The Survival of Humankind: Should We Be Working Towards It?

Given that there does not appear to be a way open to us to determine what the purpose of life is, and therefore no way to know what is ultimately good and bad, it is only natural that there is some disagreement among us what it means to live a virtuous life.

However, there seem to be a few obvious choices for what we could all (or almost all) agree on as being good. One of these is the survival of humankind. Only this survival will put us into a position to one day, hopefully, discover and understand deeper truths about our universe.

Now, mind you, I am of the opinion that humankind is a bit overrated; it seems we are capable of narcissism not only as individuals but as a species as well. However, notwithstanding that, I still believe that it is worthwhile to attempt to save humankind; if only to see where the future will lead us.

Although the survival of humankind seems like such an obvious goal to pursue, we are doing a very poor job ensuring its accomplishment. The root cause of this is that the survival of humankind is a global and intellectually obvious goal but our thinking often tends to be tribal and driven by base emotions. This is understandable since that is the way Nature made us but it is not excusable since we have the capacity to be better than that.

Let us begin with a very obvious threat to the survival of humankind: nuclear weapons. The arsenals of intercontinental rockets and other weapons that the nuclear powers have assembled, around 10,000 by the last count, is more than sufficient to devastate our planet and destroy the foundation for our survival. There is absolutely no current global reason that we must possess any nuclear weapons; the reasons are all local; assuring the superiority or balance of power between individual nations and groups of nations.

Another potential calamity which might end our comfortable life is the explosion of a super-volcano or the impact of a large asteroid. Thankfully the probability of these events is not very high; but the stakes involved are high indeed. If you had 10 million dollars, would you invest them in a place where there was a 1 in 10,000 chance that all your money would be lost? The resources we allocate to predict these events and to build up resilience in case they occur are minuscule; there are certainly far, far smaller than the resources allocated to building BMWs. Lets imagine we would allocate five percent of our economic output to try to help us survive these events; I think we would be able to achieve tremendous progress very quickly.

A final threat for our survival is that our use and transformation of land and the waste we release into the environment (including waste in gaseous form) leads to permanent damage to the planet we depend on for our survival. One prominent idea to model this threat is the idea of planetary boundaries (original research from 2009; update from 2015). The theory is that in various dimensions (such as climate change, biodiversity, land use, etc) there is a safe level of human interference which will assure the continuation of nature on planet Earth as we know it. Crossing the boundary set by this safe level puts us and our planet in danger of being permanently harmed. The scientists involved in the creation of this model have defined nine boundaries. As of 2015 they state that four of the boundaries have been crossed. I think Nature is very resilient and has survived greater threats than humankind; however, we require Nature to be in a very specific state which enables our survival. We do not fully understand what enables this state. I think there is very little reason not to try to limit our harmful effects on the environment.

However, while it will come at little costs to us to abandon nuclear weapons or to prepare for catastrophic one-time events, to assure the health of our environment will probably require great efforts and sacrifices. We already have access to many technologies which can be used to limit our harmful effects on the planet, such as solar power and recycling. However, implementing these across the globe will require tremendous economic effort. Moreover, our current technology limits our ability to reduce the negative impact each of us has. For every human that lives, we require a certain amount of farmland, fresh water, energy and space. To life on this planet sustainability we might have to consider strategies to limit population growth to levels in alignment with our current technological abilities.

The fear that the world will end in a catastrophic event is deeply rooted within us, and is reflected in ancient religious texts and contemporary scientific studies alike. To predict the future is always a tricky proposition and we can never know for sure what will happen. Experience often shows that, more often than not, our worst fears are not realised and that the world goes on. However, how big of a bet do we want to make that we will be fine, that humankind will survive and that unlikely (super-volcano) or likely (collapse of our biosphere) events will not occur? I personally vote for as small a bet as possible. I couldn’t think of a single, grander goal than working on the survival of humankind; I think we should put our wealth and ability towards this goal, no matter the costs.

I think the key reason why we don’t work towards this goal with sensible intensity is that we do not have strong global institutions and powerful global political organisations which could orchestrate these efforts. Political leaders with real power are given this power from the people of nations; and thus they focus on the welfare of nations rather than the welfare of humankind. Without a change to our political systems, we are poorly equipped to raise to global challenges.

To make matters worse, if we like it or not, the United States of America are the country people around the world look for guidance on solving global problems. Unfortunately, recent years have shown that this exceptional nation is not interested in or willing to work towards creating a better future for all of humankind; instead American people seem to be focussed on their self-interest, and first of all, the four letter word in importance only second to God in politics: jobs. I hope that not only American people but people around the world come to realise that there are things more important than ourselves and those we share a language and culture with; that we will all be more well off if we truely work together on worthwhile goals.

Picture Credit: Theo_Q

Corruption: How Robert Moses Turned from Idealist to ‘Power Broker’

I think it is usually better to focus on positive things, on how good things could be, instead of how bad they are or how bad they may turn out. But, notwithstanding this preference, I also think it is necessary to discuss a few key properties of nature and human nature, which are of potential great detriment to our common good.

One such property is the tendency of any social system to develop corrupt elements. If we think of corruption, the first thing we tend to think about is money. A politician getting paid to cast a certain vote; a policeman getting paid for looking the other way. But money is only a vehicle – a very important one in our current world, but a vehicle nonetheless. What corruption is really about is power. It is the use of power for the increase of power of one individual or a select, small group of individuals rather than using power to foster the common good.

I am currently reading the book The Power Broker by Robert Caro. It is a biography of Robert Moses who shaped New York with the construction of parks, roads and bridges. Robert Moses famously did not abuse his power to make himself a rich man. But corrupt he was nonetheless. He built a network of political influence which enabled him to realise public work projects in alignment with his vision about how the city and state of New York should be. The resulting concentration of power lead to many voices not being heard when it was decided where bridges, tunnels, parks and roads should be build. This undermines the core of democracy; which is all about the messy process to find the solution which provides the best compromise for all parties affected by a decision.

However, there is another, interesting side to the story of Robert Moses, and that is how he got where he ended up. Robert Moses started his career in public service as a dedicated idealist; who would not compromise his honour or his dedication to public service to any outside influence. His resistance to follow the ‘way things were’ came with great personal costs to him. Later in his life, he learned the trade of how power needs to be orchestrated to ‘get things done’. He failed at being an idealist; he excelled at being a master manipulator. What resulted was a twisted creature; crushed between his desire to realise public work projects for the public good, and the necessities of political realities.

I think this teaches a very important lesson about corruption. Corruption prospers in a corrupt environment. If Robert Moses would have entered public service in a different city, a different country, where public discourse and rational considerations have a stronger influence on the actions of government, he might have been enabled to put his genius to work for the public good. He might have learned to listen to the voices of the disadvantaged but plenty rather than the voices of the powerful but few.

Now what is one to do when confronted with a corrupt environment, an environment where power feeds upon itself rather than being shared for public good? This is a question for which I am thus far not able to provide a reasonable answer to. Robert Moses chose to adapt to the system, work within its rules to realise his dreams. In the process, he lost sight of what these dreams initially were; in result, he sowed more bad than good.

Michael Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR, was confronted with a similar problem than Robert Moses. He started an idealist but was faced with an extremely corrupt economical and political system. However, in contrast to Moses, Gorbachev never lost sight of his ideals; of his desire to bring goodness to the people rather than himself. In the end, I think he brought more good into the world than bad – though plenty of Russian nationalist won’t share this sentiment, of course.

Interestingly, both Gorbachev and Moses were considered to be part of the ‘reformers’ within a corrupt system at the beginning of their careers. In the USSR, more and more politicians came to realise that things just could not go on as they used to; they were ready to accept change. Likewise in New York, there was an influential group of public spirited individuals who were very passionate about rooting out corruption in the city government. Neither Gorbachev nor Moses had to walk their way alone. But both betrayed their supporters: Gorbachev by being more liberal and innovative than he ought to be and Moses by betraying the ideals everyone thought he stood for.

I think it takes a truly exceptional individual to play by the rules of a system in order to change the system from the inside. Social systems exists because they manage to induce certain ways of thinking into a group of individuals; you might just be one of them. Thus, I think it is generally best to try to stay away from those systems which are corrupt. Only if you are certain you have an exceptionally strong mind and clear sight of your goals, should you attempt to change a system from within. Otherwise, keep yourself pure and stick to your ideals in every action; try to find those which are of one mind with you; there will always be plenty.

Predicting a Good Future

I recently read an article published by a German newspaper which was discussed how our future might look like in 2037. Trying to predict the future is something which has always fascinated me. I think we do far too little of that in comparison with how much of our attention we direct towards the past; just think about how many books are written about history versus those about the future!

Maybe this is just because we have come to realise that predicting the future is too difficult; the world is so complex and moves into seemingly random directions. However, there are broader developments which play out over long stretches; such as the rise of China, the growing population of India or the decline of the political system in the United States. 

I think it would be an interesting exercise to try to identify strong developments in our time which are very likely to continue in the future. If we have a list of those, we could then try to extrapolate from them.

One problem is that, although we know that a development is coming, it is often difficult to predict when it is coming. For instance, I have long been convinced that property in New Zealand and Australia is overvalued and will reduce in value in the future. However, I have absolutely no idea when this is going to happen.

One notable thing about the article which I have mentioned was that they were not just trying to predict a future but to predict a possible good future. This I think is a very good objective for thinking about the future. We will never know with certainty what is to happen; so if we try to adopt an optimistic outlook we might just help realise a better possible future.

I think we can even go a step further and not just try to imagine a good possible future but try to imagine how the future could be if we were to shape it with all our available resources.

Just imagine we would redirect our resources away from the production of luxury goods towards building a more sustainable economy. Image we would abandon our focus on economic growth (both in terms of the economy as a whole and in terms of our personal fortunes) and instead focus on trying to build an environment in which all members of society are given security and the ability to engage in activities which grant them meaningful happiness. Imagine we could build one centralised, peace-loving, just and democratic power which stands above all individual countries. And, it is true, we can realise all these things if just enough of us at the same time decide that we want them to come to pass.

Sadly the article I read was not very concerned with discussing collective well-being. Instead, it focused on the particular life of one person and how technology was used to improve this person’s life. For me, things like being able to send your blood pressure readings to your doctor, having your blinds open automatically when you wake up, having your fridge order your groceries for you just don’t seem all that important. Sure, they are nice to haves but they are not essential in solving the gigantic problems which we are facing; which are a deterioration of our natural environment, overpopulation, individual misery brought about by stress and easily preventable diseases and the always possible calamity of violent conflict. However, the examples given are surely great for the economy; it is all based on things and services which need to be bought by money; just the thing we need more of!

Featured Image: Heinrich Leutemann’s The Oracle of Delphi Entranced

A Discussion of Professional Ambition

In our modern world, our basic material needs are often met easily. Especially for those which were fortunate enough to obtain a good education. It thus puzzles me why people are often so ambitious in their work.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. For me, working hard and trying our best are treasured values. What puzzles me about peoples’ ambition is not so much that they work hard but what for.

For me, work has a spiritual meaning. I believe that through our labours we can give back to the world which bestowed us with existence. If we are fortunate enough to have talents and skills, we can use them to benefit those among us less fortunate.

However, I don’t think that this is what motivates most ambitious people. I think we have been programmed with a base desire to want what other people have. If there is a step up from your current position and it is held by someone you interact with (and you are theoretically qualified for the position), it is just natural that we would want this position for ourselves. If there are others with more formal power than us, we would want this formal power as well. And who wouldn’t want to be payed equally as much as those earning more.

What does not make sense to me is that if you ask almost anyone what is most important in their lives, they will say that it is their own happiness and the well-being of their family. Accepting a more senior or better paid role often comes at the cost of additional stress and time commitments – neither of which aid in achieving happiness for ourselves or our families. Moreover, once we have attained our goal of finding a better role, we will quickly find a role even more desirable and our joy of accomplishment is set out to be brief – and this is in the event of success; if we fail to attain our goal, we are sure to be miserable, being constantly reminded of our own shortcomings and the general unfairness of the world.

Seeking promotions and advancements follows a pattern which can often be observed when studying our own species. If left to our own devices, we make choices which are against our own best interests (or at least against what we have identified as being important for us).

I think it is important to be aware of these shortcomings of our mind. Often, we do not need a promotion. We do not need to keep a job which brings us nothing but misery. It is our animal desire for prestige and power which drives us to seek that which is not good for us. It is our animal programming to follow the example of those around us. Overcoming our desire and tendency to follow social norms is not easy. We need to be mindful, of a strong mind and full of confidence to follow the path to true happiness and goodness for ourselves and others.

Life Purpose in the Modern World: Beyond Family

We live in an age where there is a short supply of higher purpose. Sure, there are the world religions which might promises us a place in heaven upon proper conduct – but most of the premises these religions are based upon are difficult to take seriously in the 21st century.

Humans can be surprisingly uninsightful at times but generally we are quite smart, and I believe that the erosion of organised religion can be traced back to our collective insight that they just don’t make much sense.

However, I believe our biology programs us to seek purpose. With organised religion being not an option for many of us, we have been looking for purpose in other places.

Firstly there is the hedonistic purpose of seeking happiness for ourselves which is adopted by some. Unfortunately, pleasure seeking is a shaky path for finding true happiness – it seems we can achieve that much better by caring for others. I would say that this purpose is not very popular; sometimes sought out in younger years but often replaced with another purpose, arguably the most widely adopted today. That is the purpose to provide and care for our families, especially our children.

In our collective mind there is little doubt that this is a sensible and morally correct purpose. However, I do think that it is good to question even those things which seem self-evident to us. So the question I want to discuss here is whether this is a good purpose or not.

There are many good things about this purpose, chiefly that it is not about us but about others. I think there is much beauty in our love for our families, and we should embrace
it whenever we have the opportunity. However, we must also be aware that this purpose is rooted in our basic biology – since looking after those genetically closely related to us helps propagate our genes.

So I think an argument can be made that this might not be the best choice for being the leading, single highest purpose of our lives. That is because, not unlikely like the world religious, it does not hold up to deeper scrutiny. It is just biology to love our children – it’s what all mammals do.

That is not to say that it is bad – in the contrary, it is beautiful and holy. This is just to say that it is not more than biology. If our children survive, our genes will pass on. If we teach our children to be good people, they might spread more goodness into the world. But what difference does this make in the context of what we have learned about the
universe? We are a tiny speck of humanity and humanity is a tiny speck in the cosmos. How our genes are fairing and what part of our values live on makes little difference in the greater scheme of things and even for our family: our great-grandchildren will only inherit around one eighth of our genes and probably equally as much – if not less – of our values.

Moreover, with our love for our children comes a danger. What if you have to make a choice between their welfare and that of others. Will we not always choose our children irrespective of what is the fair or good thing to do?

Instead, we can take the love we harbour for our families and use it as a foundation
on which to grow universal love. Love for every human being. Love for every
thing in the universe. Love for what we know about and what we don’t know about.
Love for ourselves.

So we shouldn’t abandon the love for our family – we should just be careful to define the value of our lives based on the welfare of our family. Families cause problems, families break apart. If we do not define ourselves through our families, we can become stronger – in bad times and in good – and give more love to those we care about the most without compromising our ability to open our hearts to an even greater love which encompasses everything there is, has been and could be.

The Economy and Happiness

By many measures, there has been tremendous progress in key well-being indicators for all of mankind. There is less poverty, less hunger, less violence and more prosperity than there has ever been in human history.

We live in times of plenty not just for the few but for the many. To a large degree, this is due to the rise of China; which has managed to bring more wealth and resources to its population.

However it is also in China where some problems with the current state of our world are the most apparent. The rapid industrialisation of China came along with immense environmental destruction, with a dramatic rise in inequality and, most importantly at all, a diminishing of core values which make for a just society where it is a pleasure to life in. For many (not all, of course) Chinese nowadays, money and consumerism have become central values. Western luxury brands such as Gucci, Hermes or Prada enjoy wide recognition. If you are able to buy such items, you are often assured of the admiration and envy of your peers.

Thinking about it, that is just how it is in many places in the Western world and in the rest of the world as well. Sadly, the quest for money and consumerism have been shown to be detrimental to our well-being. I believe that for a good society – that is one where the vast majority of people can enjoy good and happy lives – it is essential that there is a strong feeling of equality and mutual respect.

I have been living for many years in New Zealand and Australia now and here one of the central tenets of culture is that everyone is worthy of your respect and your friendship; no matter of whether you are rich or poor, intelligent or not so intelligent, good looking or not so good looking; you are worthy of having a quick chat with and be given a smile. It is generally not respected to be rude or impolite to others.

I do think it becomes more and more difficult to uphold such values the more economic inequality is created in a country and the more the things one can purchase with money are valued. However, we are bombarded constantly – on the TV, on Facebook, when doing a Google search, when playing a game on our mobile phone – with advertisements of which 98% share a similar message; spend money and your life will be better. Parents, be they poor or wealthy, educated or uneducated preach their children that they should aim to be successful in school; that they should choose to pursue a career which will give them economic independence (by earning money). On big holidays like Christmas or birthdays, one is trained to expect material objects or experiences which can only be bought with money. When you are planning to get married (and you are a man), you are trained that you can express your love through your wallet by choosing the right engagement ring.

Many of these things are accepted into mainstream society without reflection. They are considered to be just as things are, and more than that, they are considered how things should be. But to what end, do I ask? What lives can we build for ourselves when they are based around the simple circle of earning money which is then spent to bring about happiness and to sustain us in order to be able to earn more money. What society will result if our core values are built around this?

Not so long ago, towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century (and even some time before that), some of the most capable and influential minds were very concerned with the idea of public good. Which place does this idea have in our current world?

I think that we have become very successful at creating the world which we think we want; a world where we are free from material needs and where we can live in comfort. Unfortunately, I do not believe that this is the world which can give us deep and lasting happiness. Deep and lasting happiness is based on humility, time spend in a meaningful way, a natural and wholesome environment and constant giving and receiving of kindness and love. The combined economic power of the world is more than sufficient to supply us with the essentials we need for living and with means to engineer an environment which will enable us to find happiness. Nonetheless, we are obsessed with growing our economic power through consumption. Why? It is unnecessary. We should rather focus on channelling the economic power we have already created towards more noble and sustainable goals.

Featured Image: WikiMedia