Thursday, September 9, 2010

Optimism and Hope

The major human evolutionary adaptation is culture. Without culture, which includes writing and altruism, the human species has no hope. Global warming is rapidly leading to climate collapse which may interrupt human cultural transmission.

I recently read David Orr’s book about climate collapse (a better description than global warming), Down to the Wire. He made a distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism is when you can realistically predict a good outcome, however uncertain. Hope is an attitude that keeps you working even when optimism is not a realistic possibility. He said that no rational person could give an optimistic assessment that the Earth is going to avoid climate collapse—that is, enough of a collapse to mess up human civilization. But we need to have hope, even if not optimism.

But as I read the book, it became clear that, if Orr is right, the only way we can avoid climate collapse is for everyone to do everything right, right now, even though we are doing almost nothing right, right now, in terms of reducing carbon emissions. No grounds for optimism here, and hope is a fantasy, even though it may be an essential one.

At the same time, I was reading Margaret Atwood’s novel of a dystopian future, Oryx and Crake. It was a future in which humans and most wild animals are nearly extinct, replaced by genetically engineered humanoids and animaloids, and a future with brutal global warming. (Atwood is the master of dystopias, of which The Handmaid’s Tale is the most famous.) She made the point that, in humans as in other intelligent animals, all it takes is for cultural transmission to be interrupted for a single generation, and the game is over forever—the most important aspects of human adaptation will be lost. Our bodies and our instincts, by themselves, will not get us very far. Climate collapse would not need to cause extinction; all it would have to do is to interrupt human culture for a generation.

Evolution will go on, the human species will persist in a physically recognizable form, but we now face the possibility of global cultural interruption.

A version of this essay will appear this fall on my website.

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