EVOLUTION OR EXTINCTION
That is the Question
Had he lived today, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, would affirm with deeper conviction than ever: To be or not to be is indeed the question. But it is not the skull of an individual human being that Hamlet would ponder, but this living blue-green planet, the home of humanity. How long will it support us? Will we destroy its delicate balances, or will we set out to heal the damage we have already inflicted? Will we manage to evolve as a conscious social and cultural species--or will we become extinct like the dinosaurs?
The question is: Evolution or extinction?
With a timely transformation we could create a peaceful and sustainable world. Will we create it? Einstein told us that we cannot solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that produced it. Yet, for the present we are still trying to do just that. We are fighting terrorism, poverty, criminality, cultural conflict, climate change, environmental degradation, ill health, even obesity and other “sicknesses of civilization” with the same means and methods that produced the problems in the first place--we are resorting to armies and police forces, technological fixes, and temporary remedial measures. We have not mustered the will and the vision to bring about timely transformation.
IS IT TOO LATE?
In the spring of 2006, the British biologist James Lovelock, who thirty years ago discovered that Earth possesses a planetary control system that keeps it fit for life (the “Gaia hypothesis”), proclaimed that this control system has been destroyed and will rapidly bring about conditions that may prove fatal for humanity. The heating up of the atmosphere through human activity will create, in Lovelock’s phrase, “a hell of a climate.” The average temperature will rise 14.4 degrees Fahrenheit in temperate regions and 9 degrees in the tropics. “The Earth’s physical condition must be seen as seriously ill, and soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years. . . . I think we have little option,” Lovelock concluded in The Revenge of Gaia, “but to prepare for the worst and assume that we have passed the threshold.” The threshold he refers to is the point where the self-maintaining dynamic of the system breaks down and leads irreversibly to catastrophe.
Have we reached that catastrophic point already? We do not know for certain, but the news is not encouraging. The global climate is crashing, full of tipping points and feedback loops beyond which the slow creep of environmental decay gives way to sudden self-perpetuating collapse. Vital balances are degrading in the atmosphere, in the oceans and freshwater systems, and in productive soils. The consequences include the greenhouse effect and a reduction of the productivity of seas, lakes, rivers, and agricultural lands.
A number of critical processes feed on themselves and are out of control. As the Arctic ice melts, the sea absorbs more warmth, which makes for more melting; as Siberian permafrost disappears, the methane released from the peat bog below exacerbates the greenhouse effect and makes for more melting and thus for more methane.
But doomsday arguments miss a basic point: they do not recognize that not only nature but also humanity is a dynamic system capable of rapid transformation. When such a system nears the point where the existing structures and feedbacks can no longer maintain its integrity, it becomes ultrasensitive and responds even to the smallest provocation for change. In this state “butterfly effects” are possible. (These effects are named after the butterfly-shaped “chaotic attractor” discovered by meteorologist Edward Lorenz as he attempted to map progressive change in the global weather. They are popularly identified with the idea that the tiny stream of air created by the flutter of the wings of a butterfly can amplify many times over and end by creating a storm on the other side of the planet.) In today’s near-chaotic, unstable, and hence ultrasensitive world such “butterflies” as the thinking, the values, the ethic, and the consciousness of a critical mass in society can trigger fundamental transformation.
THE POSITIVE OUTLOOK
We are nearing a tipping point, but the situation is far from hopeless: near the threshold of systems collapse, predictions of doomsday have a paradoxical effect. They raise people’s level of awareness, motivate widespread consciousness change, and may end by becoming self-falsifying prophecies.
The political situation can turn paradoxical. Well-intentioned policies create the impression that the situation is in hand and the crisis is being managed, and thus they do not catalyze the will for fundamental transformation. A retrograde (i.e., outdated) strategy is more useful in this regard. It inadvertently but effectively motivates people to insist on radical change; it catapults ever more people into action.
At the present time retrograde policies are still dominant. In the last analysis this is not a bad thing. In the more advanced segments of the population it raises the level of urgency of economic, social, and political reforms.
The Asian tsunami’s carnage of innocent villagers and vacationers in South and Southeast Asia prompted worldwide acts of solidarity and generosity. The cataclysm produced by hurricane Katrina made people “find their feet” and march on Washington to protest the U.S. administration’s policy of focusing on the oil war in Iraq to the neglect of preparedness for natural disasters and the plight of poor people at home. Will humanity wait for a natural or man-made catastrophe that kills hundreds of thousands or millions to come up with the will to change? It may then be too late. We must, and still can, head toward a timely shift in values, vision, and behaviors.
Evolution to a sustainable civilization, or descent into crisis, chaos, and possibly extinction: that, as Hamlet would now say, is the question.