From taking for granted to taking charge

In our 200,000 years as a species, humankind has been able to take for granted a seemingly boundless ready-made world, friendly enough to permit survival. Some of that was luck, since there were relatively benign periods of planetary stability, and some of it involved human resourcefulness in being able to adapt or migrate in response to natural changes of conditions—even changes brought about by people themselves. Either way, our species was able to count on the sheer size of the natural environment, which seemed unlimited in relation to the human presence. (Today we recognize the dimensions of the planet, but for most of that prehistory there was not even a concept of living on a “planet.”) There was no need—and really no possibility—to imagine being responsible for the maintenance of what has turned out to be a finite and fragile closed system. Perhaps there was a local awareness among hunter-gatherers about cause and effect: to browse judiciously and not to poo in your pond. Yet the evidence abounds that early humans typically slaughtered to extinction all the great beasts. Once “civilized,” the ancients cut down great forests—and even bragged about it, as Gilgamesh pillaged the cedars of Lebanon for sport.

Taming animals and plants (and human slaves) for service required a mentality of managing resources. Yet, this too was in the context of a presumably unlimited greater world that could absorb any catastrophic failures in a regional experiment. We can scarcely know what was in the minds of people in transition to agriculture; but it is very doubtful that they could have thought of “civilization” as a grand social experiment. Even for kings, goals were short-term and local; for most people, things mostly changed slowly in ways they tried to adjust to. Actors came and went in the human drama, but the stage remained solid and dependable. Psychologically, we have inherited that assumption: human actions are still relatively local and short-sighted; the majority feel that change is just happening around them and to them. The difference between us and people 10,000 years ago (or even 500 years ago) is that we finally know better. Indeed, only in the past few decades has it dawned on us that the theatre is in shambles.

I grew up in 1950s Los Angeles, when gasoline was 20 cents the gallon, and where you might casually drive 20 miles to go out for dinner. As a child, that environment seemed the whole world, totally “natural,” just how things should be. My job was to learn the ropes of that environment. But, of course, I had little knowledge of the rest of the planet and certainly no notion of a ‘world’ in the cultural sense. Only when I traveled to Europe as a young man did I experience something different: instead of the ephemera of L.A., an environment that was old and made of stone, in which people organized life in delightfully different ways. No doubt that cultural enlightenment would have been more extreme had I traveled in Africa instead of Europe. But it was the beginning of an awareness of alternatives. Still, I could not then imagine that cheap gas was ruining the planet. That awareness only crept upon the majority of my generation in our later years, coincident with the maturing consciousness of the species.

We’ve not had the example of another planet to visit, whose wise inhabitants have learned to manage their own numbers and effects in such a way to keep the whole thing going. We have only imagination and history on this planet to refer to. Yet, the conclusion is now obvious: we have outgrown the mindset of taking for granted and must embrace the mindset of taking charge if we are to survive.

What happened to finally bring about this species awakening? To sum it up: a global culture. When people were few, they were relatively isolated, the world was big, and the capacity to affect their surroundings was relatively small. Now that we are numerous and our effects highly visible, we are as though crowded together in a tippy lifeboat, where the slightest false move threatens to capsize Spaceship Earth. Through physical and digital proximity, we can no longer help being aware of the consequences of our own existence and attendant responsibility. Yet, a kind of schizophrenia sets in from the fact that our inherited mentality cannot accommodate this sudden awareness of responsibility. It is as though we hope to bring with us into the lifeboat all our bulky possessions and conveniences and all the behaviors we took for granted as presumed rights in a “normally” spacious and stable world.

We are the only species capable of deliberately doing something about its fate. But that fact is not (yet) engrained in our mentality. Of course, there are futurists and transhumanists who do think very deliberately about human destiny, and now there are think tanks like the Future of Humanity Institute. Individual authors, speakers, and activists are deeply concerned about one dire problem or another facing humanity, such as climate change, social inequity, and continuing nuclear threat, along with the brave new worlds of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. Some of them have been able to influence public policy, even on the global scale. Most of us, however, are not directly involved in those struggles, and are only beginning to be touched directly by the issues. Like most of humanity throughout the ages, we simply live our lives, with the daily concerns that have always monopolized attention.

However, the big question now looming over all of us is: what next for humanity? It is not about predicting the future but about choosing and making it. (Prediction is just more of bracing ourselves for what could happen, and we are well past that.) We know what will happen if we remain in the naïve mindset of all the creatures that have competed for existence in evolutionary history: homo sapiens will inevitably go extinct, like the more than 99% of all species that have ever existed. Given our accelerating lifestyle, this will likely be sooner than later. They passively suffered changes they could not conceive, let alone consciously control, even when they had contributed to those changes. We are forced to the terrible realization that only our own intervention can rectify the imbalances that threaten us. Let us not underestimate the dilemma: for, we also know that “intervention” created many of those problems in the first place!

Though it is the nature of plans to go awry, humanity needs a plan and the will to follow it if we are to survive. That requires a common understanding of the problems and agreement on the solutions. Unfortunately, that has always been a weak point of our species, which has so far been unable to act on a species level, and until very recently has been unable even to conceive of itself as a unified entity with a possible will. We are stuck at the tribal level, even when the tribes are nations. More than ever we need to brainstorm toward a calm consensus and collective plan of action. Ironically, there is now the means for all to be heard. Yet, our tribal nature and selfish individualist leanings result in a cacophony of contradictory voices, in a free-for-all bordering on hysteria. There is riot, mutiny and mayhem on the lifeboat, with no one at the tiller. No captain has the moral (much less political) authority to steer Spaceship Earth. What can we then hope for but doom?

Some form of life will persist on this planet, perhaps for several billion years to come. But the experiment of civilization may well fail. And what is that experiment but the quest to transcend the state of nature given us, which no other creature has been able to do? We were not happy as animals, having imagined the life of gods. With one foot on the shore of nature and one foot in the skiddy raft of imagination, we do the splits. The two extreme scenarios are a retreat into the stone age or charging brashly into a post-humanist era. Clearly, eight billion people cannot go back to hunting and gathering. Nor can they all become genetically perfect immortals, colonize Mars, or upload to some more durable form of embodiment. The lifeboat will empty considerably if it does not sink first.

Whatever the way forward, it must be with conscious intent on a global level. We will not go far bumbling as usual. Whether salvation is possible or not, we ought to try our best to achieve the best of human ideals. Whether the ship of state (or Spaceship Earth) floats or sinks, we can behave in ways that honour the best of human aspirations. To pursue another metaphor, in the board game of life, though ever changing, at any given moment there are rules and other elements. The point is not just to win but also to play well, even as we attempt to re-define the rules and even the game. That means to behave nobly, as though we are actually living in that unrealized dream. Our experiment all along has been to create an ideal world—using the resources of the real one. Entirely escaping physical embodiment is a pipe-dream; but modifying ourselves physically is a real possibility. In a parallel way, a completely man-made world is an oxymoron, for it will always exist in the context of some natural environment, with its own rules—even in outer space. Yet coming to a workable arrangement with nature should be possible. After all, that’s what life has always done. With no promise of success, our best strategy is a planetary consciousness willing to take charge of the Earth’s future. To get there, we must learn to regulate our own existence.