Friday, May 9, 2008

WE Are the Asteroid

I have taken an admittedly negative tack in my discussions of the future, mainly due to scary projections of world population gleaned from lots of reading and reproduced by my own simulations based on readily available information. The fear and loathing that has crept into my thoughts and writing is enhanced by my awareness that humanity has caused the extinction of more species than the largest asteroid impacts. That this extinction event is likely to claim our species means that WE have effectively become the equivalent of a large asteroid that some fear might cause the collapse of civilization.

My recent goals have been to understand the causes of these horrific developments and to identify ways to keep the worst from happening. The proximate causes are well known to ecologists, exemplified by the acronym “HIPPO”: Hunting, Invasive species introduction, Pollution, Population, and Over-harvesting. Behind these causes, I believe, is an insatiable desire to grow exponentially in almost every respect of our lives. To extend our future, I have determined that what we need is strong growth (what I call “opportunistic growth”) to explore and develop new resources and habitats, followed by periods where we seek equilibrium with those environments. That many of us refuse to acknowledge that the entire Earth has become such an environment is behind our current crisis.

I was recently reminded that over the long term people respond more effectively to opportunities than to threats. I see this as a restatement of the false choice between growth and death that appears to be built into nearly everyone’s world view. My response was that we must all learn to decouple material consumption from happiness, recognizing of course that there is a minimum level of consumption we all need to even have a chance at happiness. In the present climate, my observation is next to meaningless and misses the point that at a visceral level we all perceive changes to our lives in relative rather than absolute terms, and on a short-term basis (perhaps because we don’t know how long we are going to live). Doing the right thing needs to feel good, and soon.

Many in my father’s generation, faced with war and economic hardship, redefined happiness as the pursuit of solutions to their problems. Creativity put into action was their greatest reward. Similar motivation drives today’s entrepreneurs, who are tackling the problems of diminishing fuel and global warming by growing new technologies and markets for those technologies. The problems are indicators of a new “space” they can grow into. Meanwhile, real space is the setting for another set of entrepreneurs who see other planets as growth opportunities. These examples of opportunistic growth are healthy so long as they do not transcend their goals and render resources unusable by others when the goals are achieved, resulting in undesirable entropy rather than desirable equilibrium (or “balance”).

Ultimately to survive and thrive we must try to create a perpetually functioning and fulfilled society capable of dealing with changing conditions as necessary, rather than changing conditions just to have something to adapt to. Instead of being an asteroid that totally shakes up what it hits, we must become another natural cycle in whatever environment we find ourselves.

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