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Gods or Goats - David Jennings

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This is an entry in The Future We Deserve - a collaborative book project about the future. See all the entries or talk about this entry.



"We are as gods and have to get good at it," says Stewart Brand, the self-styled eco-pragmatist.[1] Planet Craft, as he calls it, involves choosing among potential geo-engineering levers and pulleys, which could buy us some time to rethink our way of life before billions of homeless climate refugees change it for us. Actually, it's not a question of levers and pulleys; it's more aerosols in the upper atmosphere and making the clouds over the ocean shinier so that they reflect light and absorb less heat. Still, this is a classic Newtonian clockwork view of a universe that we can keep running smoothly with some judicious hacking of our planet's physics and governance.

Do you feel like a god? No, me neither. Do presidents and prime ministers feel like gods? No? Then what about Branson or Gates, the oligarchs and the world's many secret billionaires? Some of them may have the means - like Bond villains - to undertake unilateral geo-engineering projects with global consequences.

Such gods as these are fallible and potentially vengeful, closer to those of Greek and Norse myth than to the kind to whom all hearts are open and all desires known. As individuals, they are prone to well-documented psychological biases - biases that no amount of study or reprogramming can reliably unlearn.[2]

With that in mind, you can see why scientist, Gaia theorist and planet hacker James Lovelock suggested, "We are as incapable of saving the planet as a goat is of being a gardener."[3]

One problem is that it's hard for us to imagine our collective behaviour getting less dysfunctional without us becoming individually smarter and more god-like. The one does not necessarily follow from the other.

Kurt Vonnegut understood that in his post-collapse parable Galápagos, "Human brains back [before the collapse] had become such copious and irresponsible generators of suggestions as to what might be done with life, that they made acting for the benefit of future generations seem like one of many arbitrary games which might be played by narrow enthusiasts - like poker or polo or the bond market, or the writing of science fiction novels..."[4] Fortunately, natural selection, after the collapse, favours those who can swim best, with streamlined heads and thus smaller brains.

Our science and engineering do not have to go back to the Dark Ages (though that would be one way of reducing their carbon footprint). Massive data sensing and number crunching may be cornerstones of astute Planet Craft, yet mastery of this craft may not be the preserve either of an elite of technocratic magi or of a new super-smart citizenry.

In terms of simple capacity, and maybe raw processing power, we actually passed "peak brain" tens of thousands of years ago. But we've been able to evolve smaller, more efficient brains by externalising intelligence in our tools, words and the design of our habitats - and in each other.

Being as gods doesn't mean evolving into Master Craftsmen of planets, but evolution in a different direction. A direction where, like brain cells, we are individually not all that smart, but our patterns of "activation" describe a grander intelligence - one which neutralises our individual biases. Could it be that being collectively as gods, we are individually as goats?

The secret to realising how we may be as gods is to understand that this is not the same "we" that we are used to. The frame of our collective cognition and action has to change. Long Now thinking encourages us to think in longer time frames.[5] We need a Connected We that encourages us to think in wider relationships.

As with the contributions to this book, the wisdom and mastery that gives us power is to be found in the links between us, not in the individual nodes.

  1. Whole Earth Discipline Atlantic Books, 2009
  2. "I still don’t understand... why I often succumb to well-documented psychological biases, even though I’m acutely aware of these biases" David Buss, Professor of Psychology http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2009/10/david-buss-overcoming-irrationality.html
  3. http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2009/10/does-copenhagen-matter/
  4. Galápagos, Jonathan Cape, 1985
  5. http://www.longnow.org/about/