Thursday, October 15, 2009

Post No. 137d: A Funny Thing Happened to Us on the Way to the Forum (Part 4)


This is a continuation of our daily excerpts taken from “New World New Mind.” This is the fourth excerpt in the series. For an introductory explanation of why we have chosen this book to share with you, click here.

[All of this is copyrighted material, and we are simply sharing some of it with you.]

Chapter 1 – The Threat within the Triumph (Continued)

“The human nervous system, well matched to a world in which small, sharp changes were important but large gradual ones were not, is inadequate to keep attention focused on this most ominous nuclear trend. Our nervous system and our world are mismatched now. The original image of a single nuclear detonation signaled an awesome threat. Graphs and tables describing the sizes of arsenals fail to produce a comparably realistic understanding; occasional news events have only temporary effects on most people. Our response to nuclear armaments has followed the Reagan caricature. The big opening was Hiroshima; now we’re coasting; with lots of luck, we may avoid the big finish.

“A set of hydrogen bombs joined to an intercontinental ballistic missile is one of the ultimate triumphs of biological and cultural evolution. Think of it: humanity, whose own origins were as a few relatively large molecules in a tiny droplet in a primitive sea, has now itself developed the power to annihilate much of life on Earth.

“But why? Why have we done it? Why, on a planet that has an exploding population, a deteriorating environment, and massive social problems, has the only genuinely creative species invested so much time, energy, and genius in building arsenals that can only be used to destroy itself?

”Why has humanity not redirected its efforts instead into seeking ways for people to live together without conflict and to limiting the size of its population so that everyone can lead a meaningful life? Why hasn’t humanity tried vigorously to preserve the Earth that people and all living species depend upon?

“The answers to these kinds of questions are not simple. The dilemmas will not be ‘solved’ by the next political campaign, government program, educational critique, or international conference. They are to no small degree problems of how we perceive our environment and ourselves.

“The problem has much deeper roots than most people envision. To trace its history will take us into the world in which our species evolved, into the world that made us. That world has produced in us certain ways of interpreting our surroundings, ways that once enhanced our survival. But these ‘old ways’ are not necessarily adaptive in a world that is utterly different from the one in which our ancestors lived.

“Some scientists recognized our evolutionary mismatch decades ago, but their insight has had as yet little effect. On May 23, 1946, Albert Einstein sent a telegram to President Roosevelt on behalf of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists saying, in reference to nuclear explosions, ‘The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.’ The power of human destructiveness is far greater forty years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions that prompted Einstein’s statement, yet human thoughts processes still remain largely unchanged.

“The weapons in the United States and Soviet strategic arsenals now contain enough explosive power that, if packaged as Hiroshima-sized bombs, they could blow up one Hiroshima each hour for more than a lifetime (seventy-eight years)!

* * *

“Hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago, our ancestors’ survival depended in large part on the ability to respond quickly to threats that were immediate, personal, and palpable: threats like the sudden crack of a branch as it is about to give way or the roar of a flash flood racing down a narrow valley. Threats like the darkening of the entrance to the cavern as a giant cave bear enters. Threats like lightning, threats like a thrown spear.

“Those are not threats generated by complex technological devices accumulated over decades by unknown people half a world away. Those are not threats like the slow atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide from auto exhausts, power plants and deforestation; not threats like the gradual depletion of the ozone layer; not threats like the growing number of AIDS victims.

“In this book we’ll say a great deal about threats – the dangers to us, to our civilization, to the very capacity of the Earth to support human life – that exist because we have changed the world so completely. We’ll concentrate on the difficulties our minds have in interpreting and even perceiving the new kinds of threats and responding appropriately to them.”

5 comments:

  1. Alongside these terrible threats have been great advances in medicine and science for the good. We have as difficult a time grasping their import, I think.

    But fear sells and the authors appeal to our sense of helplessness. But what, exactly, are they selling us in terms of solutions to the problems they point out, the "wild animals" outside our "caves"?

    We face the growing threat of a nuclear armed Iran and North Korea. The threat to which the authors referred was the old Soviet Union and ourselves. The threat today is not so much the existing nuclear arsenal but a new one in the hands of fanatics with nothing (they think) to lose. Do we grasp it? I think so. It is no different than that tribe down the way a couple of million years ago who found out how to throw rocks and make spears. It is just bigger rocks and nastier spears.

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  2. I don't have a lot of patience. Obviously.

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  3. I don't have a lot of patience. Obviously.

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  4. We're still in the introductory chapter Douglas.

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