I'd like to start with the lead question from my first post.
Why is the world the way it is?
If we are so smart, so knowledgeable, so capable of learning from the mistakes of history, then why do things seem worse today then they were in days gone by? Or perhaps you don't think things are really bad. Then the question might be posed: why haven't things gotten substantially better?
Are they really worse? Are they really not better?
Isn't the definition of worse/better a matter of values? Some people think snowmobiles, powerboats, and flat panel HDTVs with 600 channels means life has gotten better. Others think having more time to spend with families and friends is more important than having a bunch of material stuff. Who is right?
If we want to get a sense of the state of the world today and compare it with the state of the world, say, 100 years ago, we could begin with a series of questions about some fairly important attributes of the world. Things like the state of the environment, the state of living standards of people, the state of the biosphere (e.g. biodiversity), and, as importantly, the trajectory that each of these seems to be on.
State of the World
How do people treat other people, within their group, outside of their group, as compared with 100 years ago?
How do people treat the environment today as compared with 100 years ago?
How do people treat their fellow organism today as compared with 100 years ago?
In each of these, the only reason we are asking these questions is that we have a sense that something is going horribly wrong. And why would things be going wrong if we had in fact learned anything from the past and changed our ways?
Today, more people are living in poverty, squalor, hunger, in absolute numbers, and possibly, even proportional to the whole population. We have not learned to share our resources in anything like an equitable manner. Worse still, the rich countries extract the resources of the underdeveloped countries, exploit their labor, and pay them back with increased exports of pollution (think defunct electronics equipment).
Today, we are just as likely to be fighting with each other, committing genocide, terrorizing, as ever throughout history. We've gotten pretty sophisticated about both our methods and excuses, in the West. But how is what we are doing today any different from 100 years ago?
And what of our neighbors? Especially if they are darker or lighter in skin color? Have we really transcended race and ethnicity to really celebrate diversity? In places and at times, maybe. We certainly give lip service to the need to do so. But how often do we see flare ups like the Jena Six (or seven) case? What was the O.J. Simpson trial really about?
Treating the Environment
As I write this the IPCC (the UN International Panel on Climate Change) has issued its most alarming report to date. There is little doubt that mankind's economic activities are having a world-changing impact on the natural world. Global Warming due to the release of carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil carbon may yet prove cataclysmic in ways we can barely conceive. And what are we doing about the threat? While many people throughout the world agree we SHOULD be doing something, very few really are doing what will be needed to meet the reductions in CO2 emissions spelled out by the IPCC. Those in the US are barely aware of the danger. Too many people still think that swapping out their incandescent lights for compact florescent should be adequate.
Nor is this greenhouse gas pollution the whole story. By our sheer numbers we are depleting fisheries, aquifers, soils, and forests. We are pumping unknown tons of man-made chemicals into the environment as we create new molecules for our enjoyment. Jared Diamond, in his excellent pair of books, "Guns, Germs, and Steel" and "Collapse" offers several examples of civilizations that depleted their local resources and suffered consequences as a result. We've done this to ourselves in the past, locally geographically-speaking, but have we learned anything? It seems not. (Or if we have are we capable of doing anything different now? That will be a subject of a future post.)
According to Roger Lewin and Richard Leaky we may be in the "Sixth Extinction", a great diminishment of species diversity all over the globe. There have been a number of 'Great Die Offs', such as what occurred at the end of the Cretaceous Period with the mass extinctions of the dinosaurs. That great die off may have been precipitated by the effects of a massive comet or meteor crashing into the earth -- an outside caused event. The current accelerating loss of biodiversity is attribute to human destruction of natural habitat on every continent.
And what about the sexual potency provided by rhinoceros horn? What about those beautiful carvings of elephant tusks? What about the pleasure of eating the last specimen of a species of monkey? Shouldn't humans have the right to destroy whatever they think will do them good?
Shouldn't we be able to log old growth rain forests even if it means destroying the nesting places for a rare bird?
We've done this before in modern times and suffered unintended consequences (the uncontrolled deer population in the Eastern states along with the increase in Lyme disease and now prion-caused wasting disease is just one example). What have we learned? Why do we keep doing these things?
The truth is there are simply too many examples of how humans are wreaking the world. Even while we notice this, we report it to ourselves, we express the sincere sentiment that something needs to be done, what are we really doing?
My sense is that the world is in worse shape than it was 100 years ago. Today we talk of changes in the climate, melting glaciers and polar ice, rising sea level, destruction of once gigantic fisheries, loss of potable water supplies (look at Atlanta and China), continuing wars in unstable regions. And now a new worry emerges. We have, in all likelihood, used most of the easily extractable fossil fuels (at least oil and natural gas). Extracting what's left that can be extracted (and not all can for simple physical reasons) will be increasingly expensive. The extent of our population depends directly on the availability of high quality energy sources. With the peak and decline in oil production we will have lost one of the greatest sources man has ever had. Then what?
Which leads back to the question -- Why?
Questions lead to more questions. We could start trying to answer this one. We could speculate about why humans haven't really learned anything or why they continue to do selfish things. But would that really help anything? I think we need to ask many more questions, especially about our unexamined assumptions. That is where I want to go next. If we are so clever -- and we assume we are -- why haven't we figured this all out and done something about it? I wonder.