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The Other Side of Everything

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Written on March 31, 2010, and categorized as Secret and Invisible.
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If there is one thing that marks humans out from the other life forms scurrying from one meal to the next on this spinning mud ball we call Earth, it is our capacity to invent. To do the thing that has never been done, to find a new way of doing the thing that has always been done, to think of doing something which has until that moment not been conceived, is particularly human.

We don’t really know how we developed this 200,000 year old problem-solving, over-sized brain of ours. Neurobiologist Colin Blakemore recently suggested recently that it was a  genetic accident rather than the result of gradual evolution:

“Some scientists believe that skills like language have a strong genetic basis, but my theory stresses the opposite, that knowledge, picked up by our now powerful brains, is the crucial mental component. It means that we are uniquely gifted in our ability to learn from experience and to pass this on to future generations. That has a bad side: a single generation starved of knowledge, thanks to some global disaster, for example, would be cast back to the Stone Age. Everything would be undone. On the other hand, there is no sign that the human brain has reached its capacity to accumulate knowledge, which means that the wonders we have already created – from spaceships to computers – represent only the start of our achievements.”

Blakemore points out that recently, we have started to develop technologies that calculate and remember for us, removing the need to commit vast tracts of information, culture, useful knowledge, survival skills to memory.

Much as reading and writing did away with oral traditions, we’re now abandoning recall. How many of you remember more than very few telephone numbers, for example? Used to be I carried a dozen around with me in my head, and committed the rest to a pocket book. In fact the early numbers were so well remembered, they are still there – 653 5275 – my home number between the ages of 5 and 13.

These days, we carry so much information around in our pockets that we couldn’t possibly remember more than a fraction of it. If we lose our phone – how dreadful that is – well, we have backup somewhere (we hope); and if the house burns down with everything in it, somewhere online are most of our numbers and email addresses, stored on a server in California or New York or Amsterdam, part of “the cloud”.

What happens if that goes? It only takes a  reasonably large magnetic blast from the Sun (or a small series of nuclear explosions) to destroy our planetary electronic infrastructure. A 2006 NASA article warns us of this being imminent – we’re currently in a period of very low sun spot activity. They predicted that this year or next, we could be seeing a rapid increase in solar maximum which will be 30% to 50% stronger than the previous one.

“Remember, a burnt-out electronic infrastructure would have CATASTROPHIC IMPLICATIONS for modern life on this planet. Far much more than the Swine Flu ‘work from home’ strategies the government rolled out recently. Everything would go down. Energy Grid. Transport. Money. Everything. There is no such thing as a Global Backup system. It’ll be a TWO YEAR gap in electrical/electronic service, at the very least.” (Mike Philbin)

This prospect already has people quitting jobs, running for the hills and preparing for the end of civilisation.

Back to where we are. Let’s imagine that the 6 billion human success stories which represent Earth’s finest brains are indeed the resourceful and hugely intelligent creatures we believe ourselves to be. We’ve got ourselves in a bit of a pickle.  We’re living beyond our means by about 30%, exhausting our biocapacity. We’re stripping forests from the surface of the planet, and acidifying the oceans. At this rate, by 2030 we’ll need two planets, not one, to meet our “needs”. Surely, billions will starve.

Oops. But, ever the optimist, we say, we’ve faced ice-ages, floods, plagues and pestilence in the past, we’ll get through this. We’ll think of something. Science will come up with a solution. We will act. Except, we’re not, are we? Not enough, not in time.

Still, we have a lot of knowledge. That must count for something. But, what if all the knowledge we’re counting on to find a way out of this mess disappears overnight?

Without access to knowledge, this sophisticated world of ours will be short lived. As we scrabble around in what remains of fertile soil, using our iPhones as chisels and laptops as spades, wondering how we’re going to survive the winter and wishing we had old-fashioned paper books on how to store apples and turnips in our cellars – wishing we had cellars –  the illusion of our self-determination would be shattered.

Without access to recorded information, we’d be adrift in a rudderless boat. Perhaps we’ll become aware that we are already rudderless, that the tipping point has been reached. How big a brain do we need to come up with a solution for this one?

Even without the sudden end of all knowledge, we know this insanely short-sighted human drain upon the biosphere is not going to last. What if this, here, now, is really as good as it gets?

Asking “What if?” has always been one of our human strengths. Perhaps it’s our only strength. What if we carry on blindly, as James Lovelock suggests we might, unable to do very much about re-balancing our relationship with the Earth, because essentially, despite our wonderful brains, as a species, we’re simply too stupid to act?

Our tendency is to shut out what we cannot bear to consider. Dear reader, if the terrible truth is that it’s really all downhill from here, can you just keep calm and carry on, repeating your prayers, running around your mantra, maintaining your trust in the markets, money, Science, raising your children and not telling them that this “lifestyle” is incredibly fragile, and will probably disappear by the time they have children?

Meanwhile, I’m off to learn some useful skills, and who knows, if I get enough to eat, I might just be in a position to pass them on.




“I, Stan Koretski…” http://stankoretski.com

Posted via email from Dean Whitbread

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