Sunday, May 12, 2013

Humans: Too Invasive or Too Compassionate to Survive

In my last post, and elsewhere over the years, I went all Agent Smith and suggested that humans are a virus that can't be contained. All other animals work within their environment to regulate their population.  As long as people don't mess things up by moving animals around (like bringing rabbits to Australia where they have no predators), animal populations decrease when food is scarce so their populations never reach overwhelming numbers.  Nature is amazing and everything can work so well if we let it.  But when human numbers rise, we just keep invading other places until we use up all the resources everywhere.  We're going to Mars now, for crying out loud!  It's just a matter of time before we kill off our host and die out ourselves.

But recent conversations in my class have me thinking of things from a different angle.

Maybe the problem isn't our invasiveness, but that we are too compassionate to allow people to just die the way those other, more callous animals do.  Because we have such big brains, and because we have mirror neurons that cause us to feel pain when we watch others suffer, we have found ways to help millions of people survive during famines.  And we can help sickly infants survive that wouldn't have stood a chance 20 years ago.  And we can keep elderly people going for a few more decades.  It's awesome!  Except now we're at seven billion people which might be too much for the earth to sustain.

It's really both at work here.  Some people are focused on their unlimited growth and expansion.  They want to raise themselves to an untouchable level where they'll be safe from predators forever, and they simply can't be content with what they have.  Then others have unwavering compassion to help the less fortunate among us.  They want our entire species to survive - every single creature.  And many people are a mix of the two.  And, this time, it can't be both.  So do we let people die off, or do we put limits on our luxuries?

We're smart enough to save people from tragedies, but we're just putting out fires.  We're not smart enough to prevent unsustainable growth, to maintain a manageable population, or to fetter squandering of resources - not at all - because it's not nice to infringe on people's freedoms to have unlimited opportunities.  And we're not smart enough to curb our predatory instinct to invade every last inch of the universe or to be content with what we need.

Why not?  Why can't we figure this out?

Bangladesh is likely to be entirely underwater within a couple decades.  Neighbouring countries are taking action to fortify their borders.  They don't want all those people trying to move in with them.  Not a lot of compassion on display there, but a lot of primitive animal territorialism.

When push comes to shove, we're not so much smarter than the other animals.  We just have more impressive tools that serve to get ourselves into deeper trouble.

Monbiot suggests the problems we're facing today are all because "the power of the fossil fuel companies is too great."  But we're too busy trying to send food packages to Bangladesh to worry about preventing the pipeline construction that both Harper and Trudeau think is a smashingly good idea regardless all the recent leaks and the fact that we've hit unmanageable levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.  How long will we wait to hear them say, "I've made a huge mistake"?

This is someone's front yard.  It could be yours!  
Don't get me wrong.  It's great to help other people.  Compassion will be our saving grace in the dark days ahead.  But we have to focus nearly everything on preventing more problems.  Immediately.

I just saw Gatsby* last night, and it really brings it home that excess isn't as much fun as it's made out to be.  It's just another means of escaping our issues.  What prevents us from learning this lesson - something that's been espoused by Lao Tzu, Epictetus, Epicurus, Jesus, Montaigne.... for centuries?  This is all too serious to ignore.  We have to restrict our own use of fossil fuels right now - not right down to zero (so I can get away with using a nuclear/coal-generated computer as I write this without feeling too hypocritical), but damn close!  What happens if we just pretend we've almost completely run out of the means of getting oil and gas out of the ground and just leave it all in there?  We'd be putting up solar panels and wind farms in a jiffy (and nuclear, but that's a whole other ballgame).  So what's stopping us?

Anyway, happy Mothers Day.  Is it too early for a drink?

h/t Book Riot
*I liked Gatsby alright - but I wished I'd seen Iron Man 3 instead.

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