Monday, August 1, 2016

Dodging Extinction: Part 3 - What can we do?

           Before delving into things we can do that might be effective in avoiding "the end of the world", I like to look as some ideas that have been proposed:

1- Intervention by Superior Powers will save humanity in just the nick of time (just like the Holywood movies..) Such beings could be God, the Space Brothers (maybe even friendly time travellers, who knows.. )

comment: Highly speculative! The Real Question here, for me, is: would the gods - or extraterrestrials - be so mind-boggingly stupid to intervene and "save us from ourselves". Would any self-respecting God or Space Brother attempt to save us from the "programming" of our genes and minds resulting by 3.5 billion years of Darwinian evolution? Darwinian logic itself suggests letting "unfit" - uncivilizable - species destroy themselves. By "saving us from ourselves" they could be turning a bunch of high tech barbarians on the rest of the Galaxy. Definitely not a bright move.. not bright..

2- Technology will save us! This can be seen as a blend of Post-modern / Post-christian messianism with the Ideology of Progress which arose during the European Enlightenment (18th century). It also incorporates the reactionary postion called "business-as-usual". It is a comforting faith: we don't have to change our ways of living and thinking in any essential fashion. All we need is a little technological tweak or fix, here and there.

problem: GIGO - Garbage In, Garbage Out. Technology (and Culture) are programmed by society. But society is then programmed by technology and culture. It's the old "chicken or egg" problem: which can first? Neither, of course! chickens and eggs cyclically (recursively) reproduce themselves. Chickens lay eggs, eggs hatch into new chickens.. The problem here is that, currently, the productive loop, Technology--> Society / Society--> Technology is self-destructive. As currently constucted this cycle generates human overpopulation, resource depletion, destructive climate change, the 6th mass extinction of biological species.. What is really needed is a new "program" for the Technology / Culture "computer": a new vision of our place in nature, a new set of values (ethics) to guide our behviors in the real world. 

In short, technology itself, is not - cannot be - either the problem or the solution. We need a human spiritual (ethical) revolution and I don't see that on the horizon. (Must I then make myself one of the initiators..

                          The City of Light - Technotopia (or Technofraud?)

3- Historical Determinism, fatalism. Karl Marx was into this and look what it got him: the Communist fiasco! Back in the 18th century, Enlightenment philosophers and early modern science perceived the world as run by rigid mathematical laws. They were inspired by the stunning recent successes of mathematical physics: Isaac Newton's New Mechanics for example. Today, the modern study of Self-Organization in nature and human societies reveals that such deterministic views apply, legitimately, only to very simple and highly constrained systems. "Real world" systems of interest: biological evolution, ecosystems, organisms, societies,cultures, branches of knowlege.. these are complex, interconnected, unconstrained and in their detailed operation functionally unpredictable.

                                                 a good man but he led many astray

comment: whether or not, determinism is philosophically false, it is psychologically irresistable for some people. Consider conspiracy theorists. They do not, or cannot, take ownership, as members of the "consumer society", for the environmental and moral condition of the world. In reality, they cannot admit that the world is spinning out of control. They seemed impelled to believe that there must be some humans controlling things - even if these people represent an evil World Conspiracy. The image of chaos must be truly terrifying to these people!

4- Mobilizing the masses. For me, perhaps the most sympathetic. But how?
Unlike Anthony Barnosky: Dodging Extinction, E. O. Wilson: The Future of Life  and Seth Reice: The Silver Lining, who write from a conservation biologist perspective, I see "mobilization of the masses" as occuring locally and regionally (not globally). Furthermore they see mobilization as a pro-active, pre-emptive act design to avoid catastrophe. I believe we have waited to long to make a smooth transition to a renewable energy economy. For me, mobilization is seen primarily as a response to ongoing crisis. See note 1.

            At present, the "masses" are on autopilot: duped, deluded, dumbed down - states of being which maximize profits for multinational corporations and hence are powerfully reinforced socially. Let us never forget! Big Biz, not the People, is the real ruling class in modern "democracies". 

          Given that I see little hope from any of these quarters (the options discussed above), I believe that mass human die-off in this century is the most probable outcome. I thus opt for option 4 above, mobilizing the masses during a time of crisis. In this context technology (primitive to modern, simple to complex) is important as a collection of tools (but not as a Savior or Master). The highly speculative option 1, above, has its utility since individual and group prayer, ritual, meditation,.. can be socially integrative, allowing "therapeutic empowerment" of individuals and small groups. I guess the best attitude to adopt is "God/dess helps those who help themselves"..

            The goal here, of course, is to minimize the losses of societal collapse and exploit whatever opportunities the current set of interlocking, mutually reinforcing crises present in the way of new evolutionary trajectories. Consider biological evolution: life on earth has always managed to bounce back - stronger (more biologically diverse) - after each mass extinction crisis. This has been the pattern for 5 major extinction events with a 6th extinction - human caused - now under way. The greatest of these, the late Permian Mass Extinction, 252 million years ago, wiped out about 95% of life in the sea and 90 - 95% on land. Recovery - and rediversification - took some 20 million years after this Mother of All Extinctions, but it occurred nevertheless. Life is resilient.

            It is arguable that human civilizations - and especially Civilization, in its globality - follow a similar pattern of crisis, die back, renaissance, flourishing, stagnation and decay, followed by a new crisis. Civilizations may indeed come and go, but the stock of human knowledge has, on the whole, increased over time: the Romans did not have the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, for example.

             At this time of planetary crisis, I propose we should take a page from those great survivalists of Late Antiquity, the early Christians. Christian monasteries preserved a good part of the philosophy, law, science and mathematics of antiquity during the Dark Ages which followed the breakup of the Roman Empire. These preserved teachings served a vital role in the Renaissance of Western civilization and the birth of Modernity (12th through 17th centuries). 

            We need to think of doing something similar today, to preserve what is worth saving in our civilization so that the survivors won't have to start from scratch, so they will have the best seed from which to grow a new civilizational cycle. I call communities designed to preserve and pass on our civilization's knowledge and our best values, Cultural Refugia (note 2). We have payed a high price for our science, we should not throw it away lightly (very bad karma!) We need to preserve the Periodic Table, Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, Ecology... We need to preserve essential technologies to kick start a new cycle of civilization. Ideally, the larger Refugia would maintain 19th century metalurgy and electrical technology, early 20th century vacuum tube technology (intergrated circuitry is probably too high tech to survive the social chaos I see coming. Ditto for nuclear reactors: too complex, too demanding of infrastructure and capital). To the degree possible, we should attempt to maintain mid-20th century medicine (note 3). Above all, we need to preserve our most precious spiritual acquisitions like Civil or Human Rights: liberty, equality, fraternity; the belief in the dignity of the human person and the Universality of human nature; the gains of modern feminism,..

The two, previously posted, parts of this series are:


1- internal blog links: keyword: book review 

2- The term "Cultural Refugia" was chosen, by analogy, with reference to ecological refugia.

Refugium (plural: refugia): (Latin) An area in which a population of organisms can survive through a period of unfavorable conditions 

 3- bacteriophage therapy: bacteriophages are "bacteria eating" viruses. They were used in the Soviet Republic of Georgia instead of Western style antibiotics to treat infectious diseases. This is a potentially useful technology for our Cultural Refugia. It is simpler and less costly than standard antibiotic development and production, works about as well, and bacterial resistance is less of a problem. As the virologists say: every bacteria has 50 (if not a hundred) phages. Thus if an infectious bacteria begins to develop resistance to a particular phange in a given community, go and get another one of those 50 - 100 phages. By the time you get to # 50 (or 100), the bacteria will have lost all or most of the resistance it had acquired to phage # 1 and you start the cycle all over again. The result: the bacteria is always kept on its toes, never has the chance to develop full antibiotic resistance as is, increasingly, the case with more and more infectious bacteria today.

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