Saturday, April 25, 2009

how bad?


now that we have the benefits of an instant and comprehensive global overview of all things apocalyptic - climate, economies, extinctions, TV schedules - it's fairly safe to say that we're fucked.

to finish that sentence with an 'unless' has already become redundant - unlessing has been going on for sooo long, unlessing was for the last ten, twenty, forty years, when there was still a chance to avoid the worst of it, provided (there's another redundant) there was the political will to a) listen b) attend) and c), somewhat crucially, act.

didn't happen. they lied. shush little lambs they said leave it to us we have experts working on it we know what we're doing it'll all be ok don't rock the boat keep paying your taxes.

so we're fucked.

in how long? ten? fifteen? twenty? the probability rises with each decade. in fifty - around the 2060's - it changes to a certainty. life on earth as we know it - comfortable, western, human life - degrades. seriously. it becomes an increasingly desperate struggle for basic survival, wherein the compensations for the struggle - the contemplation of natural beauty, the enjoyment of cultural recreation, the sharing of our children's children's euphoric discoveries of their relationship with the world - become displaced by the typical behaviours of a civilisation in decline. ugly. it's all happened before - think Roman Britain circa 450 AD - just never before on the scale that it's going to happen this time.

  • global warming is ongoing - it's too late to do anything about it (sorry, Al - you gave it your best shot). the ice-caps will melt and the glaciers will retreat (it's already begun), sea-levels will rise, thousands of littoral populations will be displaced inland as their ecologies, their crops and meadows are drowned.
  • the fossil fuels are going to be exhausted - sooner rather than later, and even if they can finally crack the energy shangri-la of nuclear fusion, seriously commercial reactors are not going to come online in time.
  • the global economy is already in meltdown - however many gazillions get pumped into the rescue package, it's already too late.
  • the world population will continue to increase, at the same time as millions of acres of arable land are going to be inundated - net result, a world population far exceeding the capacity of the available agricultural land to sustain it.

so it goes (we miss you, kurt).

as far as we know, this way of life - this being human way of life - is unique in the Milky Way(which, since we're as likely to explore any further along our own spiral arm as the cow is to jump over the moon, is tantamount to leaving it at 'unique', full stop). there's absolutely no sign of it existing anywhere else than here. in universal terms, the chances of its being duplicated (the fractal complexities of the evolution of this thing - us - from those original prokaryotes that, somehow, divided and then started copying themselves) are very, very very low. not impossibly low, because the universe is a very, very, very big place, and has been going on for a very, very, very long time. just a bit too low to be put in the category of 'likely'. more likely, this being human way of life is unique, at least, in the Local Group.

which ought to be something to be proud of, really, oughtn't it?

I mean, here we are, not only sentient, but self-aware, capable of extraordinary things - not only of grasping an egg without crushing it, but of imagining and then constructing a machine that can do the same thing, not only perceiving our environment as a comprehensible event, something definable and tangible, but as something either pleasing or displeasing - responsive to an aesthetic filter that eludes the definitive, or, in the case of our behaviour toward each other, something good or bad - responsive to moral and ethical criteria that are totally resistant to the maths that quantify quanta so eloquently.

'pride' is, perhaps, the wrong word, since none of this is of our doing. it happened, we happened, thanks to an immensely long and complicated chain of evolutionary accidents, a chain that is so long, and so complicated that, for many, despite Darwin, the hand of God still continues to need to be invoked, if not as Seven Day Maker, at least as both Big Bang Igniter and Universal Shaper of Events. it is, of course, perfectly possible to eschew such culturally tenacious fictions without denying the miraculous, to celebrate the incredible good fortune of our progress towards humanity without surrendering to the credulousness of superstition. it is perfectly reasonable, nay, incumbent on our collective journey to self-discovery, to pay due homage to all of His works, without having to invoke Him as Maker. (wiki note: cite precedent for insight through paradox.)

we have rather taken it all for granted, though, haven't we? it's hard to avoid wondering just how much more careful we might have been with ourselves if we had had something to do with it. if, instead of passively sitting around and letting evolution take its course we'd been obliged to participate in shaping the code somehow - embedding a useful behavioural tweak here, editing out a counter-indicative trait there - we might have taken a little more pride in our appearance, a pride which, in those circumstances, would have been justified.

instead, like so many whose sink-estate lives have sunk so far into the pit of dependence that their sense of social responsibility becomes almost entirely atrophied, we expect someone else to sort it all out. even though, deep down, we know that nothing lasts forever, we don't actually believe it. even though we have known - for quite long enough for us to have been able to do something about it - that this was coming, we preferred to remain in denial. it's what we do. (dying, to cite a similar fine example of impending finality, is something that happens to other people. either old or unlucky people. anyway, way down the timeline. not even worth thinking about.)

so here we are, in the last few seconds of the last minute before midnight on that famous analogue of evolution as a twenty-four hour clock, with no clearer idea about the plan than had the bacteria when it all began.

trouble is, there never has been a plan. nothing, at least, that might be offered to an indifferent alien arbiter, a mildly curious but ultimately careless Proxima Centaurian, as an insight into human aspiration, something that might demonstrate our species-specific objectives and the road map we had drawn up to get there. plenty of plans plural, the vast majority of them - it has to be said - nothing more than variants on the 'if I ruled the world' theme, embodied, more often than not, in a psychopathic head of state. from Genghis Khan to Pol Pot, from Attila to Hitler, from Timurlane to Stalin - the way we do things (concludes the august representative from Proxima Centauri) seems to involve an awful lot of one-generational killing, and seems always to end in tears once the instigator of the killings has passed away.

for all that this last minute, relative to the big picture, is a blinkandyoumissit moment, and the individual durations of those preceding twenty to thirty civilisations (go Egyptians! at 3,000 years, still in the lead) mere moments compared with the dinosaurs' 160 million, the accumulation of so much experience of dealing with other humans over so many generations should, you'd think, have resulted by now in something other than what is: 6.7 billion fucked-up people on a fucked-up planet that they know how to repair but don't. makes about as much sense as continuing to drive a starship with a failing warp drive - but hey. those wild and whacky humans, right?

so what, apart from this Cassandra-like woe-betiding, is the proper response to such certainties? what is to be done, once we have embraced the realities, finally foregone the self-deluding unlesses and depending-on's, performed the ultimate volte-face that absolutely no-one of substance seems prepared to do, and confronted the imminence of the demise of human dominion on earth?

first thing is to recognise - without prejudice, as the weasel lawyers say - that we're not as perfect as we think we are. this in a phylogenetic, not a vainglorious sense.

if we're looking for reasons as to why we behave as badly as we do, there's one possibility that's glaringly obvious. it seems to me perfectly reasonable to conceive that there's a flaw in the hard-wiring - that our DNA carries a fundamental genetic error - a tiny one, but one that, replicated over millennia of adaptations, has virtually guaranteed the current predicament.

in a nutshell - having been programmed to succeed, by whatever means it takes, the genes for which we are, in Richard Dawkin's phrase, survival machines, seem to lack any way of modifying that survival behaviour once success is achieved. we are, in other words, engaged in a perpetual race to win, at any cost, despite having actually won millennia since.

as a species, humans took first place on the winners plinth so long ago that we have no cultural memory of it at all. who, in the yet to be named Olduvai Gorge could have predicted that this ungainly first cousin to the apes, laughably inferior in size, speed, tooth and claw to all of its predators, would become so successful at avoiding predation. within a few short millennia of freeing the opposing-thumbed hands by balancing on the rear legs, humans were developing in intelligence and co-operative skills far in excess of other pack-hunting species, manipulating tools, weapons, and fire in ways that no other animal ever learnt to do, and establishing the foundations of the discretely human cultural structures that far surpass in variety and complexity anything comparable in the animal kingdom, and that are still in place.

by the sixth millennium BCE, when Sumeria - the first great civilisation - was beginning to be established, humans were unquestionably the winners in the species-specific survival games. by that point, a rationally-engineered genetic programme would have compared the projected criteria of 'success' with the achieved conditions, recognised the near-one hundred percent match, and shut down that part of the programme that was still running in 'win at any cost' mode. instead, that programme continued to run - continues to run - investing the competitive imperative (an essentially redundant trait) with a false, and ultimately self-destructive cultural importance. divested of its evolved focus on survival in the face of threats from other species, for want of an evolutionary off-switch, it turned on its next closest perceived threat - its own survival machines, urging them to compete with each other, in perpetuity, for whatever advantage they might gain by destroying each other.

and so it continues.

even the urgency of the current situation, as its implications are finally, finally! being grasped - a late-blooming but rapidly proliferating meme - is being turned into a race, something in which there will be winners and losers. an economic system both rooted in the free market, with competition at its core, and on the totally illogical (insane) assumptions that growth should proliferate indefinitely and that the planet's natural resources are infinitely plunderable was only ever going to impede any efforts to mitigate the consequences. so for every argument that competition will produce the most effective solution to all our ills, there must be the counter-argument that competition to make that solution profitable will fatally compromise it.

to cite the overriding problem of global warming, for instance - everyone who cares knows that one of the most urgent priorities is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and all of the energy companies have immediate access to the technology that would enable this. however, since a limited company's market value is determined by its investors' confidence that it will continue to provide them with a share of the profits - their dividend - the first priority in all boardrooms is to keep the shareholders happy. so the strategic compromise - one that's been adopted wholesale across the most polluting industries - is to pump up the PR budget by an order of magnitude, in order to persuade the media ('us' is irrelevant - commercial TV is the one that matters, because 'we' will believe anything those slebs tell us) how much is being done to reduce the company's carbon footprint. in actuality, what that consists of is doing just enough to comply with equivocal directives from government (and, more likely than not, receiving a generous subsidy for doing so), which are drafted to balance the political fallout from whichever of the industrial or the environmental lobbies is likely to be the more upset by them, and these flexible and multi-interpretational target-based strategies, as we know from bitter experience across all public and private institutions from education to the NHS, encourage a box-ticking culture that mollifies the auditors in the short term without actually achieving very much at all in the way of improvement.

the second thing to recognise, therefore, is that our leaders lie, (gasp! really? no!) and that the political agenda is always a murky mess of fudge, evasion, and short-term self-interest, both in the individual and the partisan sense. it seems, sadly, to be the case that, just as the radical young musician transforms, with dreary inevitability, into the pompous, self-satisfied, middle-aged millionaire with batty ideas about how to save the world through eating tofu and adopting African children and giving one final merchandise-rich concert on a floating island in the middle of Lake Titicaca, so the radical young politician, bursting with idealistic fervour, is gradually transformed into the fawning backbencher whose only remaining aspiration is to catch the chief whip's attention sufficiently, if not to be elevated to cabinet, to at least be transferred to a safe seat at the next election. truth-telling, in either regard, is counter-productive. the art of politics is in large degree just the art of not being found out.

the third thing (and this is going to sound strange - bear with me) is that miracles do happen. it's not a matter of 'believing' in miracles, in some mystical or quasi-religious sense, but of acknowledging that highly improbable events that bring very welcome consequences do, in fact, happen - all the time. whenever there's a news report on some natural disaster - earthquake, tsunami, hurricane - that has wreaked utter havoc on some poor (usually) community in the middle of nowhere, there will come a moment, many days later, long after all hope of finding survivors has been abandoned, when a rescuer hears a cry, and someone - often a child - is lifted from the wreckage still alive who, to all intents and purposes, should have been dead. this is not an infrequent event. it nearly always happens. and it is always described as a miracle.

other miracles:

  • the passenger who changes flights at the last minute and escapes death on the one that's going to crash.
  • the premature baby weighing scant ounces who grows into a strapping athlete.
  • the cancer that goes into remission by itself.
  • the Afro-American who becomes President of the USA...

...und so weiter.

everything that we are and have become is the result of a series of accidents. chance rules.

unless we've been exceptionally unfortunate in our lives, all of us have experienced good fortune at some time or another - the happy event that owes little, if anything at all, to our own efforts. there are a million charlatans out there - from the priests to the aura-adjusters - who make a tidy living out of manipulating our innate respect for such phenomena. whether or not we subscribe to the belief that, as individuals, we can somehow harness this thing - chance - and, through some form of superstitious propitiation, manipulate it to our advantage, we have to admit that chance dictates a far greater proportion of our lives than we might be prepared to admit. furthermore, there do seem to be certain times in our lives when we feel, and effectively are 'luckier' than others, and, conversely, great swathes of our lives when we feel as though we're completely out of 'it'.

it is as if the same universal axiom of chance that, in macro, oversees the seemingly random emergence of something (the visible stuff - galaxies, stars, planets, us) out of nothing (the invisible - dark matter? quantum foam? strings?), applies, in micro, to the seemingly random connections between events that we classify as 'lucky' or 'coincidental' or 'miraculous' - the huge tidal waves of accident that describe the collisions in accretion orbits resulting in something quite big like our own planet attenuated, over time, into the tiny ripples of luck that lap at our tiny little lives like goldfish shoals nibbling at our toes.

to summarise:

our competitiveness is killing us
our chosen path of social organisation guarantees flawed leadership
shit (and some good stuff) just happens

so what's to be done?

don't look at me - I'm as lost as you are.