From the bowels of the earth to the sky: Rethinking civilization growth

A revolution of the mind must occur in order for humanity to succeed on a finite planet.

Credit: Paul Fleet via Adobe Stock / 6993648
  • President Biden's energy summit is emblematic of an emerging mindset that is set to redefine our relation to the planet.
  • 150 years of unchecked industrial and economic growth have changed humanity in profound ways but at a high and untenable environmental cost.
  • We must move from the plundering mindset that sucked our prosperity from the bowels of the Earth to one that collects the energy that the skies serve us.

Rarely, if ever, do we stop to think about how remarkable certain everyday comforts are: to flick an electric switch and have light inundate a dark room; to turn on a faucet and have drinking water; to take a hot shower; to live in a home that is cool in hot days and warm in cool days; to step into a metal box and move wherever we want; to go to a store and buy food; to talk to someone across the world; to dump dirty clothes into a machine and have it wash it all. The list is endless.

Now, go back 150 years to 1871. Life was completely different. Energy was scarce; animals pulled plows and carriages; steam engines were beginning to flourish; technology was very primitive compared to today; medicine had yet to understand disease and sterilization. There were no telephones. Cars and airplanes were not invented yet. Light bulbs were still a laboratory curiosity. People drank crude oil as medicine. The first gasoline-fueled combustion engine car was still five years away, invented by Carl Benz, in Germany. The world population was about 900 million.

The pros and cons of technological progress

But look at us now! Fossil fuels transformed the world. Technology transformed the world. Life expectancy in the U.S. went from 39.4 years to 78.8 years. The world population grew to 7.8 billion, and well over 200,000 cars are built per day.

It's an amazing story of success for our species. And of catastrophic environmental devastation.

Even if technological innovation has its roots in basic research, the driver for the transition from the lab to the marketplace is money. Growth is measured by sales, and sales generate profit. In the past 150 years, the gross domestic product per capita in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada (known collectively as Western Offshoots) grew from $4,647 to $53,757 (corrected for inflation and measured in international 2011 prices).

What feeds these fat pockets? Fossil fuels, deforestation, mining, the depletion of the oceans, industrialized agriculture. The obvious truth is becoming clearer to a growing number of people: we live on a finite planet, with finite resources, and with a finite capability of cleaning the mess we make. The time of treating the oceans and the rivers as giant sewage dumps, the atmosphere as an endless sponge for noxious fumes, and the forests as inconvenient obstacles to be removed for expansive cattle grazing and agriculture is over.

I'm glad to be alive to witness our reinvention.

The essential question, then, is what can be done? Is it possible to maintain the current growth rate based on a profoundly different worldview, one where the fuel that feeds growth is not unchecked environmental destruction but a symbiotic relationship between our species and the planet we inhabit? Can the economy adapt to a new worldview before we inflict even more irreversible damage to the planet?

The first point to keep in mind is that we are not separate from the environmental devastation we perpetrate. If the environment goes, we go. We need clean air, clean water, and clean energy to survive. The more of us there are, the more urgent this obvious fact becomes. The inventiveness and resourcefulness that we have traditionally applied to industrial and warfare innovation must now be applied to our own survival on this planet. We need to reinvent how we relate to the world. We must move from the plundering mindset that sucked our prosperity from the bowels of the Earth to one that collects the energy that the skies serve us.

A revolution of the mind

Credit: Jason Blackeye via Unsplash

This change in mindset represents a reversal from an aggressive relation to the environment — the metallic machines that dig holes to suck fossil fuels from the underground — to one that embraces what is already here: the sun, the wind, and the carbon-fixing capabilities of forestlands across the world.

Last week, President Biden convened 40 world leaders to discuss our collective energy future. The current administration clearly represents the new mindset. We must change the way we think about economic profit being averse to renewable energy. The old worldview, based on the past 150 years of the industrial growth motto — that is, let's consume the bowels of the Earth to get rich — is dead. It's unviable. It's unsustainable. It's self-destructive. It's immoral.

The changes to come will be as world-changing as the ones that exploded during the early 20th century with rampant industrialization: An economy based on the passive extraction of renewable energy from the skies; vast reforestation programs for carbon fixing; a complete overhaul of the auto industry toward electric and hydrogen-cell vehicles; a retraining of the workforce to adapt to the growing automation of production and to the need for versatility in the marketplace due to the new jobs of the digital age; a redesign of school curricula to retell the story of our relation to the environment to raise awareness among younger generations; and an emergent new ethics of life that embraces the planet and all living creatures we share it with as partners and not targets.

    A decade or so ago, these views would be dismissed as utopic or at least naïve. But not anymore. The new worldview is taking root, and foolish is the country that won't embrace it quickly. I'm glad to be alive to witness our reinvention.

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    7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

    These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

    1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
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    • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
    • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
    • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

    We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

    While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

    1. Caligula

    Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

    While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

    Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

    Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

    He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

    Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

    He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

    In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

    2. Nero

    Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

    He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

    He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

    He died by suicide.

    Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

    3. Commodus

    Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

    Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

    The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

    4. Elagabalus

    Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

    His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

    He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

    5. Vitellius

    Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

    Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

    He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

    Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

    6. Caracalla

    Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

    He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

    Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

    One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

    Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

    7. Tiberius

    As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

    He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

    "Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

    Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

    There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

    After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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    • But existing and developing gene editing technologies are not without controversies. A major point of debate deals with the idea that gene editing is overstepping natural and ethical boundaries. Just because they can, does that mean that scientists should be edit DNA?
    • Harvard professor Glenn Cohen introduces another subcategory of gene experiments: mixing human and animal DNA. "The question is which are okay, which are not okay, why can we generate some principles," Cohen says of human-animal chimeras and arguments concerning improving human life versus morality.