Reflections on Earth Day

SUBHEAD: Evolution, not preservation is required for the potential of humanity to become a wiser species.

By George Mobus on 22 April 2009 in Question Everything

Image above: "I'm with stupid" cartoon for Earthday by Tab. At{80213201-AF1D-48BD-99E2-A5DE7C99191C}&pageDisplay=1  

What does it really mean? It has become the watchword of our age. Every company wants to get on the band wagon, or is it a gravy train? What does it mean to be green? Governments promote greenness and sustainability but only so far as these (whatever they are) can be achieved by markets and entrepreneurship. Should sustainability mean enduring? And does it translate to something like keeping the world the same as it has been over the history of humanity? Does it mean keeping things as they are forever?

The more I read articles about these terms the more I wonder if everyone is on the same page! Much of the environmental movement's sentiment has centered on preservation. It seems to me there are two very different motivations behind the idea of preservation. One is that we want the world to stay exactly the same as it has been and we conceive of the world that our great grandchildren will inherit will look exactly the same as it does to us.

 Much of the anger in those concerned with conservation seems to be directed at those people and processes that they perceive as threatening to destroy the world as it has been in human memory. We rail against human-caused species extinctions, pollution, and, now, climate change. We call for actions that will stop these behaviors. Many people see the acts of harm to the world caused by other people and they want to save the world. Those other people are too blind to see the harm. Most of them only see the gains for human convenience and comfort. They don't grasp the desire to keep the natural world undisturbed. But another sense of preservation is not regarding the state of the world, but rather the potential of the world.

What we should be concerned about is not that the world stay the same, but that it retains a potential to become whatever it can become. In other words we should want to preserve the capacity for the world to evolve. And by 'we', here, I mean humanity. We evolved in a world that had been undergoing many kinds of changes since its birth 4.5+ billion years ago. Life emerged and evolved on a very different kind of planet than the one we inhabit today. What makes us think that things need to stay the same? Is evolution over?

Are we the end of the road? In my last post I tried to point out that evolution involves a system undergoing internal reorganization under the influence of energy flow. Our world has been jolted by an increase in the flow of energy due to tapping the underground reserves of fossil fuels. This increase in energy flow, over just the real-time flow of solar energy, is what allowed our advanced cultures with our substantial technologies to evolve. Unfortunately, those very technologies and combustion products of the fossil fuel revolution have substantially threatened our natural world in the ways decried by environmentalists.

Along with our propensity to do what all life does given the chance, namely propagate our kind beyond the carrying capacity of the globe, the impulse of energy due to mankind has led to habitat destruction, pollution that cannot be detoxified by the natural world, and changing the climate in ways we probably won't like. Now that we appear to be at the peak of oil production and soon to be at the peak of all energy production, it would seem that energy flow through our world is about to diminish. This might seem like good news for the natural world, and I can't argue with that.

But it is decidedly bad news for humanity if we don't make some important decisions soon. It could literally spell the end of human evolution and the presence of second-order conscious, abstract symbol processing life on the planet. Unless you hate the human kind (and I think there are some aligned with environmentalism who do) this counts as devolution for the planet as a whole. It diminishes the potential for evolution of yet higher consciousness.

My personal sense of sustainability and preservation has to do with an active choice to preserve humanity's future options while reducing the harmful effects of mankind on the natural environment. To my mind these go hand in hand. I am less concerned with the fact that we have become the agents of change on the planet, not unlike prior climatic shifts or even meteors have been.

We are responsible for changing the environment in ways that will have evolutionary consequences; of that I am convinced. But I think we were just doing what was natural to our kind and not evil in intent. Unwise, perhaps; at least we have most often acted out of lack of wisdom and understanding. But what has been done is done. What we need to do now is make some wise choices about what to do next. And that will be the hard part.

Moral Conundrum
I was sorry that the re-make of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" carried that name and tried to make some smaltzy nods to the original (Klatu and GORT).

In general I think the movie had some major holes in it for trying to play to our nostalgia for the post-WWII fears that gave rise to the original. But never mind. The central message of the movie was, I think, still compelling. It could have warranted a completely different story line with a completely different title, say "The Universal Fitness Test". In the new version Klatu tells the heroine that "... if you [humanity] live, the Earth dies. If you die, the Earth lives."

Therein lies a moral conundrum. Certainly if humanity were to attempt to continue to live the way it has, the destruction to the Ecos could be planet killing. The movie's premise is that mankind could go on in this manner and the Earth would die as a result. But Earth is a rare complex-life supporting planet, something to be preserved. Ergo, mankind, being a threat to that preservation, must be destroyed. One sentient life form sets out to eradicate another (apparently less sentient!) and save the Earth. It makes for nice drama.

But the reality is that we cannot go on as we have. It is physically impossible to go much further than we have already because we are going to be extracting and using much less fossil fuels as the years progress. In fact, our numbers will decline dramatically, our bad influences on nature will diminish, and we will be reduced to a scattered few tribes reverting to primitive lives. We will have changed the climate, certainly, but no more so than other climate shifting events have done in the past.

Evolution will carry on in the natural world. Mass extinction will happen but so will later effusive speciation as new forms learn to exploit new econiches. Earth abides. It will just be yet another different planet. Can mankind survive this throwback? Possibly. But what a shame if we end up as we started, using stone tools and animal pelts to keep warm. What concerns me more is that mankind will not merely go meekly into that new stone age, but will commit species suicide. Earth will become a global Easter Island scenario. Either way a great many of the products of evolution to date will be lost, and may never recover (it takes millions of years to cook fossil fuels in the crust).

Our possession of technologies, our capacity to use concentrated energy for useful work, these are not evil things even though their profligate use has caused much destruction. It has always been a lack of wisdom that has allowed us to misuse and abuse our cleverness that resulted in these problems.

 My one hope is that we can manage to preserve the potential for humanity to evolve into a wiser species. To do so will more than likely involve some very hard choices. We are faced with the overcrowded life boat drama. The boat can only hold X number of survivors, but there are 2X people scrambling to get in. Left to this situation, the boat will capsize and sink and everybody will drown. What do you do? If everybody drowns there is no more future. We have already started a process in motion that I do not believe can be stopped. There are so many very good people out there who earnestly hope that it can. They believe that it must be stopped; that we must prevent climate change and species extinctions, etc.

My heart goes out to all. But once it becomes clear that our species is incapable of changing its own nature and that we will die insisting on maintaining our lifestyle, then maybe they will understand that the only solution to Earth's problem is evolution of the genus Homo. Our species, Homo sapiens needs to go the way of Homo neanderthalis as a wiser species, our descendant, makes its debut. In the meantime we need to preserve the potential for that to happen.

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