Below is a thought-provoking article from the Washington Post that considers our planet in futurist Buckminster Fuller’s terms, as “Spaceship Earth.” The author highlights extreme approaches — Stewart Brand’s centralized techno-fix with Bill McKibben’s decentralized, localized, even quasi-luddite “New Eaarth” — thus demonstrating both the polarity and the range of possible futures that await us — unless, of course, we’re lucky and the galactics land and take charge.
As a first-child-alpha-female, my first impulse in dealing with any problem is command and control. Take charge. Figure it out, make a plan, and marshal the required forces. Yet that is the old way of doing things, the way we’ve been using for millennia. The American Empire is merely the latest to grow too too big for its britches and tip over into permanent collapse.
The more evolved way is to admit our vulnerability, admit that we don’t know, that we can’t figure it out; even so, we will do our best to play our part in the transformation required by working, in place, right where we are, to do what we can to assist our local community, and our land and waters and fauna and flora, to renew themselves from the wreckage of what we humans, in our blind unknowing, have wrought.
In this new approach that much of humanity begins to fumble with now, we learn to trust the open-source, open-ended, networked, horizontal society that is revving up through Transition towns, and the internet and Occupy and other lateral movements to “get the job done” in innumerably startling and creative ways that we cannot yet imagine.
So I guess I come down on the side of McKibben, although I very much recognize and honor the impulse that drives Stewart Brand to want to “fix the problem, right now.”
This article has already inspired 200 comments in five days, Here are two recent ones:
“A little humility is in order.
“Before we start thinking mankind can “drive spaceship earth,” how about showing us:
– The US can land a man on the mon on 2012; (not possible because we dismantled the team did it)
– Europeans can create a workable currency to replace the Euro mess they created.
– the list of things we are all supposed to promise to do to support the drivers of spacehip earth.
– the list of penalties for failing ot comply with the dictates of the drivers of spaceship earth.
“Given that the environmental regulations required to “drive spacehip earth” is likely to require a worldwide dictatorship and complete control over all human activity the likes of which we we have never seen, I think its reasonable to equire the technocrats who will be running our lives ot demonstareate competency in the few simple tasks described above.”
January 2, 2012
Sure, it’s an antiquated metaphor. It’s also an increasingly apt way to discuss a planet with 7 billion people, a global economy, a World Wide Web, climate change, exotic organisms running amok and all sorts of resource shortages and ecological challenges.
At the same time, “we’re in a position where we have to take a more interventionist role and a more managerial role,” says Emma Marris, author of “Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.” “The easy answer used to be to turn back time and make it look like it used to. Before was always better. Before is no longer an option.”
Although Marris is speaking about restoration ecology — how to manage forests and other natural systems — this interventionist approach can be applied to the planet more broadly. In his book “The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans,” environmental activist Mark Lynas writes, “Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens from here.”
The wilderness movements of John Muir in the 19th century and Teddy Roosevelt in the early 20th sought to draw boundaries between civilization and nature. The goal was to protect the biggest mountains, the deepest gorges, the wildest places, according to Douglas Brinkley, author of “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt’s Crusade for America.”
But after Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring” 50 years ago, detailing the ecological damage from the pesticide DDT, the movement began looking more at industrial pollutants and hazards to human health, Brinkley says. Then, in the 1990s, climate change began to dominate the discussion.
This is a different planet in key respects than the one Carson was writing about. The fingerprints of humankind are now found on every continent, in every sea. Radiation from atomic tests can be found in sediments across the world, and the chemical signature of the Industrial Revolution, when coal began to power human activity, can be seen in ice cores drilled in Greenland. Earth is warming even as a growing human population is demanding more energy, using more resources, burning more fossil fuels and emitting more greenhouse gases. The challenges have scaled up.
As a result, some influential thinkers argue for a managerial approach to the planet that is short on sentiment and long on science and technology.
One of the deans of technological environmentalism is Stewart Brand, who in the 1960s ran around with Ken Kesey and the LSD-gobbling Merry Pranksters. In 1968 he published the “Whole Earth Catalog,” which combined hippie sensibility with early computers and nifty gadgets. His catalog had a famous inscription: “We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.”
Brand’s philosophy was pro-technology amid a counterculture movement that often saw technology as an evil — as the source of pollution, industrial-scale warfare and nuclear weapons. Early on, Brand saw the personal computer as a source of individual empowerment and resistance to authority; he sponsored an early convention of computer hackers.
This isn’t green orthodoxy, obviously. Albert Borgmann, a professor of philosophy at the University of Montana who has writtenextensively on technology and theenvironment, worries about a possible overreliance on technology to fix problems that humans have made.
“It has to be done in a spirit of cautionary respect. There has to be some rueful recognition that the spirit of managing things has gotten us where we are. That same sort of arrogance — we control it all — can’t continue,” Borgmann says.
Beyond the philosophical questions are nuts-and-bolts issues about how people could intelligently manage something as complicated as the natural world. We might not be good at it.
A number of recent events have shown that complex technological systems are vulnerable to rare but consequential failures. The BP oil spill, for example, happened despite elaborate technologies and monitoring systems designed to prevent an oil-well blowout, or at least shut down a runaway well if the initial line of defense failed.
Investigators said that engineering decisions eroded the safety margin in an attempt to cut costs. But the technology wasn’t as robust as engineers thought it was.
Even more humbling was the March 11 earthquake in Japan. The earthquake wasn’t supposed to be possible. The seismic hazard maps showed that the maximum possible earthquake along the Japan Trench — the huge fault line where one plate of the Earth dives beneath another — could generate earthquakes up to magnitude 8.4. But on the afternoon of March 11, the fault broke and generated an earthquake registering 9.0, which was six times stronger than the theoretical maximum.
The tsunami knocked out the backup power generators at the plant, which in retrospect were located too low. Without electricity, the Fukushima plant couldn’t cool the nuclear fuel rods and fuel tanks, and a series of explosions and meltdowns released large amounts of radiation into the environment for months.
“The earthquake doesn’t tell us whether we should do nuclear, but the earthquake does tell us that we’re better off, if we’re doing nuclear, to have a good understanding of the world around us,” says Richard B. Alley, a Penn State climate scientist and author of “Earth: The Operator’s Manual.”
“The future should belong, and could belong, to the small and many, not the big and few,” McKibben says. Decentralization would help prevent small problems from expanding into societal catastrophes, he says.
Successful management of global environmental issues would require political leadership that McKibben, Brand and others say hasn’t materialized. Dealing with climate change, for example, “involves a level of global cooperation that has never happened, and the mechanisms for that are not in sight,” Brand says.
Nonetheless, he’s an optimist about human beings in general.
“We’re getting better,” he says. “We are getting far less violent, less cruel and less unjust, steadily for the last millennia, centuries, years and days. It’s a remarkably human accomplishment in basically domesticating ourselves.”
Brand would amend the famous “We are as gods” inscription of his 1968 book:
“The new version of that is, ‘We are as gods and have to get good at it.’ ”