Humanity at a Crossroads
“The evidence is gaining increasing clarity: We’ve reached a crossroads unlike any other in human history. One path leads to despair for Homo industrialis. The other leads to extinction, for Homo sapiens and the millions of species we are taking with us into the abyss. I’d love to choose Door Number One. Unfortunately, we collectively selected Door Number Two long ago.”—Guy McPherson
By Guy McPherson
SAN ANTONIO Belize—(Weekly Hubris)—May 2017—The evidence is gaining increasing clarity: We’ve reached a crossroads unlike any other in human history. One path leads to despair for Homo industrialis. The other leads to extinction, for Homo sapiens and the millions of species we are taking with us into the abyss. I’d love to choose Door Number One. Unfortunately, we collectively selected Door Number Two long ago.
We do have a chance to rescue humanity. I’m not considering merely the continued persistence of our own species. Consider, for example, these definitions from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:
1: the quality or state of being humane (i.e., marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals)
2a: the quality or state of being human b: plural: human attributes or qualities
3: plural: the branches of learning (as philosophy, arts, or languages) that investigate human constructs and concerns as opposed to natural processes (as in physics or chemistry) and social relations (as in anthropology or economics)
4: the human race: the totality of human beings
Sure, that fourth definition matters. We’re selfish creatures, after all, interested primarily in persistence. Unfortunately for our species, we’re really, truly interested in persistence of our own selfish selves, and not so much interested in our own species. Ergo, the self-induced, greed-inspired, utterly human, generally predictable (but specifically chaotic) predicaments in which we are currently marinating.
As a society, we will not willingly halt the industrial economy. We would much rather reduce the planet to a lifeless pile of rubble than diminish—much less halt—economic growth. But, soon enough, we’ll run out of options and the industrial economy will take its last breath. Too little, too late to provide our final, slim hope for averting extinction.
I’ll consider the other three definitions, too. If we’re to bring down the industrial economy, then we’re going to have to tap deeply and meaningfully into definitions 1, 2, and 3. In so doing, we just might retain the attributes associated with definitions 1, 2, and 3. But only if we get serious about throwing large buckets of sand into the economic gears of empire.
We could argue all day about the first definition (the others, too, for that matter). Are we capable of being humane? How deeply do you have to drill into your memory to come up with a time you saw a large group of people acting compassionately, sympathetically, and considerately toward other humans or animals? On the other hand —and please excuse my eternally optimistic outlook as it bubbles to the surface yet again—it’s probably quite easy to recall the last time you saw an individual human being displaying those same characteristics. Probably it was you, earlier today.
There’s plenty of evolutionary theory to explain altruism among individuals in small groups, even if the individuals do not share grandparents. That same evolutionary theory becomes tenuous, verging on useless, when group size becomes sufficiently large. Throw in all the attributes of industrial culture, nearly all of which reward competition and individualism over cooperation and teamwork, and suddenly we’re trapped beneath an avalanche of self-generated hubris.
If we manage to retain the quality or state of being humane—that is, if we are to retain some semblance of compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals—then we must jump off the imperial train before it crashes in a heap at the bottom of the precipitous fall. There is no legitimate hope for saving the industrial economy or any of the 7.5 billion humans on Earth, but there is great potential for saving the “quality or state of being humane” for relatively small groups of humans.
On, then, to the second definition: the quality or state of being human. What makes us human? The question is, of course, easy to address on the surface and nearly impossible to address in depth. DNA tells us whether we’re human, that is, whether we’re of the genus Homo and species Homo sapiens, as opposed to one of the myriad other organisms on the planet. We’ll leave the easy question to gene jockeys, and take up the more difficult and deeper question: What makes us human, beyond DNA?
I’m hardly the first person to ponder that question. My predecessors include a special issue of Nature (Great Britain’s preeminent scientific journal), Hollywood, British television, and dozens of authors, including a passel of philosophers dating at least to Plato and Lao Tzu. I defer, as I often do, to Nietzsche (particularly in Human, All Too Human). Nietzsche recognized humans as tragically flawed organisms that, like other animals, lack free will. Unlike Descartes, Nietzsche thought our flaws defined us, and therefore cannot be overcome. We are far too human for that. Although we are a thinking animal—what Nietzsche termed res cogitans—we are prey to muddled thoughts, that is, to ideas that lack clarity and distinctness. Nietzsche wasn’t so pessimistic or naïve to believe all our thoughts are muddled, of course. Ultimately, though, incompetence defines the human experience.
It’s a short, easy step from Nietzsche’s conclusion—we are flawed organisms—to industrial culture as a product of our incompetence. But the same step may be taken for every technology, with industrial culture as the fatal blow. In other words, progress means only that we accelerate the rapidity with which bad things happen to societies. American exceptionalism thus becomes one more victim of the imperial train wreck.
If this second definition of humanity contributed to the tragedy of industrial culture—and it’s difficult for me to believe it didn’t—is it, like definition Number 1, worth saving? Will completion of the ongoing industrial collapse retain our inherent, all-too-human flaw for a few months?
This question is analogous to John Stuart Mill’s famous line from Utilitarianism: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” We simply don’t have a choice in the matter (and neither did Mill’s pig). We’re tragically flawed regardless of the industrial economy’s lifespan. In this case, bringing down civilization neither benefits nor harms our humanity.
The third definition of humanity is: “the branches of learning (as philosophy, arts, or languages) that investigate human constructs and concerns as opposed to natural processes (as in physics or chemistry) and social relations (as in anthropology or economics).” The branches of learning are defined by the culture. In the present case, arbitrarily dividing knowledge into natural sciences and the humanities has contributed to the division we see at all levels of human interaction. Echoing C.P. Snow’s conclusion in his eponymous two cultures, Edward O. Wilson argued forcefully in Consilience that the separation of learning, hence knowledge, into two groups represents a huge blow to meaningfully understanding the human experience. C.P. Snow was, of course, echoing Plato and Lao Tzu.
Shouldn’t we be trying to integrate knowledge, instead of compartmentalizing it? In an effort to serve the culture of death that is industrial society, we have taken the worst possible approach: We developed our entire educational system around the twin pillars of compartmentalization and ignorance. Throw in a huge, ongoing, forceful dose of opposition to integration and synthesis, and we’re left with a tsunami of incompetence.
We probably stood no chance of overcoming the all-too-human incompetence described by Nietzsche, but we purposely designed an educational system to reinforce the incompetence on a massive scale. It’s easy to blame industrial culture for the sorry state of our educational system and, therefore, for our lack of relevant humanity. But I think it’s an equally easy path toward improving education by bringing down industrial culture.
A truly comprehensive approach to learning would focus on humans as part of the world, rather than apart from the world. It would strive for integration and synthesis. It would assume the learner is one part of an ecosystem, but not a superior part. It would be as unique to a specific location as climate, topography, and the durable culture that assumes its place in that place.
About that fourth and final definition, the one that absorbs our tender existential psyches: Nobody who ever gave the matter serious thought could honestly reach the conclusion that “the totality of human beings” was destined to last forever. But we would try to bring down industrial civilization if we had even a token amount of “compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals.” Our persistent, ridiculous, and all-too-human attempts to prop up the industrial economy not only reveal our stunning lack of humanity, they pose a grave threat to our species.
Humanity is at a crossroads. Let’s save it, shall we?
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Thanks, as always Guy, for a thoughtful essay which articulates so well our current global predicament. Appreciate your honesty and clarity in a time when these are becoming more and more scarce.
Thank you Guy. Your essays say all that needs to be said. Read. Out loud.
Thank you, Joy and Julie. Affirmative comments such as your sustain me and my work.
caution in the beginning, no fault in the end.
joy is the conclusion of harmonious action.
it is not for lack of guidance from sages, the discriminating mind always prefers desire over reason. they will even defend their desirable actions using reason. I appreciate that you have pointed out how important the definition or the interpretation is to forming the actions. I feel that language is one of the greatest barriers to freeing the mind from its self imposed prison. may love permeate your experience.
I definitely agree that compartmental isolation is playing a critical role in the termination of a living planet. It has made more than 99% of us useful idiots at best. Torchereed puppets far to often.
I’ve spent a huge chunk of my life breaking down complex systems that have gone very badly into terms anyone can understand. Those efforts are rarely appreciated. I’ve had so many bureaucrats tell me I make them look bad beeecause the systems approach is something that was never taught. I have a speach from the Dean of a department at MIT stating what you have in the abbove article. I wrote a book called Drug War Economics over 10 years ago. I put part of that speech in it. Anyway have a great day Guy. Make everry day count because most of us will not see 2020 and if we are really unlucky, 2018. Jay Lindberg 909-666-3657. PS. 666 might be the mark of the devil, but when you call it, you get me.
I’ve been following you for about 6 months, since I heard of you; but have been reading articles on global weather change, chem-trails, and all sorts of other news that the MSM is not reporting on for the last 14 years or so. I like very much what you have to say and all of the research you have done. I have also paid heed to other scientists/writers in re the same issues.
I find that most of the people I talk to either think I’m misguided, don’t want to hear about it, pooh-pooh it or some combo; a few listen.
I am writing you because today I tried several times to sign up for the forum on Nature Bats Last but I cannot get a return email no matter what I do. Strangely enough, for about 14 years, especially the last 8 years (except for this last year) I have regularly received over 100 emails per day. About a year ago my emails reduced to about 30-40 per day. I finally called AOL about this and spent an hour on the phone trying to figure out why, but so far no results on that. I will try again tomorrow. I am not on FB nor do I care to be but I would like to post and ask questions on your forum.
Thank you for your comments, glen, Jay, and Joe. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.
Thanks for another very thoughtful essay Dr. McPherson.
Keep up the good work.
Hi again Guy,
Please read my first reply again and perhaps help me to get on your forum. I certainly would appreciate it. I know you must be busy but I see no other alternative.
Thank you, Dredd. Joe, please send me an email message. My contact information is at the blog.
Hello Dr. McPherson,
Very nice essay, thank you!
I look forward to meeting you soon!
Thanks for yet another soul-twisting essay. I would like to point out that our industrial society, as horrible as it is, replaced in the 1800s the slave society, which was even worse, at least for the slaves at that time. We still have slavery but now it is mostly implicit and has a thin veneer of freedom of choice covering its ugliness. In fact there are still pockets of forced labour (as in slavery) persisting in the shadows of modern developed society but also in states where personal, individual rights are actively supressed, to put it nicely.
Is there a conceivable concept of the post-industrial society in which our transgressions against the natural world are corrected? Is it a mirage?
another brilliant piece!
As you know, the House just passed the new Health care bill, that goes to the heart of your message. Man’s inhumanity to Man. The lack of compassion and caring for those less fortunate and to deny them basic health care, in order to profit for themselves and their corporate backers, is the perfect example of a world gone so wrong, humanity is no longer visable, or viable. We have lost the battle. Your steadfast work is not lost and is not falling on deaf ears. More
and more people are finally coming to your conclusions. Stephen Hawkins has finally come around to NTE but his idea to colonize Mars ASAP is ridiculous. You have had to deal with much adversity but you’ve kept up the work. You have my highest regards and admiration.
Thanks to each of you, Francine, Todd, and Roger. I appreciate your thoughtful comments.
It was a pleasure meeting you, Francine.
Todd, Earth has more slaves than ever before. I’m not including “wage slaves” in the tally.
Roger, it seems Earth going Mars instead on Venus, as expected by the JASON Group, will save Hawking and Musk a trip.
I was surprised by your high valuation of Nietzsche – a writer who, for all his provocative originality, has never shown any awareness of the natural world (as against the ‘world’ created by human consciousness) – apart from in his choice of residence.
Henri Bergson, on the other hand, strikes me as much more compatible with your own thought. He was always engaged with the sciences, wrote books responding to the contemporary physics and to biology (Creative Evolution).
In his article “Bergson and the War Against Nature”, Prof Gunter quotes a French writer: “Most ecologists are latent Bergsonians.” Bergson points to over-population (in his book on moral philosophy) as the key progenitor of war and conflict; and second only to that, the hunt for ‘luxuries’. “Today”, he writes “it (the race for comfort) has become a stampede”. He argues that all species – ours most damagingly – live for themselves, despite their dependence on the entire web of life. They opt for **closure** instead of **interdependence**.
He proposes a “return to simplicity” – “the future of humanity remains indeterminate precisely because it is on humanity that it depends”.
In a discussion of “potential energy stored up for millions of years” (ie oil, gas) he comments that “what we need are new reserves of potential energy – moral energy this time”.
I find that practical scientists mostly avoid an engagement with the open-ended, discursive thought of philosophers. This, I feel, is a mistake.
Thank you for your comment, Michael. Nietzsche was a great thinker. That I quote him does not suggest I agree with his every thought.
Over the past 2 years, you have really made me go inward to open my eyes to a lot of contemplation over why I exist at all. I was so lost in just trying to survive on the treadmill of life that the years have vanished and life seems so incredibly short that I have a sense of “What is the point of this madness we call life?” If only I had received your message when I was 18 instead of 50. I have watched so many in my family pass on without ever truly leading lives of anything more than survival. If I am going to be alive as humans go extinct, I may go the route of Martin Manley. I cannot imagine a World in which everyone knows we are completely doomed and I would rather exit peacefully than viciously. I have got to believe there are countless Scientists hiding that know the predicament we are in.
Thank you, Tim. I agree on all fronts.