First, a little Victor Jara to soothe your soul and get you in the revolutionary spirit:
Alright. Feel free to leave that going in the background. This week, a start of a discussion of the following article:
Rick Potts gives what I think is a good framework for a discussion on how our thinking needs to change as we move deeper into the volatile era of the anthropocene. Please give it a read if you have a moment, but I’ll try to summarize as I go along.
The best thing this article does is finally destroy Eden. It brings us down to earth. Earth wasn’t Eden before we came, it was born as a ball of molten rock. Life didn’t live in harmony before we arrived, it viciously fought for survival just as it does today.
We are different from the rest of life, as Potts points out, only in that our key adaptation is our ability to modify our environment to our benefit. It’s not unnatural for us to be strip mining and clear cutting, changing everything about the natural world to suit our needs. It makes us different, but that’s because it’s kind of our thing. It has been who we are.
But science–the very tool that has pushed our modifications to the global scale and allowed us to take ourselves to the beginning of a new mass extinction event–has also given us a key adaptation that might just allow us to survive. We can now understand what we are doing to the world around us, we can know (to some extent) the consequences of our actions.
And culture–the narrative that has emphasized our individualism and our right to do what we want with our property–can change. We can wake up and smell the posterity, we can see our space in the world for what it is: borrowed for our own moment here, then returned for the use of the countless people who come after.
This “social project” is what Potts envisions in his article, heavily paraphrased but hopefully more or less accurate.
A philosophical discussion is all well an good, but as power continues to decentralize from royalty to empires to world powers, it seems less and less sufficient. These aren’t problems that will be solved solely by world leaders (especially at their current pace), but by industry, NGOs, and regular people. As such, you don’t need to convince an oligarchy of a few hundred, but a world of 7+ billion.
So for a discussion like this to be relevant, it needs to include talk of implementation and dissemination. How do these ideas pass through the minds of every world citizen–how do you take the ideas of a 3000-word essay and make them into talking points that can be passed from person to person, and ones that will retain fidelity across different cultural, linguistic, and educational backgrounds?
In a more general sense, this is social change on a scale not seen for half a century at least, ever at most. This is brave new world stuff, and it’s an awfully long and narrow path to even get to the point of heading in the right direction. So, a series of balancing acts for consideration: How do we balance the need for a common enemy with the need to stay above the level of tribalism and extremism? How do we build a social movement with the longevity to bring about real change? How do we stay sensible without falling into cynicism and hopelessness (especially when the sensible view looks pretty hopeless)? How do we balance resources spent on adapting to changes vs. stopping the damage? And above all, how do we convert the momentum of the biggest industry the world has ever seen, fossil fuels, into a completely new energy industry, overnight and without crashing the world economy?
One final question, that didn’t fit anywhere but is vital to this discussion: How do we get people to believe that science works?
So that’s what I’ve been thinking about this past week. I don’t have answers to many of these questions, and many of them I’m not really equipped to answer. I’m always open to ideas, though.
As for China and PiA, I’m just getting back into the swing of things and kicking my Chinese learning into high gear, but I’ll have more to talk about next week.
Questions of the week: What do you think is the most compelling point that the Smithsonian article makes? How do you deal with the moral responsibility dilemma of an issue affecting the whole world?