Human culture is being pressed on all sides as we grapple worldwide with issues of finance, government and freedom. Yet, as important as these are, they merely mask even greater difficulties. The increasing pressure of more people seeking ever greater affluence has impact beyond just a credit crunch. Not only are economic, financial and industrial downturns causing international distress, but the prescribed cure—stimulating increased manufacturing (and with it, energy use and consumption)—creates its own set of debilitating consequences for which there may be no bailout. While we hope for the best and imagine that all will eventually be set right, overlooking the wider impact of our policy-making on the underlying natural systems gives those hopes a very short shelf life.
Like a crowded runaway train, our congested world seems increasingly out of control. As passengers we can sense that we’re traveling ever faster. We also know there’s a chasm ahead and that the bridge across it is not yet complete. And so we rocket down the tracks, trusting that those flailing at the controls will be able not only to avoid a crash but to build the needed bridges and get us safely to the right destination. But is such trust well placed?
We have laid down the track of civilization on top of nature itself, the thin biosphere of a small planet. We ignore the limitations of that physical setting to our ultimate peril. In charting a fulfilling and safe future for humankind, we must key in on the impact our synthesized world has on the environment that undergirds us.
Though written before the economic unraveling of late 2008, three recent books offer suggestions on how we should be reappraising both our metaphysical and our biological place in nature. From such a rethinking, these authors believe we could refashion human culture, bringing it forward out of its misspent youth of superstition, tribalism, evolutionary determinism, and ecological naiveté into a kind of modern enlightenment: the realization that we are superintendents of the biosphere. As these titles suggest, we are presiding over a crowded and changing world, but we have the opportunity to see our situation from new perspectives: for better or for worse, we are the dominant species, the keystone species that shepherds not only self-interest but the interests of all it touches.
This new ecological understanding brings us to a switch on the track. Future ecological pressures will only increase as our population, along with its appetites and needs, continues to swell. With a redirection therefore appearing essential, will we accept collective responsibility for throwing the switch? The reality, these authors agree, is that whichever of the current, human-created systems we elect, modify, or stimulate to provide for growing demands, our choices concerning energy, living space, and resource use will have an environmental pushback that could send us off the rails.
According to Michael Dowd, a first thing to change is our concept of who we are and our path to dominance. He promises that accepting the principles he presents in Thank God for Evolution will “expand the horizon of what you see as possible for yourself, for your relationships, and for our world.” Initially this is not a strange promise coming from a preacher with a master of divinity degree. But the gospel that Dowd is preaching is not the standard “message of salvation” associated with Christian churches. Rather it is the gospel of science and the evolutionary worldview.
Calling himself an evolutionary evangelical and a “creatheist,” Dowd fully embraces evolution as the motive force, the true creator of humankind. The “Great Story” of 14 billion years of evolution, he says, trumps all the creation stories humans have invented over the millennia. What are we, then? We are a product of the universe, or, as he told Vision, “the recovered memory of matter.” He explained: “We grow out of the universe like an apple from a tree. We personify the whole as God. Just as a cell communicates with the body, we pray to the universe in which we are embedded.”
Dowd’s atheistic perspective (“There is not an invisible being up there somewhere”) is guided by the tenets of evolutionary psychology. The creationist arm of the amalgam is his enthusiastic acceptance of all descriptions of God—valid in their time, but actually uninformed personifications of nature. “The story of religious traditions is composed of flat-earth cosmologies,” he told Vision. Religion’s dark language of superstition, myth, and tradition is simply what we imagined, made up or thought we knew about the world in a prescientific age. Science has finally lifted the veil: God is Evolution. “Who among us,” Dowd cheers in his book, “can learn of our evolved human condition without feeling as if the scales have dropped from our eyes?”
Using language that seeks to embrace both secular and nonsecular readers, Dowd morphs scientist into priest and priest into scientist: “It is through the now-global community of scientists . . . that ‘God’s Word’ is still being revealed [and] discerned as more wondrous and more this-world relevant than could have possibly been comprehended in any time past.”
This is often interesting but very difficult reading. Every page is replete with jammed-together science factoids and out-of-context Bible catchphrases. Intellectualism runs rampant. Dowd is head over heels in his belief that the public nature of science makes it completely self-correcting (though no scientist would fully concur) and is convinced that the Bible is the embellished stories of manipulative illuminati. Both positions are suspect.
The false alchemy of theistic evolution—the belief that a supernatural Being poked and prodded the evolutionary process forward through time—has many popularizers (see, for example, Vision’s review of God’s Universe by Owen Gingerich). This work is nevertheless an original. Further, several Nobel laureates have endorsed the text, mainly in the hope that it might bridge the science-religion schism. Dowd believes cultural friction founded in religious identity can be overcome through a universal acceptance of what science reveals about life on earth. Calling this process “REALizing,” he wants to bring modern credibility to the metaphysical messages of harmony and peace that are often found in religious writing. This, he suggests, would validate the heart of earlier (prescientific) cultural stories. (For more on this idea, known as spiritual equivalence, see our interview with astronomer Nahum Arav.)
“Short of worldwide conversion to one belief system or worldwide expulsion of all such belief systems, the future of humanity will continue to be compromised by adversities born of conflicting beliefs.”
By 2050, Dowd hopes, “the majority of devout religious believers across the globe will embrace science as public revelation and cosmic history as scripture. . . . A multitude of sacred ways of thinking about evolution will propel a worldwide spiritual revival unlike any that have come before.”
While leading the reader to accept an evolutionary point of view is not explicitly Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s first priority, it is clearly the sort of cultural leap they believe could help us move forward in creating a sustainable human-dominated world. “Anyone interested in how human societies function and how culture evolves must always pay attention to the myths, faiths, and religions that to one degree or another motivate us all,” they write in The Dominant Animal.
They seem to concur with Dowd that updating these ideas could facilitate global consensus in facing the new environmental challenges on our doorstep. Just as gene-pool changes constitute genetic evolution, so the Ehrlichs explain that cultural evolution is about changing the “pool of stories being narrated in the brains of human populations.” Influencing those stories is the only way the Ehrlichs see to generate commitments to sustainable change.
For 40 years since the publication of The Population Bomb, critics have tried to sway societal engineers away from Paul Ehrlich’s warnings. But coming to grips with his ecological message concerning population growth and environmental degradation will not be easy, because—as with religion—we are all embedded in a natural system where this storyline has never before played out. And so far, for a good many of us in the Western world with the luxury of affluence and little connection to the natural world beyond recreation, things don’t look so bad. Our mode of thinking is reminiscent of Einstein’s bizarre thought experiment on “separate realities”: if I am on this side of the planet, does the other side really exist?
Although Dominant Animal is often repetitive and not as focused—some would say not as strident—as their earlier works, the Ehrlichs’ main point is well taken. A change in human culture will be necessary to deal with our new situation. To many, the power of the human mind to invent a synthetic world that can literally disassemble nature seems ridiculous. Yet, as these two authors point out with a plethora of examples, we are doing just that: “While it is obvious that human dominance has given comfortable lives to a larger minority of human beings in the past century or so, the rise to that position has had many unintended consequences that have imposed or will impose large costs on our species.”
“Unless humanity can overcome some of these debilitating prejudices and practices and start working together on its critical environmental and social problems, we are pessimistic about Homo sapiens’ tenure of dominance and the quality of life of future generations.”
“There are no silver bullets for the problems we are facing,” Ehrlich told Vision. “We might look at it as a series of wedges: if we put them all in place, we might manage to become sustainable.”
The first step in shimming up such a way of life is deciding that the action is necessary. Unlike the evolutionary psychologists who so intrigue Dowd, the Ehrlichs find ideas of genetic and therefore behavioral determinism untenable. We have more choice than we often realize. Behavioral plasticity in response to the environment is “the center of cultural evolution and the source of our vast cultural proliferation and rise to dominance,” they write.
It is a misconception, they continue, to believe that “somehow genes, ostensibly through a long process of natural selection, are determining our everyday behavior and our personalities. . . . There are enough . . . to guide the development of a brain that has the possibility of generating all observed human behaviors.”
Thus they write, “Understanding how cultural changes interact with individual actions seems to us central to informing democratically and humanely guided efforts to influence civilization’s future path.” What is needed, they say, is a “cultural Mendel” to reveal the evolutionary mechanism of cultural change.
If Dowd cannot fill those shoes, then maybe the man who flattened the earth can.
The Energy-Climate Era
Thomas L. Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded (his follow-up to The World Is Flat, 2005, (see our review) speaks to five major issues that call for reevaluation: “energy supply and demand, petrodictatorship, climate change, energy poverty, and biodiversity loss.” These are timely today, Friedman says, because they are the legacy of the “Dirty Fuels System” that has developed over the last hundred years. This is a cultural system, as are the religious systems Dowd would like to evolve. They are the kind of sticky norms of behavior that the Ehrlichs also pinpoint as stubborn proclivities. “How do norms evolve?” they ask. “Norms such as treating the planet’s resources as if they were limitless and assuming that the economy can grow forever, or treating human beings in other groups as if they were less important than members of one’s own group, must be modified if a sustainable global society is ever to be achieved.”
Friedman’s style is often flighty and folksy and is sometimes hard to take seriously. Read in isolation (that is, without other texts to step out to and then back to Friedman), each page can become a mishmash of facts, observations, quotes, research, name-dropping and travel anecdotes that blur the topic at hand. But here, when combined with the Ehrlichs’ scholarship—especially as a resource to cross-check environmental factoids—Friedman’s journalistic style gives greater background and argument for the kind of cultural revolution the Ehrlichs propose. Read together, they are a powerful testament for change.
“We are the only species in this vast web of life that no animal or plant in nature depends on for its survival—yet we depend on this whole web of life for our survival . . . and it thrives only if the whole system works in harmony.”
Some call this current age of human dominance the Anthropocene, the Age of Man. Friedman calls it the “Energy-Climate Era”: “We have reached a stage where the effects of our way of life on the earth’s climate and biodiversity can no longer be ‘externalized’ or ignored or confined.” While we as individuals are slowly coming to a realization that something is amiss, Friedman believes we are not moving fast enough, especially on the energy front. In parallel, the Ehrlichs concur, “an ever larger global population competing with increasing intensity for a dwindling supply of oil does not bode well for a peaceful and prosperous future for civilization.”
We are having, Friedman says, a green party, not the green revolution that a real change to clean energy systems will require. Indeed, it is “not about the whales anymore.” But the shift, like a shift of religious convictions or any embedded worldview, will be very difficult. As the Ehrlichs might ask, where are the levers of cultural change? Finding a way “to guide and stimulate the marketplace” toward new alternatives, Friedman remarks, is “the biggest single peacetime project humankind will have ever undertaken. Rare is the political leader anywhere in the world who will talk straight about the true size of this challenge.”
Looking for Leadership
While Dowd focuses on explaining the Judeo-Christian worldview in terms of evolution, and the Ehrlichs take a global view of human culture, Friedman focuses his attention on the United States. “If America would become the world leader in building clean energy technologies and promoting conservation,” he notes, “it would tip the whole world decisively in that direction.” The United States, he believes, must become the model for innovative change: “I am convinced that if America becomes the example of a country that takes the lead in developing clean power, energy efficiency, and conservation systems, . . . many more countries and many more people around the world will emulate us voluntarily than will ever go green through the compulsion of some global treaty.”
One thing is certain: human beings are not going to change the built-in biophysics of the planetary ecosystem. Many scientists believe we are experiencing the preliminary results of our climate experiment—climatic shifts due to our increasing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere from 280 to 385 ppm. And we are clearly not yet done with this experiment.
Friedman relates one conversation with an oil executive that points out the massive inertia of the current “dirty energy” system and the tsunami of demand rising on the horizon. He quotes Chevron CEO David J. O’Reilly as saying that today the world uses energy equivalent to 420 million gallons of oil per hour. Most of that is used by what he calls “the golden billion” of the Western world. But 2 billion others are racing to increase their energy use because it’s clear that “there is an inexorable connection between energy use and well-being.”
Three billion more remain in poverty, and another 3 billion are expected at the energy table by 2050. “Efficiency can help,” O’Reilly says, “but let’s not make false promises.” He notes that it takes billions of dollars to build refineries, to do the things we already know how to do; and it will take trillions to invent and put in place the kinds of clean technologies that could take us off the carbon path. “The system we have today is the product of over a hundred years of investments.”
But business as usual, Ehrlich told Vision, will take us “down the drain.”
While this current reality is daunting, Friedman fills the second half of his book with ways to jump the dirty-clean energy gap. If all progresses well, he hopes energy companies will soon compete to offer efficiency rather than cheaper consumption; those who engage in carbon excess will be “looked upon the way someone who lights up a cigarette on an airplane would be looked at today.” Finally, Friedman foresees, “green will be the standard. It will be the new normal—nothing else will be available, nothing else will be possible.”
“If the spread of freedom and free markets is not accompanied by a new approach to how we produce energy and treat the environment—Code Green—then Mother Nature and planet earth will impose their own constraints on our way of life,” Friedman warns. He suggests that the American task now is to show the world this new green way of life; “without it, we are not going to be free much longer—and neither will anybody else. There will be too many Americans—old-style Americans. And the earth can’t handle that.”
Red Light, Green Light
Human creativity is personified in both hard and soft technology: we are our things and our ways. Through these tools we have spread across the planet unbounded by the natural barriers that control all other life. In this success we have developed the false sense that we have escaped all bounds for all time. We need to stop thinking, Dowd says, that “our future is somewhere else.”
That simple idea could bring clarity to many of our problems and provide the impetus to change direction, to chart a new course. From unique perspectives, these writers are flashing the red lights at our speeding train, warning of both the dangers and the opportunities ahead. A new level of responsibility and stewardship in word and action is not only needed but possible. We are fortunate, they believe, because we still have the opportunity to collectively recognize our power to influence the global environment and become wise stewards of that power. Of course, collective change begins with individual commitment. To simply begin to care about the issues, as other recent books have suggested, will not be a powerful enough sentiment to divert us from our present course.
Eventually we will come to the end of the line. The question is, where will we be when the rails run out: At rest, ready for a new beginning? Or at the bottom of the abyss?