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Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Tipping Point

Rousseau wrote: "Man is innately good but everywhere in chains". Man the individual, or man the collective? Are evil acts the faults of both? What purposes do moral definitions serve when cruelty, murder, and treachery all abound in nature, without labels?

What meanings does morality serve, except to provide self-censure for an individual desiring release from guilt? Are we just lonely naked souls seeking a noble collective, or are we committed tribally to our group, regardless of what that group does?

It's easy to claim that the worst acts of humanity have been perpetuated by nation states. Despots and democracies alike show a flair for murder, as do serial killers, and the classic perpetrators of crimes of passion.

Why, as a species, can't we recognize just how destructive we are? We are the violent species, all of us, Israelis. Palestinians, Germans, Americans.

Could there ever be a quantum leap forward? Or are we to continue behaving in the manner of a small band of club wielding murderous apes but in possession of modern weapons of war?

A look at chimpanzees shows just how murderous the genes in our closest relatives are!

There is nothing peaceful about Homo sapiens, though peace is something all humans want. Global peace, seems impossible. There may be only a few dozen years when Homo sapiens was not out killing his own kind in great numbers.

Technological advances are almost always spearheaded or advanced by tribal desires to leverage a military advantage. The internet was initially a military invention. The airplane was seized first for military possibilities. A large portion of the work of great human genuises, Leonardo, Einstein, Newton, have been exploited for technical superiority over enemies. Afghanistan is currently as much a lab for analyzing the use of remote weaponry, as it is a workout place for old style imperialist urges.

It is possible to cede control? It's not in our genes.

Humans everywhere believe themselves as good. Is it ironic that Albert Einstein, a peaceful man, should receive the peace prize for enabling the construction of the atomic bomb. What's amiss?

The mathematics of genetic selection favored aggressive behavior as human populations rose. Aggressive behavior rewards those that kill in order to command more resources and perpetuate their own genes in greater numbers. That is how humanity grew in such record time.

As individuals, our image of the present is deeply flawed. All of us, except those that are at the receiving end of terrible violence, see our lives as preserved in a kind of peaceful status, a calm of reliability. The towns we grew up in have changed sure, but the changes can be pointed out to a stranger. Most don't experience catastrophic change in an instant. Sure if you are shot by a stranger, life changes, but most of us must compare our lives to the ones depicted in old photos to notice what has happened. That our hair greys. That familiar buildings are no longer there. That cars are more modern.

We carry with us a mythology of good. We believe we are good, acting in favor of the good. And when we do otherwise we view it as an exception. Even the Afghani child who is learning to bomb American vehicles from an older relative believes he is doing good, as do the soldiers who patrol the streets of Iraq for the honor of their country. Everyone everywhere, all performing 'good' deeds.

Suppose for a second we dispensed with morality and recognized things as they are:

a) We are an animal, genetically similar to the biped that evolved on the African plains. Our sexuality and desire to procreate, and increase in number have not changed.

b) Our desire to control territory and to inflict damage on those that impinge on what we feel is ours has not changed.

c) Our murderous ancestry has not been bred out of our genes, in fact, it may be intensifying.

d) At present we are the only species on the planet that seriously is jeopardizing its own survival.

e) Our planet has been in crisis for approximately two thousand years due to our fires, our chainsaws, our oil wells, and pollution.

Here are the not so subtle ways in which man has changed the ecology of the planet. Environmental destruction is an aspect of man's overall violent nature and must be highlighted:

a) Europe has essentially been deforested. The Americas, including the Amazon basin, and Southeast Asia, are not far behind.

b) The desert that surround the globe in both hemispheres are widening. Rain forest in Southern Mexico is becoming desert.  All of Texas will be desert in a few hundred years. Arctic ice on both poles is melting at an alarming rate.

c) The large quantities of fish in the oceans have been eliminated. All stocks of food fishes, tuna, herring, cod, etc. have been decimated in number. Improvements in technology have allowed the world to continue to eat as we consume younger and younger fish.

d) Large trees are extremely rare. Poachers of lumber are a global phenomenon, in the US, from Vermont to California, India to Scandinavia.

e) Human populations continue to rise at logarithmic rates. This is due to the exploitation of fossil fuels and mono-culture of an ever narrowing variety of domesticated and cloned food sources.

Our battle against large mammals is over. The tiger is already more numerous in zoos and private collections than it is in the wild. Equally decimated are the elephant, the wolf, whales.

Even at my family's beautiful natural retreat in the Adirondacks, there is crisis. We've stripped the place of lumber, killing the soils. Cousins, whose fathers regularly camped in the shadows of firs and pines as big around as six men with joined hands, argue that a little lumbering is good for the land, and gloat when thousands of acres are reduced to a pattern of muddy ruts with a few shell shocked trees barely wrist sized in diameter.

They congratulate themselves as stewards of the land!

What they don't do is the math of extrapolation and find it impossible to imagine the eventual results of their joint actions. The Adirondacks have a thin soil layer, as thin as that in the Amazon, dispersed over a bald pate of granite and that at this rate it will soon be as barren as a Greek Island.

The Gulf of Mexico once served schools of tuna so huge you could walk on their backs, Shoals of shrimp that slowed boats that tried to move through them, and colored the ocean pink.

Two hundred years ago Indiana's walnut groves took days to cross on horseback, a parade across an earth of crushed walnut shells, beneath the lofty canopy of giant trees. Now all are cut. For what? To supply gun stocks for the First World War.

Recent mega disasters, the BP oil spill, Chernobyl, are only indicative of just how destructive we are to the overall life of the planet. Yet not one of these experiences has been translated into permanent changes of how we as a species conduct our business on this planet. All we can say with certainty is that they will continue.

Unless a bullet enters our guts and we survive, we don't recognize the violence we do to others or to our environment.

From the beginning we were the murderous species. The increase in size of our social group, from the band to the nation, put the majority in the tow of despots, the Mongols, Vlad the Impaler, the Nazis and yes the Americans. In fact  the more crazed in the reach to dominate and control the fate of other humans, the more descendants they left. Their genes were passed on.

Soon however the dynamics of survival are about to change radically.

In a world of declining resources, the best strategy for passing on one's genes is not hyper aggressiveness but rather hyper-collectivity,

The planet, its ecology, man's population, the health of the prairies, forests, and seas, are all at a tipping point. The road to survival now heads down, and back. Down in population, backwards in technology.

For humans.

That is not to say that a more advanced species will not replace us.

If the human population is reduced by 75% in the next thousand or ten-thousand years, who is to know which of those amongst us will have the magic stuff necessary to survive? Altruistic behavior is the best defense against genetic destruction.

The big levelers will be viral or bacterial. But everywhere decreased crop yields, failed economies, wars, fevers, cancers will make passing the torch to the next generation extremely difficult.  Aggression will slowly disappear as the cloak of death descends upon all humanity. And then, like any threatened species, we will see things very differently. Individually, and as a group.


   "Yet each man kills the thing he loves
    By each let this be heard.
    Some do it with a bitter look,
    Some with a flattering word.
    The coward does it with a kiss,
    The brave man with a sword!"
                                               Oscar Wilde

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