the text is impenetrable
    to the outsider.
    The answer to our enviro woes is less, less, less.
    Not more complexity. We already have the answers.
    ie walkable communities, local agriculture, composting
    of all organic ‘waste’, local water procurement , no waste,
    small is beautiful, a culture of modesty etc.
    Not more engineering ‘solutions’ or fanciful ‘buckminster fuller’
    like creations.
    On education, how is this for laugh, my former post grad coordinator
    was encouraging me to do a phd. (he was significantly inebriated at the time).
    The topics he suggested were ‘the role of the cold war is shaping Australia’s urban and rural infrastructure’; ‘the role of the ephemeral in landscape architecture’ and similarly ‘the role of reflections in landscape design’. Huh?
    The problem is of course is this peak oil thingy. At this stage in my ‘academic’ career, I am more interested in my compost and my chickens. :)
    Guy, you would have been ‘proud’ (not the right word), I had one of those end of the world discussions with another neighbour. He is 45, the conversation was initiated by him, he is currently reading homer-dixon. Anyway he is convinced that a collapse in civil society is imminent and he does not read any peak oil blogs! His wife is studying a masters in Sweden on ‘sustainability and managing change’. He wants to sell up and head for the hills, where there is less people and more water. He sees a perfect storm of the GFC, climate change and peak oil colliding together. We had a ‘what if ‘(thought experiment) conversation about various scenarios. No water, no problem we reasoned. (most of us have rain water tanks, and plenty of ground fuel to sterilize it, if need be). No food, in the supermarche? We are fucked. Within a week there would be a tap on the door for food, and a week later they would be back for you. I did tell him that I was ambivalent about the likelihood of an imminent collapse of industrial society. My wife thought the topic of conversation was complete lunacy.
    Anyway, I reasoned, if it comes to pass and if you want that stain on your soul (ie a witness to the degradation) and you want to survive you will. In hindsight the discussion seemed a little crazy. He wants the men folk in the street to get together and have a discussion about the ‘transition’ (a nice way to say WTSHTF) and what we can do about it. We reasoned that land base in our suburb would have only supported 20-30 people pre white settlement. We now have several thousand.
    He reasons that 5% of the population is on to the peak oil thing. The number of people who listen to ‘radio national’ (a public broadcaster here). He knows of architects who have ‘bugged out’ to the hills. These are seemingly intelligent people, are we/they on to something?
    The one problem I have with Ruppert (good interview by the way) and his TEOTWAWNI is when!
    How is this for having a bet each way, I have been purchasing dowel 5/16 ($1 per shaft) from the local hardware store and spine testing (determining lbs) and making arrow shafts to match my long bow. The crafting and the engineering behind trad archery is fascinating.
    With regards to altruism, a cousin that lived through the bush fires here, said that the disaster brought out the worst and the best in people. For example, neighbours looted other neighbours and on the other hand he had 4-5 families living with him for a few weeks after the event. The generosity of some in the community was amazing, and some of the acts committed by others was despicable.
    Anyway some wisdom from Michael Leunig our national living treasure,
    a cartoonist no less.
    http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/more-greed-and-more-loneliness-20090525-bkm7.html?page=1
    Anyway, I am still waiting my first egg…

  14. Chad Woolley Says:

    “How deeply do you have to drill into your memory to come up with a
    time you saw a large group of people acting compassionately,
    sympathetically, considerately toward other humans or animals?”
    Happens all the time, at twelve step programs. Or does that not
    qualify as a large group?

  15. Stan Moore Says:

    Speaking of apathy or unawareness of the Peak Oil situation and the resulting predicament of mankind, I tried for a few days to post a message on the ornithology listserver warning that ornithologists need to seriously consider how the energy situation affects ornithology. I specifically mentioned in the posting that many profesional journals are now publishing online only and the death of the internet and/or the electrical grid, as predicted to occur in the foreseeable future, will then have a significant impact on the retrieval and archiving of accumulated knowledge
    The moderator refused to post the piece and I appealed and appealed again with more and more detailed justification. I wonder what will happen to the great libraries and museumns of accumulated knowledge when the lights go out literally. If Richard Duncan is correct, power blackouts and brownouts will increasingly be a familiar experience even here in the US until they the grid blacks out permanently by 2030. The Obama infrastructure rebuilding plan, which allegedly addresses power grid concerns to some extent, will likely have a minimal net benefit, in my view, because of inadequate funding as relates to need as well as corruption and graft. I predict that U.S. corporations that ripped off the taxpayer in Iraq, making an art out of stealing billions, were just practicing for stealing bailout monies at home. We will see. We will see.
    Stan Moore


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