Ideasclerosis

Let us first worry about whether man is becoming more stupid, more credulous, more weak-minded, whether there is a crisis in comprehension or imagination.

—Paul Valery

The time between innovations in technology and new products introduced into markets has steadily declined so that what had once taken decades has been reduced to months or a few weeks. As a result, we now have less time than ever to consider the effects of various innovations or systems of technologies on any number of other things, including our longer-term prospects. Contrast this pace, driven by the frenetic search for profit or power, with the rate of innovation in those things that would accrue to our long-term ecological health. This difference captures an important dimension of the problem of human survival in the twenty-first century. While we introduce new computing equipment every few months, we still farm in ignorance of

Charles Darwin and Albert Howard. Land-use thinking has barely begun to reckon with the thought of Aldo Leopold. After hundreds of studies on the potential for energy efficiency, our use of fossil energy, if somewhat more efficient, continues unabated. In short, innovations that produce fast wealth, whatever their ecological or human effects or impact on long-term prosperity, move ever more quickly from inception to market, while those having to do with human survival move at a glacial pace if they move at all. Why?

One possibility is that we are buried in an avalanche of information and can no longer separate the critically important from that which is trivial or perhaps even dangerous. This is certainly true, but it still does not explain why some kinds of ideas move quickly while others are ignored. Exhausted by consumption and saturated by entertainment, perhaps we have become merely "a nation of nitwits" (Herbert 1995) no longer willing or able to do the hard work of thinking about serious things. "The American citizen," Daniel Boor-stin once wrote, "lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality" (Boorstin [1961] 1978, 37). A casual survey of talk radio, television programs, and World Wrestling Federation events would lead one to believe this to be true as well. But, again, it does not explain why ecologically important ideas fail to excite us as much as contrived ones. Maybe the problem lies in the political arena, now dominated by wealthy corporations. Only those ideas that reinforce the power and wealth of the already powerful and rich succeed; all others are consigned to oblivion. This, too, is transparently obvious, but fails to explain why we are so easily entrapped by those with bad ideas. Maybe the problem is simply public cynicism, of which there is much evidence. Or perhaps we have simply created a very clever but ecologically stupid civilization. Indeed, as Kenneth Boulding once noted, it is difficult to overestimate stupidity in human affairs and its acceleration in recent decades. But that, too, merely begs the question.

Possibly the flow of ecologically sound ideas is blocked by the social equivalent of a logjam in a river. Again, there is plausible evidence for this possibility. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, for example, the industrial age spawned gargantuan organizations with simple goals, roughly analogous to the body/brain ratio of the dinosaur. Industrial behemoths such General Motors, similarly, lacked the wherewithal to think much beyond business equivalents of ingestion and procreation. Consequently, the ideas that flourished in organizations with great mass and single focus were the sort that increased either the scale or velocity of one thing or another in order to better serve the purposes of pecuniary accumulation, convenience, and power. The monomania of big organizations drove out thought for the morrow, warped lives, disfigured much of the world, and dominated the intellectual landscape. As a result, some of us live more conveniently, but the world is more toxic, dangerous, and far less lovely than it might otherwise be. Nonetheless, that model shaped our thinking about the proper organization of human affairs. Industrial-era organizations and industrialized societies lacked reliable means of appraising the collateral effects of their actions, what is called "feedback." And as Donella Meadows has noted, systems lacking feedback are by definition dumb. At a large enough scale, they are also dangerous.

But in societies dominated by large organizations, some kinds of ideas still spread like wildfire. Later generations will be hard pressed to explain the ferocious spread of nazism, communism, and various kinds of militant fundamentalism in the twentieth century (Conquest 1999). For such deranged ideas humans slaughtered each other by the millions. Our descendants, if not intellectually and morally impaired, will study the virulence of our ideologies much as we now study the etiology of disease. They will be astonished by our devotion to any number of other bad ideas such as the doctrine of mutual assured destruction. Most likely they will come to view our violence and political cupidity as a form of criminal insanity.

In one way or another, the dominant ideas of the twentieth century fit a pattern that political scientist James C. Scott calls "highmodernist ideology," which is "best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws" (1998:4). Taken to its extreme, devotees of high modernism, in Scott's words, "were guilty of hubris, of forgetting that they were mortals" (ibid., 342). Whether in forestry, agriculture, urban planning, or economics, the practice of high modernism meant excluding qualitative and subtle aspects of rural places, natural systems, cities, and people in order to maximize efficiency, control, and economic expansion. The acolytes of the faith steadfastly hold to a vision of humankind become godlike, transcending all limitations including death. When it is all said and done I doubt that, on balance, high modernism will have eliminated much suffering. But it will have served to anesthetize our higher sensibilities and drastically deflect human nature or eliminate humans altogether. Indeed, the latter is the stated goal of all of those intrepid pioneers in the brave new sciences of virtual reality and artificial intelligence, who regard the displacement of humans by superior and self-replicating devices as an evolutionary mandate.

Given the present momentum of research, twenty-first-century technologies, notably genetics, nanotechnologies, and robotics, will change what it means to be human. They may well threaten human survival. In the words of software engineer Bill Joy (2000, 242), "we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil." We are driven "by our habits, our desires, our economic system, and our competitive need to know," but we have "no plan, no control, no brakes" (ibid., 256). Joy believes that the "last chance to assert control ... is rapidly approaching" (ibid.). Others such as Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines, counsel resignation because these changes are "inexorable" and "inevitable" (1999, 253).

Looking ahead, as best we are able, what can be said about the trajectory of human intelligence? Is it possible to harness intelligence to purposes that demean it? Is it possible to create conditions that are hostile to sober reflection, decency, and foresight? We have good reasons to think that the conditions that nurture ecologically solvent ideas and wisdom are mutable, fragile, and increasingly threatened by the march of mere cleverness and the avalanche of artifice and sensation on the human psyche. And we now know that it may well be possible to destroy human intelligence altogether by creating a form of superior intelligence that could well regard us as a nuisance to be removed.

It is against the intoxication of high modernism which conservation biologists and their allies struggle. In the blizzard of technological possibilities, how do we cultivate what Aldo Leopold once called a "refined taste in natural objects" or a "striving for harmony with land" (1953, 150, 155)? How do we create the intellectual and moral capital for a "society decently respectful of its own and all other life, capable of inhabiting the Earth without defiling it" (Leopold 1999,

318-319)? What ecologically grounded alternative to high modernism do we offer? How do we quickly capture the imagination of the general public for the slow things that accrue to the health of the entire land mechanism?

It is far easier to describe the general content of such ideas than how they might become powerful in a consumer culture. In one way or another, the ideas we need would extend our sense of time to the far horizon, broaden our sense of kinship to include all life forms, and encourage an ethic of restraint. Not one of these can be hurried into existence. This is not first and foremost a research challenge as much as it is a kind of growing up. It is perhaps more like a remembering of what Erwin Chargaff (1980, 47) once called "old and solid knowledge" that has existed in those times and places where foresight and compassion were cultivated. A culture permeated with old and solid knowledge makes no fetish of novelty and so does not suffer the cultural equivalent of amnesia. The perennial wisdom of humanity honors mystery and acknowledges the need for caution and large margins. It knows that human intelligence is always and everywhere woefully inadequate and that we need large margins. Much of this old and ecologically sound knowledge is embedded in scriptures, law, literature, and ancient customs. But how is this to be made vivid for an entire culture suffering from attention deficit disorder?

Broadly speaking, I think we have three general strategies. One is to try to capture public imagination by dramatizing aspects of our situation. The Clock of The Long Now Foundation, for example, intends to create a 10,000-year clock that "ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and [from which] the cuckoo comes out every millennium" (Brand 1999, 3). To counter the hypernervousness of the nanosecond culture, Stewart Brand and his colleagues intend to create something comparable to the photograph of Earth from the Apollo spacecraft. The goal is to revolutionize our sense of time from the short term (kairos) to the long term (chronos), from cleverness to wisdom (ibid., 9). The actual experience of this device, whatever it might be, they describe as "Whew, Time! And me in it ... like coming upon the Grand Canyon by surprise" (ibid., 49). Perhaps focusing on the longer sweep of time would make more of us amenable to precautionary steps to preserve those things essential to the long now and less susceptible to the political, technological, and economic contagions of the moment. On the other hand, people accustomed to being enter tained might regard it only as another theme park—a sort of Disneyland. And some things, such as soil and biological diversity, cannot be dramatized so easily.

A second strategy is aimed at changing how we see the world by creating more accurate and telling metaphors and theories. Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawkin, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins (1999), for example, is a painstaking and compelling case for including ecological capital in our economic accounting and business practices. They propose to reconcile the economy to fit the realities of natural systems by pointing out the logical inconsistencies in our current modes of thinking. Indeed, a great deal of environmentalism is an attempt to change mental models and perspectives to break the chains of anthropomorphism. But changing minds and paradigms is a slow business, proceeding, when it does, mostly funeral by funeral as one generation gives way to the next. The powers of denial are everywhere strong and deeply entrenched, but given time metaphors can change and ideas do spread.

The third strategy, political change, has fallen into disrepute in the age of hypercapitalism. In our pursuit of fast wealth, we allowed ourselves to be bamboozled into believing that government was the problem. As a result, the public sector, relative to multinational corporations, has been weakened virtually everywhere. While capitalism is triumphant, there is a deficit of political ideas and an atrophy of the sense of common interests and community. At the very time we need robust political ideas to confront unprecedented changes in technology, increasing concentration of wealth, rising human needs, and serious environmental threats, we find political confusion, vacillation, and mendacity. The kind of political leadership we need has yet to appear. But the ideas necessary for a solvent future are relatively straightforward. We must create the same kind of separation between money and politics that we once established between church and state. And we must create the political capacity to protect the integrity of earth systems and biodiversity and thereby the legitimate interests of our descendants. This requires, in turn, the capacity to exert farsighted public control over capital and economic power. It is no easy thing to do, but doing it is far easier than not doing it.

The success of these strategies, in turn, hinges on whether the public is educated and equipped to comprehend such things. But at the time when we need a larger idea of education, our proudest research universities, almost without exception, have aspired to become the research and development wing of high modernism. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 permitted universities to patent results of federally funded research (Press and Washburn 2000,41). Combined with the decline of defense spending, the results have been dramatic. The more prestigious institutions have become partners, and sometimes accomplices, of major corporations in return for large contributions and contracts. Many have established offices to foster and administer the commercialization of research. Corporations increasingly dictate the terms of research and its subsequent use, thereby compromising the free flow of ideas and contaminating truth at the source. Unsurprisingly, research is mostly directed to areas that hold great financial promise, not to great human needs. There is seldom much financial profit in ideas pertaining to preservation of biological diversity, land health, sustainable resource management, and real human improvement—precisely what we need most. And there is virtually never quick profit in turning out merely well-educated, thoughtful, and ecologically competent citizens.

It should be a matter of some embarrassment that the best ideas about the challenge of sustainability and appropriate responses to it have come disproportionately from people and organizations at the periphery of power and influence not from those at the center. Small nonprofit organizations are often the best source of ideas we have about the preservation of species, soil, people, places, local culture, and margins for error. It is time for institutions of higher education to catch up. It is time to reinvent higher education by breaking down all of those institutional and disciplinary impediments to the flow of ideas on which we might build a durable and decent civilization.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment