Difference between revisions of "Gods or Goats - David Jennings"

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Author: [http://alchemi.co.uk/ David Jennings]<br />
Author: [http://alchemi.co.uk/ David Jennings]<br />
Body of article: 880 words (yes, I know: I will cut it, this is a draft)<br />
Body of article: 840 words (yes, I know: I will cut it, this is a draft)<br />
Discussion page for this essay: [[Talk:TheFWD_davidjennings]]
Discussion page for this essay: [[Talk:TheFWD_davidjennings]]

Revision as of 23:15, 15 September 2010

Author: David Jennings
Body of article: 840 words (yes, I know: I will cut it, this is a draft)
Discussion page for this essay: Talk:TheFWD_davidjennings

Gods, Fools and Goats: Learning our place in the world


"We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it" Stewart Brand [1]
"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[2]

Stewart Brand is a self-styled ecopragmatist. If rolling up our sleeves and tinkering with the forces that regulate life on earth might save us from war and famine, we'd better get on and learn how to do it. Become masters of our destiny. David Buss has devoted his career to studying how, individually and collectively, we remain locked into behaviour patterns that we know are dysfunctional. Yet even he can't find ways to unlearn these patterns. So we're gods, and fools. Can they both be right?

The final chapter of Stuart Brand's Whole Earth Discipline is called Planet Craft. It's a quick tour of potential geo-engineering levers and pulleys that 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 levers and pulleys: it's more like 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, godlike tweaking.

Do you feel like a god? No, me neither. Do presidents and prime ministers feel like gods? No? Then what about Branson, Gates, Buffett, the oligarchs and the world's many secret billionaires? Some of them may have the means unilaterally to undertake geo-engineering projects with global consequences - like Bond villains of old. Like Bond villains, their psychological tics and vanities may be more extreme versions of our everyday biases. And these may ultimately be their undoing.

The gods they/we are remain fallible and vengeful, closer to those of Greek and Norse myth than the kind to whom all hearts are open and all desires known.


"Human brains back then 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..." Kurt Vonnegut [3]

Planet Craft sounds like something you might learn at a vocational college, topped up through a work placement or apprenticeship.

We have to get good at it. Hold the question of who this "we" is, for a moment. What does it mean to "get good at" something? The way we talk about learning is almost always focused on achieving mastery.

When a furniture maker learns to craft a piece of wood, she must learn a degre of humility: when to work with the grain. Planet Craft will require a different order of humility.

What if it requires us to put aside the very thing that we think has led us to the limited understandings of the planet that guide our craft - our individual intellects, and the sense of mastery and agency that they give us?

The solution to our dilemmas probably doesn't lie in evolving bigger brains. In the spirit of Vonnegut's Galapagos, can we entertain the idea that throwing ever more analytical brainpower and a wider variety of creative solutions - pace my fellow contributors, and indeed myself - may not be the way out?

In terms of simple capacity, and maybe raw 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.

Cognition comes with constraints. What if, for us collectively to become as gods - and get good at it - we need individually to become as fools? Or at least to live in a fuller, closer relationship with our foolishness, as well as the wisdom that's engraved in our environment.


“We are as incapable of saving the planet as a goat is of being a gardener” James Lovelock [4]

As and when things get bad enough for us to have to take geo-engineering options seriously, perforce we will learn some important things about who "we" are. The we that deserve a future, the we who become as gods. That lesson will come through finding out what governance and what risks we are willing to accept for these godlike acts.

As experiments go, this one's going to bring a whole host of political, environmental and philosophical chickens home to roost. Like our place in nature. This engineering will show us the limits of engineering. Pursuing the cognitive path will teach us the limits of cognition.

Our relationships with each other and with the planet cannot subsist on the levers-and-pulleys model. We need a more Encompassing We that's big enough to hold our humility as well as our responsibility. We cannot craft a planet without recrafting our relationship to it.