Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Abstinence from Greed

Picture: Maya mural painting, 100 BC

Some thoughts on human survival beyond our time


Life’s evolution is a history of winners. For each individual plant or animal, the passing of its genes is subject to its survival in the continued struggle both against stronger members of its own species and against adversaries of other species which either compete for the same food or hunt them to be their food.

The laws of nature are severe but clear. If you wish to survive, you compete. And if you are not a winner, you perish. You either perish instantly or your genes perish.

But even if life on Earth has largely progressed along the lines of an action thriller without happy end, it has not simply favoured individual competitiveness as the prime condition for survival. It has been equally favourable to the development of competitiveness based on co-operation. The first and foremost unity is the bond between males and a females striving to secure the survival of their offspring.

And life on Earth did not wait until the advent of humanity to prove the potential advantage of co-operation between individuals in a larger unity. For even before the Dinosaurs, animals became responsive to the call of community – the unity of the herd - as a prime force towards their security and prosperity. Human evolution has been possible by virtue of this sense of community. Community has been fundamental to the ascent of man in the animal world; it is not, as we may think, an invention of our humanity. The community of the herd perhaps didn’t provide for happy endings in all cases but it made life at least a little more pleasant for the animals.

The morality of community precedes all other moralities of the human mind. Without it, humanity is incapable of survival even at the level of the most primitive reptile. The same is true for the morality of preservation: if we consume more than we need, next time nothing will be there to eat. Like Baloo the Bear, we enjoy most prosperity when we aim for just ‘the bare necessities’.

Yet it seems as if humanity, or at least that part of humanity which inhabits the western world, believes it can survive in defiance of these two fundamental rules of nature. For what other view can we have of the icons of individualism and private wealth creation as it pervades our lives both in economic and in societal terms today?

We have come to challenge even nature’s most fundamental unity of the family as a safeguard for our survival. We are tolerant, if not increasingly indifferent to the absence of any kind of community in the fabric of our societies to the point where society as such looses its relevance altogether as a contributing, meaningful factor in our pursuit of welfare and happiness.

The development of ‘society’ as we have known it and as it has functioned in many different shapes and at many different scales in human history, has culminated in the organisation of the (nation-) state. The rise and prosperity of the nation-state is a history not limited to the western world. It has been the common story of all humanity in our time. Throughout the past two centuries, efforts have been made to create a society of nation-states, a unity of all nations, to secure survival and prosperity for all mankind.

We still have a long way to go before we can really speak of a family of nations. More over, this process of ‘globalisation’ is being challenged by another, competing globalisation process which emerged near the end of the last century. This is the winning game not geared to prosperity for all but to the wealth of the few. This process favours those most capable to efficiently produce as much as individual humans can possibly consume to satisfy their greed.

In our world we foster human consumption beyond our true needs. Increased supply pushes demand. We herald individual wealth and prosperity as an example for us all. We applaud the rich and the beautiful. We do all this even if at the same time we harbour reservations or disgust when confronted with human misery as it persists in our time. We disregard the fact that the unhappiness of many humans in our world at least in part is caused by the hero’s whom we reward or who we wish to be ourselves.

Wealth creation and wealth distribution is largely geared by consumer votes rather than by conscious deliberation. Key decisions regarding the exploitation of Earth’s resources are governed by ever larger conglomerates of commercial enterprises, operating across national boundaries. The prime motivator for these enterprises is their own profit. There is no immediate incentive for them to consider the long term sustainability of their claims on our resources and thus, their output.

In evolutionary terms, we have, in the western world, moved away from being a society of communal herbivores to becoming a wilderness of single minded predators, requiring ever larger territories to satisfy our thirst for things to have.

It is furthermore arguable that in fostering a process of wealth creation and wealth distribution based on commercialism and on the perfection of markets up to and including markets targeted at global scale, we live in defiance of one of the basic commandments of humanity if not of our living as fundamentally communal animals: thou shall not kill. Indeed, commercialism is in the hands of the new great predators, the Tyrannosaurus Rex’ of our age: the oil companies, the car companies, the companies spewing out innumerable electronic gadgets, Microsoft and others, in short: us.

When you look at it this way, there is nothing incomprehensible about our fascination with story of the Dinosaurs, their awesome appearance, their impressive size and varied abilities and so on. We share this fascination most of all because we are looking at the mirror of our own evolution. But do we actually understand the world of the Dinosaurs?

We tend to forget that we are still subject to the same forces of continuity and discontinuity that made the Dinosaurs so evidently successful in their struggle for survival and to those that led to their eventual demise. There is no way humans can deny let alone eradicate these forces. Nevertheless, if perhaps we do not deny them, at least we underestimate them, such as the forces which so far have allowed us to breath and enjoy fresh air, filtered sunlight, clean water. The same forces may one day pose a serious threat to these enjoyments, either because we have tampered with them or because of some other, natural occurrence. We equally underestimate the challenge to humanity posed by viruses and bacteria, the smallest yet by far the most successful representatives of the animal world in its war against mankind.

The history of man may end up as just another tale of Dinosaurs. We may wonder who - or what species - in 65 million years from now will live to re-tell or dig up our story. We may wonder whether that species will even remotely resemble humanity, physically and otherwise. Just think of it. They may conclude that the Neanderthal man, having lived for over two hundred thousand years, was far more fit to survive than ‘modern man’, who lived and thrived for only fifty thousand years, or less, and who became extinct not by another, more ‘superior’ species but by himself.

But we should not be too concerned about such questions today since we cannot possibly influence every single eventuality in a time frame of millions let alone tens of millions of years nor does it make sense to speculate about such eventualities. However, some questions must be addressed in our time.

Indeed, the question here is not about speculation, nor about the actual destiny of mankind in the next 65 million years. What should concern us however is that we have trespassed the limits of our own lifetime in our influence on life’s future: human life as much as all other life. Already we have sniffed the life out of a vast number of plant and animal species. We have done so irrevocably and with as yet unknown consequence. Already we have unleashed a virtual K/T meteor of epic magnitude to do its ravaging work. Already we have created a story which will echo long, long after us; a blast of extinction which will continue to awe generations well into the unimaginable future.

We can still survive and live in prosperity, and allow future generations to flourish even beyond our current capabilities. But we have to consciously choose to do so. We can allow all of humanity to live in happiness if only we express our wish for it – and live up to the rules required to achieve it.


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