The Journey Ahead
Every journey starts with the destination. You need to know where you are going before you start working out the trip to get there. Even if the goal is simply to have new experiences you still have something in mind when you set out. This is as true for a journey of the mind as for the body. And it is just as true for the journey of humanity through evolution. Where are we going?
This will be the first in a series of blogs on the consequences of our rapidly changing world with regard to the future of humanity. We are entering a period of dramatic change. Our relation with the environment, the climate, and our access to high-powered fuels is undergoing radical reorganization. Everything about our current civilization is going to radically change as a result. This series is aimed at first establishing a vision of a sustainable future situation for some form of humanity and then providing some travel tips for how to get to that future. It will be an arduous journey for mankind. We will be facing terra incognita. No one has ever been in this environment before. So the uncertainties are legion. All we can do is keep a destination in mind and look for the signs along the way that suggest we are getting to where we want to go.
In this post I want to outline some ideas on where that destination might be. I base these ideas on several factors that are observable about our species today and the emerging clarity we have regarding the environment that is evolving around us.
In fact this is the point. The environment is evolving, to a large extent due to our activities over the last ten to twenty thousand years. A changing environment means that we have to evolve in order to remain fit to exist in whatever that environment turns into. Given the kinds of environments which have existed in the distant past we know that however radical the near future environment will be (e.g. higher sea levels, warmer average temperatures, biodiversity destruction, etc.) life itself will endure in some forms. These will be the seed for distant future speciation and a new efflorescence of the tree of life. That some form of future hominid, derived from genus Homo will exist I take as a given. But it also depends on how the current species of sapiens manages to survive the transition. It is to that issue that I turn.
My starting point is the end point. My inquiry begins with the question about what kind of life should humans expect to have even in a radically changed world. One early vision of the state of humankind subsequent to the depletion of fossil fuels was the Olduvai Theory of Richard C. Duncan, in the early to mid 1990s. Duncan envisioned a reversal of civilization and reversion of humans to the status of primitive humans whose remains are found in Olduvai Gorge in Africa. Aside from being a catchy title, the theory suggests that humanity will regress, possibly even evolutionarily, to a form that can succeed in the more primitive environment with only real-time solar energy to support it.
In other words, our civilization and the species we have become, are mere flashes in geological time. And now, as Richard Heinberg puts it, “The Party Is Over”.
In spite of agreeing with the Malthusian analysis inherent in peak fossil energy, population overshoot, and Homo sapiens' minimal average sapience, and all that those entail for the future of civilization, I am not inclined to think humanity is destined for the Hobbesian view of the human condition as “...nasty, brutish, and short.”
There are two basic reasons for my perverse long-term optimism in spite of my short-term pessimism (of course I would call it realism, but others disagree!) First, we humans have learned one hell of a lot about how things in the world work. Granted we are not good at learning how we ourselves work (mentally). But we have amassed a tremendous amount of knowledge in the sciences and engineering and much of it might be applicable even in a low-power energy future. Our knowledge of systems science and systems ecology alone may make living feasible regardless of what the future world is like (within reason of course, we probably couldn't survive in a runaway warming that would lead to a Venusian climate!). There can be a technological civilization in the future but one that is not driven by frenetic needs to run as fast as we can run. Second, and most basic of all, is evolution. Along with our knowledge of how the world works we also understand the process of change itself. Of course devolution is possible, I don't deny that, but I also don't see it as inevitable. Our understanding of evolution, genetics, and especially the emerging field of Evo-Devo provides us with the potential to become intentional actors in the evolutionary process itself. We are already unintentional actors. We shaped the environment we live in and set in motion the forces that will shape the future environment. We have been embedded in a process of co-evolution, us and our cultures, that has continued to modify our genetics right up to the present. Indeed there is some evidence that our co-evolutionary process is accelerating, not abating. The Homo sapiens sapiens of today is not really the exact same species it was even 10,000 years ago.
Humans can abide as the Earth abides. But it will only be with understanding and intention. The very first question we have to ask has to address what a future human living condition will be like. Will we devolve to Olduvai status, or become something more than we are now?
What Does It Mean To Be Human?
The field of positive psychology is relatively young, focusing on what it means for humans to thrive, be happy, or feel fulfilled. One popular concept in this arena is self actualization, especially as developed in Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs theory. Maslow posited that humans are motivated by a set of needs that arc from the most basic biological (food, warmth) to social (love, esteem), to a higher self fulfillment or actualization, which includes mental states that permit higher thoughts and concepts, such as love of humanity as opposed to love of self. Several psychologists have considered versions of this sort of needs/drives architecture and a very full literature on subjects like creativity and success (e.g. ‘Flow’ in psychology). The general understanding in Maslow's theory is that as lower level needs are met and remain unthreatened (one has enough food and feels loved) the individual naturally moves into the mental space of actualization where they can be creative and develop positive attitudes toward others and themselves.
What this set of theories tell us about human beings is that they have the mental capacity to be marvelous beings given that their basic needs are being met. My own reading suggests that the happiest people are actually those who are actively participating in meeting their own needs. They are not necessarily individualists, but more generally are being productive members of a group effort that collectively provides for every one's needs in the group (and presumably for the few misfortunates who cannot directly contribute, and for children not yet ready to contribute).
In the modern industrialized/informationalized civilization where one would think all of our basic needs are being taken care of, it is hard to understand why so many people are unhappy and why we have become so unsapient. But the problem is that our materialistic views of what civilization should mean has done a pretty good job of taking care of needs at the lowest levels of the hierarchy (food, shelter, etc.) but has actually been contrary to the middle needs (sexually suggestive advertising and explicit sex scenes in movies are not substitutions for love). Our education and enterprise processes, designed to maximally take care of those material needs, does not address our self esteem needs. We try to compensate by telling our young kids what a great job they did on that drawing, or that they are special, or through grade inflation (don't get me started!) But we run people through the education mill in order that they have the requisite job skills to keep the machinery of commerce going. In my view this is the antithesis of self actualization. The only real higher needs we are supporting is the need for the psychopathic rich to get richer. I take solace in knowing that many of them are still not happy, really.
The bottom line is that humans, in general, really don't need the kind of materialistic world that our high powered energy and lack of wisdom has created to be happy or have the opportunity to self actualize. I think I understand how we got here. Once agriculture was swinging into full gear our societies became focused on managing everything to ensure maximum yield, usually against a very uncertain climate. We worked so hard at producing the basics that we sort of forgot that there is more to life than making a buck. Some so-called primitive tribes, the few left in this world, haven't forgotten, those that have been lucky enough to live in climates that provide the rich biological and hydrological resources they need. But we modern humans have forgotten. In fact, we perversely think that our McMansions and smart phones are the very definition of happiness.
The vast majority of people in the modern world do not seem to be able to grasp the essential difference between being glad to have the latest iPad and being self actualized. The former lets you get the latest updates on gossip, the latter lets you create something of value (even if you do it on an iPad!) I think one of the reasons that we have gotten to this point is that, as I mentioned above, evolution hasn't stopped. As a population we have been co-evolving with our materialistic cultures. We have created those cultures (but recognize that the actual acts of creation are done by very, very few people!) And in turn those cultures have selected for those who only want what those cultures offer - more materialism. And, as I have written before, this latter effect is what has helped select against higher sapience. One does not succeed in this world (either in monetary terms or in procreation) by being wise, only aggressive or lazy. Smarts help some to succeed monetarily, but it really doesn't take smarts to operate a refrigerator (to see a darkly humorous logical extreme watch the movie: “Ideocracy”)
The selection pressure of high powered industrial civilization has, unfortunately, tended to favor lower sapience. I think this also means it has disfavored the drive to self actualization. At the same time, paradoxically, it has provided a platform for the few bright people to discover new knowledge and produce amazing technologies. This was possible because the non-actualized masses provided a demand (as long as energy was available) and an impetus for novelty. It is ironic that, to paraphrase Dickens, ‘the best of times (knowledge) was made possible by the worst of times (unthinking consumption)’. But there you have it. The question is, now that the world is changing and the loss of energy will completely alter the consumption side of the equation, where do we go from here? Can we focus on the fact that some human beings, and especially those that seem to be more sapient than most, do self actualize in spite of the culture we live in? Can we use this knowledge to address the question of what would we like a future to look like given that we will not have the high powered energy sources of today? I think we can.
If we start from the premise that what it means to be human is that each individual has the capacity and the opportunity to achieve higher states of awareness and understanding of the world, to become self actualized, then our destination has to be some kind of living condition in which that is made possible. I started writing about a ‘feasible’ living situation starting in Feb. of 2010. The series can be found here:
- What is a feasible living situation for future humans?,
- A feasible living situation continued.,
- What should we fight to save?,
- More on aesthetics and humanity,
- and Toward a better understanding of a feasible living situation
Thus we are looking at a picture in which a few climatically stable pockets support a few villages containing a psychologically optimal number of individuals each. These might be in communication, even have trade with each other, but nothing like the inter-community commerce we see today. Life will revolve around the education and food growing systems, with construction and its support services on an as needed basis. People will basically do those things that satisfy the spirit. They will, of course, primarily be concerned with raising food. If done right they will have ample time for enjoyable times with family and friends. They will pursue their education, both in how to improve their living skills and how to better understand the world around them and their past. These need not and should not be peasants living just at subsistence. If that were the only option then would it really be worth there being a human species?
Humans are capable of growing mentally long after they finish growing physically. A society, careful to control its population size, can still grow in knowledge even though it is not growing economically (in the way we think of it now). The destination is self actualization for all. If we cannot find a pathway from where we are now to that destination then I'm not sure it is worth even stepping outside to start the journey. On the other hand, I strongly feel there is enough sapience in some members of the current species to find the path.
I have always had an adventurous spirit. And I think that it is likely that humanity will come out of the transition as a better species, that is wiser in the ways to live in balance with the Ecos. With that belief I'm game to explore some possible paths. I hope I don't have to go alone, because then, again, it isn't worth the effort. The future success of humanity will be based, as it always was in the past, on a collective effort of a group. We shall see what develops.
The First Step - Sacrifice in the Now
It is hard to contemplate doing something so radically different tomorrow, given that today things in the world seem almost normal. It is very difficult for anyone, even a very sapient person, to consider going and learning to live off the land with only real-time solar energy inputs while it is still possible to get in your car and run to the grocery store for a loaf of bread and gallon of milk. The question is, do we start now to learn to live more balanced lives, or do we wait until the fan is on high and the fecal pellets are flying to make the move?
The problem with the latter is that we are in a relatively slow transition at present. The fan isn't blowing at maximum and the fecal matter is in such small quantities as to be nearly indiscernible. The danger with waiting is that we have been in an exponential growth mode for so long. The problem with exponential growth is that you can feel like everything is just fine until the crash comes. It is like walking toward a cliff in a pea soup dense fog. You're OK until you step off the edge. And then it is too late. It does no good to wish you had turned right or left instead of going straight while you are hurling toward the bottom.
We are in completely unknown territory now. We know with fairly high certainty that our energy flow is going to be diminished. And unless someone very quickly pulls a massive energy replacement rabbit out of the thermodynamic hat, nothing else we have on the shelf right now can scale up quickly and broadly enough to keep there from being a catastrophic loss when, for example, the oil stops flowing because the producers can no longer make profits, and then the coal stops flowing because it takes a lot of diesel fuel to get coal. Natural gas is still a big question as to the volume we might have to work with, but even with NG there are infrastructure conversion issues that will keep it from being an immediate substitute. The whole problem revolves around the fact that we just do not know how much net energy we have to work with from fossil fuels, but especially oil. If we are, as I have suggested based on my computer modelling, past the peak of net energy production, then we are already screwed.
And here is the main point. We don't know where we are relative to net energy. We can only make educated guesses, but they are still just guesses. If we are past the point of no return, how would be know it? As one of my favorite Brandi Carlile songs says “...there are no warnings, only signs.”
Since I advocate that only the highly sapient need apply, perhaps this provides a means for testing sapience potential without some of the genetic testing I've written about. Only the really sapient will see the practicality of sacrificing a few more years of the comfortable consumer lifestyle to start preparing now. I admit it is a sacrifice. It means finding a location with all the right attributes (you can't just start a permaculture farm nearby where you happen to live if the climate is unstable). It means cashing out your assets to trade for land and off-the-grid capabilities. And, by the way, this does not mean buying solar panels that you will be stuck with in twenty years, not able to get replacements or repairs! It means giving up what you are used to having now without really knowing for certain that this is the best thing to do.
Nor can you do anything like this alone. It will take a community. So not only do you have to make the decision to self-sacrifice now, but you have to convince others that they should do the same. Again this is a test of sapience. If any of your friends balk it probably means they wouldn't be great contributors to the situation anyway.
I see this process as one of self-organization rather than engineering a social group. The sufficiently sapient will recognize the signs and begin to take action, not waiting for warnings (at least from the official powers that be). They will find ways to find one another, especially in these days of social networking media. No one could orchestrate a successful transition. No one could dictate it or ‘run’ the community. It will have to come from a democratic and egalitarian process. It will necessarily be at the only scale in which such a process could ever succeed, a face-to-face community.
Other sacrifices are in the wings. Even if sapient communities become established they will need to be prepared for what will transpire in the rest of civilization. I will save this for another time, however. In the near future I will return to the physical aspects of a feasible living situation and try to explain better why so much land per individual is needed to establish a truly sustainable life. And then we can talk about how to establish it (like financing) and protect it once things start to come unglued. In the mean time it would be nice to know if any of this is helping anyone. I have received a few nice e-mails from folk saying that they get what I am talking about and would like more ideas put out there. This blog is a response to those. But I don't know if my thoughts are really helping.