Saturday, June 26, 2010

What is It to be Human?

Like many others before me, I have tried to understand what defines us as humans. What is it that makes us different from other animals? What is it that has placed us at the apex of all life on this planet?

I wonder if it could be that, unlike any other species, we are continually striving to make the life of our children a little better than our own. We seek to enhance the quality of life that they will enjoy. We seek to eliminate from the world they inherit, the things we found uncomfortable about the world we inherited from our parents.

Understanding that this may be one of the defining characteristics of our human nature though, throws into stark relief the behaviour that our generation has pursued. It is likely that no other generation will ever live as comfortably as the Baby Boomer generation. As a generation we have enjoyed a level of comfort unprecedented in human history. The problem is that in doing so we have consumed in excess of the resources that were ours to borrow. We are indeed, as suggested by Tim Flannery, the future eaters. We hand to our children a planet significantly degraded, which is stressed and is showing the first signs of a systemic collapse of the systems that support our life and consume our waste.

How has this generation so defied our human nature as to actually hand to the next generation something that is less comfortable than the life we enjoyed?

Human Extinction and Human Values

It was with great interest that I read the recent interview with leading microbiologist Frank Fenner of the ANU ( Frank believes that Homo Sapien Sapien has already passed the point of no return and is now moving inexorably towards extinction. In the interview he noted:

"Homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps within 100 years," he says. "A lot of other animals will, too. It's an irreversible situation. I think it's too late. I try not to express that because people are trying to do something, but they keep putting it off. "

I pondered the work of Jonas Salk when I read this interview. Salk (the person responsible for the polio vaccine) undertook significant work on the patterns of population growth occurs in closed environments. From this work Salk drew some conclusions about the future of the human species. He published his thoughts in a book titled The Survival of the Wisest

Salk found that there are three primary responses to overpopulation in species:

1. They become extinct;
2. The population fluctuates in an uncontrolled fashion;
3. The population stabilizes at a sustainable level.

Clearly, in looking to the future, as a species we would hope that option 3 is the endstate for the human species. Whilst it is a large container, there is no doubt that the human species exists in a closed container called the planet Earth. All the resources we need to maintain existence must be supplied from within that container and all wastes must be dealt with in the same container.

One of the key elements that drives a species to achieve a sustainable population level is the point known as "inflection point". This is the point at which population behaviours change as the population trends towards a sustainable level. Salk believed that the human species was already entering the inflection point in the 1970's. He further suggested that certain human behaviours, values and attitudes would have to evolve for the human species to successfully pass through the inflection point and achieve a sustainable population. I will talk about these values in a later discussion because they go to the heart of what it means to be human.

For now though, I want to postulate several questions:

1. Do we accept the principle that we are in a closed container and all we need to live and all the wastes we produce need to be dealt with in the container?

2. If we accept the first postulate, then do we accept that there is a limit to the capacity of the container to sustain life in terms of total energy available and ability to deal with waste;

3. Having accepted the first two postulates as true, then where is the limit?

4. Are we prepared, as a species, to accept the potential for extinction in order to determine the answer to the third question?

I would suggest that the climate change sceptics, those who seek a resolution of the issues our species face through some sort of green revolution or those who think that a returning supernatural being is going to fix the problem are daring to accept human extinction as a potential outcome in order to prove that their view is true. That is an astonishing experiment.

I would like to postulate an alternative hypothesis for testing:

Can the human species identify the means that will permit us to successfully traverse this inflection point and achieve a sustainable population level that will allow all homo sapien sapien to enjoy a similar, sustainable, level of existence?

Finally, I would like to finish this discussion with a quote attributed to Jonas Salk. When asked about the future of the human species he answered:

"I am not optimistic, I am not pessimistic. We have to act as if we can make the crucial difference"

We are already deeply into the inflection point where we will decide our future as a species. Do we just give up and accept extinction as Dr Fenner suggested, or do we "act as if we can make the crucial difference"

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Religion and Spirituality

Today I attended a high mass in Melbourne. I will freely confess that I love the whole thing, incense, bells, choir, chant and the atmosphere of a great Cathedral. I have blogged elsewhere on what we can learn about Architecture from the great Cathedrals. That is not the purpose of this blog.

Here I intend to explore a few more personal thoughts on what it means to be human and to undertake the human journey. Call it mid life crisis if you will. I hope that it is actually a little more than that. I have been on this journey for nine years now, and at no time have I felt the "self" that is me so completely shattered as it is now. Does that mean I am suffering from some sort of psychosis. I don't think so (but perhaps that is for others to judge ;-) ).

What it means is that I have undergone a very difficult journey of transformation which has traversed much of what it means to be human.

So this blog will capture some of those thoughts - the EcoThought blog will remain focussed on what EcoThought is about - this blog will capture something of my personal thoughts.

So in the Mass this morning I pondered what this thing called religion means to us today. What are we to do with belief, and the Church and the ritual? Are we to throw it all away in a welter of scientific rationalism? Science has, for many, become something that is defended with the same stubborn zeal as any religious zealot. In order to verify their position the scientific community finds it necessary to dismiss the entire human spiritual experience. If it can't be measured or subject to experimentation then it must not exist - or so they would assert. I will freely state that I am astonished at the depths that people like Richard Hawkins will go to deny the existence of any spiritual element of the human experience. The zeal of his assertions closely approximate those of individuals who would go to any lengths to assert the absolute rightness of their position and the absolute idiocy of anyone who would dare to believe otherwise.

Rather, I think, we need to accept that there is part of the human condition which is beyond measurement, beyond analysis. Who can listen to Bach and not sense that there is a higher potential in all of us that we can aspire to. Who can look on the beauty of a coral reef and watch a Manta swim by and not feel a sense of awe that we live here, and alongside the awe, a sense of guilt at the damage we have done to this environment with our scientifically developed tools and chemicals.

Likewise, for individuals sensitive and open to the experience, within the High Mass there is something that calls to a higher aspiration in all of us.

The Archbishop posed the question - what is Jesus to us individually? I wonder. I think that, perhaps, in seeking a defence against the scientific position, elements of the Christian world have invested large amounts of resources to try and find the historical Jesus. And in so doing they have lost the core of the Jesus message. My personal view is that within the Jesus story is something that speaks to the human condition, the experience of what it means to be human.

Somewhere between the Jesus story and the story of the Buddha is the place where we can accept who we are and that, as human as we are, there is a wonder to the life that we live. The very fact that we can think about the fact that we think is a wonder to me. As a man thinketh..... Words of great truth....

So in this blog I will put forward my sense of wonder at being human and what it means to stand aside from the daily world and all of the myths that the advertising community use to rob us of individuality, and to think about the human journey and the human condition.

I doubt any one is really interested in what I think, but at least for those who work closely with me, there will be the chance to gain some understanding of why I say what I do sometimes.... ;-)