Notes from Windward: #68


Radical Evolution

Andrew offers his thoughts

     I think the main point of the book is that humanity is on the cusp of a radical change due to exponential increases in technology. As the author points out, we stand on an "inflection point of history" that may either elevate humanity (or select portion thereof) to the level of "Gods," or on the other hand tragically destroy the human enterprise. While it seems highly dubious that we will become immortal gods, it seems equally as unlikely that humanity will be completely destroyed. The third option presented in the book is for humanity to "prevail" or "muddle through" this drastic technological advance. This has been the fate of humans through much of history, and appears most likely to continue in the future.

     The Prevail Scenario says that while technology is developed and implemented the consequences of it will be made manifest over time. As the effects become more apparent, humans will change their policy toward technology. Hopefully they will utilize what is beneficial while attempting to minimize the spread of negative technology so as not invite calamity. If this is so, the technological growth will not proceed along a uniform curve. It will be marked by abrupt changes and shifts, which will slow progress but also will prevent complete annihilation due to unforeseen consequences of technology.

     This is the essence of the Prevail Scenario. However, it should not be taken at face value because there is one aspect of reality that the book fails to recognize and to account for in its scenarios. Energy is a key element that was not discussed in the book, and will certainly play a pivotal role in humanity's future. Without a viable alternative to the petroleum energy systems in place now, I believe there won't be a high-technology future.

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     The physician who waits until dead certain of a diagnosis before acting is likely to wind up with a dead patient. Sometimes things develop so rapidly that only early action--back when you're still somewhat uncertain--stands a chance of being effective, as in catching cancer before it metastasizes. - p 183

     This is a good metaphor for the energy problems we are beginning to encounter. By neglecting societies' present "energy illness" we are likely to wind up with a dead or crippled society. There will come a point where the price of energy exceeds the feasibility of transporting it. If no new solutions to energy is developed and integrated into our daily lives before this happens, human society with its current technology dependence won't survive. The exponential technological curve discussed in Radical Evolution will require such a changeover. If none is found we will see the rising curve come to an abrupt halt, and probably move backward until a new balance between Human society, technology and the natural world is achieved.

     Our transportation infrastructure is founded on cheap available oil. Industrial farm machinery runs on oil, and the fertilizers and pesticides that make high production rates possible year after year are derived from oil. Plastics which support technological industries are oil based. All manufacturing depends on oil for transporting its products. The list could continue for pages more. On top of that, global civilization has adopted a structure such that people are dependent on food and other necessities imported from across the globe. Without cheap and plentiful oil and without a replacement for it, global civilization will no longer be possible. Billions of people will be in a deadly position, while technology will cease to progress exponentially like in the scenarios of Radical Evolution.

     It may even be too late now to replace our energy, but what is certain is that when it becomes too expensive to ship the contents of the remaining petroleum reserves globally or nationally people will be forcibly obliged to change their lifestyle and consumer habits. Either we will learn to live without abundant energy (greatly decreasing the scope of G.R.I.N.* from people's daily lives), or we will be required to produce the energy, food, and other products we need closer to home.

     Such localized systems are part of the project of Windward. As we recognize the inevitable end of petroleum reserves, we are working to create viable alternatives for communities who in the future will have no access to the cheap energy to which they are habituated.

* G.R.I.N. Genetics, Robotics, Information, Nanotechnology

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     What I feel is most relevant about Radical Evolution is the calling out for a new paradigm for humans. The author explains that as our technology changes so does our relation to one another, to nature and to our own bodies. If we were to theoretically become "immortal", (able to prevent aging, or even switch from a body of flesh and blood to a cybernetic one) then a key aspect of life (inevitable death) would be removed. Thus, human nature would have to adapt to new life circumstances.

     It is hard to envision such a radical change in human nature, and as I will later discuss, the idealism and pessimism of Radical Evolution is suggestive of blind cultural assumption. Regardless of the narrow view of some scenarios in the book, I think the call for a paradigm shift of a different kind is in order for humanity.

     Right now, our global civilization is guided by several false concepts. One of them is the free-market capitalist principle of limitless economic growth. This kind of expansion is impossible in a finite and closed system of the Earth's biosphere. Economic principles have lead industry to pillage the earth for resources and farmers to plow the soil to dust for profit.

     Only in a convoluted society can people be convinced that driving to the mall to buy things produced by degrading the very biosphere which supports life is an acceptable utilization of energy rich oil.

     Our culture has become addicted to the abundance of fossil fuel. The metropolis and suburban life as they exist today are unsustainable and stand little chance of surviving an energy shortage of the impending magnitude. We need to recognize the truth of finiteness, and effectively change our economic policies to align with reality. Otherwise we will find our civilization "stuck up a cul-de-sac without gas in a cement SUV". In other words, we will possess advanced technological knowledge, but without physical materials and energy needed to use it.

     If there is no recognition of these facts now, and no willingness to adapt to a less energy intensive lifestyle, how will people react when the change is forced on them? The word desperation comes to mind. William Burroughs said, "Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who can leave behind everything they have ever believed in can hope to escape."

     Desperation does not lead people to think rationally, or with the best interest of others. When energy shortages set in, people will have to change their lifestyle. People stand the only chance of avoiding the tyrannical rule of desperation if they are prepared to abandon the old way, and also have a working example of how to live otherwise.

     Windward is attempting to provide such an example, and is searching out people who are willing to abandon the old (existing) way of life.

     I feel it would be enlightening to propose that the existing culture is already one of desperation, but of a subtler kind. Often I hear leaders refer to citizens as consumers. This is to say, the government as well as the governed identify themselves as consumers. A good consumer exist perpetually in desperation, being unfulfilled they seek more and more to satiate their need for fulfillment, meaning, and purpose. This has been called "scarcity psychology", where no matter how much people have, they never feel like they have enough and they're always afraid of being ripped off. This psychology exists in America today, even in the absence of material scarcity. We fill our lives with the fruits of a cheap energy economy, and accept unquestioningly the free-market imperative for unencumbered growth. Such growth can only be maintained while there is a consumer base, which is never fully satisfied.

     I feel the arguments in Radical Evolution are symptomatic of these cultural assumptions and the psychological implication of believing them.

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     At its foundation the Heaven scenario adopts our conventional economic assumptions about growth and applies them to technology with an added belief in the mathematical certainty of the exponential curve. To believe technology will grow exponentially has no basis in reality. Nothing can or has ever grown exponentially in a closed system and survived; this is true for bacteria and mice, so it is probably true for human populations as well. Once a population outstrips its environment's carrying capacity, there is not enough raw stuff to support continued growth, while the environment can no longer remove and purify wastes which then end up poisoning the population.

     Additionally, proponents of the Heaven scenario never admit that there can be "enough technology". This is evidence of a belief in no-peak level of satisfaction. There is always a pursuit of more. In simple logic, the Heaven scenario can be written: Technology (used for the benefit of humans) = good, therefore more technology (for human benefit) = more good. Never do proponents of the Heaven Scenario discuss concern for the implications of technology on non-human beings and systems.

     The Hell scenario is equally as evident of our cultural desperation. Its proponents are filled with angst and cynicism, withholding any hope of positive outcomes. The basic argument is historic: technology will destroy humans, because humans are fallible, and have shown that technology always leads to corrupt uses. Examples include ever expanding war technology, Nazi gas exterminations, and super-resilient bacteria. Logically, the larger the technology, the more damage it can do. Therefore, as technology increases exponentially, so do the odds of corrupt uses or catastrophic harm due to human error. Examples of such fatalism include: enhanced humans taking control over "normal" humans, flesh-eating bacteria getting loose and killing billions, and nano-machines that reproduce exponentially consuming all the resources on the earth. Is there any way to stop these situations? The overwhelming answer given in the Hell scenario is, NO.

     Walt has made the point on several occasions that within community, "Saying "no" implies an obligation to say "yes" to something." This means that if you refuse what is given or suggested to you, it is your responsibility to supply some other solution that you think may work.

  [Walt: that's an alien concept to folks raised in the "take it or leave it" commercial world, but it's one of those non-intuitively obvious concepts which is central to the long term viability of cooperative endeavors. In Endgame, Derrick Jensen describes a good example of this principle in operation. He writes, "the conflict resolution methods of a culture of occupation will be different from those of a culture of inhabitation. The Okanagans of what is now British Columbia ... have a concept they call En'owkin, which means, "I challenge you to give me your most opposite perspective to mine. In that way I will know how to change my thinking so I can accommodate your concerns and problems." The Okanagan writer and activist Jeannette Armstrong told me why her people developed this and similar technologies: "We don't have any fewer problems than you guys getting along. But we know that whomever we're having trouble with, their grandchild might marry our grandchild. So we have to accommodate one another. I have to ask myself how I can change to accommodate you. At the same time, because you, too, are Okanagan, you will be asking how you can change to accommodate me." - pg 189]

     I don't think there is a person at Windward who thinks technology is always good, or that it can continue exponentially without some catastrophic failure. We came to Windward in search of alternatives to the unrealistic Heaven scenario and fatalistic Hell scenario. In doing so, we are searching out another option. The technology in development here is being kept to a minimum of utility and works in conjunction with the rules of nature. We are not trying to rid ourselves of the hazards associated with nature. We accept nature as both partner and teacher, and are approaching community from the standpoint of cooperation, not domination; not only between human members, but with animals, plants, and the natural systems which support life.

     I guess this means we subscribe to a modified version of the Prevail scenario. It is fundamentally different from that of the book, because of our assumptions. Our first objective is to get right with nature. We assume that the established culture and paradigms are unsustainable and founded on an inaccurate view of reality which is not aligned with nature. We accept technology as much as it is used to benefit not only humans, but the environment as a whole, and that it should be used to assist in proper stewardship of nature. We accept that technology can never replace real commitment to the preservation of the nature, and that life will always require us to labor for the sake of life. We accept that evolution involves the adaptation of life to new circumstances. The new circumstances we face include a shortage of energy and diminished capacity to depend on the established social structure, coupled with an inadequate understanding of how to work with nature. If we do not find solutions to the changing situation, then we will have failed to evolve, and expect to go extinct like any other creature. With this in mind we precede knowing nature to be an unsympathetic master and also an admirably efficient governess.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 68