At this point in history the capacity to doubt, to criticize and to disobey may be all that stands between a future for mankind and the end of civilization.
– Erich Fromm1
God offers to everyone his choice between truth and repose. Take which you please—you can never have both.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson2
On June 23, 2015, I had the pleasure of exchanging views about the tragic condition of the biosphere with Jeff J. Brown of Radio Sinoland (Planet & The Fermi Paradox)—click on the link below:
NOTE: Wait a few seconds for the audio to kick in.
Here I plan to highlight and expand upon key points of that interview.
Specialization is often Accompanied by Tunnel Vision
One of the saddest aspects of our age, besides the partial awareness of most people, is the ignorance of most specialists. Ortega y Gasset (1932) puts it this way:
Previously, men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant, those more or less the one, and those more or less the other. But your specialist cannot be brought in under either of these two categories. He is not learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter into his specialty; but neither is he ignorant, because he is “a scientist,” and “knows” very well his own tiny portion of the universe. We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line.3
Specialization helps prop up our unjust and suicidal system. At the moment, freedom, equitable distribution of wealth, peace, justice, spirituality, and sustainability are all losing ground. And yet, most specialists, e.g., brilliant nuclear, genetic, or computer engineers, are unaware of, or choose to ignore, the fact that they are playing with fire. Likewise, most citizens are oblivious to what is going on.
Reliable, Evidence-Based, Warnings to Humanity are Increasing in Frequency and Shrillness
Many among us (largely prompted by underhanded manipulation funded by corporate entities invested in the exploitative status quo) dismiss environmental concerns as a swindle. And yet, the majority of the people who are best qualified to judge the matter—holistic thinkers and scientists—are extremely concerned about the very future of the biosphere. For example, in 1992—when the situation was less desperate than it is now—some 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences, issued this “Warning to Humanity””
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.
This is echoed in turn by more recent warnings. According to the U.N.’s 2011 World Economic and Social Survey: “Humanity is on the verge of breaching planetary sustainability boundaries” and heading towards “a major planetary catastrophe.”
A group of leading scientists stated:
Transgressing one or more planetary boundaries may be deleterious or even catastrophic due to the risk of crossing thresholds that will trigger non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental-to-planetary-scale systems…. We estimate that humanity has already transgressed three planetary boundaries: for climate change, rate of biodiversity loss, and changes to the global nitrogen cycle. The complexities of interconnected slow and fast processes and feedbacks in the Earth System provide humanity with a challenging paradox. On the one hand, these dynamics underpin the resilience that enables planet Earth to stay within a state conducive to human development. On the other hand, they lull us into a false sense of security because incremental change can lead to the unexpected crossing of thresholds that drive the Earth System, or significant subsystems, abruptly into states deleterious or even catastrophic to human well-being.
By now, even the head of one of the oldest and richest organizations on earth joined the chorus of doomsayers. Here are a few excerpts from Pope Francis’ June 18, 2015 encyclical:
Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse … We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
The same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty.
Canaries in the Coal mineSuch views are reinforced by incontestable facts on the ground. Extreme climate events are on the rise. Keystone species like bees, bats, frogs, monarch butterflies, and elephants are declining. Health problems like autism, cancer, and obesity are nearing epidemic proportions. The polluted oceans and topsoil can support less life forms than they could in the past. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and countless other substances are higher than they have been 10, 100, 1,000, or 10,000 years ago.
So far, these realities have been documented by knowledgeable observers but largely ignored by bribed or intimidated politicians and journalists and by the public at large.
The Tsiolkosvki (or Fermi) Paradox
I first encountered the Tsiolkosvki paradox in Isaac Asimov’s New Guide to Science. Astronomy, Asimov notes, strongly suggests that there are at least millions of planets in the universe which should be capable of sustaining life. In some of these planets, technological civilizations must have come into being long before ours. Such alien civilizations ought to have by now solved the problem of intergalactic travel, or at least ought to have developed means of communicating over the vast distances of the cosmos. And yet, as best as we can tell, the universe is silent. Why?
One could come up with any number of solutions to this paradox. The late Isaac Asimov—one of the most accomplished holistic thinkers of the modern age—seems to have favored the following. Could it be, he wondered, that intelligence is a self-limiting property? Could it be, to put it somewhat differently, that extinction is written into the evolutionary history and the genetic code of any technological species?
It could indeed be that “this is the first moment in the history of our planet when any species, by its own voluntary actions, has become a danger to itself – as well as to vast numbers of others.”
It’s the Multiplicity of known and yet unknown Interventions, along with Humanity’s Collective Heartlessness and Irrationality, that Virtually Guarantee Human Extinction
Most pessimistic scholars base their predictions of impending environmental holocaust on a single technology. Some climate disruption experts, for instance, believe that it’s already game over for humanity. Other scholars, looking at the prospects of an all-out nuclear war, are convinced that it is precisely such a war that would spell our doom.
But one can also look at our environmental predicament as a whole. What happens when we combine the probabilities of all potential extinction events? To be sure, the biosphere is extremely complex and hence unpredictable. Still, some tentative order-of-magnitude estimates might be made:
Nuclear power: There are some 440 existing plants and some 60 are under construction. We had already three major disasters (Kyshtym, Chernobyl, and Fukushima), which would, when everything is said and done, involve permanent loss of previously habitable lands, increased radiation risks everywhere, and the death of millions, at the very least. We can confidently expect many more disasters because the technology is inherently risky. For instance, at the moment we have no idea where and how to store its ever-growing quantities of waste products. Will we survive Fukushima? Will we survive 10 more Fukushimas? Will we survive 50? Nobody knows. Let us be conservative and arbitrarily assign a 5% probability to human extinction caused by nuclear power catastrophes.
Nuclear war: Humanity has been under the shadow of nuclear war since 1945. How long can this continue before these weapons are unleashed accidentally or on purpose, especially by the madmen who now control Washington and Tel Aviv? Nuclear war, in turn, some experts feel, could spell human extinction. One educated guess of an all-out nuclear war taking place and causing human extinction: 10%
Climate Disruptions (see here for a holistic review): Besides the devastating but perhaps survivable impact of human tampering with the climate, there is also the risk of a runaway melting of vast amounts of methane—a very powerful greenhouse gas—and the consequent heating of the atmosphere to levels that would even fry our rulers in their underground hideouts. Conservative probability of this extinction event: 20%
Nanotechnology. Our masters and their compartmentalized Drs. Strangeloves are already unleashing all kinds of minute (around a millionth part of a millimeter or less than 10 millionth part of an inch) particles with strange and powerful properties. Like sentient computers and genetically modified organisms, nanotechnology often involves self-replicating entities. No one knows how that experiment is going to end, yet many doomsday scenarios can be imagined. For instance:
“Plants” with “leaves” no more efficient than today’s solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible foliage. Tough omnivorous “bacteria” could out-compete real enough controlling viruses and fruit flies… bacteria: They could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop – at least if we make no preparation. We have trouble enough controlling viruses and fruit flies.
Such doomsday scenarios could stem from a “simple laboratory accident,” or from intentional malevolence. Let us arbitrarily say that nanotechnology only entails a 1% likelihood of human extinction.
An Awake Computer: According to some experts, we’re nearing the point where a computer or an interconnected computer network could become sentient. Such a remarkable scientific achievement could however be our only lasting legacy. We’re talking here, of course, about a Karel Capek’s R.U.R scenario of revolting self-aware computers. Here, for instance, is Stephen Hawkins:
The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. It would take off on its own and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded. If a superior alien civilization sent us a message saying, ‘We’ll arrive in a few decades,’ would we just reply, ‘OK, call us when you get here—we’ll leave the lights on’? Probably not—but this is more or less what is happening with artificial intelligence.
Let us ignore the Cassandras and assign such an extinction event a mere 3% likelihood.
Chemical contamination: Some parts of the oceans are already dead, at least for a while. The topsoil in most places is not as healthy as it used to be. Our bodies are loaded with a concoction of plentiful poisons–and this is just the beginning. How long till the point of no return? No one knows, but the possibilities are countless, intriguing, and worrisome.
Let me cite just one example: Some of the chemicals in our environment might have already caused a significant reduction in the quality and quantity of human sperm. What’s in store for us if this decline is real and if one day it reaches 10%, or 0 or if human sperm is damaged in some other way?
There are numerous untested chemicals out there, and thousands more will find their way to the environment and our bodies without the slightest regard for their potential consequences. Let’s be conservative and say that the probability of chemically-induced extinction is 20%.
Genetically-modified organisms: Some companies are busily creating chimeras that never existed on earth. How long can this go on before they unleash an extinction event?
The transformation of plant genetics is being accelerated from the measured pace of biological evolution to the speed of next quarter’s earnings report. Such haste makes it impossible to foresee and forestall: Unintended consequences appear only later, when they may not be fixable, because novel lifeforms aren’t recallable.
Let us give a 5% extinction probability caused by existing and yet-to-be-unleashed engineered, self-replicating, life forms.
Species extinctions: Besides busily creating new life forms, we are also destroying old ones. Let us forget aesthetics, morality, and potential future benefits of existing species, and just focus on their potential contribution to our extinction projections. We have no way of knowing whether biodiversity is a precondition of our own survival, and if so, what particular species are critical and what is the biodiversity threshold. So let us give this risk a mere a 1% probability of triggering human extinction.
Stratospheric Ozone Layer Depletion: This particular threat is receding, thanks to delayed but meaningful action. But we cannot declare total victory yet: extinction probability of 1%.
Other known risks: The list above is obviously incomplete. Let’s say that all other suspected risks (e.g., ocean acidification), carry a combined risk of 3%.
New technological breakthroughs: Another grave threat to our existence lies in unforeseen technological breakthroughs and in our propensity to rapidly adopt any profitable technology regardless of risks. Almost all the risks above originated in the last 70 years or so. As long as present trends continue, there is every reason to believe that science will give our corporations many more such potentially destructive gifts. Let’s arbitrarily (but not unreasonably) assign such gifts a 25% collective probability of causing humanity to perish.
It’s extremely difficult to make predictions about a system that is as complex as the biosphere. So all these probabilities convey possibilities, not certainties. Each one of these possibilities could be non-existent, lower, on the mark, or higher. Still, if we settle for the conservative estimates above and sum them up, we arrive at a frightening conclusion: Unless we stop fouling our nest, the probability that human beings (and most other life forms) will vanish from earth within the next couple of centuries or so could be as high as 94%.
Collective Heartlessness and IrrationalityThe picture that emerges from our discussion so far is dismal: Sooner or later, an avid Russian roulette player blows his brains out. We can readily stop crossing the fingers of one hand while using the other hand to fire a partially-loaded revolver at our head.
To begin with, I’m convinced that the free citizens of democratic Athens—without our fancy technology—were on average happier and more curious and literate than we are. More to the point, they led far more meaningful lives. If given a choice, that is certainly the place I would have chosen to be born in (as a free male citizen).
But let’s say we buy into the false belief that dishwashers and cell phones make us happier (and I must admit that I enjoy owning a car, and that computers and the internet did enrich my life). Must these technologies spell human extinction? Absolutely not! If we were just ruled by decent people, or, better still, if we were our own rulers, we could have most of these comforts, have more money in the bank, enjoy better health and longer lives, and yet reduce by a wide margin the overall probability of our extinction. It’s that simple.
Here are three examples, all showing that, when it comes to the environment, we can often have our cake and eat it too.In the long run, nuclear power is probably not a net generator of electricity and it is not, on its own, economically viable (and even if it were, do we really need to split the atom in order to boil water?) It was created thanks to massive government subsidies to begin with, and spawned by the desire to remain supreme in war capability. Moreover, it now exists thanks to government largesse (e.g., since no insurance company in its right mind would insure nuclear power reactors, the nuclear industry says it will build them only if the taxpayers underwrite “liability for future accidents.”)
All this was already absolutely clear by 1977 at the latest. Here are Ralph Nader and John Abbot (The Menace of Atomic Energy):
What technology has had the potential for both inadvertent and willful mass destruction . . . for wiping out cities and contaminating states after an accident, a natural calamity, or sabotage? What technology has been so unnecessary, so avoidable by simple thrift or by deployment of renewable energy supplies?
Or take climate disruptions. By the early 1990s, people like Amory Lovins and organizations like the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (both cited here), clearly showed that the USA alone could minimize that threat through conservation. Conservation then could in turn save Americans between $56 to 200 billion a year and vastly improve their health and quality of life.
We could, to give just one example of conservation measures, at the very least, triple gas mileage of the global fleet of cars and meaningfully begin to address the problem (as opposed to the Rothschilds’ various scams of making money from climate disruptions by doing … less than nothing). So why don’t we do it? Simple, the bankers who own the fossil-fuel companies are not content with the trillions they already have. If we increase gas mileage, oil price would go down to slightly above the cost of production. This would mitigate climate disruptions and save lives and money. But such steps would slow down the process of money accumulation by our rulers. Whenever such conflicts arise, the oligarchs almost always win.
Here is a 1996 academic essay:
For argument’s sake, a conservative and arbitrary estimate is adopted, assuming that the chances of adverse greenhouse consequences within the next century are 10%; of a cataclysm, 1%. Such chances, this review then conclusively shows, should not be taken, because there is no conceivable reason for taking them: the steps that will eliminate the greenhouse threat will also save money and cut pollution, accrue many other beneficial consequences, and only entail negligible negative consequences. Thus, a holistic review leads to the surprising conclusion that humanity is risking its future for less than nothing. Claims that the greenhouse controversy is legitimate, that it involves hard choices, that it is value-laden, or that it cannot be resolved by disinterested analysis, are tragically mistaken.
And so it goes, across the board. Genetically-modified crops are unhealthy, they are often soaked with poisons or they themselves produce poisons, they are the cause of many farmer suicides in India, and they pose health and financial risks to growers, consumers, livestock, and wildlife. They are permitted to exist because our political system is putrid.
And what about the potential benefits of such things as computers and nanotechnology? Well, if we can figure out how to develop them without risking our existence, and if we can create a political system that prohibits the vicious applications of technological advances (e.g., using computers to invade privacy and guide nuclear-tipped missiles), then such technologies could be pursued. If, on the other hand, as seems likely, they are inherently risky, a rational and compassionate species would renounce them.
Parting wordsIt takes novelists to fully grasp the irony and hopelessness of our plight.
In Karel Capek’s humorously pessimistic War with the Newts, sentient and prolific salamanders are encountered in some far-off bay. At first their discoverers offer them knives and protection from sharks in exchange for pearls. Gradually, however, many of the world’s nations avail themselves of these creatures for other purposes, including war. In a few years, the salamanders run out of living space. To accommodate their growing numbers, they flood countries, one at a time. To do this, they need supplies from other countries and from merchants of the soon-to-be ravaged country itself. Needless to say, the salamanders have no trouble securing everything they need. At the end, humanity is on the verge of sinking and drowning; not so much by the newts, but by its greed, shortsightedness, and colossal stupidity.
A similar conclusion is reached in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle:
“And I remembered the Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?”
It doesn’t take long to read, The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.
This is it:
- “On Disobedience.” [↩]
- “Intellect” in Essays: First Series, 1841. [↩]
- Chapter XII: The Barbarism of “Specialisation” in The Revolt of the Masses, 1929. [↩]
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