Valentine’s Day may seem an odd day to watch two movies about how fast the world we know is disappearing, but it seemed strangely appropriate. It reminded me just how much I love this world, and how important it is it to me – and, I would hope, to all of us – to ensure that we preserve the loveable parts of it for the future, which will require us to leave behind some of the less loveable parts of our human nature.
Surviving Progress, a film by Mathiew Roy and Harold Crooks, featuring such folks as Martin Scorcese, Stephen Hawking, Craig Venter, Vaclav Smil, Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood, Colin Beavan (aka No Impact Man), and Ronald Wright.
Combining neuroscience and environmentalism, the film argues that we are running 21st century software (i.e. contemporary levels of technology and knowledge) on hardware that hasn’t been upgraded in 10,000 years (i.e. our brains). Although we can project into the future, most of our brain systems evolved to operate in a much simpler world, where threats were obvious and immediate. So although it’s clear that we have too many people, and not enough planets, our cognitive processes aren’t responding to the existential threat that looms over us, because it’s not the “right” kind of threat to prod our primal instincts into action.
Something from the film that really resonated with me was the idea of a “progress trap” – an innovation that seems to be progress in the short term but proves to be a dead end in the long term. For example, creating a better spear to kill two mammoths rather than one is progress. Learning to kill two hundred mammoths by driving them over a cliff is a progress trap, because although in the short term it gives your tribe more food than they can possibly eat, in the longer term it leads to the extinction of mammoths.
I’m sure you can think of countless other examples where more is not better, but unfortunately our instincts often get the better of our more rational brains. “More equals good” is our ultimate progress trap.
Ronald Reagan on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 1985: “We’re going to turn the bull loose.” (And what a bull in a china shop that turned out to be.)
Margaret Atwood: “Unless we can preserve the environment, there isn’t going to be any more ‘the economy’.”
David Suzuki: “Conventional economics is a form of brain damage.”
Marina Silva: “It is impossible to defend models that cannot be universally applied, because we would have to start from a premise that some people have rights and some don’t. Thus there is no technological problem, but an ethical one.”
The film ends by asking whether civilisation, indeed humanity, may turn out to be a failed evolutionary experiment – or whether we can upgrade our thinking in time.
(Thank you, Michelle Driskill-Smith, for recommending the film!)
Unashamedly pulling at our heart strings, the film brings us the sound of the last Moho bird of Hawaii singing for a mate that will never come; a finless shark taking its last gasps; manta rays being chopped up on an Indonesian beach (interesting study here on the intelligence of mantas); and the stunning fact that around 200,000 sharks are killed every day for a soup that apparently doesn’t even taste all that good.
After the tear-jerkers comes the optimistic part, with the kind of guerrilla tactics that distinguished The Cove as a kind of exciting thriller against the usually depressing genre of environmental distress porn. Psihoyos and his team enlist Elon Musk and a (presumably donated) Tesla with an onboard mega-projector to beam massive images of rapidly vanishing species onto iconic buildings such as New York’s Empire State Building. Crowds duly gather, rapt in awe as they gaze on the poster children of our fast-disappearing wildlife.
The story ends with the motivating message that “It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness.”
The film reminded me of two quotes that I think about every single day, and which give a powerful clue as to how we get ourselves out of this evolutionary corner we are rapidly painting ourselves into:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” (Buckminster Fuller)
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” (Albert Einstein)
So, ergo, we need a new level of consciousness, and a new model of reality. And we all need to play a part in that. I urge you to watch both these films, and not to curse the darkness, but rather to find a candle that you feel inspired to light.
P.S. How heartbreaking is this? Men’s Journal features “25 Place to See Before They Disappear”.
Human nature is an odd phrase, when you stop to think about it – and has often been used to excuse our less-than-impressive behaviour. We’ve been told that it’s in our nature to be greedy, selfish, and violent. But according to the book I’m reading, The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler, this is not so. Her interpretation of the archaeological evidence is that until around 5,000 years ago, humans enjoyed what she calls a culture of “relationship”, in which peace and harmony prevailed. But then marauding hordes from a single warlike tribe started fanning out across the world, propagating a culture of “domination”, which came to be the new normal – domination of human over nature, and of male over female. I haven’t finished the book yet, but the author seems to be offering hope that, if we can go from relationship to domination, it may be possible to spiral back again to a world of equality and mutual respect.
I’m now back at home in Windsor after three weeks away in California and Mexico, a wonderful time in which I made many new friends and saw many new places. One of the highlights was meeting the Noomap team in Tepoztlan, Mexico (apparently the birthplace of the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl, pictured left – luckily I didn’t meet him). We were able to spend about 24 hours together, getting to know each other and exploring ideas for the future. More on that in due course.
I also had a wonderful evening with the Young Presidents Organisation in Mexico City. Around 150 turned up to hear me speak – a wonderful, warm, welcoming audience. Many thanks to my former next door neighbour while at Yale, Gabriela Hernandez, for her part in making that happen, to Arturo and Gabriel for organising, and to everybody who came along.
That’s all for now folks. See you next week!