Why Tinkering Won't Fix It

When most people look around the world today they see a set of problems. They see energy/technology problems. They see ecological/environmental problems. They see economic problems. If they are slightly deeper thinkers they may see population problems. I believe they are all suffering from vision problems.

What most people see as "technological problems" are, in my estimation, more correctly seen as the set of symptoms of the real underlying problem, symptoms that are that are manifesting themselves in the technological arena.

In the same sense, what people interpret as "ecological problems" are the set of symptoms that are manifesting in the world's ecology.

And what people call "economic problems" are merely the set of symptoms that are manifesting in the world's economy.

The underlying problem is the same in all three cases. Humanity is an overly successful species with no effective predators, the ability to manipulate its environment on a planetary scale, and the perception that it is apart from that environment.

I actually disagree with the spreading perception that the core environmental problem is human population growth. I used to think it was, but I now realize that population growth is just another symptom of that same problem. You can prove this to yourself with a simple thought experiment:

Imagine that we miraculously stabilized our population tomorrow, at our current 6.6 billion people. Would that fix the problems of resource depletion, ecological devastation and the economic instability caused by our insistence on continual material growth? I maintain it wouldn't.  After all, those problems are still worsening in places where populations have already stabilized, or are even in outright decline.

Addressing any one of the problem areas - energy/technological, ecological, economic or population - would still leave us with problems in the other three. We can (and will) tinker around in each of these areas, because that's our Buddha-nature -- human beings are innate tinkerers. We will inevitably do things to ease the situation in each of those symptom domains, but none of that tinkering will, or even can, address the fundamental problem:

Humanity appears to have evolved without a crucial internal self-restraint mechanism. That happened because, as is the case for every other species, those restraints were readily available within the environment - mainly resource scarcity, predation and disease. Because those external restraints were available, selection didn't endow us with internal restraints.  They simply weren't needed. In fact, during our early time as a species, any internal self-restraint mechanism acting in addition to the external restraints would have been counter-productive, and so would have been actively selected out of our makeup.

However, as we developed the intellectual ability to circumvent those external restraints -- through extinguishing all large predators, and developing agriculture, mining and medicine -- we outfoxed ourselves. In the absence of either internal or external restraints we are left with no effective way to reign in our genetic urge for expansion. All that remains is our intellectual capacity to foresee outcomes and to regulate our behaviour through reason. As far as I can tell, mere reason is not a strong enough counterbalance to our innate behavioural tendencies. The evidence of this is no further away than the $2500 Tata Nano.

So I hold out no hope whatever that our tinkering will solve the "real" dilemma of humanity. We are behaving exactly as our evolution intended, and it's unlikely that we will stop. What we need to do is to figure out ways in which our feeble reason can create the necessary conditions for the continued survival of our species (and perhaps some of our civilization), despite both our unconstrained, innate urge to grow and our glorious but ultimately tragic ability to reason.

These aspects of our nature that are at the root of all our troubles however, and we will need to be enormously cunning to outmaneuver them.

 January, 2008

© Copyright 2008, Paul Chefurka
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