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?