Warning: More than a few of you will vehemently disagree with my POV. But see my challenge at the end.
What is developing politically and economically, especially in the United States, is not at all encouraging.
Politically, in the US, the Obama administration is beginning to make misstep after misstep. They started with a flawed view of economic reality in believing in the financial gurus and neo-classical economics, especially the notion of growth as the basis for prosperity. We now know, well those of us who are actually not blinded by ideological beliefs, that growth in the real economy is absolutely essential to maintaining the illusory wealth in the Ponzi scheme called banking and finance. Rich bankers and Wall Streeters get to take home fabulous bonuses on the backs of workers who produce real goods and services. Perpetual growth is not only impossible in theory, any growth is no longer physically possible because we are in decline with respect to the availability of net energy able to do economic work. The financial world is beginning to crumble. The short term ups that we see in the stock market, the slowing of decline in GDP (always suspect since the government decides just what numbers go into calculating GDP), and other so-called green shoots, are just part of the noisy, chaotic collapse. In fact, if you want a good model of how the economy is collapsing even when there are temporary supposed recoveries, look at the effects of global warming on climate variability. They are very similar non-linear, complex dynamic processes that have chaotic behavior. One thing you shouldn't do in a chaotic system is try to predict long-term trends from short-term observations.
An example of an Obama misstep is his handling of the health care reform process. Apparently he 'learned' a lesson from the Clinton experience and doesn't want to appear to be pushing his own design. He wants to leave it to Congress to come up with the plan. And he hopes it will be bi-partisan. Neither wish will be fulfilled and whatever does emerge will be, as typical these days, meaningless, ineffective, and a complete waste of everybody's time, including the press. Oh wait, they already waste their time, don't they. [Incidentally, my predictions are based on long-term observations!!!]
To be fair, Obama isn't a dictator. Maybe he would do things differently if he had any real power. The Congress, on the other hand, actually is in a position to do something useful with health care, energy, and regulating financial institutions (though only the second one is not a waste of time). But they won't. Between K-Street money and the partisan, ideological, and idiotic rhetoric, the Congress has proven itself completely incompetent. So, of course, they will not resign and let someone capable take over (see below about incompetent managers).
That leaves the electorate: The well-educated, knowledgeable, thoughtful, and conscientious electorate. Oh, right, I'm thinking of a different planet.
We should, but won't, face a reality. Representative democracy has failed, along with its co-conspirator capitalism. Virtually any form of democracy is likely to fail when the electorate gets too fat and lazy, and too ignorant to care or know that they need to care. The only way I can think to explain the failures of Congress and the White House is that we, the people, are incompetent to deal with the complexities of modern problems and governance. I don't just mean not knowledgeable enough, I mean not smart or wise enough. The average American, and I'm betting the average world citizen, does not have the brain capacity to handle what needs to be handled in order for any kind of citizen-influenced governance process to work. This includes the Communist Chinese and other autocratic regimes -- if you don't think their decision making isn't influenced by the wants and desires of the populace then you don't understand political power, or why revolutions happen.
OK, I realize I am trash talking my own species. I realize that people can and will call me a human hater (only proving my point since I'm actually trying to suggest something constructive AND feasible). I realize that this is NOT an uplifting message or hopeful encouragement to try harder. I am claiming that humankind has reached its evolutionary level of incompetence and most everyone is going to take offense at that. But I am compelled to tell the story as I honestly see it (and hope I am completely whacko). Because, if I am right, the only way we have a chance at some kind of future on this planet is to be brutally honest and open to reality as it is, not as we wish it were. If I am right, then I hope humans have just enough intelligence to use science to dig out the truth of the matter and the moral courage to face that truth. In other words, I hope we are sapient enough to realize an evolutionary truth.
Not only will Homo sapiens go extinct, but actually should do so!
I've been suggesting, throughout this blog space, that the evidence is adequate to show that Homo sapiens is not sufficiently competent in terms of managing its own cleverness. It does not possess a sufficient capacity for native wisdom (judgment) to guide either aggregate decision making (supposed democratic) or dictatorial (supposed benevolent) governance of the overly complex and now dangerous system we have created ourselves. As a species we simply have too little brain power when it comes to sapience relative to what is needed to manage our affairs. As a result we are ruining the planet for too many current living organisms and for ourselves.
Incompetent managers rarely resign when the first signs of incompetence (and failure of the enterprise) start to show up. Indeed most such managers keep making the same or worse mistakes until the whole thing blows up and they are forced out (remember Enron and other such examples? Imagine Ken Lay resigning early on and admitting he'd blown it?) That is probably what is going to happen to humanity. We are so taken with ourselves that we are incapable of admitting we've blown it and are making a huge mess of things. The more typical response, the one we are seeing from the Obama administration and cheered on by those not poisoned with right-wing ideology, is to ignore the warning signs and work desperately to restore the very processes that are at the root of our problems -- the so-called business as usual (BAU) -- and can readily be seen to be causing so much damage to our whole world. [Actually even the right-wingers hope BAU is restored, they just want it done their way, or they want Obama to fail so they can get back in power and really rev up the market solution to everything. Or so they claim.]
So it is with the whole human species. We cannot possibly admit to our own incompetence it seems. And that inability means that, like Enron (as a harbinger), our whole social structure will collapse and just as climate change along with global habitat failures, like adequate drinking water, put maximum stress on humanity. Though we might like to 'believe' that humans are resilient and adaptable, we cannot know that the world in the not-too-distant future will be one we can adapt to without our access to abundant high-grade energy sources. We humans, as de facto managers of the Ecos, will keep telling ourselves that we can fix this (with new technology) just like Ken Lay kept assuring everyone that Enron stocks would continue to climb (even while selling off his own shares!)
Virtually everyone on this planet (except, likely, those who have read this far!) believes that economic growth is the key to future happiness. They buy into something called 'sustainable growth' without even thinking what an oxymoron that is. They don't grasp the significance of population growth or the house of cards structure of modern banking and finance. The majority of people (living in cities now) don't have a clue where their food comes from, and even many who grow the food don't realize just how much fossil fuel goes into growing, processing, and delivering that food to the cities.
Our education systems, again especially in the US, but emulated by other countries unfortunately, do not teach understanding and promote wisdom. They teach rule systems within subject domains and test students to see how well they've incorporated the rules into their brains. They teach elementary facts and then test to see if students can use the rules, like logic, to derive simple relations between facts. They do not teach first principles and meaning, for the most part. There are those few who make brave attempts to do so; I've known a few. But they are rare and often not appreciated, especially since I'm not sure most students could actually learn this deeper form of knowledge anyway. The majority of students I have come in contact with (thankfully there are the happy minority) prefer learning rules and facts. Memorization is much easier than true critical thinking. And it is certainly easier to demonstrate competence on exams (and easier for teachers to construct exams and grade them!)
As I cast my gaze about I have to ask, in what realm of human endeavor do we find real competence? Where are the competent managers of Homo sapiens' affairs? If they don't exist (please, anybody, show them to me), then explain to me why a bumbling, dangerous species like ours deserves to continue?
Extinction of the species need not mean extinction of the genus. In many taxa, at the genus level, there are many species with reasonably wide distribution so that if calamity falls to one, the others survive and might even produce some new species to take the place of the old (fill an empty niche). In the case of Homo we are, unfortunately from an evolutionary standpoint, all there is. And we are the only symbolic reasoning, true language communicating, and sapient specimens in the whole Hominidae family. Neanderthals might have been a lot like us but they don't seem to be around any more. So we're it. If humanity is going to have a shot at a future in a world we have very little understanding of, we had better find a way to evolve into competent managers.
I wish I could say that we could 'learn' to be competent, and I know many of you sincerely believe we can, but I suggest that the preponderance of evidence is against this possibility. We've had a very long time to show that we are learning from our mistakes (and we've made so many over the millennia) but the current situation globally just seems to show that we've really learned very little. This, even though we have libraries full of history books documenting those mistakes in great detail. We've had many bright individuals who have analyzed and taken meaning from history. They have pointed to what we should learn from those mistakes and still we keep making them over and over again. We need to be better than we are as a whole population, not just as a few visionaries who are unable to move the masses. I am convinced that our current species is not able to do this by learning alone. We must evolve a better brain. And I think we can do this. As to how, that is something that we must pursue scientifically. There are several options. Unfortunately, the one option I think is most likely is that there will be no collective action in this direction, we will remain in denial right up to the end. But as in the semi-normal distribution of any physical/mental trait there are always exceptional (right tail for those of you familiar with statistical distributions) variants, in this case, of high sapience. Those who 'see' the future will prepare for it. The likelihood of a massive evolutionary bottleneck (population collapse) seems to grow higher with each passing day and every political/economic misstep. With some luck (a non-zero probability) those prepared for that collapse and what follows may get through the bottleneck, form a breeding population, and (again with luck) adapt to the changing world. In a sense this is just ordinary evolution at work. We, as a species, will not have intentionally done anything to affect the outcome.
To me that is sad because it can just as easily go bad for Homo. The most brutal minimally sapient versions could survive and humanity would end up devolving to some former less intelligent form. There are no guarantees in the evolution business. But it will be what it will be. I would prefer to see us face up to a moral responsibility thrust on us as the scientific species and take a proactive stance with regard to ensuring the survival of the genus.
I challenge humanity -- and all readers of this blog -- to prove me wrong! Do so by not letting what looks to be overwhelming human nature cause us to crash and burn. Note this is not an invitation for commentators to provide endless speculations about technology saving us, or pointing out companies that seem to be on the verge of a breakthrough in solar energy, or pointing at some bill in Congress that just might have some hope in it. We've all heard all the anecdotes, and claims, and ideologies, and beliefs, and exuberant hopefulness. No more of that here.
I want action. Actually demonstrate by doing. Show me how to move humanity toward substantive and scalable action. That last part is important. What needs to be done needs to be done now. We need to be sucking CO2 out of the air rather than talking about how we might slow down putting it into the air. We need to be reducing the population world-wide right now rather than projecting that one day, because more people will be richer (just how is that to happen exactly?) and women will get education that the population growth will slow down and then decline. We need to be conserving to extremes what fossil fuels we have left in order to bootstrap our future (much smaller) civilization into a truly sustainable energy flow rather than wasting what we have on trying to sustain an inherently unsustainable financed consumption-based economy. Show me how to get the vast majority of human beings working on this agenda within the next two to five years.
I sincerely hope someone out there can prove that I am wrong in my somewhat speculative (but evidence-based) conclusions about the most likely scenario for the future. But it cannot be a proof by idle chatter. I have all of history (not to mention the principles of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology) to demonstrate that mankind is on a collision course with nature. You will need to come up with something pretty bloody brilliant to show how this course can be changed with this species effectively staying the same as it is now. Good luck.
Meanwhile I will continue to think about what we might be doing if we have to start over and have basically more sapient people taking charge!