Gods or Goats - David Jennings

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Author: David Jennings

Body of article: 880 words

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]

The language in which we talk about learning is directed towards the idea of attaining mastery. Becoming as gods. Individually and collectively we remain locked into behaviour patterns that we know are dysfunctional, yet the smartest among us can't find ways to unlearn them. We remain as fools. The power of gods and the behaviour of fools makes for a dangerous cocktail.

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 before our climate sends us to war with each other over diminishing resources.

This kind of tinkering with the flows and mechanisms on which all life depends that makes the "gods" claim almost plausible. Its tech fix mindset is the polar opposite of the post-Cartesian, non-mechanistic that I remember from the green movement in the 1980s. The time we said was running out then really is running out now. Philosophical sensitivities are set aside while tactics for buying a little more breathing space - and learning space - take over. Or so runs the argument.

Do you feel like a god? No, me neither. Do presidents and prime ministers feel like gods? No? Then what about Branson, Gates, Buffett, oligarchs and the world's many secret billionaires? Some of them may have the means unilaterally to undertake geoengineering projects with global consequences - like Bond villains of old. Still, my hunch is that most if not all have come to understand that their omnipotence has boundaries.

Even the most godlike individuals suffer similar cognitive biases to the rest of us. Their vanities and petty jealousies may be especially acute (it took some extreme and sustained psychic energy to get them where they are today).

The gods they/we are remain fallible and vengeful, closer to the gods 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 is a gemütlich term, 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 risk profile 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.

To go along with Long Now thinking, and the Big Here, let's create the Encompassing We. As goats we may never master gardening, but we just may come to recognise our goatness and embrace the complementary contributions of our fellow inhabitants in the garden.