24. Misguided ingenuity

Ch 24

Arrogance and hubris – the problem of misguided ingenuity

My thesis in this section is that the arrogance of the powerful, particularly in the affluent world, has led us down a series of dangerous paths, despite our excellence at material technologies.

The “mature” society and the end of history

I recently attended a lecture by a senior economist from the Australian National University.  The subject was “Development in the 21st Century”.  The flyer for this lecture described climate change as a “headwind” humanity would have to deal with.  But the lecturer was obviously an experienced sailor, as he had little to say about it and clearly didn’t think it was too worrying.  I agreed with much of his detailed analysis, but there were two words that he used that destroyed his credibility with me.  They were “maturity” and “abundance”.

I’ll leave aside the staggering idea that we live in a world of general abundance.  Yes we do, of certain things – sunlight, wind, salt water, human material ingenuity, and some other things.  But if anyone still doubts that the Earth imposes limits on our levels of consumption because it itself has a limited set of resources, then I invite them to consider recent lists of endangered species (22,000 of 76,000 assessed at risk of extinction as at 2008, according to the IUCN[i]), or the regional availability and scarcity of water[ii].

What I want to talk about is “maturity”.  Apparently, we in the “developed” world are a “mature” society.  And since humans live in a world of abundance, then the “under-developed” world can reasonably also aspire to our “maturity”.  The lecturer seemed to more or less equate maturity with our level of consumption but, to give him the benefit of the doubt, he may also have meant the institutions of a stable society.

Regardless of whether he meant maturity as just material consumption or something more, he displayed breathtaking arrogance.  We in the affluent world are apparently a “peak” society, to which others should aspire.

Two problems with this.  First, the assumption that the affluent world has the best model of social organisation.  There is a small truth underlying this – wealth can help with the creation of stable and benevolent social institutions, preferably under the “least worst” form of government, democracy.  But it is not the wealth that creates them, it is human and humane behaviour.  Most of the abiding institutions of affluent society were created generations and even centuries ago, in much less affluent conditions.

Or maybe he meant the opposite – because we’re mature (ie largely European in descent), we have been able to get wealthy faster than others.  Nothing wrong with a bit of racial superiority, is there?  Unfortunately, as I described in chapter 14 on the “four great thefts”, if there is a “European superiority”, then it is in the form of greater greed and savagery.

The second problem is that it is quite clear that the affluent world is not a “mature” society.  For example, research consistently shows that we are consuming more than necessary to achieve a high level of satisfaction and happiness.  A mature society would not consume more than it needed.

Ch 24 illus 1

A mature society would not consume more than it needed

Second, we are driven by social Darwinist principles and economics which show disrespect and even contempt for the struggling and the unwaged in our society.  A mature society would acknowledge, support and respect the contributions of all to society.

And finally, a mature society would not be prepared to live with the levels of poverty and violence that characterise our modern world, either within or beyond its borders.  Its levels of foreign diplomacy and aid would be far greater than they currently are.

It’s not just one Australian economist who says we’re mature.  Francis Fukuyama actually declared “the end of history” in his 1992 book[iii].  We, it appeared, were not just a mature society, but the ultimate society.  This is not just arrogance, this is hubris – challenging the gods, and inviting nemesis.

And neoclassical economists are full of hubris as well.  The Chair of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, called it not the end of history, but “the Great Moderation”.  Apparently we have reached economic Nirvana, a permanently stable economic state.  Some might have thought the Global Financial Crisis would be, if not their nemesis, at least a dent in the self-belief of these people.  But not a bit of it.  After a bit of chest-thumping, and a slight tightening of bank regulations, we’re back on the same old destructive economic track.

In New Zealand, we have our own leading example of arrogance.  Tim Groser was New Zealand’s Minister for climate change and trade until December 2015 before being appointed Ambassador to the United States.  The actual titles were Minister Responsible for Climate Change Negotiations” and “Minister of Trade”.  But Groser left no doubt in either his manner or his speech that his real role was to negotiate the least possible response to international climate change concerns, and the most possible access for transnational companies to New Zealand markets under the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement recently negotiated.  His personal manner is superior, and contemptuous of those who might hold different views from him.  He knows what’s right, and he’s far cleverer than most of the rest of us.

Mind you, he’s not alone in this.  I think I’m cleverer than most people, too.  But I probably have a somewhat more reasonable definition of “most” people than Tim Groser.  And yes, I’m arrogant – as a tall, white, Anglo-Saxon male, I’m entitled to be.  But, seriously, I believe I have two saving graces.  First, my arrogance is as much perceived as real – because I’m 1.91m tall, I really do look down my rather large nose at people, and, despite the too-positive way in which I express myself, I am genuinely willing to learn and change my mind on many things.  Second, I am prepared to, and frequently do, laugh at myself, either because of my own perception of my failings or as a result of others’ observations.

The truly and thoroughly arrogant cannot conceive of themselves as being either wrong or silly.  And many of those with wealth and power, having had a history of being agreed with and being able to act, are well trained in arrogance.

So here’s the problem again – because many of the wealthy and powerful know they’re always right (arrogance), and because they believe they are masters of the universe (hubris), they think that everything they do, and every new product they develop, must be the best thing possible.

Not all are of this nature – humility still exists.  Newton wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

But even if we’re “standing on the shoulders of giants”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we can see very far (we’re actually made myopic by our concentration on the short term) or very broadly (we have tunnel vision induced by our psychological “frames”), or indeed that we’re even looking in the right direction (we may not understand what the giants were actually seeing – the world is plagued by the ideological and often incorrect interpretations of disciples – if you doubt this, see the lofty house of cards the neoclassical economists have built on a basic misinterpretation of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”[iv]).

Newton was talking about his excellence in material technologies – in his understanding of the properties of the inanimate world.  And there is no doubt that Newton’s followers have built on his excellence, but often without humility or wisdom.

The misuse of material technologies, and failure of social technologies

We humans are very clever at manipulation of material things.  But we aren’t nearly as smart as we think we are.  We’re pretty good at dealing with analysis and the inanimate, but poor at synthesis.  And with complex things, including life, we’re way out of our depth.  The term “emergence”, which is used to describe some aspects of how complex systems work, is pretty clearly a synonym for “magic”.

The image I have of the current dominant human is the engineer – great at getting things built, but not so good at determining whether they should be built, and what they might mean for the future.

There is a Tank MacNamara cartoon which expresses this beautifully.  A pole-vaulter is racing down the runway – “I can do it…I can do it…I can vault 20 feet…I’m doing it…”.  And as he goes over the bar, “And now I’m 20 feet off the ground!?!”.  Oops.  Maybe he should have looked before he leapt.

The fact that our material ingenuity is abundant doesn’t necessarily mean we use it well.  Some of the primary examples of our lack of wisdom in developing and using our material technologies are the building of cities on fertile plains (making them susceptible to flooding, and reducing the land available for wetlands, farming, and forests), the development of the hydrogen bomb (creating the capacity to destroy our entire species – quickly), the development and indiscriminate distribution of more and more efficient small arms (creating the capacity to destroy our entire species – slowly), and the development of industrial mono-crop agriculture (degrading the long term fertility of the land, and putting the natural diversity which supports life at risk).

Of course we will always make mistakes – when we initially built the cities, we didn’t realise their environmental impact; when we started burning fossil fuels, we didn’t understand their impact on the climate.  But true wisdom consists of both not doing the things we shouldn’t (for example, not starting to build hydrogen bombs), and also learning, and correcting our mistakes (for example, not continuing to heat the atmosphere and acidify the oceans).  When negative impacts become apparent, or even likely, we must rethink, and change our behaviours.

We’ve built some pretty extraordinary things – skyscrapers, giant dams, Ferraris, spacecraft that can travel past Pluto and send pictures back, modest modular houses, washing machines, and the Internet for example – and some of these have been quite useful.  But we have also built a lot of junk, some of it dangerous.

And yet, among all the “bad” technologies we have, we also have all the material technologies we need to survive and to build a truly regenerative society.  The supply of safe clean water, low-cost sustainable housing, renewable energy, sustainable multi-crop agriculture – these are all available to us, if we choose to take a wiser path, which we show few signs of doing.

This is because of our lack of wisdom.  Another way of looking at this is that we have emphasised material technologies over social and non-material technologies – the technologies of human interaction, cooperation and governance, and the organisation of production and distribution (which is economics – remember?).

Our current economic and financial system is a classic example of our weakness at social technologies.  It treats humans as “resources”, plunders the Earth, and favours the rich over the poor.  It is focussed purely on the short-term and private profit, and encourages the development of things based purely on their appeal to consumers (or the consumer appeal that can be created).  In a world where consumption is king, the ethics of production are compromised.

We put a lot of effort into designing and building better HDTVs, better AK47s, and more profitable chemicals.  If we decided to put a reasonable fraction of this effort into better governance, better organisation of production and distribution, and better social outcomes, we might discover some wisdom about what we develop and how we develop and distribute it.

Yet most of the effort that is increasingly being put into solving the existential crisis that we face is based on new material technologies, not new social technologies.  Those of the wealthy and powerful who have grasped that humanity does indeed face a crisis are pinning their faith on “more of the same” – market systems, and material technologies on a grander scale.

Global warming change will NOT be stopped by creating carbon markets.  These will simply offer the wealthy an opportunity to further increase the inequality gap by buying what they need at the expense of poorer people and countries.

And it will NOT be stopped by “geo-engineering” – the term itself demonstrates the arrogance of its proponents[v].  Large scale interference with Nature inevitably leads to negative payback, as we have already proved time and time again with smaller scale experiments.  Humans have not learned in 400 years – or even 400,000 years – what Nature has learned over 4 billion years about balance and adaptation.

The solutions being offered by the powerful are the solutions they have always offered, and which got us to where we are now.  Run faster, and put your faith in the markets and in human ingenuity in material technologies.

What we actually need to do in the affluent world is to slow down, to severely restrict or abandon the markets, and to become wiser in human and non-material technologies.

Humanity may be standing on the shoulders of giants.  This may even put us at a peak – but if so, there is only one way forward for us, and that is downhill.  It is much more likely that, if we could see clearly from where we stand, we would see a dead-end, a blank wall, which we must change direction radically to avoid.

Our survival is not dependent on minor adjustments in current systems.  It is dependent on radical change in our social and economic systems, and a rapid change in the lifestyles and approaches of the affluent world.  As the Pope’s recent encyclical says:

“Never have we hurt or mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years…The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis.  We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations…It is remarkable how weak the international response has been…the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups in society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.”[vi]

At the beginning of this chapter, I noted that we as humans are much better at analysis than synthesis.  This has enabled us to get very good at material technologies, without corresponding wisdom about it, or mastery of more complex things.

Our analytical ability comes from one of the features which distinguishes us from other animals, the ability to classify things, and to build abstract thinking on the top of this.

This highly specialised ability has given us enormous material power.  But it also underpins one of our greatest weaknesses, and has created one of the greatest barriers to building a civilised society.  The next chapter is about this weakness.

Read on, about “The problem of otherness…”>>
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[i] http://www.iucn.org/about/work/programmes/species/our_work/the_iucn_red_list/

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_scarcity

[iii] “The End of History and the Last Man”, Francis Fukuyama, 1992

[iv] See for example “The Value of Nothing”, loc 855ff

[v] See for example “Ex machina – No techno-fix for irreversible ocean collapse from pollution”, ClimateProgress, 11/08/2015

[vi] Papal encyclical “Laudato Si’, On Care of our Common Home”, paragraphs 53-55