Thursday, 17 May 2012

What type of civilisation are we?

Rather than starting with a broad overview of my topic this week, I want to start with a more gentle lead in. Recently in the wide ranging scope of my procrastination activities, I noticed something about politics and politicians. It seems that in almost any area where there is a large disagreement, one of the most consistent criticisms which each side uses of the other is that they are being short sighted (here are some Google examples to demonstrate: short sighted Romney, short sighted Obama, short sighted Tories and short sighted Labour). This seems strange to me, as I think it seems reasonable to expect that, within our society, politicians are one of the groups who might be more focussed on the long term. However they are repeatedly accused by one another and by journalists by being just the opposite.
Obviously I don't think these links constitute any sort of proof that politicians are short sighted, but what they do show is that this is something which people care about (enough to generate multiple articles from all sides). This is a problem which, whether it's there or not, we often worry about.*
The thing is I can't get away from the feeling that now, more than ever before, we seriously need to be thinking in the much longer term. There are all manner of problems where, if we keep going at the rate we are, the numbers indicate we will run into serious problems. Whether it's the amount of waste we produce, peak oil and the potential for an oncoming energy crisis, food shortages, global warming, nuclear weapons, it's surprisingly easy to come up with quite a long list and, even if you disagree that some of those are problems, that still leaves quite a few that are. The point about almost all of these issues is that they require massive cooperation not just within countries, but between countries, and additionally often there are short term gains to be had by being the ones who don't act. Taking global warming as an example, I think it is fairly accepted that making a big move towards lower carbon emissions will mean a drop in standard of living for any country which attempts it. That means that if just a few countries act they will be at a disadvantage, the problem can only really be dealt with if everybody acts in unison which, it seems clear to me, will require some pretty seriously long term thinking. The fact is, I don't think we're making especially good progress on any of these problems. This, more than anything, would be my proof that our entire society still has quite a limited view into its own future, we are still thinking in the short term.

It has been my belief for a while that we will soon come into a new way of thinking about the future of our species and our collective civilisation. However I recently stumbled across a video which allowed me to put some names to these ideas. You can find the video here, it's of Dr. Michio Kaku, an American theoretical physicist, answering a particular question (one of a bunch he answered) for a group called Big Think. I'd advise you to watch it yourself, but in case you don't I'll give a brief overview.
Basically he's talking about a way of classifying civilisations called the Kardashev scale. The simple explanation of the scale is that it's a way of talking about alien civilisations far beyond our own, so a type 1 civilisation will harness and control energy on a planetary scale, a type 2 would do it on the scale of entire solar systems and a type 3 would be harnessing energy on the scale of entire galaxies. Mostly it's just a fun science fiction concept, but what Michio Kaku is doing is extending it. He's implying that for a society which uses power on a planetary scale then it will also be a requirement that other aspects of that society also operate on a planetary level, for instance, a single world government or truly worldwide transport system.
He argues that we are slowly metamorphosing into a truly global civilisation, on this scale a type 1. That we are seeing a number of emergent global systems which demonstrate this, for instance, the internet as the first truly global communication network, the European Union as the first move towards a true global economy or rock music as a global musical form (I'm not sure how much I agree with that last one). He also argues that this is happening right when we are faced with a new set of truly global problems, which will require cooperation on an Earth-wide scale to solve. These problems he mentions are pretty much exactly what I was talking about before, these are problems which require a different kind of thinking.

It seems clear to me then, that we are facing our first truly global set of problems as a species, and that we are currently poorly equipped to deal with them. I think you can argue that this is why almost everything we are doing seems so short sighted (because, essentially, it is). All of our current solutions and laws seem mostly tailored to operate on a local scale. Things like subsidies designed to make businesses stay where they are (even when it is less efficient for them to do so). When you start to look at the world as one complete system, almost everything we do seems geared only to help the country which it occurs in (which, if you think about it, is pretty much what you would expect) at the cost of overall efficiency/helping humanity as a whole. What I suppose I'm saying is that we are still, in a strange way, operating as though we are localised tribes. Take pollution for example, movement on worldwide pollution has been slow and awkward, but movement on local pollution (of the kind which used to cause smogs or make people ill) has been fairly widespread and successful. Obviously it seems silly to blame the politicians for this, the real culprits are the public. I believe we, as a people, are still thinking in terms of “our problems” and “their problems, a thinking which is merely reflected by our politics.

I definitely enjoy Michio Kaku's take on this, that as these global problems manifest more and more, so our thinking and problem solving will develop to the level where they can take on that kind of problem. It does seem clear to me that this will be required, before too long. That, eventually, the human race will have to cooperate on a much larger scale or face a long and painful decline. However I also think that we are products of our evolution, that we specifically evolved so that problems for our tribe were a big deal, but problems for the tribe next door were, generally, good news for us. If the guys nearby all die out, that just means better hunting.
Lots of people have theorised that it wont be until we have some outside “other” people to focus on (in fiction, this normally means aliens) that we will actually begin to solve our own problems. Honestly I hate this fix, it's just a way of saying “we are flawed, we can only succeed through that flaw”.
Over one hundred years ago, when the industrial revolution occurred, a huge number of new systems came into place to help account for this sudden restructuring of human society. They were ingenious and wonderful and, in places, they've cause us horrible problems now that we no longer need them, but my point is that, in a pinch, it is our human intelligence and creativity that allowed us to see problems and find ways out of them. This might sound as though I am agreeing with Dr Kaku, however there is one difference. I'm saying that while we will overcome these problems, the solutions, rather than being emergent, will be, as ever, made by our own hands.

[I feel I should briefly apologise for this entry. Due to work commitments it was written pretty late in the week and I didn't take as much time over it as I would've liked (the final argument still feels a little rushed, but I'm out of time to fix it)]

*[There is an argument, one which I've participated in, that the long term thinkers of our society, rather than being politicians, are corporations. Honestly I don't believe this is true at all, I feel like the banking crisis, or the current state of copyright law in the technology sector are both excellent examples which demonstrate that. I'm not going to argue the point here however, as it would likely take an entire blog entry and, unlike attacking politics (as a whole), it would probably involve me getting political and showing my leftist tendencies (something I'm keen to avoid here)]

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