A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Power of Humans Must Be Contained

I am writing this 3 days before election day.  One place in my thinking accepts the possibility that most of the people with influence in the election will follow the rules and that the outcome will represent the summary intentions of the electorate.  Another place in my thinking suggests that zealots insanely confident in the certainty of their “truth” will lie, steal, even kill to win (before, during or after).  All the variations of our troubles fill the void between these two extremes. 

The reasoned and unreasonable words of social, economic and political argument, however, miss the most important concern.  For all the dangers and sufferings arising from the issues that are discussed: war, healthcare, economic uncertainty and inequity, racism and the rest, ultimately we must begin to see the root cause for our dilemma; for me there is one fundamental admonition: The power of humans to act on the world must be contained.  Not following this admonition increases all of our difficulties.  I am proposing this as a general notion to be included in all of our deliberations: like washing hands before surgery or reading the instructions before trying to assemble a kit car. 

The strongest earthquakes in our experience top out at about 8 on the Richter scale, hurricanes occasionally reach Category 5 and tornadoes can attain EF-5 level.  Once every several hundred thousand years a super-volcano erupts sufficiently to change the earth’s climate for a few tens of years.  Something big from space has hit the earth in the tens of millions of years time frame, and several times over the last billion years the result has been major extinction events.  Floods, while locally consequential, are contained within boundaries, as are typical epidemic disease and parasitism.

All of these events have normal and natural limits.   A tornado is not in competition with another tornado to reach EF-6.  A flood doesn’t ‘prepare’ the lay of the land by removing retaining highlands so to have a wider area of effect.  A planet-killing 30 km asteroid only follows the invisible lines laid down by gravity and makes no attempt to maximize the impact of its investment of kinetic energy.

Human action is of a different nature.  [Please, bear with my invention of the Human Action scale (HA) as a device to aid in discussing these changes.] The early agriculturalists may have operated at the HA level 3.  The Roman Empire at an HA-7.  The “Enlightenment” raised the level to HA-9.  The Industrial Revolution shifted the paradigm from apparently arithmetic to clearly exponential with HA-12 in the 1830s, HA-24 in the 1880s and HA-144 in the 1930s.  My intuitive HA divining device is overwhelmed in the present and can’t even suggest a number, but it must be very big.  And unlike hurricanes seems not to be limited by recognizable restraints – except the draconian removal of all opportunity.

This week’s election is potentially a primary political moment.  The last eight years have represented the very worst of human action writ large in the policies of the earth’s dominate power: the most narrow minded, the most reactionary, the most selfish.  It is as though the USA were being directed by a feudal Baron from the 12th century.  And yet we must not return to normal.  The Bush years have accelerated our rush toward economic and ecological catastrophe and simply slowing down will not be enough.  I don’t know if we still have time to mitigate the effects of our actions, but we can always begin: this is truly a case of ‘better late than never.’

While there are legislative goals that can be suggested by this view, what is more important is political leadership and courage.  At present our highest ideals are built on technological “improvement,” wealth creation and some utterly unconsidered notion that we will grow and develop our way to global democratic equity.  All the evidence of the last few thousand years suggests otherwise.

Now is a moment to bring reality into the changing political and economic order; now, when other changes have prepared the mind for new possibilities. We must educate ourselves and our children; if not exactly how to get there, then where it is we need to go. We need to educate our leaders, telling where they are to lead us.  It is the big idea, held openly and held high, that creates its own paths and tools. 

These are not abstract concerns, but most importantly need to find their way into action.  The discovery, documentation and perception of true things that don’t fit into the approved and expected pattern for action should not condemn the perception to rejection, but should point to the need to change what we approve.  For example, that humans have a powerful impact on the biophysical behavior of earth systems is clearly established in the science literature, but more money and effort has been expended to deny that reality as a way to preserve unfettered growth than to explicate and respond to it by discovering ways to moderate human action.

Almost our total imagination has been devoted to increasing our HA level.  It is really is as though tornadoes were in competition with each other to reach EF-6 (500 mph winds?), EF-10 (1500 mph winds?) or EF-100 (maybe capturing solar “winds”?), all the while ignoring the destruction and reveling in the “great achievement.”

I have hopes for this election, not that it will be fair and honorable, but that it offers a possibility; that the energy and efforts of the new and forming forces will understand and take up the cause of moderating human action on the world so that my species will not be it own undoing, and that the incredible living state and the incredible consciousness state will long endure and evolve.

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