I’ve written on this subject before (Living in the 21st Century, Sep.07; and The Problem with Democracy, Jun.08 ) but a recent conversation (with Dino at Coffee Plus) in combination with reading about ‘dystopian fiction’ as a subgenre of science-fiction, has led me to revisit it. A lengthy essay I wrote called Human Nature (back in Nov.07) may also be relevant to this topic.
I’ve been reading The Science Fiction Handbook by M. Keith Book and Anne-Marie Thomas, which is a very erudite analysis of various ‘seminal’ works of science-fiction along with their authors. In particular, their analysis of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy (which I haven’t personally read) that works on the premise that humans appear genetically predisposed for self-destruction. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is another example, though Wells’ exploration is different: humans evolve into 2 species, the Morlocks and the Eloi, that symbiotically exist in an extreme master-slave relationship, or predator-prey relationship to be more exact.
In an issue of COSMOS earlier this year, there was a feature article on the overpopulation of Earth and the consequences thereof. As I said in the introduction, I’ve raised this issue in earlier posts. The COSMOS article used an island metaphor which I thought was very apt. We are turning our planet into an island, but once we have over-resourced it we don’t have another island to go to. There are some people who believe that planetary colonialism will save us, but, if that’s the case, it means we haven’t addressed the problem, and, worse still, we aren’t seeking a solution.
There have been a number of mass-extinctions in Earth’s history, not just the dinosaurs, but at no other time has the rate of global species extinction been as high as it is now, and the cause is obvious: it is us. This is just one symptom, like climate change, that we are simply too successful (as a species) for our own good. If a species at the top of the food chain eats all the food then it ensures its own extinction. In effect, that’s what we are doing despite all of our harvesting techniques. We cannot live on this planet with only a handful of species to sustain us – it doesn’t work like that. Biodiversity means a healthy planet, and it’s no exaggeration to say that we are behaving like a disease.
In the last century, we have demonstrated, beyond dispute, that capitalism is the most successful economical model ever devised. But it, too, is too successful for its own good. In the recent economic crisis we have seen how the smallest dent in ‘growth’ is considered devastating. Unfortunately, economic growth means growth of everything, including: products, housing, infrastructure and, of course, people. You don’t have to have a PhD to see where this will eventually lead us, yet everyone appears to be in denial.
The ideal economic climate, as the recent ‘downturn’ revealed, is to maximise employment to maximise spending to maximise consumerism to maximise production to maximise employment, in an ever increasing cycle with no limit except the Earth’s capacity to sustain it. And it’s the last bit that everyone conveniently ignores.
As my friend Dino pointed out, in the ideal economy everyone should be in debt, which is what makes it so susceptible to bust-boom cycles, that we take for granted as being part of our modern environment. There is another side to this as well: I’m talking from my privileged position of being a member of a Western democratic society. We still live in a feudal society where the privileged few live at the expense of the massive poor, only the feudalism occurs on a global scale not a national one, so we don’t notice it so much. But just look at
But even in our special, privileged society so many people are not satisfied; in fact, they actually hate their jobs, yet will be demonstrably upset if their job is taken away from them. Our world, in short, is full of contradictions, yet no one seems to notice, or, if they do, they pretend they don’t exist.
I strongly believe that the 21st Century is going to be crunch time, whether we want to face it or not, but it’s hard to imagine anything is going to change until nature forces us to. The result, I fear, will be wars on a scale we’ve never before witnessed, which leads one to consider
In an early post on this blog, I wrote an essay on Evil (Oct.07), whereby I proposed a thesis that evil is a logical consequence of our evolutionary heritage to be territorial, which is not unique to the human species. Predators are territorial for the very reason I gave above: they need to control their resources, and they do so by rejecting intruders. This is true of lions, magpies, apes and humans, along with innumerable other species. So humans are xenophobic by nature, as history demonstrates, but there is a counter-culture to this. Humans are also highly empathetic, as are other species as well, which creates a natural antithesis to xenophobia and has allowed us to develop multi-culturally in many parts of the globe. But it’s the constraint on resources that can turn tolerance into intolerance more quickly than you can say refugees.
In my essay on Human Nature, I make the point that there are 3 human traits that have shaped our modern world. The first is our need for social contact, without which, we wouldn’t even have language; fundamental to our ability to think. But this also leads to the tribalism and its inherent problems that I alluded to in the previous paragraph. The second trait is the natural search for leadership in any group endeavour. Our hierarchical nature, that
I don’t have any easy answers to this, but I see some contradictions that may eventually resolve themselves when we are forced to face them. There is no utopia, I only see evolution, but it may well be Kuhnian rather than Darwinian. To obtain a sustainable future without losing our ability for creativity and material progress will require a change to the paradigm of infinite growth, and that means population growth must become stabilised. In many Western cultures this has already happened with the changing role of women, and this should not be reversed. Feminism, in its own way, may well save the planet, but it won’t be enough. The economic paradigm needs to change so that recycling replaces raw materials, with incentives to have long-lasting products in lieu of short-life ones that currently drive the capitalist machine. Sustainability will be forced upon us, and it’s technologically achievable, but politically difficult. Corporations have demonstrated by their activities in third world countries that they are simply amoral without regulations to enforce environmental and health compliances. A more global society is slowly changing this ethic but by how much and how soon is not easy to judge.
Economic growth needs to be decoupled from population growth but there is no sign this is achievable and no one is attempting to provide a model that may facilitate it. I feel this is the biggest dilemma that we face as a global community. Technology will slowly erode the most mind-numbing and health-debilitating occupations, so humans can do what they do best, which is to think creatively, solve problems both individually and collaboratively, and facilitate with others. And machines will do the things that they are good at: crunch astronomical numbers, do repetitive tasks at high speed and precision, and work tirelessly with no sleep and without complaint at jobs we disdain. This is the future that I try to project into my science-fiction where the word economy doesn’t even exist – but that’s a real utopia.
Addendum: The COSMOS article that I linked is actually from 2005 (Issue 3) but it's possibly even more relevant. Please read it.