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, February 7, 2009

Sophie’s Choice

(essay two)

In William Styron’s book, in a moment in which the reader is completely aware of what is to come, but is unwilling to recognize, filled with foreknowledge and desirous to escape, but drawn against the will to follow the detail of the moment, Sophie Zawistowski is told to choose between her two young children, which will live and which will be killed.  It was a choice that could not be avoided; the consequence of refusing to choose was “worse.”  It came as surprise, but from a situation that fully contained its possibility.  Our world is today presenting us with “Sophie’s choice.”

We are faced with a “choice” between radically changing almost everything about how we live, both our behaviors and our beliefs, or the very rapid destabilization of the biological and physical systems that sustain the present ecological relationships that we call ‘life on earth.’ [1]  Not all “ways of life” can continue on. 

In the broadest strokes, the multitudes will need to reduce in numbers and in per capita consumption beginning now, but in general ‘slowly,’ so that the human species is reducing its footprint on the earth by something like 10% every generation for a time after an initial drop of about 30 % over the space of 10 to 20 years.  The wealthy elites will have to quickly become a part of these changes, in part by contributing much of their actual negotiable wealth (not paper wealth which will largely be “lost”) to the biosphere survival project and in part by joining the multitude as contributing members.  This reduction must be measured in consumption rates since the earth doesn’t care whether it is 7 billion consuming 2000 calories per capita a day or 1 billion consuming 14,000 calories per capita a day.  There is only so much energy and material that our species can take (and especially when not compensating for what is being taken) without dangerously unbalancing our ecology.  If it is more that 14,000 billion calories per day of total energy use, then reductions are non-negotiable. (The details of the numbers need to be empirically established, but these seem reasonable values for thinking.) 

But “Sophie’s choice” is not between living or not living at all (not living at all was Sophie’s final, and empty, choice), but the choice of whose way of life will continue and whose will not; it is the choice before us.  And it has been before us for, now, thousands of years: material accumulation vs. the “spiritual” state of ecological relationship.  Are we a consumer of nature or are we an integral part of nature?

Of course, here the metaphor finally unravels. Our infatuation with wealth and material progress is not one child and our capacity to love and experience life’s intangibles another.  And our choice is not strictly between them.  But, will we finally kill off our biological connection with the biophysical world in favor of material consumption? We have for all these years been misled by the apostles of wealth and greed, because, my friends, wealth is like fairies, it only exists if you belief in it.  Or will we give attention and significant value to that connection, reduce our material demands on the earth’s capacities and live more in the experience of life and less in the accumulation of objects.  

Sophie was doomed the moment she was forced to choose between her children, but she was powerless in her situation.  We are not.  We can negotiate with our captors, since our captors are us (homage to Pogo).  The question of us is: how do we avoid being doomed by our choice? 

Making choices is what the CSO is all about.  In the Living System of Order, “choice” is a very different function than in the Consciousness System of Order.  99.9999999999…% of all the organisms that have ever lived could only act on the energies immediately present at their sense organs and the consequences of those actions were only selected, stored and implemented by the DNA/protein relationship housed deep in the genitive tissue.  It is the function of the CSO to imagine occasions that do not and have not ever existed, and to seek out practical designs of action to make the imaginings happen in “reality.” 

We have come to the moment when the Officer (the biophysical reality) is demanding that we choose between our present values and beliefs and others with which we are less familiar or comfortable, but which offer the possibility of sustaining the present designs of our living planet.  Much of what we know and love (in my view, pathologically) will have to go.  Much that is new and difficult will have to be confronted.  Making a choice that does not doom us will be the trick.

[1] Life will not end on earth, but the millions of organisms in concert with consistent biozones will change dramatically to simpler arrangements of greatly reduced numbers.  Systems that require complex stabilities, like human economies and other high order ecologies, will disappear.

1 comment:

Michael Dawson said...

I would be keenly interested in reading your thoughts about the likely trajectory of events if we keep following our do-nothing course of action. How do you foresee the time-frame in relationship to when it gets too late to save the best scraps of modernity?

Thanks, as always.