|I’m beginning to appreciate that conversations are useful ways to explore ideas even if they’re with yourself. So here’s some more thinking out loud between my two schizophrenic halves, Dave the Idealist and Dave the Skeptic, on the subject of whether humanity has what it takes to get its act together and save the world:
|Dave the Idealist
||Dave the Skeptic
|Yes, I know I liked John Gray’s book, found it liberating in fact, but I still believe people are good at heart, and their instincts are right if they can re-learn to listen to them. And remember Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
||So your argument is that we’re going to save the world either by some massive act of collective altruism, even though such a thing is unprecedented, or by some subversive act by some clever noble clique of do-gooders. You know, some people would say that Bush’s neocon born-again cabal fit Margaret Mead’s ‘small group of world-changers’ definition perfectly. If that’s what she was referring to, small groups of nazis and megalomaniac idealists, we’re in trouble. Or is your ‘small group’ going to put birth control in the water supply and sabotage civilization until we have anarchy and chaos? — which is actually the neocons’ dream situation, since if that were to happen they’d just take over and feel self-justified in doing so, as they would see you as terrorists.
|We overcame slavery, we gave women the vote, learned that slavery and discrimination and disenfranchisement of women are wrong and unacceptable, we invented written language and a lot of other amazing things, including birth control technologies, we’ve made democracy, an improbable way of running the world, work, and we’ve found ways to strike a balance in the economy between complete totalitarianism and complete laissez-faire. We’re learning what doesn’t work, we have unprecedented peer-to-peer grassroots communication and organization, and we have more knowledge available to a larger percentage of the population than ever before. And instead of just writing dystopias, many people are actually proposing practical ways to bring about massive change.
||The last century featured more murders, more imprisonment, more torture, more war deaths, and greater extremes in distribution of wealth and power than any in our history. Every technology we’ve invented has a dark side that has been more effectively exploited than its positive applications. And as for communication, the digital divide is wider than ever. You shouldn’t judge the state of the world by the view from your rosy little corner of it.
|Stories are all we are. When we have learned new stories, we have become very different creatures very quickly, in a generation or two. It’s our ingenuity, our ability to change and respond to new and intuitively better, healthier, happier ways to live, and learn from each other peer-to-peer that makes me optimistic and hopeful, not new technologies, which I admit are a double-edged sword.
||Stories also allow fanatics and maniacs to raise huge and bloodthirsty armies, and allow cults, including most modern religions and political parties, to brainwash people to act against both their personal and collective interest. Myths and other stories allow people to tolerate and live in denial of atrocities going on all around them. Religious stories have prompted most of history’s most brutal and protracted wars. And we’re so adaptable that we learn to live a life of never-ending oppression, subjugation and deprivation, and we delude ourselves that our pathetic lives are good, healthy, deserved, getting better and the only way to live.
|But we are also capable of forgetting, forgiving and moving on quickly, when a better story, a better way of living, is told to us. And in the last decade a significant minority of the population is on a roll — better informed, more inventive, more attuned to and knowledgeable about that’s needed, what’s happening and what’s possible than ever before. They’re able to use networking technology to make creative, synthetic, analogical and metaphorical leaps, collaboratively, in ways that would have been almost unimaginable even a generation ago. We have already witnessed, in the 1960s, a huge shift in mainstream thinking and worldviews occurring in an astonishingly short period of time, and if we could do something like that again now we have much more powerful tools and much greater knowledge to do it with, so it might actually endure this time.
||Pure romanticism. The 1960s weren’t nearly as rosy and liberated as you remember them. Many guys jumped on the bandwagon in complete ignorance and indifference to the peace and liberation movements — they were merely attracted by the promise of cheap dope and easy sex. Your faith (and it’s nothing more than faith, since there’s no solid reasoning behind it) that we could start a similar movement in this century and this time it would endure and bring about ubiquitous change, is simply the left-wing version of the right-wingers’ Rapture. People don’t change, cultures don’t change, and there’s an unprecedented level of investment in maintaining the status quo working against any little movement that might threaten that. We are programmed by our DNA to spend almost all of our time and energy living moment to moment and distracted by the minutiae of constant and trivial decisions. And even if this were not so, as Gray argues so articulately we have no ‘free will’ or collective consciousness. Even as ‘individual’ creatures we are merely collections of cells, molecules and organs, each doing what they do, largely for mutual benefit, and almost entirely (99.9999%) subconscious. So belief that we can somehow get our personal act together, let alone one at the level of some higher social order, and transform ourselves into what we are not, seems to me the height of folly, a form of leftist religious fanaticism.
|There you go, relying on science again, that collection of unreliable and creaky models of reality, to make your argument. The whole, at every level of aggregation, is always greater than the sum of the parts. Gaia is much more than just all individual life on Earth. We as individual and wondrous creatures are more than a mere collection of our cells, molecules and organs. And I’m not being spiritual here. Forget about ‘consciousness’ and these other academic and utterly meaningless concepts. We as individuals, and our planet as an organism of a different order, are mostly what happens between our composite parts. We are sensation, reaction, communication, learning, understanding, and the stories that recall them. Most of what we are at both the creature level and at the Gaia level are what is happening in the intersections, margins and edges around the component parts. That is where our true sense of self and meaning resides, that is where our instincts draw their wisdom, that is what our DNA remembers and tells us to do. Your myopic science, looking at individual organisms in isolation, is no more able to understand the great truths of life, and the nature of our existence, than a collector dissecting dead monarch butterflies is able to comprehend the astonishing transformation of that creature’s life, or how it could have ‘learned’ where and how to migrate when three generations have transpired since the last generation, or how sun and flowers and smells make a butterfly happy and inform its understanding of the purpose of its life.
||Let’s look at this argument. You’re saying, I think, that almost all of what we are is subconscious, and that an important part of what we are is our relationships with ‘others’ outside ourselves. Yes? OK. So then you’re saying that what can/will save us is something in our collective unconsciousness or subconsciousness? That deep down ‘we’ intuitively know what needs to be done, what is happening, and what is possible, and will use that knowledge to collectively do what is in our collective interest. Well, at least that’s better than relying on gods. But if we had this great collective unconsciouness or subconsciousness, wouldn’t we have been able to figure out, even before Einstein did, that almost all human inventions, notably in the media (since the invention of writing and the printing press), in transportation (since the invention of the lever, the inclined plane, the sledge and the wheel) and in the tapping of stored energy (since the invention of controlled fire) would have more negative consequences for our planet than positive ones, and hence prevent them from emerging? No, don’t give me that nonsense that the global population is leveling off because we somehow ‘know’ it must, since people have repeatedly told researchers the only reason they don’t have one or two more kids each is that they can’t financially afford it (for now). If we (‘we’ being either all humanity or all creatures on the planet) are our own collective guiding hand, that guiding hand has done a pretty lousy job over the last 30,000 years. Just because we’ve lost touch with nature and Gaia, you say? I think it’s more likely that we’re just an exceptionally fierce and adaptable species which emerged by random accident from the primeval soup and, like all fierce and adaptable species in Earth’s history, plagued (in the literal sense of the word, not the moral one) the planet until a meteor came along, or a climate change or new species evolved that preyed on excessive numbers of the plague species, and restored equilibrium and the selected preference of known life for biodiversity. Disequilibrium is neither new or unnatural in the universe. And that, more than the crown of creation, more even than the sum of our ‘stories’, is what we humans really are.