Saturday, September 28, 2013

Bouncing Hope

Having slightly bounced back from near-total hopelessness by grasping for valuable lessons that could avert total catastrophe, I was once again forced to face it.

This week, we watched as people acting as cruel idiots (or sociopaths playing the rest of us for idiots) engaged in what will likely be a weeks-long act of terrorism, threatening the health or survival of millions of people so they and their allies can have more economic and political power.

Included in their demands are projects that would increase our use of fossil fuels, such as the approval of the now-infamous Keystone XL pipeline, which will push us much closer to environmental disaster. The scope of that disaster was spelled out in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), also released this week. Already out of date, and likely too conservative in its estimates of what's coming, the IPCC report confirmed the urgency of rapidly reducing greenhouse gas pollution, which is the exact opposite of what the terrorists are willing to support.

Coincidentally, I continued reading a new book, "Our Political Nature" by Avi Tuschman, which explores the underlying reasons for people's political views. The book confirms the strong correlation of related behavior with personality type that I've assumed in my own research, which has a strong biological/evolutionary component. This, and a recent study casting doubt on people's ability to change their beliefs based on new evidence, have led me to seriously question whether the use of reason, facts, and ideas has any appreciable chance of improving our odds of survival as a species.

I had a brief interlude of renewed hope after first hearing of the reprehensible brinksmanship in Congress. During a conversation about these issues, I recalled the primary prescription for long-term survival from the book "Immoderate Greatness." Effectively, it's a version of my power vs. responsibility theme, which I invoked as the subject of another blog post during another national debt crisis: keep complexity low enough to manage effectively. This time, I imagined that by "chunking" our activities so that their effects can be reasonably anticipated and controlled, we would cut back on activities we couldn't, thus slowing down and scaling down our impact on the biosphere so it has a chance to heal. We would also potentially be happier, in large part because we'd have less stress.

Perhaps it's my own nature which makes it easy to envision living such a life, though my current lifestyle is far from it. I can appreciate that other people, by their nature, might find it extremely abhorrent, even threatening, and fight the prospect with whatever means they can acquire – thus appearing as terrorists to the rest of us. In an ideal world, we could live in environments where our particular natures are an advantage, with enough capability for migration so that opposites born in a place that doesn't work for them can find someplace that does. Unfortunately, we don't have that, and it's getting so crowded and interconnected that we can't escape each other.

Toward the end of the week, another piece of news reminded me of an option I used to take as an article of faith. Water was found on the surface of Mars, which makes it more attractive as a place people could ultimately live. The prospect of exploiting new territory and resources, with social and technological experimentation that could potentially benefit everyone, has the potential to improve humanity's chances of thriving and surviving into the far future; or at least, that's how space enthusiasts rationalize the drive to explore space. Mars is the best candidate for our next step, and it looks even more attractive now. I still think going to other planets is preferable to limiting ourselves to this one, especially given the habitability limit imposed by our warming Sun. However, the threat of reducing Earth's habitability dramatically due to global warming must be our top priority, along with learning the lessons critical to ensuring healthy communities will be developed that don't exceed the complexity they can healthily and responsibly manage.

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