yet another radical manifestation
I've turned into one of the Reds from the Mars Trilogy. The Reds in Robinson's telling were a subset of the human settlers on Mars who opposed terraforming the planet. Except in my case, we've already "terraformed" Earth. It's way too late. "Terraforming" is a misnomer, a misdirection, a euphemism. We've sapienized Earth.
I feel I've hurtled well beyond both communism and green politics to a kind of radical primitivism. Well, you don't need either of these more modern political philosophies if you go back in time far enough ;-)
But I was already way more Green Socialist than the duly nominated "Green/Socialist" who I voted for last year, who received 0.5% of the vote -- 15,799 votes -- here in Maryland.
I'm grappling with what it means to be a living human, and whether it is possible to apply a system of ethics to being human that is not fundamentally hypocritical.
Why even care about ethics?
Many other animal species are territorial and construct homes for themselves, their young, or their pack/hive/colony. Some even use tools. What makes humans different is the fundamental scale of our operations; how we've gone way beyond simple territorialism; we've completely sapienized the planet, our level of species dominance is off the charts and yet still growing. As a single species we've caused an ongoing and worsening mass extinction, and we're changing the global climate.
Possibly the only comparable event in Earth history is the Oxygen Catastrophe, when the rise of photosynthetic bacteria introduced enough oxygen into the atmosphere to cause the first Ice Age, although that took 100 million years to unfurl, we humans have operated much more quickly.
What we call "technology" is this immense and exponentially growing power of humanity to obliterate everything else in service of our own survival, reproduction, and pleasure.
Yesterday, I was contemplating that humans would effectively abandon our humanity and become something more like chimpanzees (of which there are only 200,000 today), or long-tailed macaques (the second-most successful modern primates after humans, there's about 2 million of them).
If it weren't for our obliterating technological dominance, there'd only be a few million of us, living in small groups, hunting and gathering food and other objects from the surrounding forest, savanna, or grassland. Nobody worries about the macaques destroying the planet or running out of global resources. Nobody would've worried about humans doing these things either, 15,000 years ago.
But then we began domesticating animals and enclosing wild lands for agriculture. We also began mining the earth for fuel and minerals. These cultural practices allowed our population to begin its unsustainable expansion. Slowly at first, until the combination of the industrial revolution, public water utilities, and effective medical treatments -- which together allowed human population to explode. If it weren't for the development of effective mass market birth control during the mid-20th Century, our population would be expanding even faster right now.
It is easy to mistake our exponentially-growing technological dominance as a kind of stability, a kind of sustainability. For thousands of years global human population has continually expanded, except for a short period during the Black Death in the mid-14th Century.
Although environmentalists have been warning of resource depletion and overpopulation for decades, continued growth in technological dominance has made these warnings appear in retrospect like a form of mental illness. Some warned of Peak Oil, which did in fact occur more or less on schedule, hobbling the US during the 1970s, then hobbling the global economy during the early 21st Century -- but along came new technologies like fracking, and now the US is producing more oil than ever before! Some warned of an inability to feed our expanding numbers back during the 1960s, but then came synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, along with mechanical irrigation. Today, human starvation is a political problem, not a technology problem.
These new technologies will also eventually run out of resources, but what we've learned so far over the recent centuries is that each worn-out technology can be replaced by an even more powerful new technology. Human ingenuity! Endless growth in economic productivity!
So we now take economic growth for granted. In the US, we regularly toss out Presidents who preside over economic recessions -- Trump, Papa Bush, Carter, Ford, Nixon -- we expect at least 2.5% growth each year, damn it, with ever-rising profits and wages. And maybe we can continue growing at this pace for a few more centuries until the physics of heat transfer brings our planet's surface to the boiling point and all our liquid water evaporates into space.
The problem with unsustainability is that it can continue for a long time.
So what does this mean for ethics, for politics, for how we should live our 8 billion lives today?
There is a widespread fantasy that more technology can save us from our technological dominance. The leading such fantasy today is "renewable resources". Tesla is the most overvalued stock in the US today because it is the most fashionable corporate marketeer of this fantasy -- ubiquitous electric cars running on ubiquitous solar power via more powerful battery technologies.
The Green New Deal is based on this fantasy, that an emergency transformation into a 100% renewable resource economy can provide us with even more stuff than we have today, while at the same time reducing our destructive dominance of the planet's ecology.
The idea is that we can turn our history with technology upside down, using it to reduce our ecological "footprint" despite technology being the original reason for our suffocating footprint -- humanity's boot upon Gaia's neck.
It's like hearing an alcoholic say that if he increases his alcohol consumption all the drama will magically go away.
The solution isn't producing hundreds of millions of electric cars with a new power transmission infrastructure, it's giving up cars.
I still think Greens and Socialists are at least thinking about the important problems, their hearts are in the right place, etc. What tends to be missing is a realization that sacrifice is required. Instead most Greens/Socialists advocate for limited and magical solutions that never stand in the way of a more fairly shared exponential economic growth. The answer to too much species dominance is that our species needs to become more submissive to others, not that we become more creative and careful in our dominance. It's as though today's Greens are arguing for a more creative and humane treatment of slaves rather than ending slavery.
Giving up economic growth, giving up technologies, giving up having children. Giving up parts of the planet so they can rewild without any human intervention or interaction -- more places like Devon Island, the largest uninhabited island on Earth.
These things will eventually happen anyway, because we will eventually run out of resources and then our civilization will unravel. It might not happen for centuries yet, as our collective human ingenuity finds ever more destructive ways to continue extracting the planet's remaining resources, but it will happen, we'll eventually crash into the walls of Physics if nothing else, creating waste heat faster than it can dissipate into space. The only issue is whether we choose to manage this process, whether we choose to minimize the harm we're causing.
But the scope of our future decline is so large ... who would willingly choose it now? Who would choose to live like a wild primate when they can have air conditioning and Netflix?
Maybe the answer to the Fermi Paradox is that intelligence has always been self-limiting and self-destructive. When intelligence evolves to be strong enough to understand its own evolution, when intelligence becomes recursive, such an unleashed intelligence will inevitably destroy its habitat via unsustainable hyperdominance.
But even the less-intelligent non-hyperdominant mammalian species regularly go extinct over time. The average lifespan of a mammalian species is only one million years. Homo Sapiens is about 300,000 years old so far. We spent 95% of our existence as a rather intelligent variety of hunter-gatherer primate, with a few million of us scattered around the planet. But then we broke the glass ceiling ... launching ourselves into space.
Maybe resources exist to be used, waiting until a form of life evolves that can make use of them. It's just a function of how the universe increases entropy over time. Our function as a hyperintelligent species is to increase entropy as much as possible, and if we can have fun while doing so, why not?
Perhaps what bothers me is the mindlessness of it all. People acting like limited resources are unlimited. People acting like they're at a party that will never end.
But this is a metaphor for the single human life. My own life is a limited resource, and it will eventually run out. Civilizations, like individuals, have limited lifespans.
Perhaps the ethical lesson in all of this is to act in full knowledge of our limitations and our hyperlimitations. What I'm not sure about yet, is how I will act differently as this knowledge sinks in.
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