The possibility of failure
A fascinating essay by Bryan Appleyard in The Sunday Times Magazine argues two things:
- Human civilization is facing unprecedented crises;
- the pace of innovation has long been slowing, and we may not be able to think our way out of this one.
But that woefully oversimplifies the piece. I encourage you to read the whole thing.
It reminded me of something that’s been on my mind lately. To wit:
The products of human society — machines, institutions, aggregate knowledge — have grown enormous, and enormously powerful, powerful enough to reshape the very life-support systems of the planet. They’ve left no corner of the globe untouched; they are inescapable. They’ve grown to the point where no person or set of persons can possibly hope to comprehend or control them.
And yet we humans … we’re the same. We’re the same fleshy, grubby creatures that descended from the trees to chase game across the African savanna. Despite our vaunted "reason," we are in fact a bundle of biochemical reactions, gut instincts, evolutionary impulses that haven’t changed in millennia. We fight for territory and status and envy those who have it. We fear that which we don’t understand. We limit our attention to that which lies in a fairly narrow spatial and temporal range — the range that is immediately relevant to our personal reproductive chances. That which is far away in space or time, we have difficulty keeping before our minds.
We are animals.
This dichotomy — the unfathomable power of our institutions vs. the flawed frailty of our physical beings — has grown more and more glaring, particularly in the last century. We tend to think that by designing better and better institutions, we can better and better reign in our leftover evolutionary fight-or-flight quirks.
But the inverse seems just as likely to me: that our flawed, fleshy, irrational humanity sends the power of our institutions crashing down on our heads, taking out a large chunk of the biosphere along with us.
There’s no guarantee against failure and extinction. Indeed, they are the rule.