Today's Wednesday reprint is a double-feature. The first, shorter post was written on September 28, 2011, and introduces (in passing) the idea of authentic hope. The second post was written on October 15, 2012. This essay explains the difference between false, obligatory hope and authentic hope. It was a rant because I was pissed off when I wrote it, so I toned it down a bit. — Dave
Will The Human Species Grow Up?
I have a message for future generations. And that is "please accept our apologies."
When I consider the big questions, I read and speculate about astrobiology, which might be defined as "the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe." Outside the fundamental laws of physics and cosmology, that just about covers everything as far as I'm concerned. Studying astrobiology gives one the gift of perspective. Life on Earth, and possibly elsewhere, can be viewed from the proper distance and in the proper time frame. Astrobiology straddles the dance of Chance and Necessity.
A couple of chapters back, I offered you words from Christiaan Huygens and Carl Sagan, each explaining how new perspectives on our place in the universe should help us grow up as a civilization. But we have not grown up yet, a sad fact that we are reminded of everyday in the news, as we read about terrorists, hatred, wars, and abject poverty. A grown-up civilization would have learned to do better.
In fact, there's no guarantee that we'll ever grow up. We constantly discover new ideas and develop new technologies that could make the world a better place, but we seem as likely to put them to work for destructive as for constructive ends.
Sometimes, when I'm feeling down, I despair that as a species, we just don't care enough to realize our potential, and that centuries from now, archaeologists will sift through the ruins of our civilization and wonder what went wrong. In even deeper moments of angst, I fear that we'll do so much damage to our planet that we'll go the way of the dinosaurs, and it will be millions of years before the Earth sees another set of intelligent beings.
In these moments, I think of the art, the music, the dance, the literature, the sports, the science, and the other great things that humans have created...and I'm overcome with sadness at the thought that all would be lost forever.
I share these unhappy thoughts because I think they are important for everyone to contemplate. We need some global guilt. We need for everyone to look at the faces of children, and think about how we'll feel if they grow up in a world in which our civilization is collapsing because we, as individuals and as a society, made the wrong choices.
Sometimes, I picture future generations looking back at us, putting us on trial, and judging us for our sins. But then I remember that if we don't change, if we don't learn to grow up, there may be no future generations. There will be no one left to judge us-except perhaps God, who surely would not be pleased-so we must judge ourselves.
I think if we all take a hard look at our society today, we'll judge ourselves failures, not because we haven't done a lot of things right, but because we still do too many things wrong. It's only once we recognize our failures that we'll be able to turn them around, and prove ourselves worthy stewards of the incredible good fortune that we have inherited from generations past on this remarkable planet.
Think hard about those words—it's only once we recognize our failures that we'll be able to turn them around. In this message we find the only authentic hope the human species has. I'm well-known among the relative few who know me in life and on this blog as a pessimist, though I prefer the term realist. I often ridicule those who hold out false hopes in the face of overwhelming, relentless disasters caused by humans themselves, or as the Bennett put it, humans making the "wrong choices."
I am a realist (pessimist) because I don't think those "wrong choices" are choices at all. As I've said in the past, Homo sapiens is a species, albeit misnamed, so what you see is what you get. And that is why in my view the one and only true Hope is very tenuous indeed. For example, will we humans stop our destruction of life in the oceans, and finally, the health of the oceans themselves? I find little convincing evidence that we will. I believe the growth urge is innate, and "harvesting" the oceans for all the animal life contained therein follows from that imperative, as does warming (and acidifying) the oceans by burning fossil fuels. Bennett refers to our "potential," but I believe that we are seeing that "potential" being played out right now in the 21st century.
Bennett says we need a sense of "global guilt." My preferred term is humility. We humans need to get realistic about our true powers and limitations pronto. Humbleness is required because, let's face it, Homo sapiens thinks it's pretty hot stuff. Our comeuppance is fast approaching, and it won't be pretty. We need to grow up, to mature as a species. I have a private visual joke I'll share with you. There's a group of Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis, left) and a group of paleolithic modern humans squared off, it's a lot like high school, as so much of human life is, and the human cheerleaders are out front, chanting—
Our team is red hot
Your team is diddly-squat!
And of course that's precisely the way it turned out—our team won. Homo sapiens came to dominate the planet. The Neanderthals are gone. Hot stuff.
Will the human species grow up? I doubt it, but there's always that one true but very slim Hope.
Authentic Versus False HopeLast weekend I ran across a reference to a new PBS series called Saving The Ocean. I frequently write about human destruction of marine species and ecosystems, so I was eager to take a look at it. The first video I tried to watch was the trailer for the episodes Shark Reef and The Sacred Island. Here's the opening voice-over, the very first words I heard—
Saving The Ocean — a new kind of TV series featuring good news stories about the environment.
Stories of hope, endurance and innovation.
Oh My God! Then I watched the first few seconds of the episode Destination Baja. Host Carl Safina is narrating—
On this edition of Saving The Ocean, we're petting whales in a Mexican lagoon.
Did that man say we're petting whales? I could see immediately what we were dealing with here. Saving The Ocean is the Greatest Whitewash In Human History, the Biggest Snow Job Ever Conceived. I went over to Carl Safina's website. I found the Saving The Ocean page, where I read the following—
Join host Carl Safina as he chronicles the unsung heroes who are hard at work inventing and implementing solutions to save the world’s oceans.
Most of us have heard about the effects overfishing, pollution and industry are having on the world’s oceans.
It’s time for some good news.
Join Carl as he introduces us to marine biologists, fisheries scientists, conservationists and activists who are helping fish populations to rebound, bringing endangered species back from the brink and… creating hope for today’s oceans.
There is no hope for today's oceans! Or rather, there is no authentic hope, as I will explain. I anticipated today's post in yesterday's post Hot, Sour And Breathless. I discussed the meaning and dire implications of a prediction made by Jean-Pierre Gattuso.
By the end of the century, said French biological oceanographer Jean-Pierre Gattuso, "The oceans will become hot, sour and breathless."
I am going to assume you read that post, and my previous writings on the perilous state of the world's oceans. Yesterday's post contains tips for finding those articles.
In a word, this PBS series is despicable. The intention is to pump people full of hot air, to inflate them with what I called false hope. It is a cover-up, an attempt to preempt, downplay or undermine the urgent, alarming messages of real scientists like Jeremy Jackson and Daniel Pauly who agonize over the rapid degradation of marine ecosystems. It is a heinous lie, a whitewash.
Here's the Big Lie in Safina's text—
Most of us have heard about the effects overfishing, pollution and industry are having on the world’s oceans.
No we haven't! Americans, for whom this PBS series is surely intended, are almost completely unaware that the oceans are being destroyed to foster the endless growth of populations and economies which support unconstrained human consumption. Based on this false premise, the series will create hope for today's oceans because it's time for some good news! In short, clueless Americans will be reassured about a problem they hardly know anything about!
I've often talked about obligatory hope on this blog. Well, Saving The Oceans is obligatory hope on steroids. This is where false hope seamlessly morphs into Pure Denial. This is why some people think Homo sapiens doesn't deserve a future, that our species will get the fate it has asked for, that our species will get its just desserts.
Let us contrast false hope with authentic hope. First off, authentic hope is the rarest thing in the world. Authentic hope demands self-knowledge from us. It demands from us that we acknowledge what we are doing to the world's oceans and all the rest of this wonderful planet. Authentic hope demands a level of self-awareness which forces us to look at our behavior and change it. Authentic hope asks us to recognize and do the right thing. In short, authentic hope seems to make impossible demands.
In the context of the oceans, we have what Garrett Hardin called A Tragedy Of The Commons. Everyone sees it as being in their best interest to exploit ocean resources before others do the same. If a few people like the Mexicans Safina interviews have figured out that it's in their best interest to preserve whales in the Mexican Baja in order to exploit them for tourism dollars, then you can be sure that untold billions of other people have "figured it out" the other way—they will take from the oceans what they want or need, heedless of the consequences. They will consume energy which emits CO2 as a byproduct, which is absorbed by ocean waters, thereby acidifying them.
Authentic hope requires that everyone—I mean every human being, from every nation on Earth—get together or at least be faithfully represented, figure out what they are doing, recognize the destruction being wrought, and make a genuine, concerted effort to put a stop to it. Every single human being on Earth must buy into this effort to save the oceans from increasingly certain death. Those who won't buy in must be forced to cooperate.
When we put it like that, we immediately see the near impossibility of authentic hope, for the very qualities which make hope authentic are also the qualities which make it rare, if not non-existent. Humans naturally lead unexamined lives, just like the other animals. That's simply who they are, as I said in John Gray In Conversation—
What is important for our purposes is the idea—I would say the observation—that human beings live in a self-constructed world of illusions. And they will fight to the death to maintain those illusions. Gray seems to be saying that we can distinguish between the essential illusions which make human life possible and less crucial illusions we can do without. Well, let's see. Is the illusion that humans can endlessly grow populations and economies on a finite planet an essential illusion? Or is it a subsidiary illusion we can identify and do without?
I know what my answer is: it is an essential illusion because the urge to have babies and increase our material comfort is an essential part of the human animal. That's why I believe our species is doomed, regardless of whether our self-destruction occurs sooner or later...
Clearly human beings are conflicted at their core. They won't acknowledge what they are—they seem to reject it as Gray says—but more importantly for me, at all times and places human beings are being exactly who they are, regardless of what they are pretending to be. This is the one jail from which there is no escape. Or as I like to say, with Homo sapiens, what you see is what you get.
You will recognize the source of the false hopes this Saving The Ocean whitewash raises in the last paragraph.
Carl Safina and those who produced this PBS atrocity, standing in for all of humanity, want to pretend that a few "unsung heros" here and there on our troubled planet are somehow "saving" the oceans. Nothing could be further from the truth. Petting whales doesn't cut the mustard.
If false hope obliterates painful, unacceptable truths, authentic hope requires us to acknowledge those truths in order to move forward. But sad to say, authentic hope is the rarest thing in the world. Authentic hope has never been spotted in the wild, although it surfaces occasionally on the printed page.