“Why doesn’t anybody do anything?” – a frequent question about where the world is going, isn’t it?
Typically, the person asking isn’t doing anything and has no intention of doing anything for anyone other than him- or herself. I suppose that’s fine. After all, there are many people who don’t even look after themselves. But the question is also baseless, as there are many recent and well-known examples to the contrary:
Edward O. Wilson, in an essay he published on 29 February 2016: “Half of the Earth’s surface and seas must be dedicated to the conservation of nature.”
Bill Gates, in his annual letter on 22 February 2016: “The world needs a miracle to solve climate change. When I say ‘miracle’, I don’t mean something that’s impossible. I’ve seen miracles happen before.”
Leonardo DiCaprio at the Oscars on 29 February 2016: “Climate change is real. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species. Leaders of the world: it is time to respond to mankind’s greatest challenge.”
There are many people who, through the decades, have not only made statements like this on one occasion, but actually devoted large parts of their lives in some shape or form to saving the world. But they face an even larger group of people who have wasted their energy to assert that things are better than ever. Both groups have it right – although the latter group only in a short-sighted and biased manner.
The planet and mankind
It is likely that the hundred billion galaxies in the universe hide at least ten billion planets with conscious life. That’s more than the number of people on Earth. As a thought exercise, let’s imagine that there is a neutral observer whose job it is to classify these planets and award grades to them.
Most of the planets would probably be home to several species of life, and many of them would have a species that represents the pinnacle of evolution in that world and exercises autocratic control over it. The richest planets would have millions of different species and, on some of them, they would have been successful in maintaining the balance of life for hundreds of thousands of years. Having discovered planet Earth in the Milky Way galaxy, what would our surveyor pay attention to? Would we receive good grades?
I expect the surveyor would be delighted by the colourful riches of our planet: its mountains and diverse waterways, its atmosphere and clouds, coral reefs, rainforests, sandy beaches, sunrises and sunsets, glaciers, islands, deserts, the incredible range of species, and maybe even our cities and roads. Our surveyor would note that the millions of species on this planet have reached this point through the winding flow of evolution over a period of some 3.5 billion years. He would be enchanted by the different climates around the planet, the changes in seasons and the varying amounts of light during each day, all of which naturally support the diversity of Earth’s species.
The observer’s attention would, of course, also be drawn to the dominant species on the planet, one that has only been around for a fleeting moment, merely one one-hundred-thousandth of the total timespan of life on Earth. That’s like five minutes out of a year. This species—Cro Magnon—has taken it upon itself to reproduce, develop tools, shape the terrain, enslave, exploit everything he sees and boast about his achievements, which he calls culture.
It is a militant and power-hungry species. The nastiest part of its destructive technology has only existed for three seconds – again if one year were equal to the history of life on the planet. It appears that this species is now destroying the most valuable heritage of its planet in an even shorter period of time.
The observer would focus on mankind’s values, which are narrow and superficial. It seems that having a dominant position among the planet’s species is not enough for it, so this creature also wastes tremendous resources on its internal power struggle. The horrendous problem with the attitude of this species appears to be a complete disregard for the world it inhabits; to it, the interests of the species are synonymous with the interests of the planet. Power, and particularly its subtype of financial power, is the one-eyed goal accepted by the majority of the species. The dominant cultural creature has no long-term plan about the future of the planet. Instead, it carries on with an attention span measured in milliseconds on the previously mentioned scale.
The observer draws a conclusion that is similar to that of some other galaxy it has visited in the past: the pinnacle of evolution may become a grave affliction for its planet. Healing would require the species to engage in intense self-criticism and a drastic change in its attitude regarding its rights. The lack of honest assessment and replacing honest assessment with unfounded self-righteousness has become the largest problem faced by this planet. The observer continues his rounds, moving to the Milky Way’s neighbouring galaxy, and leaves a brief message for the group on Earth that calls itself mankind. The message has three parts.
In the message, the observer first calls attention to how mankind’s values have withered away. That subtype of power known as financial power has become permanently associated with material greatness. This is a short-sighted attitude. Instead of emphasising the good, it emphasises the rights of the strongest and, therefore, quantity over quality. There is no ethical or aesthetic foundation for this attitude. The observer urges mankind to condemn narrow-minded complacency, to think about the future of the planet on a time scale of at least thousands of years, to value the irreplaceable natural riches created as life has evolved to take its current forms and their ethical and aesthetic brilliance, and to create a deep and far-reaching plan for the planet instead of superficial and petty power struggles.
As a little carrot for mankind, the observer writes that, over the long term, the Earth could develop into a giant work of art in space, where all life forms mature side by side, where they all have a justification for their existence, and where the size of the human population would remain at a reasonable level from one millennium to the next, engaging in its culture as a harmonious byproduct of the cyclical movement of matter and energy. He exhorts us to reject the damaging impacts of religions and the illusion of the anthropocentric ethic. He also reminds us that beauty means being natural, not unnatural. He issues a particular warning about a phenomenon that has insidiously infiltrated modern society as a painkiller for the disease that afflicts us. It acts as a drug that alienates large groups of people from the problems of human civilization. Frivolous entertainment in its countless forms makes people blind to the dangers that threaten their planet in the coming decades. Mankind is cavorting in momentary pleasures, shiny things and possessions.
Mankind could yet develop into the great artist of its galaxy. As it stands, it is well on the way to decaying into an entertainment-addicted clown. But the observer understands that a fundamental shift in attitudes requires generations of thinking in order to achieve acceptance, as Cro Magnon is a social animal.
During his visit, the observer notes an amusing aspect of the way mankind spends its time. It is a model that other living beings have not adopted. Largely based on the distorted values discussed above, mankind has placed tremendous emphasis on a pair of activities that feed on each other on a reciprocal basis. Man calls it the union of production and consumption. For some unfathomable reason, this union—and particularly its volume—has been elevated as a value worth pursuing. Its magnitude
is measured on the planet-wide scale, it is fought over and the individuals and groups called nations who achieve success by this measure are held in high esteem.
It seems that the dominant species on the planet has unwittingly become a servant to a system that lacks deeper meaning. The observer has seen similar phenomena on some of his previous assignments and he has noticed that meaningless high-volume activity quickly leads to the deterioration of the planet and, ultimately, to suffering for the dominant species responsible for it. Before that final outcome, all of creation—as mankind playfully calls all living things—has borne the brunt of the consequences of this foolishness. It is a process that tends to accelerate, which the dominant species has failed to see.
Irritated by the lack of a deeper meaning behind all that activity, the observer adds a comment to his feedback for the planet to note that the entropy of the universe is always increasing, and intentionally adding to it will not have pleasant ramifications for the offender. In his message, he issues a stern warning against short-sighted activity and the superficial appreciation of its results. He invites the dominant species to focus on deeper spirituality and culture, and to appraise the results of its activities on the scale of millennia rather than decades.
Again, the visiting observer wishes to wrap up the section by emphasising a key point. He has noted that, as the centuries have gone by, the population of the dominant species has risen to an inconceivable level. He urges the dominant species to compare the size of its population with that of a close relative, the mountain gorilla. There are 10 million humans on the planet for each mountain gorilla. Even closer relatives, such as the Neanderthals, have already been entirely eliminated by the Cro Magnon. This scandalous behaviour doesn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny, neither ethical nor aesthetic.
The observer gravely calls mankind’s attention to a key question that has been entirely forgotten. What would be the size of the human population that the planet could withstand from one millennium to another? And what would be the key justifications for that choice? And what would be the timetable for achieving that result, and what would be the methods to get there?
In spite of his good advice, the observer is in low spirits. He sees that man, as a social animal, relies on a long-established method for solving problems that has been given the grand name of democracy. It’s a nice and genial model of governance, one that mankind always disregards when it’s time to go to war. It involves a great deal of
dishonesty and hypocrisy, but it’s a widely accepted lesson that a pleasant lie is better received than an unpleasant truth. The tools of democracy are endless meetings, sessions, seminars, symposia, working groups and committees. A lot of time is wasted on all that prattle. The observer proposes a bold change to how decisions concerning the entire world are made. Global issues, such as population growth, land use and the protection of waterways and biodiversity must be entrusted to a collegial body consisting of politically independent and indisputably wise representatives of the species.
The observer is also puzzled by a strange contradiction. Why has mankind, a species so boastful of its culture, not analysed its future options, prepared long-term plans, made decisions on radical measures and the timetable required for them? Why does it not take advantage of available resources such as military forces and put them into good use? Why is the war machine not obligated to defend the future of the entire planet? Why is it allowed to continue to engage in damaging acts, destroying itself and many other things along the way? Redirecting armed forces to positive objectives—either directly or by reallocating funding—would be a solution for obvious problems of gigantic proportions.
The planet is facing massive challenges that, in many cases, have a mutually accelerating effect on each other. Its atmosphere, lands and oceans are in the throes of large-scale harmful changes and its most shining attribute, the diversity of its species, is deteriorating. While all of these negative changes are aimed at the planet’s basic nature, they will inevitably take their toll on mankind as well. Is the goal mass suicide at the planetary scale? Does this behaviour indicate a complete disregard for future generations? Is this foolishness intentional or thoughtless?
The observer concludes that it’s a question of the thirst for power among some individuals, which is a basic trait of living beings much like the reproductive drive, and a fundamental fuel for evolution. Wisdom and the thirst for power do not seem to be able to coexist in the same individual. When you combine this negative trait with the obedience of a social animal, the end result is what it is. Even the subset of the dominant species that calls itself the intelligentsia is part of the scheme. Tremendous resources are directed towards satisfying the thirst for power, when those same resources could be used as tools for wisdom. To sum up, the observer suggests that Earth is a fine planet that deserves a better mankind. He concludes his message with a question:
“Why doesn’t everyone at least do something?”