Onwards and Upwards

Originally posted January 2011:

The more we know, about the rapidity and devastating impacts of climate change (which you can discover if you dig into science journals and obscure blogs, because you wouldn’t know it from many public media sources) and about the mindboggling corruption of big business, especially fossil fuel companies (which you can now discover from newspapers like the Guardian thanks to Wikileaks) the more obvious it is how the attempt to tackle the former is being derailed by the efforts of the latter. As Bill McKibben said the day after COP16 at Cancun, ‘we cannot rely on our Governments to do the job, we have to do it ourselves’ and that the biggest task is to tackle the influence of the ecocidal businesses who are now bigger than nations.

Polly Higgins in this audio slideshow about why and how ecocide should be made an international crime against peace, provides statistics from the 2010 UN report on the value of biodiversity. This report expresses environmental damage in financial terms so that it can be comprehended by the dominant culture which only acknowledges financial value.  It explains that in 2008 the top 3000 companies caused $2.2 trillion damage, in 2009 that doubled to $4 trillion and in 2010 that is expected to double again.

Ray Kurzweil, author of Singularity and maestro of the Google University, demonstrates with utopian verve the law of accelerating returns, creating an exponential curve of technological progress. This uptick, with innovation feeding innovation and computing power acting like rocket fuel, will lead us to a point of singularity where machines and humans are integrated for mutual benefit. He sees climate change as a positive driver for rapid innovation so I appreciate his thinking. However, I wonder, what are the side effects and what is the fuel for this upward curve of technology?

If we see Kurzweil’s big uptick alongside two other global big upticks, the hockey stick curve of runaway climate change and the annual doubling of environmental destruction, two questions arise. The first reflects ‘pessimism of the intellect’ and the second reflects its corollary, ‘optimism of the will’.

The first: Does this widely shared optimism about the rapidity and potential of technological progress, based on the current trend of exponential progress, arise only because of a related exponential increase in environmental destruction? I’m not suggesting that we couldn’t innovate rapidly without exploiting the environment. (In fact I believe our only option IS to innovate rapidly without exploiting the environment.) I’m suggesting that the current trend of progress has depended on exploitation, which has taken us to the brink of ecological collapse. If the trend of progress does depend on exploitation, the grounds for optimism based on the upward trend so far are very shaky, because our only ‘grounds’ are earthly.

I have placed hope in our ability to learn, helped by the massive opening up of information with the internet. For 25 years, there has been serious concern about climate change and widespread understanding that ecocide causes climate change. This knowledge has intensified every year along with the evidence in the form of human suffering. However, it is hard to keep this faith when you see how companies double their destruction annually in the face of this evidence. The media today brings us news of climate-change related devastating flooding spreading down Eastern Australia. In the same news we hear that BP has negotiated to exploit Arctic oil fields of Siberia, potentially yielding vast amounts of hydrocarbons.

No connection made. In the context of this continuing behaviour, it’s hard to see how humans will develop the right technology to overcome mass loss of infrastructure, food supply, biodiversity and human life in the right timescale.

This video from NASA intends to shift our frame of reference to look to a distant future to see space colonisation as human destiny. It’s very impressive but it glosses over a major issue while also somehow making much of it. The video opens by saying that humans are incapable in their current state of evolution, of being stewards of their planet. It says that we need to evolve in order to colonise space, implying that we first need to evolve in order to stop ecological collapse and discover resources that will make them capable of space travel. Putting my project manager’s hat on, how will this work in terms of scheduling I wonder? Perhaps NASA and the technological elite imagine that some of us will be able to retreat to a number of high tech biosphere arks or bunkers whilst simultaneously evolving, restoring Earth’s ecosystems and in turn developing the capacities to travel to and terraform other planets. But the video leaves such details to the imagination.

The second question is the more optimistic one: Is the combined challenge of attaining exoplanetary space exploration and arresting global ecological collapse enough to make us overcome the weaknesses which have mildly slowed the former and rapidly accelerated the latter? In my view, the most fundamental political global split is between those who believe we must restore the health of the planet and those who believe we must focus on human prosperity. On the whole, the ruling elites who focus on the extrinsic goals of prosperity are also inspired by the potential of technology, and in many cases, by the possibilities of the colonisation of space.  Perhaps the goal of human enlightenment and subsequent evolution with the promise of going into space is more motivating as a common enterprise, than the challenge of tackling the environmental collapse per se. Perhaps this combined challenge is what it would take to unite people with different views.

By asking this question I’m not saying that I believe in a positive answer. But, it’s a more optimistic view than I’ve had in the past. It’s in keeping with the publication of Mark Stevenson’s book, An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. Mark is my co-founding director in Flow Associates and over the past 5 years we’ve had many discussions on these topics. I think a bit of his optimism has rubbed off on me.

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