Humans Seem Hell Bent on Committing Mass Suicide -- But There's Still Hope
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Nobel laureate Doris Lessing’s 1971 novel, Briefing for a Descent Into Hell, imagines other planets sending volunteers to try and save Earth because its death would threaten them all. The volunteers are first informed of the scope of their mission and nature of the planet’s inhabitants during a "briefing" session.
The basic problem, the briefer explains, is that human beings have not learned that everything is interconnected and "have not yet evolved into an understanding of their individual selves as merely part of a whole, first of all humanity, let alone achieving a conscious knowledge of humanity as a part of Nature."
Believing that an outsider perspective may be illuminating in evaluating today’s news, we imagine here what "the briefer" would tell "a volunteer" about Earth’s present situation.
The Briefer: You are being sent to the United States of America, Earth’s most powerful nation, at a time of great economic, geopolitical and biospheric crisis.
In Is Humanity Suicidal? E. O. Wilson, one of Earth’s leading biologists, wrote: "People place themselves first, family second, tribe third, and the rest of the world a distant fourth. During all but the last few millennia of the two million years of [their] existence ... a premium was placed on close attention to the near future … So today the human mind still works comfortably backward and forward only a few years." This is a precise description of how America and the world have reached its present crisis. Powerful elites have preyed upon the poor and gullible to destroy national economies and even their own companies, enriching themselves at the expense of others. Now, only a dramatic transformation without precedent in human experience—changing from modes of competition to cooperation, consumption to investment and short- to long-term thinking—can save the species.
The Volunteer: The newspapers and TV news on Earth seem focused almost entirely on the collapsing world economy. There are also numerous stories about war and terrorism, particularly a Middle East where medieval fanatics are gaining in Afghanistan and a nuclear-armed Pakistan, extremists have taken power in a nuclear-armed Israel and an Iran which is pursuing nuclear weapons. Is the economy or war the greatest challenge facing the human species at this point?
Neither. Economic breakdown and war are serious matters threatening the well-being of many millions of people. But their most serious consequence is that they divert resources from humanity’s top priority: meeting the threat to its survival from the interaction between global warming, biodiversity loss, ocean destruction and other unprecedented assaults upon Earth’s basic life-support systems. The newspapers you cite reveal just how much humans are in psychological denial about the seriousness of their plight.
How serious is the situation with the biosphere?
Very serious. Humanity will either build new renewable energy-powered economies and live, or fail to do so and die. As in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, people will have to consume far less and invest far more in building a new economy. They will have to live with less now so that they—and their kids and grandkids—will not only live well but simply live. Doing so is technically feasible but politically difficult. America is fortunate to have a new president, Barack Obama, who understands the seriousness of the situation, unlike his predecessor who actually sanctioned biospheric degradation.
What evidence is there for the magnitude of this threat?
The world’s scientists, traditionally competing for grants and laurels like the Nobel Prize, rarely agree. For the first time in scientific history, however, climate scientists have not only reached a near-unanimous consensus that human-made global warming threatens humanity, but have formed a global organization—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—to try and prevent it. Their most recent report states: "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal. Eleven of the last twelve years (1995-2006) rank among the twelve warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature [since 1850]. ... [Climate change], together with sea level rise, are expected to have mostly adverse effects on natural and human systems [including] ... increased risk of deaths, injuries and infectious, respiratory and skin diseases ... water and food-borne diseases; posttraumatic stress disorders ... increased risk of deaths and injuries by drowning in floods; migration-related health effects."