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, March 27, 2010

The Back of My Envelope

The back of my envelope has grown onto the kitchen table, then onto an Excel spreadsheet and then escaped into the desperation of my mind: the only solution (if it can called ‘solution!’) is that the human species reduce its use of the earth’s biological resources by about 80% and its extractive industries by even more.

I don’t want this to be the answer. If people could fly around in jet planes with theirs heads buried in the most recent version of Game Boy, plugged into iPads at their every pore all the while eating Big Macs on gold plates and spaying insecticide into every nock and cranny– and the world’s ecosystems and biophysical cycles be unaffected – I would not care one whit, would be deeply relieved and would go on walks in the woods, ride my bike to the post office and read/write in happy contentment about a hundred other things that fascinate me.

But it is simply not so. Our billions are becoming the locusts in the grain fields. Our industries and tiny travel factories, our patent laws and biogenetic engineering, our simple requirements for food, water and lebensraum all are pitting our presence against the intricate structures of order that support the ecosystems and millions of species presently representing life on earth.

Could the worst possible consequences of human excess ‘end life on earth?’ Certainly not, but economic failure (human economic societies are the most fragile structures of their type on earth), the capturing of every last calorie by humans driven to extremus, the water and food wars and likely use of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons as social and political order collapse would so damage the biosphere that the present rapid extinction rate would be strongly punctuated. Most of the world’s large region-defining animals would quickly die off and probably ½ or more of the total species – along with ecosystem integration – would disappear.

The human experience would be awful: fear, pain, starvation, torture, mutilation would all exist at unprecedented levels. Just imagine a large city or a mega-city region, up to a hundred million people in a concentrated space, when the food trucks stop rolling in, when the water taps go dry. The first such general system failures in industrial world cities are only 20 to 30 years away without changes in our present behavior. ‘Practice’ failures are already happening if we will but see them: the horn of Africa, several regions of India, for example.

I see no directions being changed. Imagine that the system failures begin in changes in agricultural production, weather patterns fail to match the refined expectations of a calculated farming plan, yields are below necessity, packaging and distribution systems are compromised. The cascading economic failures would trigger ecosystem destruction as people began to take their personal survival into their own local hands. If just one mega-city region were to have a serious failure of food delivery and a disruption of other primary infrastructure, water, electricity, waste removal, policing and fire control services, the spread of economic and environmental collapse would be unrecoverable.

We buy home alarm services, some of us own guns, some people keep a few gallons of water and several days of food on hand. All of these things take effort and a belief that our present levels of comfort and safety could be challenged and that it is wise to prepare for such a possibility. There are two ways to look at such preparation. One is that it would be a 2 foot floodwall facing a 100 foot wave; the other, that the sentiment is right, but the level and focus of preparation is misguided. I tend toward the second.

Of course, it is possible that the human species will slip past this coming constriction of possibility without having to think about it, that some miraculous event will ‘change everything.’ But, these things are usually the Devil’s own bargain: a great epidemic disease; some technical fix that just digs us deeper in the hole, but that we grab for; a draconian social/political movement mixed with messianic certainty. This is usually how we do things.

But the stakes are higher this time. The Roman Empire could slowly crash to its knees and become medieval Europe at the same time as its blown embers helped to ignite the Middle East. There were less than ½ a billion people on the earth and ‘a million’ places to go. Most people were close to the land in an agrarian world. Today there are billions of people who have never planted a seed, killed a chicken or picked a berry, taken a drink from a stream, built a fire, slept on the ground, walked 10 miles with weight or any of the other things that are the immediate requirements of remaining alive in a world that doesn’t supply these needs on a complex economic model. And they will not go gentle, etc.

This time around human beings need to use their powers of reason, science and imagination to plan their way. The pettiness of power and wealth will have to give way to the dangers and solutions of the best reality discoverable. Unlike the other animals, humans can create their own goals, goals that must include not only the actions we wish to take, but those inhibitions necessary for us to live in the company of the rest of the living assemblage.

Will we do it? Probably not. Most likely a great crash and burn is our future with a species capable of using the Consciousness Order with full effectiveness coming in a distant iteration. But those who can must try.

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