Any genuine discussion of progress — however sound or dubious the notion itself may be — must be framed within the larger environmental context and take into account the exponential rise in absolute existential suffering of humans and of all Earth’s sentient beings. This would oblige us to poke our heads out of the anthropocentric box that has increasingly defined us and that has correspondingly limited our response to civilization’s blowback. Urbanization, cyborgification, specialization, inequality, “globalization” and even the deepest of our psycho-spiritual and mystical traditions have served to deify us and/or alienate us from the rest of nature. And even if we were able to make the necessary punctuated jump in consciousness, all significant trajectories suggest that we will be unwilling to actually execute the congruous paradigm shift.
That we have unwittingly declared war on the rest of the planet may stand as the most indicting evidence of both our alienation and developmental immaturity. According to the 2005 Millennium Assessment Report, in the past fifty years we have commandeered the Earth’s grand life-support cycles — water, carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus – and we have appropriated at least a third of all the planet’s photosynthetic energy. We have shaved down half of its original forest cover, degraded an equal amount of fertile land, and now threaten a mass extinction and atmospheric heating event of geological proportions.
A freeze frame of the present reveals a civilization at the peak of its power. Within the space of a few decades, humanity will have experienced peak population, peak oil, peak water, peak land, and perhaps even peak crop yields (where peak means something slightly different for each). Yet, even at the height of power, having taken virtual control of the biosphere and having turned the arable Earth into a vast feeding lot for our species, it still has not been enough. In what amounts to the greatest perpetual famine in human history a billion people daily feel the pangs of hunger, lacking the minimal bodily requirements of protein and calories; two to three billion are chronically deficient in at least one of the essential micronutrients, underdeveloped physically, mentally and immunologically; nine million die each year from starvation and diseases of malnourishment. For perspective, a billion is more than the total world population in 1800; three billion is more than those alive in 1950; and the nine million annual deaths rival history’s greatest famine of 1958-1962 in China.
“A freeze frame of the present reveals a civilization at the peak of its power. Within the space of a few decades, humanity will have experienced peak population, peak oil, peak water, peak land, and perhaps even peak crop yields.”
An account of the collective suffering effected by Civilization would also include the billions of obese, incarcerated, enslaved, abused, raped, bombed and diseased; the alcoholic and otherwise addicted; those without potable water and proper sanitation; as well as the billions of livestock cruelly penned until the day of their slaughter and all the organisms who get “disappeared” along with their habitats at the rate of a hundred-thousand square kilometers annually. Given that we are connected to our planet in every possible way, from the mundane to the most profound, it is not especially surprising that, as the Catholic monk and cosmologist Thomas Berry phrased it, “when the other living species are violated so extensively, the human itself is imperiled.”
Yet, despite deteriorating conditions of planetary forests, soil, water, oil, climate, and ecosystems, we are somehow expecting to improve the quality of life for billions of impoverished people in the coming decades. The United Nations projects that the human population will peak at nine billion by 2050 and then hover there for the next two centuries. That is twice the number of people that caused the ecological wreckage of the past fifty years. There is clearly a flaw with the logic of our expectations — one which Carleton Schade and David Pimentel suggested “may well translate into billions of additional malnourished people by mid-century, or, indeed, could even augur a painful population crash.”
Our Ersatz Saviors
Of the oft-advocated saviors to the human dilemma — technological innovation, economic growth, the demographic transition, and the evolution of consciousness — not one inspires any hope.. The first three are exacerbating our predicament, and the last is proceeding far too slowly to be of any help. More likely, we will continue down a path of ecologic catastrophe and widening bifurcation, where humans will further differentiate themselves, culturally, materially, perhaps even biologically from each other.
The demographic transition is a historical phenomenon. To start, it is too little too late: we will still have nine billion people by 2050. Moreover, the engines of fertility reduction – namely, modernization, urbanization and education – serve to substitute production and consumption for children. The result is smaller but wealthier families that consume more resources than the larger ones that they replaced. Now for the contradictions of the economic solution.
The logic of debt-based capitalism demands that it constantly grow; the banker needs it, the entrepreneur, the poor, the politician, the not yet born. Growth is no less than “the secular religion of the advancing industrial societies,” declared the sociologist Daniel Bell. If the economy doesn’t grow, then we can expect the future to become grimmer for proportionally more people. If it does grow, the biosphere — or at least the conditions most congenial for human habitation — will continue to deteriorate, and the future will look grim for us all. This catch-22 is what the Paul and Anne Ehrlich dubbed “the human predicament.”
Problematically, most of history’s wealth benefited the 750 million people of Europe and their settler states — the United States, Canada and Australia — plus Japan and the few other elite nations. And some seventy percent of new wealth (that is, growth) still goes to the already wealthy. Intensive agriculture, colonialism and the Industrial Revolution were punctuated bursts in this process, whereby the material wealth generated by slaves, peasants and proletarians brought great riches to a small, but growing number of the more fortunate. By the 21st century, nearly a billion people numbered among the material wealthy, a billion lived in sheer misery, and four billion were strung somewhere in between.
Inequality is now at its highest level in human history. One measure of this, the Gini coefficient, has been steadily rising from 0.69 in 1960 to 0.87 in 1989, nearing that maximum possible inequality of 1. According to the economist Gregory Clark, “The gap between living standards in the richest and poorest economies in the world is now more than 50:1, while in 1800 it was probably at most 4:1.” Most of this difference comes from the material growth in the capitalist powerhouses, but not all: more than fifty nations actually had lower per capita incomes in 2000 than they did in 1975. This bifurcation of humanity must be considered in the calculus of civilization’s progress.
“We find that every step, every innovation, every revolution comes into being in a world already fully connected to the rest, every strand woven finely into the environmental fabric. And so every action has not only the intended outcome but also numerous unintended consequences, sometimes a whole chain of them that renders the initial desire obsolete or trivial.”
As for technology, we find that every step, every innovation, every revolution comes into being in a world already fully connected to the rest, every strand woven finely into the environmental fabric. And so every action has not only the intended outcome but also numerous unintended consequences, sometimes a whole chain of them that renders the initial desire obsolete or trivial. And so, from the shock wave of every grand human technological revolution there has reverberated proportionally greater blowback. The industrial revolution delivered comfort, longevity and the tools of apocalypse. And while the “Green Revolution” fed twice the population of previous agricultural systems, it destroyed the very resource base upon which it feeds.
Because our solutions are rooted in our present paradigm they serve only to amplify our problems. As Marshall McLuhan famously noted, “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” And neuroscience now suggests that not just technology but the whole of our environment influences the development of specific neuronal connections, which in turn influences the human psyche and so – to complete the cycle – our cultural and natural environment. Technology has made us increasingly cyborgian, more comfortable in our modern caves blue-lit by a screen than under the light of the sun, and capitalism has changed us from citizens in a polity to consumers in the worldwide mall. Ethical shopping, cap-and-trade, bioengineering, crops for biofuels, terra-forming our own planet – these are the masterpieces of a genius bounded by its worldview.
The Speed of Change
Fortunately, worldviews change. Religions, scientific theories about the universe, earth and life, and concepts of universal equality are widely held beliefs that once did not exist. If ontogeny does in some, at least, rough manner recapitulate phylogeny, then it is not our failing as a species that we behave as adolescents towards nature and our own human family. We are, as Duane Elgin noted, rebellious, reckless, seeking of instant gratification, and prone to group-think. Our current maturity is simply a natural stage in our developmental unfolding. Beginning with Jean Gebser, numerous luminaries including William Thompson, Ken Wilber, Jeremy Rifkin, Leslie White and Ernst Lazlo have noted an evolutionary arrow to the path of our collective consciousness – progress if you will. There is a simultaneous bootstrapping of consciousness by the individual and by society. But this takes time.
The question is whether we can mature swiftly enough to address the enormity of our challenges. Given that every environmental indicator of global proportions has steadily worsened, that not one, not even the ozone damage — humanity’s one ecologic victory — has actually improved, it is unlikely that we will marshal our collective forces to prevent the sorts of collapses implied — population, environmental, economic. Still, the potential continually exists. Threshold moments happen. The butterfly’s wings do cause storms: Siddhartha under the bodhi tree, Hoffman’s accidental dosing, “Silent Spring,” the Tunisian fruit vendor. And when faced with adversity, teenagers do often transcend their adolescence.
“The average lifespan of a species is about four millions years. We have treaded this Earth for only five percent of that time.”
It is when viewing the crystal ball for the long-term that humanity’s prospects greatly brighten. The average lifespan of a species is about four millions years. We have treaded this Earth for only five percent of that time. We are biologically generalist, omnivorous and brilliant, and the amalgam of our species was forged through the fires of intense climatic fluctuations, first in Africa, then throughout the planet. This bodes well for us. Biologically, our evolution has quickened in the past fifty thousand years, taking a hiatus only in the homogeneity and universal reproductive success of the past fifty years.
Culturally, we have produced three great experiments, each millennium in the making: the scientific study of the exterior world in the West; the scientific study of the interior world in the East; and an environmental relationship in the pre-European Americas. The West accelerated our cyborgian evolution, melding our bodies with all manner of synthetic enhancements (from eyeglasses and insulated houses to spaceships and psychedelics); the East tapped into the emergent property of wisdom and spiritual harmony, or a way to make existential choices on the basis of the meta-perspective; the Americas served as lifestyle exemplars, where heterarchy and cultural heterogeneity allowed for flexible responses to natural variation. Each is potentially adaptive. Together they will, in conjunction with the many truths we will surely discover along the way, insure our species a long lifespan, perhaps long enough to witness eons of geological and astronomical change, perhaps long enough to speciate many times, perhaps even long enough to find another planet when this one burns in our star’s death fires.