May 21, 2011

Consciousness Of the Species, By the Species, and For the Species

From the Dot Earth blog at the New York Times, a statement from Bob Doppelt of the Resource Innovation Group:
Humans suffer from what psychologists call “bounded rationality.” We just can’t think about everything and are especially bad at projecting the consequences of our actions over time and space or imagining delays in the social and ecological systems we are embedded within.
If we are now in control of the planet, transformative cognitive and cultural changes will be needed in a very short time frame to prevent us from continually making conditions worse all while thinking we are doing good. That’s because humans are mostly skilled at “first-order change” — tweaks and improvements to our existing cognitive, behavioral, social, institutional systems that leave the basic goals, structures — and outcomes — of those systems in tact.
But if we are now charged with sustainably managing the planet, second order changes will be needed. These are transformative shifts in values, beliefs, and thought processes that produce fundamentally different types of behaviors, practices, institutions, technologies and policies. Second order change does happen — but mostly through major crisis — and even then there is no guarantee that the outcomes will be constructive.
So yes, we are now in control of the planet. This means our primary task must be to put massive amounts of resources into figuring out how to manage the process of human change so that second-order change comes about with as little harm as possible.
Doable? Yes.
Likely? The jury is out, as most of our resources now go to technologies and resources rather than to scaling up human change processes.
I'm not sure what this means--"to manage the process of human change so that second-order change comes about with as little harm as possible"--but I'm pretty sure it is not doable. I should think the jury is in: its verdict is that human beings are not going to undergo a revolution of global consciousness that will make them yield their immediate interests to the forebodings of a scientific elite. Whether they should do so is certainly a vital question; whether they will do so (that is, make the correct anticipations and achieve political consensus for them, all the while undergoing a revolutionary shift of consciousness in the same direction) can with near certainty be answered in the negative.

Because there is an Anthropocene, it does not follow that a world government putting "us" "in control of the planet" is possible.  In a very short time frame? There is not a scintilla of evidence for this in the real world, concerning the domains that Doppelt is apparently concerned with. In China, India, and Pakistan, the people clamor for more energy, more electricity, more power, for themselves and their country.

Doppelt of course doesn't call for World Government in this passage, but he calls for something even more implausible--that is, a revolutionary change in consciousness or "second order thinking" that would deliver the results of a world government without actually having the thing. For the evident frustrations of international cooperation in the here and now, he seems to substitutes an agentless remedy (a change in consciousness that would direct individual wills to the same end).

This way of thinking has striking parallels with Woodrow Wilson's attempt to transform the world through the League of Nations. There is the same gap between the end to be realized and the means that were (and are) available.

It is very likely that this gap will prove tragic or terrible in its dimensions, as the Wilsonian episode did previously. There is a lot of evidence for an Anthropocene--that is, a global ecosystem profoundly influenced by human habitation on earth--from which one can easily deduce the need for government of the species, by the species, and for the species. But in the distant no less than in the recent past, human beings are ruled by separate entities called empires, city-states, kingdoms, and nation-states. These entities have a moral duty to cooperate in addressing common predicaments, but they will retain their freedom of action and cannot be coerced into submission. That fact, which has a more secure epistemological footing than the science of climate change itself, adds up to a huge collective action problem.

This objection simply extends Doppelt's own admission that "second order change" occurs "mostly through major crisis." Human beings are "especially bad" about doing it any other way. By hypothesis, the major crisis looked for is that which will occur in a great hereafter (say, in 30 to 50 years' time) as opposed to the felt crises of the here and now (floods, droughts, famine, pestilence). Whence it follows that, in the absence of major crisis, based only on the anticipation thereof, such change is exceedingly unlikely.

No comments: