Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Whither the Planet? Whither the Species?--An Introduction

Over the past few decades the mighty social engines of democracy and capitalism have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of lives of poverty and hunger. This has been most marked in Asia and Africa, but has been evident in Europe and the Americas as well. At the same time these engines have been responsible for summoning the apocalypse by feeding the twin daemons of overpopulation and technological suicide. How does this vast and complicated game sort out? What is to become of us and our only planet?

We know, for example, that--thanks to sophisticated modern farming (thanks to genetic seed modifications, industrial scaling of food production and distribution, and international spread of financial risks through commodities trading)--there is enough food produced in the world to feed the entire human population; yet because of political and financial greed, a billion people go to bed hungry every night. We know that through the bounty of sunlight, the internal heat of the Earth, and the winds and tides, there is enough energy available--helped by the wisdom of ecology and of efficient conservation--to satisfy the energy needs of humanity a hundred times over; yet we exhaust our fossil resources, destroy our planet's beautiful and valuable diversity, and poison--perhaps irretrievably--the very air we breath, the water we drink, and the soil that nourishes us. We know that through the miracles of science and technology, the major ills of humanity can be cured, our every travel and communication whim can be satisfied, and staggering questions about who we are and how the world works can be answered; yet those same miraculous adventures, science and technology, stand ready to mutilate, poison, burn, and irradiate catastrophically--if not to annihilate--our entire human species and our biological brethren as well.

So there is good news, and there is bad news. We have unprecedented power to manipulate and control the sources of human wealth and happiness. At the same time we must show--for our very survival--wisdom and restraint, long-range planning and philosophical perspective. Yet our society's development seems characterized by nearsightedness and hedonistic exuberance.

The signs are clear. There are barbarians at the gate. The tower guards are sounding a furious alarm. We must rise from our slumber; we must hear and heed the calls to action--now, before it is too late.