What could be worse than human extinction?

Paul Raven @ 14-12-2010

From a philosophical perspective, human extinction is just about the worst thing we can imagine… and it’s a fairly recent fear, too, with our conception of existential risk kick-started by the threat of mutually assured destruction. But what about a slow slide back into an animal state from our current civilisational peak? An evolutionary regression triggered by the impoverishment of the environment we mastered momentarily? [via BigThink]

Civilization obscures our similarity to other animals. We tend to hold ourselves to different standards because we see ourselves as above nature.  Many people find the slaughter of food animals objectionable. Yet no one is advocating intervention to save the gazelles from the lions or the rabbits from the foxes. Is the suffering of animals in the wild less important? Should we venture out in search of prey animals to rescue from their predators, and sick or injured animals in need of medical care? No, it would seem. It’s okay when nature imposes suffering on animals, but not when we do it. Similarly, it’s not okay when we are the subjects of nature’s cruelty.

Civilization has bestowed our species with a distorted self-image. Many people seem to have the impression that we operate independently of nature. We are fortunate that we’ve been able to act as though we are independent for as long as we have. If we don’t adjust our way of living so that it becomes sustainable, however, nature will eventually do this for us.

The worst case scenario is not that humans will become extinct, but that we will come to experience the cruel will of nature as other animals do. We can’t rule out the possibility that we will become more similar to our primate cousins in intelligence, behavior, and quality of life. We may be enjoying the peak of human intelligence, morality, and technological advancement.

On the face of it, this is just another finger-waggy “if we don’t sort things out soon… ” warning, but I think you can detach the results from the cause – there are any number of reasons we might find civilisation as we know it receding into the patchwork memories of the past. Indeed, given our tendency to prattle on about “the good old days”, you could probably convince a lot of people it was already happening…

But in recent years that nostalgic view of the-past-as-idyll has become more and more of an irritant to me. Despite the very real problems facing human beings as individuals and as a species, I think conditions and opportunities for the average person have been improving steadily for a long time (even though those improvements, like William Gibson’s future, are – sadly – not evenly distributed). This is perhaps the same myopia that makes us see the decline of the Western economies as a global recession: because things aren’t quite as easy for us in particular as they were a few decades back, then we’re obviously bound for hell in a handbasket, AMIRITES?

Well, I’m not so sure; I think we have it in us a species to survive, prosper and spread beyond the gravity well. But to achieve that, I suspect we’ll need to start thinking of ourselves as a species rather than as individual nations… which may turn out to be the greatest challenge we’ve ever come up against, rooted as it is in the very evolutionary processes that made us what we are.

Still – it’s worth a shot, wouldn’t you say? 🙂


America’s decline, and how to prevent it

Paul Raven @ 08-01-2010

Internet serendipity strikes again! Hot on the heels of my questions about the political fragmentation and polarisation of the United States comes a long but lucid article from one James Fallows at The Atlantic, in which he discusses the nation’s seemingly perpetual worries about its own decline, and the reasons he believes that the US is still the envy of the world in most respects. [via MetaFilter; image by Henry Brett]

It really is quite lengthy, but well worth the time. There’s too much to attempt a succinct summary, so I’ll skip through to Fallows’ main point of concern – namely that the thing that most needs fixing is the US system of governance. But how could that be achieved without a coup or a complete constitutional rewrite?

That is the American tragedy of the early 21st century: a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent, and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke. One thing I’ve never heard in my time overseas is “I wish we had a Senate like yours.” When Jimmy Carter was running for president in 1976, he said again and again that America needed “a government as good as its people.” Knowing Carter’s sometimes acid views on human nature, I thought that was actually a sly barb—and that the imperfect American public had generally ended up with the government we deserve. But now I take his plea at face value. American culture is better than our government. And if we can’t fix what’s broken, we face a replay of what made the months after the 9/11 attacks so painful: realizing that it was possible to change course and address problems long neglected, and then watching that chance slip away.

[…]

I started out this process uncertain; I ended up convinced. America the society is in fine shape! America the polity most certainly is not. Over the past half century, both parties have helped cause this predicament—Democrats by unintentionally giving governmental efforts a bad name in the 1960s and ’70s, Republicans by deliberately doing so from the Reagan era onward. At the moment, Republicans are objectively the more nihilistic, equating public anger with the sentiment that “their” America has been taken away and defining both political and substantive success as stopping the administration’s plans. As a partisan tactic, this could make sense; for the country, it’s one more sign of dysfunction, and of the near-impossibility of addressing problems that require truly public efforts to solve. Part of the mind-set of pre-Communist China was the rage and frustration of a great people let down by feckless rulers. Whatever is wrong with today’s Communist leadership, it is widely seen as pulling the country nearer to its full potential rather than pushing it away. America is not going to have a Communist revolution nor endure “100 Years of Humiliation,” as Imperial China did. But we could use more anger about the fact that the gap between our potential and our reality is opening up, not closing.

Lots of food for thought in there… not to mention enough starting points for a dozen Harry Turtledove novels (albeit minus the lizards). How do you think the US might rescue itself from this political cul de sac?


The future is local: Braddock, Pennsylvania

Paul Raven @ 17-07-2009

"We will grow" - the bridge to BraddockWe’ve been talking a fair bit about urban decline and decay, and efforts to repurpose collapsing cities.

Now, here’s an example of a dying town trying to go its own way – Braddock, Pennsylvania was once a flourishing steel town, home to Andrew Carnegie’s first free library. Now it has a population of under 2,500, and the axe of a proposed freeway hangs heavily over its neck. 2005 saw John Fetterman become Mayor, and he’s now working to bring “the kind of outside energy, ideas, and interest from the artistic, urbanist, and creative communities” to the town. [hat-tip to Justin Pickard; image by Hryck.]

In other words, if you’ve been reading along with Cory Doctorow’s serialised novel Makers over at Tor.com, or following Chairman Bruce‘s ongoing obsession with “stuffed animal” architecture and squatter culture, Fetterman’s plans will look pretty familiar. Whether Braddock can reinvent itself as a counter-cultural artist’s enclave remains to be seen, but you’ve got to salute the determination of a man willing to work at making it happen. When your government can’t (or won’t) help you, you’ve got to help yourself.

A loosely related story from Canada sees five Ontario grocery stores abandoning their franchisee status in favour of becoming a cooperative organisation that focusses on stocking the local produce that corporate policy previously prevented them from selling. Are we seeing the first trickles of a global landslide toward massive decentralisation, and a return to economies driven by community and proximity? [via MetaFilter]


Did the Apollo landings lead to science fiction’s decline?

Paul Raven @ 17-07-2009

Apollo command moduleWell, it’s not my theory. But Ted Gioia seems to think that the Apollo landings ushered in science fiction’s decline into irrelevance:

With the benefit of hindsight, we should probably admit that the landing of Apollo 11 was the end of the glory days of sci-fi. With the conclusion of the Apollo program, NASA became just another government agency, more bureaucratic than heroic. It is all too telling that the Challenger disaster of 1986 was the next time that rocket ships captured the attention of the general public.

[…]

When the moon became just another piece of abandoned real estate, like much of Florida after the subprime meltdown, the psychological impact on sci-fi was devastating. Many grand predictions had been made about the future of space exploration by these visionary authors. But not one of them would have dared to make this prediction—namely, that 35 years after the Apollo program, no trip would have been made to any of the other planets in the solar system, and no one would have the gumption to send an astronaut—or even a dog or chimpanzee— back to the moon.

Science fiction is experiencing a bit of a comeback these days [O RLY?], but the moon plays a low profile in the renewal efforts.

Balls, frankly.

Gioia not only seems to be conflating a subset of the genre – namely heroic/imperialist space exploration fiction – with the genre as a whole, but appears to have observed a “decline into irrelevance” that the genre’s fans, publishers and practitioners have utterly failed to notice.

Sure, science fiction has changed in character considerably since the Apollo landings, and a loss of faith in Progress-with-a-capital-P is almost certainly one of the symptoms thereof… and sure, the pulps fell away and short fiction has become an artisan ghetto of sorts, but that’s a function of changes in media consumption patterns rather than a direct response to the space race fizzling out. [image by jurvetson]

So, nice try, Ted… but if you’re going to wrestle a topical straw man you might want to dress it up a little more convincingly next time, eh? 😉