The recognition of one’s own ignorance is a valuable component in the character of the individuals I care to correspond and share personal time with. In a world of “leaders” and followers, politicians and prophets, “experts” and arm-chair economic theorists, positioning yourself as ignorant won’t do much in the way of establishing credence amongst your fellow travellers on the ship of so called Progress. People are constantly looking for answers to seemingly urgent issues regarding the economy, government, and the environment, yet the questions we are able (or politely willing) to ask are so often curtailed by the base assumptions of the (increasingly homogenized) culture, and our steadfast determination that we are in control of our own lives. For all the bad blood in the world, the eons of fighting and conquest, revolts and reforms, as well as the advancements in the sciences, so few people are comfortable discussing (if even cognizant of) the role to which technology plays in almost every facet of our lives.
Our technology defines the way in which we affect the world at large, and affect each other, but this works both ways, and the encroachment upon our much prized free-will isn’t always apparent; suppose 7.6 billion of us were ignorant of the air we breathe, which by the way is being considerably altered by our technology. In fact it would be an arduous task to find a place on the surface of Earth untouched by the chain saw, the plow, the paver, the fishing trawler, or the fine particulates to heaps of plastic refuse cast upon the soil and sea.
Much debate surrounds the future of human kind and the habitability of life on Earth, with great emphasis on the all-important technology that will rescue us at our final hour.
Disturbingly, I see very little analysis of the tech that got us into all these many predicaments, and there are quite a few serious ones: global warming, changing weather patterns, rising sea level, shut down of the thermohaline conveyor, ocean acidification, inadequate freshwater, top soil loss, monoculture collapse, antibiotic resistance, ecological collapse, peak oil, peak natural gas, peak everything, mass starvation and panic from coronal mass ejection induced electrical failure, and don’t forget nuclear war! What is the allure of technology and why does it feel like we are not in control of it?
To put it succinctly, the lineage of our technology is a proxy organism which makes available to humans the energy, mineral, and chemical resources that no other known species can claim dominance. When a particular resource becomes scarce, technology evolves to overcome the shortcoming, in turn making human beings quite adaptable and incredibly numerous. We lack control over technology because we lack an understanding of the world we live in, the processes which led to the human species development, the importance of biologic diversity and ecological stability, and finally the long term consequences of powerful short term solutions.
Of course other species don’t need to understand their ecological role or be mindful of their populations to survive for millions (and sometimes hundreds of millions) of years. For them it is probably not a story they tell each other, like our cultural myths and scientific exploration; instead it is somehow innate to their very being, a set of living characteristics applied to environmental norms for which an individual’s ancestors were evolutionarily selected for. It is a hard world when survival is not guaranteed, but that is what makes life so resilient and flexible. With genetic diversity comes a hedge against extinction with some variant individuals or groups skating by or excelling when environmental conditions change, and the traits of yesterday are no longer favorable today.
What is life other than replicating information- instructions that reconstitute material and energy into copies of itself? Life has evolved over a 3.8 billion year research and development program, gathering photons or harnessing chemical energy, and inhabiting almost every place on, under, and above the surface. Through a selective process, organisms, and their progeny, are affected by, and in turn, cause an effect upon the environment. Over eons life can alter the composition of the atmosphere and the oceans, change weather patterns, influence the energy budget of the planet, perhaps lock away or resurface vast amounts of stored energy or physical material. Life is a geologic force that maybe through a stroke of luck began on a home somewhat conducive to its preservation, but it has no doubt remodeled extensively to make it much more livable, and patched many of the holes in the roof that might bring the whole thing down.
Life ain’t perfect at this task though- sure it’s pretty astounding, but sometimes it falls flat on its face when some organism shifts the balance by consuming an unsustainable resource or producing a toxin which the environment can’t absorb quickly enough. This sounds like a heavy handed accusation against human beings, but not exactly. Yeah, we seem to do a lot of unsustainable things, but mostly since becoming technologically obsessed. I’m sure early hominids wiped out plenty of large game animals with their fancy weapons, but I don’t think we became a real force to be reckoned with until agriculture. That gave us the reliable energy to grow in population, and to seriously alter the landscape to suit our needs, or really, the needs of our technology (farming, irrigation, architecture, transportation, etc.).
We may still be biologically evolving, but the source of the pressures have changed. The evolution to watch for is that of our technology; it give us access to energy and resources which previous generations may only have dreamed of, and warped our minds into believing that further development of technology is our only salvation from the “wretchedness” of the biologic world and drudgery of interacting with it. Technology is parasitic; it needs us to promulgate its physical embodiment, and hybridize its reproductive evolution through our social, economic, and academic relationships. It is the new geologic force on this planet, and it’s wrecking the house.