“Surviving Progress” For A Sustainable Future

Can progress be a problem? Is bigger, better, faster and cheaper really the best way to advance as a society? How much more can humanity extract and deplete the world’s resources as more nations become “developed?” Could it be that Homo sapiens are evolutionary dead ends?

All these provocative and controversial questions are tackled by the critically acclaimed 2011 documentary Surviving Progress. Executive producer Martin Scorsese brings together some of the world’s greatest minds to discuss humanity’s history, its present “predicament” (to say the least), and what can be done to overcome our self-destructive tendencies (for starters, making a distinction between what Ronald Wright calls “good progress” and “bad progress”).

 

The film destroys the conventional concept of “progress,” one of constant expansion and growth. In short: overconsumption, disregard for the planet, overpopulation, massive debt to private interests, grotesque amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and the alarming growth of income inequality are anything but progressive. How can we praise and preserve the status quo when our very survival is at stake? Our current course is clearly unsustainable and until we realize this and do something to change it, we’re doomed to failure.

“Unlimited economic progress in a world of finite natural resources doesn’t make sense. It’s a pattern that is bound to collapse and we keep seeing it collapsing. But then we build it up because there are these strong vested interests; “We must have business as usual.” And…you get the arms manufacturers. You get the petroleum industry. You get the pharmaceutical industry. And all of this feeding into helping to create corrupt governments who are putting the future of their own people at risk.”

– legendary primatologist Jane Goodall during one of her interviews in the film.

Things clearly have to change. We have to realize that progress does not simply equal more more more.

“All the civilizations of the past and, I think our own, only seem to be doing well when they’re expanding, when the population is growing, when the industrial output is growing and when the cities are spreading outwards. Eventually, you reach the point at which the population has overrun everything, the cities have expanded over the farmland. The people at the bottom begin to starve and the people at the top lose their legitimacy. And so you get hunger. You get revolution.

– Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress, the book on which Surviving Progress is based on

 

Surviving Progress delivers a dose of reality and offers a challenging solution. To overcome this challenge, it is going to take the one thing that seems to have brought us to this point: our brains. The world is an international one. We’re literally one people now and all of our lives are interconnected. It is going to take cooperation with other nations. It’s going to come from consuming less and fundamentally altering our view of what makes life “good.” My two cents: living to make humanity and the world better than it was before our own, mediocre existences began is the “good” life. 😉

“Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” Explained By Rolling Stone’s Bill McKibben

If you’re in the mood for a horror or thriller movie, look no further than the latest issue of Rolling Stone (August 2nd, 2012 issue). Look past the post-pubescent, sexed up picture of Justin Bieber on the cover and to an article that everyone should actually read, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” Writer Bill McKibben paints a disastrous picture of the planet’s future and who enemy number one is: the fossil fuel industry.

Loads of data and science are presented in the article (in direct contrast to Fox News’ idiotic attempts to smear climate science as a liberal conspiracy, or something). For example, in order to keep the global temperature from increasing by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), we cannot spew more than 565 gigatons (565,000,000,000 metric tons) of CO2 into the atmosphere. At our current rate of increase, we’re set to reach that well within the next 20 years. If that doesn’t scare you, this will: Current global coal, oil and gas reserves (fuel we’re planning on burning at some point) is equal to 2,795 gigatons (2,795,000,000,000 metric tons), which is worth about $27 trillion to coal, oil and gas companies . That’s FIVE times the limit for a two-degree increase in global temperatures.

The planet is already becoming warmer, the oceans more acidic and Arctic ice is rapidly melting. As extreme as the weather has become, it’s sobering to realize that we’ve only increased the global temperature by 0.8 degrees Celsius. An 0.8 degree Celsius increase has broken 3,215 heat records across the U.S. this past June and created the conditions for the hottest rainfall in Earth’s history; This past Spring it rained in Mecca, Saudi Arabia….when it was 109 degrees Fahrenheit. It can be argued, as many climate scientists have, that even a two degree Celsius increase limit is too much.

alarming graph from NASA showing an undeniable global warming trend

The evidence is overwhelming. We know that climate change is real and that it presents drastic changes to our planet. The question is whether we will do anything to slow down the rate of temperature (and extreme weather) increase. We can change. We have the technology. What we lack is the will to act, as McKibben also points out…

We like cheap flights to warm places, and we’re certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it’s as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.

Record profits by the world’s largest oil companies and cheaper goods are not what building a better future looks like. We have to get beyond the “cheaper = better” equation that has been the staple of industry since the Industrial Revolution. Capitalism itself is not the enemy: corporate greed and complete disregard for everything else is. Investing in and improving the efficiency of renewable energy technologies must become international priorities. As I said in a previous eco-themed post, the traditional concept of the lavish “American life” (bigger, faster, fatter, cheaper, etc.) is clearly and undeniably unsustainable. If we value the planet we live on or even our and our posterity’s future, we have to change.

Read McKibben’s brilliant article here.

What Year Is This?

When did things become so partisan? I believe church and state should be separate and that same-sex couples should have the same recognition as straight couples under the law and suddenly I’m radical?

I accept climate change is real and that there’s mountains of evidence that humanity descended from the same common ancestor as the other great apes and suddenly I’m a part of some secular conspiracy to destroy America?

I think that government investments in education and infrastructure should be greatly increased and that defense spending should be greatly decreased. I think the rich (several hundred thousand+ a year in income) should pay higher tax rates, considering taxes are at historic lows. Now I’m a commie?

Why, in 2012, are we still talking about whether or not birth control is ethically permissible? Why, despite the great advances in science, technology and human understanding of how the universe works, is there a backlash against progress?

How come, in 2012, the candidates for president of the United States of a major political party embraced things like reparative therapy (“Pray the gay away”), climate change denial, bigotry and ignorance?

I know old habits and ways of thinking die hard and with pain, but c’mon. We’re 12 years into the 21st century. We should’ve been beyond these old “controversies” long ago. This is the Age of Information, is it not? Inform yourself and move.

Reflection From The Pale Blue Dot

In 1990, the Voyager 1 space probe looked back at Earth from the outer solar system and snapped a picture that captured the attention of the world. How did our humble home look? A dot. Literally, the Earth was nothing more than a pale blue dot in the image taken by the probe.

In 1994, Carl Sagan wrote the book Pale Blue Dot. In it, Sagan wrote what he believes humanity can and will achieve (a future in the stars). One of the most moving and profound quotes you’ll ever hear or read also comes from the book. Reflecting on the 1990 photo, Sagan comments on the insignificance, vulnerability and preciousness of planet Earth in his classic eloquent way:

*italics added by me…

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme   leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Carl Sagan 1934-1996

Space Update – Major News & Big Developments

This year continues to be a good one for cosmologists, astronomers and geeks like me.

Mars DID Have Water:

Scientists just confirmed what they had long thought: Mars once had water. Though they didn’t actually find liquid water, they found large amounts of evidence for it. NASA’s Mars rover, Opportunity (still going strong after 90 months), found mineral veins of gypsum, a hydrated calcium sulfate found in “wet” environments on Earth.

Possible “Twin” Earth Found:

NASA has discovered an Earth-like planet that lies within its star’s habitable zone, an area where liquid water could exist. Earth is lucky to be within the sun’s habitable zone so it’s big news to find out that there’s at least one other planet, designated “Kepler-22b,” that is in a similar situation.

Kepler-22b

Voyager 1 Near Solar System’s Edge

NASA’s famous Voyager 1 spacecraft (launched in 1977) is about to become the first man-made object to leave the Solar System and enter interstellar space, the space between stars. Although it may take Voyager several months to a few years to leave, it is on a fast track…traveling about 11 miles a second. It is approximately 11 billion miles away from the sun.

Voyager 1

Largest Black Holes Ever Discovered

Forget those measly black holes the size of several suns, astronomers have discovered black holes that are several times bigger than the solar system. “Big” and “large” don’t even come close to describing the scope of these cosmological monsters. Yeah, we can thank black holes for being vital in galactic formation…but damn….

a really...REALLY big, supermassive black hole

These discoveries are exciting. They remind us how amazing the known universe is and how small, insignificant AND special we are. Keep the knowledge coming…

The Baloney Detection Kit

If it sounds too good to be true, it most likely is. In an age of instant communication and sensationalism, it is extremely easy to fall for baloney (or as the French say, “bulls***”). “Cure For Cancer Found In Beetle!” “Man Raised From The Dead In Africa!” “Free $1 Million If You Sign Up Here!” “Woman Healed Of AIDS!” We’ve all seen the sensational claims…but when you get down to investigating the claims themselves, the sensationalism dissolves into quackery. Whether it’s miracle cures, faith healing or free money, the ability of humans to deceive themselves and others is matched by no other animal on Earth. Carl Sagan came up with a method of “detecting” falsehoods, hoaxes, scams, and flat-out b.s. with his Baloney Detection Kit. The “kit” consists of ten questions that determine if a specific claim is an evidence-supported theory or baloney…

THE BALONEY DETECTION KIT

  1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
  2. Does the source make similar claims?
  3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else?
  4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
  5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
  6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
  7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
  8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
  9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
  10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?

The next time you come across an out-of-this-world claim, ask yourself these 10 questions.

Michael Shermer made a video with the Richard Dawkins Foundation For Reason And Science on Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit:

 

Religious Morality vs. Secular Morality (Sam Harris’ Take)

Sam Harris’ latest, brilliant book The Moral Landscape argues that science and reason can and should be used to define what is moral.

When Harris wrote his previous best-seller The End of Faith, he received mail from people from all over the political/philosophical spectrum. Their main objection: Reason cannot be used to determine what is moral. Harris’ response: Yes, it most definitely can (and must).

Below is an excerpt from The Moral Landscape:

This rupture [belief that reason cannot determine moral values] in our thinking has different consequences at each end of the political spectrum: religious conservatives tend to believe that there are right answers to questions of meaning and morality, but only because the God of Abraham deems it so. They concede that ordinary facts can be discovered through rational inquiry, but they believe that values must come from a voice in a whirlwind. Scriptural literalism, intolerance of diversity, mistrust of science, disregard for the real causes of human and animal suffering – too often, this is how the division between facts and values expresses itself on the religious right.

Secular liberals, on the other hand, tend to imagine that no objective answers to moral questions exist. While John Stuart Mill might conform to our cultural ideal of goodness better than Osama Bin Laden does, most secularists suspect that Mill’s ideas about right and wrong reach no closer to the Truth. Multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness, tolerance even of intolerance – these are the familiar consequences of separating facts and values on the left.

It should concern us that these two orientations are not equally empowering. Increasingly, secular democracies are left supine before the unreasoning zeal of old-time religion. The juxtaposition of conservative dogmatism and liberal doubt accounts for the decade that has been lost in the United States to a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research; it explains the years of political distraction we have suffered, and will continue to suffer, over issues like abortion and gay marriage; it lies at the bottom of current efforts to pass antiblasphemy laws at the United Nations (which would make it illegal for citizens of member states to criticize religion); it has hobbled the West in its generational war against radical Islam; and it may yet refashion the societies of Europe into a new Caliphate. Knowing what the Creator of the Universe believes about right and wrong inspires religious conservatives to enforce this vision in the public sphere at almost any cost; not knowing what is right – or that anything can ever be truly right – often leads secular liberals to surrender their intellectual standards and political freedoms with both hands.

….

The underlying claim is that while science is the best authority on the workings of the physical universe, religion is the best authority on meaning, values, morality, and the good life…this is not only untrue, it could not possibly be true. Meaning, values, morality, and the good life must relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures – and, in our case, must lawfully depend upon events in the world and upon states of the human brain. Rational, open-ended, honest inquiry has always been the true source of insight into such processes. Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.

….

It seems inevitable, however, that science will gradually encompass life’s deepest questions – and this is guaranteed to provoke a backlash. How we respond to the resulting collision of worldviews will influence the progress of science, of course, but it may also determine whether we succeed in building a global civilization based on shared values. The question of how human beings should live in the twenty-first century has many competing answers – and most of them are surely wrong. Only a rational understanding of human well-being will allow billions of us to coexist peacefully, converging on the same social, political, economic, and environmental goals. A science of human flourishing may seem a long way off, but to achieve it, we must first acknowledge that the intellectual terrain actually exists.

Sam Harris