A good friend of mine pointed me towards a great blog entry analyzing, in a very direct and simple way, the interrelation of core commodities, their relative elasticity and the implications of impending shortages in food and energy.
This entry got me thinking at a very abstract level about the fortunes and future of the human race in general. Undoubtedly, we are part of a natural system that is utterly indifferent to our existence and yet provides very specific ground rules for how we survive. The entire universe is, in essence, a giant engine geared towards the conversion of energy into increasingly complex structures of matter. Why is a mystery. How is still largely a mystery. For how long is certainly a mystery. Since when? You get the idea.
Nature provides awesomely complex systems that are awfully hard to break away from. The great genius of Darwin was in breaking down this complexity, as it pertains to organic life, to a very simple statement: “survival of the fittest”. All life forms on earth struggle, toil, consume, reproduce and die. Some are prey, some are predator. The human animal, however, is different in a fundamental way. This is not ego, it is reality. Higher order thinking provides humans with an opportunity to commit the ultimate blasphemy against nature – to break from her rules entirely. The question at hand is can we survive long enough to make this goal a reality?
In the interest of full disclosure, I must state that I do consider this possibility a laudable goal. I like our species. I think that all evidence indicates that sentient life is a rare, rare thing in our universe and I think it should be preserved. I think the universe, for one reason or another, gave birth to us and, in return, we have a duty to try to survive as long as possible.
So what stands in the way of our ultimate freedom? Our higher order thinking wages war daily with our primal drives and urges and this inherent conflict is compounded in a profound way by our social structures. Society, as humans practice it, is an entirely unnatural thing. For all of the seeming similarities, our society is in no meaningful way analgous to an ant colony or a beehive. Our society is a wondrous, powerful, contentious thing – not a purely programmed behavior. For all of the trouble we have getting along, this is our lifeline. We need each other to survive. In a classic example of duality, however, how we manage our society can also easily lead to our destruction.
Consider the impact of a single ill advised decision. A decision to accept the rantings of a fascist madman, perhaps. Or a decision to keep chickens and other poultry crowded together by the tens of thousands with minimal veterinary care and sanitation. The dangers of bad decision making challenge us every day. In the 21st century, we are dealing with the legacy of centuries of colonialism. We are left with an enormous gap between the vast majority of the worlds population and the lucky elites that live in the 1st world. Tragically, paternalism continues to live on even in todays enlightened and interconnected society.
In third world nations, natures primal drivers are at work – population growth is explosive to combat the mortality rate, disease and famine often run rampant, war over resources turns monstrous. The bigger problem, however, is that first world interference both contributes to the ongoing persistance of this condition and, worse yet, makes it sustainable.
I think the significance of this is often lost on the Western world. It is not enough to fly AIDS medication and food into Africa if the socioeconomic and political structures do not change. The Western approach to the third world almost always follows the same pattern. Engage with the social elites of a society (the strong), make them wealthy while achieving your goals (cheap labor, rights to resources, strategic positioning, etc) and then look the other way as they abuse their population (the weak). To assuage the guilt over this reprehensible arrangement, organize a telethon to raise money for AIDS medication and food drops which, ironically, only compounds the problem by ensuring that the suffering of the population is made manageable. Nature is prevented from taking its course and the people remain in limbo.
And so we are in a race against the clock for the highest stakes possible. Will we develop truly transformational technologies that break our chains to the natural order? Will we evolve from a societal standpoint to the level where we realize that when one of us is elevated, all of us are elevated? Or will the house of cards collapse resulting in a pandemic or another global war (one from which we may not recover)?
I’m bullish on the species, so I’m banking on the former. The west needs to realize that free markets and globalisation are good things, but not the way they have been practiced. It is no longer acceptable to engage with a dictator in the interest of finding a new source of cheap labor. It is no longer acceptable to just air drop food and AIDS medication while the massacres continue unabated. And it is also no longer acceptable to look the other way if our own government, or a foreign government, completely abdicates their responsibility to the human race. And yes, this means tough conversations with China as it pertains to Africa and the rest of Asia. Ultimately, long term, capitalism is far better served by creating millions of more Walmart shoppers than finding a million more people to produce cheap shirts. Henry Ford knew that, but it seems the lesson has been forgetten in exchange for selfish, short term, gain.
If we take care of increasing the fortunes of society, the other piece may take care of itself. Perhaps there is a future scientist floating along in the DNA of an impoverished mother in Chad, who will someday unlock the secret of cold fusion freeing mankind from the shackles of finite energy sources. But we will never know if his only future is waiting for the next UN food drop.