Do humans have a long-term future? If so, how, and where? Scientists and scholars considered “the longevity of human civilization” last week at a symposium organized by planetary scientist David Grinspoon, inaugural NASA/Library of Congress Blumberg Chair in astrobiology at the library’s Kluge Center.
I’m a member of the school of thinking that describes “nature” as a social construction created by “modern” humans who saw themselves as separate from their environment. This conception of “nature” has enabled humans to think of themselves as free to exploit the environment they live in for their own individual benefit. He who eats the fastest gets the most, as the old saying goes. And so here we are in the developed world of early 21st century fretting about dwindling resources while the rich get richer and use up more stuff as, consequently, the poor get poorer. Some poor don’t ever get a chance to drive, or even ride in, an automobile, while most rich own several (one of which will be a high-priced hybrid, or even a Tesla, of course)….
Before I digress into fretting about human greed and corporate amorality, let me relay a few lines about the symposium.
Grinspoon put these questions (among others) to participants: What’s worth saving in nature? What should we choose to save? Can we form a healthy, stable, long-term relationship with technology and the biosphere?
Paleoanthropologist Rick Potts of the National Museum of Natural History said what we need to save is human resilience. Paleoclimate records have revealed that the last 6 million year’s of Earth’s history – the period of human origins and evolution – is marked by “dramatic instability.” And over the past 20 years the scientific narrative of human origins and evolution has changed from one of gradual human dominion over nature to one of persistent human adaptation to change. The difference between homo sapiens and its hominid predecessor species, Potts said, is our species’ ability to alter our environment. “We live in the world by altering it.” This is both good news and bad news…. In order for human life to survive, we – that is, homo sapiens – need to embrace a planetary, or even solar-system or cosmic – perspective, Potts argued, a way of thinking that will enable us to change our relationship with our environment (Earth, the solar system, the universe) in ways that will improve rather than degrade our long-term prospects for survival.
Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson said he’s “dubious” about the proposition that the human species must extend its presence into outer space to ensure its survival. His “terracentric” view is that humans are a product of Earth, evolved to live here. As to speculations about machine intelligence eventually matching or surpassing human intelligence or an eventual merger of human and machine, Robinson is also dubious. We don’t understand thinking and consciousness, and “the singularity is not close to happening.”
Planetary climatologist Jacob Haqq-Misra posed the question, “Who is it bad for?” if the human species goes extinct. Humans tend to think of Earth, and other planetary bodies, as objects of instrumental value (providing us with resources). Perhaps we should consider the idea that planets have intrinsic value….
Values, morals, and ethics were a topic of discussion throughout the day – in particular, the values of democracy and capitalism. Democracy – government by, for, and of “the people” – and capitalism – a socioeconomic system in which private property rights, private profit, and individual rights (and remember that the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that corporations have “individual” rights) – co-exist in many parts of the world. I would argue, however, that they do not co-exist peacefully. Democratic values – justice, fairness, equality, the common good – are in conflict with exploitive capitalistic values. Robinson and others at the symposium raised the point that if capitalism continues to run roughshod over democracy, then humankind is, indeed, doomed to extinction. (One scientist in attendance who took to the microphone to point the finger at capitalism as practiced today prompted a Kluge Center staffer to attempt to take the mike away from him – bad form, I say. “American self-government was created by a small group of people who were thinkers as well as doers, engaged in the world of affairs and the world of ideas,” the Kluge Center states on its web site. “The Library of Congress, at the beginning of its third century, has an unprecedented opportunity to help revive this traditional American interaction through the [Kluge Center].”)
Here’s my five cents worth on the topic: if we humans can’t learn to think and act globally (“planetarily”?), then we’re likely doomed. Advocating for colonizing outer space as a means to ensuring human survival is a way of avoiding this pressing need to re-think our relationship with our environment. And if we, the people, continue to embrace the exploitive, rapacious, amoral version of capitalism practiced today as a way of life, then we deserve what many scientists and scholars speculate we’re going to get….
The Kluge Center has posted a brief recap of the symposium proceedings online, and a video recording of the event will be posted soon. A transcript and webcast of a February 28 symposium organized by Grinspoon on “ the evolving moral landscape: perspectives on the environment – literary, historical, and interplanetary” is also available online.