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Report on the Planet Earth from the Intergalactic Study Group on Worlds in Transition - Gary Alexander

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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 have just come back from this very interesting planet where we examined its plight and prospective future.

On our previous visit, 7000 years ago, we found the planet to be extremely promising. Its life had evolved over 3 billion years, increasing in complexity, richness and diversity, and had survived 5 great extinctions. Its seas were teeming with life in huge quantities. The land areas were covered with huge forests filled with animals of all sizes, including some with quite large brains, the mammals.

Some of these were potentially intelligent, including one species, the humans, who lived in small bands that co-operated in obtaining food, creating shelter and caring for each other. To do this they developed quite sophisticated languages, including abstract ideas. They came to see themselves as an intimate part of the natural world around them and lived in a fair degree of harmony with it. At the time, there were several million humans, which was typical of the medium sized mammals they lived among.

Unfortunately, human languages and thinking were and have remained quite primitive. They never learned to check that they had understood each other, to recognise the limitations of their knowledge, or to check that their ideas were consistent with their experience, which, as we know, are the keys to a planetary-wide, self-aware culture.

As a result humans got caught up in lots of dysfunctional ideas. For example, different groups ended up killing each other in huge numbers, with increasingly sophisticated means of killing developing over time.

Shortly after our last visit, they began to cultivate their own plants and animals for food. The result was an exponential expansion of their numbers, until they now number 7 billion. Over time, they have cut down most of the forests and destroyed most of the habitats of the larger animals, replacing them with their own cultivated plants and animals. This has hugely reduced the resilience and stability of their biosphere.

The Earth is now in the midst of a 6th great extinction as a result. The seas are especially degraded. The fish that had been one of the human’s major food sources are now so depleted that their current generation may be the last to eat wild fish.

Over the past few hundred years humans learned to burn the residues of ancient life that had been buried for several hundred million years. They have done this in such quantities that they are changing the composition of their atmosphere and destabilising the climatic conditions upon which they depend.

Since our last visit, humans have almost completely lost that early sense of connection with each other and the natural world.

One of the most dysfunctional ideas, that very few of them question, is the means by which they produce food and create artifacts which they then exchange and trade with each other. Their exchange system is structured so that groups large and small are working against each other, each for their own benefit instead of for mutual benefit, not realising that doing so is to the detriment of all.

Instead of optimising their exchange to provide for their wellbeing and that of the natural world around them, they try to optimise the flow of an abstract quantity they call ‘money’. Money started as a means of exchange between people who did not trust each other, but has gradually taken on greater and greater significance, so that it, and not wellbeing, now determines what is done and who gets what.

One result of this is that most humans lead fairly impoverished lives, while a few live in material plenty. However, even those lead lives that are very poor in emotional stability, supportive relationships and security. The destruction of the natural world around them is another major consequence of this means of exchange, as they believe that a continuous growth of monetary transactions is the only way to improve their lives, which blinds them to the destruction they are causing.

What are their prospects? They do have some of the key ingredients of a planetary-wide culture: They have scientists that study the natural world and are coming to understand the problems they have created. Other groups provide assistance when disasters happen, often very distant from themselves. Growing numbers of them are becoming aware of how dysfunctional their culture has become and there are now tens of thousands of groups around the planet dedicated to social justice and preserving their environment. They have a global communication system that enables them all to be aware of each other, and could potentially be used to co-ordinate themselves harmoniously. There is a growing sense that they are all interconnected and interdependent.

Unfortunately, so many of them are so totally caught in the belief of the necessity of their current exchange system that it may be that only its collapse will enable a global collaborative society to emerge. That collapse looks highly likely and quite imminent, but there is no way of knowing if it will lead to an enlightened alternative, or even if it will be in time to avoid a much worse environmental collapse.