Tuesday, May 27, 2008


I eavesdrop a lot. Hell, I eavesdrop constantly, in restaurants or cafes, waiting in queues, on the bus or on the train, walking through crowds or wherever. Not sure why, but it’s something of a habit now, and I find it useful for gauging which way the wind blows in society. But let me say, what I hear is fucking depressing. Let me tell you why.

I mentioned before I’m a secular humanist (of transhumanist leanings). As such, my priorities in life are pretty much in line with the Humanist Manifesto 2. I want to believe in a brighter future for humanity. I want to believe that there is an intellectual solution to the human condition, one that results in a stable, sustainable world where everybody can enjoy a reasonable degree of well-being and job satisfaction. But the thing is, everything I see and hear is pointing towards a completely different direction. If anything, there appears to be more than a grain of truth in the words of Agent Elrond; that humanity a virus on this Earth, selfishly consuming without thought for the future. And like a plague too virulent for its own good, we’re burning out our resources faster than is safe.

Look for a moment beyond your own lives. Think for a moment about the direction of human history. There was once a time when we, like every other creature on this planet, had to fight tooth and nail for our survival. Now suddenly, in a very short time, we appear to have gotten too good at it. We’re on top of the food chain, with no natural enemies save other humans. We spread across the planet like a virus, consuming and consuming, impacting the environment in ways ridiculously out of proportion with our relatively meagre biomass.

We are programmed by genetic prerogative and culture to treasure our lives beyond all else, and each of us strives ever onward to better our own well-being before all else. Perhaps that was for the best, centuries ago, when human life was shorter and more brutal. But there’s over 6 billion of us now. If you’re a fan of Gaia Theory or perhaps more comfortable thinking in terms of geological time, then perhaps you could be forgiven for considering the threat humans pose to the planet as relatively small. Admittedly, I am inclined to agree. A meteor impact could quite easily erase humans from this planet just as easily as it did the dinosaurs. Sea levels could rise and drown the planet, leaving the fishies to inherit the very wet Earth. At the end of the day, life on Earth would go on, with or without humans.

But the thing is, I’m human and have an interest in the survival of my species. Apparently fundies, marketing executives and junior auditors are, too. I have to keep reminding myself of the fact.

The market economy has been the most powerful engine of human endeavour in the history of man. Driven by profit, we have explored every inch of this planet, advanced the sciences and reaches new heights of art and culture. Perhaps there are those who believe that human progress was driven by more noble intentions. Perhaps they would point out to me the poets and writers and explorers and other luminaries who died penniless, whose legacies would not blossom until long after they died, testaments to their selflessness in the name of endeavour. I will not dispute their intentions, nor will I dishonour their memory speculating on their motivations. However, what one has to bear in mind when speaking of humans as a race and their relation to the market economy is that it has been a great driver in achieving new levels of efficiency in food production. With greater efficiency, a small proportion of a population can feed ever larger populations. This frees the population not engaged in food production to engage in other professions, without which we’d never have developed the societies in which the great luminaries of human discovery sprang forth.

For the longest time, the human race was no more than scattered tribes in a big, big world. We reaped the bounties of sea and earth, not for a moment pausing in our quest to gain more and more for ourselves, ignoring the fates of fallen empires even though we now find ourselves on the same road.

In our world, money begets more money and money is the ultimate power. This isn’t cynicism. This is the harsh reality, beyond naive illusions of good and evil, this is the reality that we have made for ourselves. Because of this, the fate of the human race lies in the hands of so very, very few people indeed. The paradigm by and large remains the same; get more money. And here we are, after 13,000 years of modern man, we find ourselves at a crossroads. The limits of the world’s natural resources are making themselves known. Modern economic theory still has yet to take into account environmental impact. The human race is growing and consuming in a manner that can only lead to inevitable scarcity of resources, and after that, conflict, death and misery on an unprecedented scale.

In the long run, perhaps a few hundred years after what appears to be a highly probable World War, maybe humans can take a lesson from this state of affairs and manage themselves better. Maybe, if not for one crucial factor: Nuclear weapons.
We’ve all heard the stories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We’ve seen the photos of these two cities reduced to ash and men turned to vapour, leaving nothing more than silhouettes on a wall. Now consider the fact that between the US and former Soviet Union alone, there are over 30,000 warheads each with the explosive power of at least 25 Hiroshima-strength bombs. Quite sufficient to wipe the Earth clean of all life, except maybe for cockroaches.

That is the threat of future war. Mutually assured destruction. But this is not where the problem lies. The threat of nuclear fire is not something that we’ll see in our lifetimes. Judging by US military spending alone, there are many more imaginative ways to wreak large-scale havoc. The point is, it’s not a future we have to face. What it all comes down to is consumption. Consumption and the hearts and minds of Joe Average all around the world.

The flesh and blood of the market economy is the consumer. More consumption pumps more money around the system, and for that reason, the market economy flourishes in a society filled with shallow-minded consumers. This is what Joe Average wants: More children, more money. And not a moment spent thinking about what it means if everybody on the planet thought the same way. Those who have less desire more, but by the cruel reality of the market economy, it is those who have more than they need that are in a position to acquire even more. And so it is that so very few people control so very much of the world’s wealth. And to perpetuate this state of affairs (something those in power are very keen on indeed), Joe Average must be kept wanting more. Joe Average must be kept stupid, so he has no idea what the consequences of non-sustainable consumption will inevitably lead to.

Now, I know I’m not the only person who reads the works of Jared Diamond, so I’ve no doubt that a great many intellectually inclined people are out there, doing what they can to stave off the coming apocalypse. But how many are there? Thousands? Consumerism, like religion, is a meme virus. And like any decent meme virus, it lodges itself deep in the minds of its victims, clouding their thoughts, leaving them as the diminished consumerist zombies they are today.

I want to believe that those who would protect the future are making a difference, that their exhortations for moderation and environmental awareness are being heard. So I eavesdrop. And I listen to see if maybe, just maybe I can figure out which way the wind blows.

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