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.

Celebrity, Public Attention and Those That Do Good

It is without a doubt that not all of us attract the same amount of attention in the public eye. Those which hold positions of power in industry or government, those which are successful in sports or the arts, those which do especially heinous crimes and those which are rich (and good-looking) dominate mass and social media.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that; especially those which have power over the public should certainly be given plenty of attention, in particular to assess whether they are using their power in a good way.

However, there is a kind of people I believe receive far too little attention in our current society: those who do good, those who sacrifice their lives for others, in the small and in the big.

Can you name any human rights lawyer? Can you name any volunteer at a homeless shelter? Can you name anyone who fosters troublesome children? Most likely not; because mass and social media do not give attention to those who attempt their best to do something in the interest of others.

However, I think these are the heroes, these are the stars we should celebrate; because these are the people which enable our life of peace and prosperity; these are the people which build the foundation of a healthy and pleasant to live in society.

I think it would be amazing if we could build a repository of stories of those which have fostered goodness in their lives so that we can look up to them, be inspired and follow their example. Also it would be amazing if our mass and social media would apply a ‘values filter’; which highlights those stories which help to promote goodness in the world, rather than a ‘profit filter’; which highlights those stories which bring profit (since they attract the most readers/viewers).

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