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A Good, Even GREAT Anthropocene? Not If It Depends on Wisdom Overcoming Instinct.
The hope that humans can use wisdom and technology to prevent a bleak future for life on Earth is overly optimistic. It falsely presumes that we can use wisdom to overcome instincts.
More than once in China, under a gloaming pall of poisonously polluted, air I have watched oceans of people flood the streets and shops of Beijing or Chengdu or Guangzhou acquiring the material goods that they hope might improve their lives, and thought to myself, “We’re screwed. The Earth just can’t handle this.”
And more than once I have stood in my local Costco and looked at the warehouse glutted with mountains of food and clothes and household goods, and thought to myself, “And this is just one store! How many more Costcos and Sam’s Clubs and BJ’s and Home Depots and WalMart Superstores are there ... and that’s just in America ... and just how much stuff can the world produce ... and how much waste will all this stuff generate?” And more than once at moments like these, with a knot in my stomach, I have thought to myself, “We’re screwed. The Earth just can’t handle this.”
The dark implications of such voracious consumption, and all the waste and damaging pollution it generates, are frequently framed in big-picture "think globally" terms, with analysis of global population and global climate and the global economy, and from that perspective the future can look pretty bleak. But the darkest picture, the most irrefutable proof that without major change life as we know it really is screwed, is down at the ‘act locally’ level where you and I and our fellow 7.3 billion humans live our daily lives, all of us driven by deep instincts to acquire food and shelter and material comfort in pursuit of the ultimate goal for all animals: the goal of survival.
Those instincts are fundamentally embedded in our basic biology. They subconsciously compel much of our behavior. And massive research on human judgment and decision-making has shown that these instincts are all but impervious to reason. That research has taught us that no matter what the evidence says about the mess we’re making at the global scale, we don’t care about “the system” as much as we care about what’s going on down at the local scale where we live. No matter what the evidence tells us about the dire future we may someday ultimately face, we don't care as much about surviving tomorrow as we do about getting safely through today. And no matter what the evidence says about the threats we are posing to others, now or to later generations; we don’t care about others as much as we care about ourselves, especially when it comes to having enough food and shelter and comfort and safety. None of this is smart or dumb, rational or irrational, moral or immoral. It’s just the biological truth. But it’s a truth that makes it depressingly difficult to believe that we can make the major changes necessary to avoid the train wreck toward which we’re racing.
There are those who hold just that hope. In their Ecomodernist Manifesto,
a group of scholars, scientists, public intellectuals, and environmental advocates suggest that human intelligence and technology can turn things around. They write that though we may be entering what some ominously label the Anthropocene, an epoch defined by the indelible — and in many ways harmful — mark humans are leaving on the geological and biochemical workings of the planet itself, that
knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.
But as the streets of Beijing and Chengdu and Guangzhou and the Costcos and superstores of America show ... and the rising consumption of pork in China shows ...
... and as the rising demand for air conditioners in India shows ...
and as SO much other evidence shows, the suggestion that we can use our wisdom to build a good or even great Anthropocene is as excessively rosy as the doom and gloomers are excessively bleak.
It is true and encouraging that, if applied with wisdom, a range of incredible technological tools can help us live in more sustainable ways; cleaner energy (nuclear as well as renewables), biotechnology to increase food production in ways that use less land and do far less environmental damage, all sorts of technologies that allow each unit of economic production to cause less and less environmental damage.
But the Ecomodernist case rests on the shaky belief that we can act "with wisdom." This presumes that we can use our conscious brains to overcome the far more powerful subconscious animal instincts that compel consumption in the name of comfort and safety. It presumes that we can use conscious reason to prioritize the long-term greater global good over the deeply embedded instinct to care more about the now and the local and ourselves.
And the Ecomodernist case presumes that wisdom can also allow us to overcome another deep instinctive belief, that the only true "nature" is Edenic nature unspoiled by humans. We must accept, they rightly argue, that humans and all our technologies have irreversibly changed the natural world, so there is no going Back To The Garden. We must admit that modern technologies and processes, though they may have caused great damage to the biosphere, can, if wisely applied, help us achieve a good or even great Anthropocene.
But that part of the Ecomodernist rationale also flies in the face of powerful evidence from the world’s religions and literature and philosophy, across history and cultures, and from many fields of research, that our sanctification of nature and vilification of human behaviors that harm nature is also a powerful and deeply embedded instinct.
We can’t just wish these truths away with an intellectual appeal to reason. Reason is just not as powerful as thinkers like the Ecomodernists like to give it credit for. The truth is closer to the way Scottish Enlightenment Philosopher David Hume put it:
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
The Ecomodernist approach for rescuing the future is unfortunately as naïvely optimistic as the doom-and-gloom view of the future is overly bleak. Its prescription fails to acknowledge that we are not the rational, reasoning creatures we like to think we are. The evidence is overwhelming that our biological instincts, especially the deepest instinct of all — to survive — are still mostly in charge of how we behave.
The Ecomodernist Manifesto offers a wise argument that technology can help us live more sustainably and in many ways improve human and environmental well-being. But given the intrinsic limits on the ability of the human animal to "act with wisdom," the best life on earth overall can probably hope for in the future is a less bad Anthropocene, rather than an Epoch that historians will look back on and call good, or great.
image courtesy International Biosphere Geosphere Program
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?
- In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies.
- Other major fintech companies—Square, Fidelity, SoFi—have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
- While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>The move came shortly after the payments company Square invested $50 million into Bitcoin, and after Fidelity announced that it was opening a Bitcoin fund into which qualified purchasers could invest <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-26/fidelity-launches-inaugural-bitcoin-fund-for-wealthy-investors" target="_blank">(minimum investment: $100,000)</a>. Together, this institutional backing might have something to do with Bitcoin's recent surge back to near its 2017 price peak of $19,783. (Bitcoin is listed at 19,384.30 as of Dec. 3.)<br></p>
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>But more importantly, it suggests cryptocurrencies might soon have the opportunity to prove themselves in real-world use cases. After all, skeptics have long doubted the ability of cryptocurrencies to go mainstream as a form of everyday payment. But people seem increasingly comfortable with digital payment systems.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The entire world is going to come into digital first," Schulman said at Web Summit, adding that PayPal's services already go hand-in-hand with cryptocurrencies. "As we thought about it, digital wallets are a natural complement to digital currencies. We've got over 360 million digital wallets and we need to embrace cryptocurrencies."</p><p>Sanja Kon, vice president of global partnerships at the cryptocurrency payments processor company UTRUST, also spoke at Web Summit about the increasing adoption of digital payments:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Physical cash is becoming more and more obsolete. And the next step in the evolution is digital currency."</p><p>Kon noted some of the inherent advantages of cryptocurrencies, namely ownership. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"For many people, this is really the main benefit of cryptocurrency: Users owning cryptocurrencies are able to control how they spend their money without dealing with any intermediary authority like a bank or a government, for example," Kon said, adding that there are no bank fees associated with cryptocurrencies, and that international transaction fees are significantly lower than wire transfers of fiat currency.</p><p>Kon said cryptocurrencies have unique growth opportunities in areas where people aren't integrated into modern banking systems:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"With cryptocurrencies and blockchain, with the use of just a smartphone and access to internet, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies can be available to populations of people and users without access to the traditional banking system."</p>
Bitcoin as 'digital gold'<p>Still, it could take years for people to start using cryptocurrencies for everyday purchases on a large scale. Despite this, many cryptocurrency advocates see digital currencies, particularly Bitcoin, as a way to store value—digital gold, essentially.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I don't think Bitcoin is going to be used as a transactional currency anytime in the next five years," billionaire investor Mike Novogratz recently told <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-23/novogratz-says-bitcoin-is-digital-gold-not-a-currency-for-now?srnd=markets-vp" target="_blank">Bloomberg</a>. "Bitcoin is being used as a store of value. [...] "Bitcoin as a gold, as digital gold, is just going to keep going higher. More and more people are going to want it as some portion of their portfolio."</p><p>There are obvious parallels between gold and Bitcoin: Both are mined, do not degrade over time, are finite in supply, and aren't directly tied to the value of fiat currency, making them <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gold-inflation/gold-as-an-inflation-hedge-well-sort-of-idUSKCN1GD516" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relatively invulnerable to inflation</a>. The obvious objection is that the price of Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies in general, is far more volatile than gold.</p><p>But for investors who believe the inherent value of cryptocurrency technology will prove itself over the long term, these price fluctuations are just bumps on the long road to the future of currency. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It's no longer a debate if crypto is a thing, if Bitcoin is an asset, if the blockchain is going to be part of the financial infrastructure," Novogratz said. "It's not if, it's when, and so every single company has to have a plan now."</p>
A new study finds that some people just want privacy.
- Despite its reputation as a tool for criminals, only a small percentage of Tor users were actually going to the dark web.
- The rate was higher in free countries and lower in countries with censored internet access.
- The findings are controversial, and may be limited by their methodology to be general assumptions.