Thoughts about a species’s social pathologies
This, from 1996, co written by well known and much respected Richard Leakey, with a deeply seated understanding of the fossil record of our past including past mass extinctions, and a prize winning science writer, Roger Lewin. Together they turned their eye to the future:
It is known that nothing upon Earth is forever; geography, climate, and plant and animal life are all subject to radical change. On five occasions in the past, catastrophic natural events have caused mass extinctions on Earth. But today humans stand alone, in dubious distinction, among Earth’s species: Homo Sapiens possesses the ability to destroy entire species at will, to trigger the sixth extinction in the history of life. In The Sixth Extinction, Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin consider how the grand sprawl of human life is inexorably wreaking havoc around the world. The authors of Origins and Origins Reconsidered, unimpeachable authorities on the human fossil record, turn their attention to the most uncharted anthropological territory of all: the future, and man’s role in defining it. According to Leakey and Lewin, man and his surrounding species are end products of history and chance. Now, however, humans have the unique opportunity to recognize their influence on the global ecosystem, and consciously steer the outcome in order to avoid triggering an unimaginable upheaval.
The primary argument for this grand scenario of human-caused global ecological disruption and the ongoing scientific recording of species extinction, and against any possibility humans should be concerned that this will lead to a Sixth Mass Extinction, centers, at this juncture, on one factor: global climate change and its possible anthropogenic source in the consumption of one major, modern complex society-fueling resource, fossil (or abiotic, if you are of that belief) condensed energy and its release of CO2 as a greenhouse gas.
This is a subset argument in a much larger and far more complex issue, but its like a hand held up to block the sun. It works to block the sun from one’s eyes, but the sun still shines around the hand, everywhere. Joseph Tainter was one of the first to bring out the more difficult levels of comprehending the problem for humans with his 1988 book: The Collapse of Complex Societies.
Slowly a movement towards understanding complexity at the management level has arisen as members of society recognize the inherent contradictions of our institutions. (The Reality of Complexity, Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos)
As a result ideas have begun to be introduced in an effort to help adjust management thinking to this new paradigm. Among the management tools they have been developing are these new features in risk assessment evaluation called computer modeling. Computer modeling takes the age old linear process and moves it into an entirely new realm. A realm that is both human and organic in its fundamental reality, but at the same time alien to the predominant human logical thinking processes that have evolved during the Age of Reason to make sense of that reality as humans have developed societies as if they were ecological niches within the complex natural ecologies of the planet. But these ecological niches are beginning to look more like disease pathologies for the living ecologies of the planet as they have sprouted and expanded around the globe. For the most part this logical process has evolved into a vastly applied technique throughout modern societies that can be safely called institutionalism.
Institutions have been evolving with complex societies for pretty much the last ten or so millenniums of human species colonization of the planet. Institutions provide an organizational structure within which participating individual humans conform to logical processes that have a concerted purpose, and in doing so, the individuals often give up their long evolved gifts of applying their other genetically endowed characteristics to their own actions involved in their survival for the purpose of a managed hierarchy which they often do not understand, nor need to understand. Those understandings are left to managers. And of course, the question might be raised: do the managers understand what they are managing? Does Barak Obama and the Presidency team truly understand what it is managing?
The result has been the rise of vast and powerful societies with amazing technological capabilities that involve individual development of unique skill sets, usually from systemically created institutions designed to teach those skill sets, that end up being directed within a hierarchical structure by a set of experts trained in scientific management.
But at the same time scientific management is struggling to come to grips with complexity. Many complexity theories arise, not all of them are compatible. Thus nothing guarantees that management can overcome impending chaos and continue to keep the modern institutions functional. Potentially, then, a sixth mass extinction looms. Some of the first experts to grapple with this challenge include Gregory Bateson who wrote about it as Steps to an Ecology of Mind, and Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (Advances in Systems Theory, Complexity, and Human Sciences).
In the process Bateson left us with these cracks in the wall that open a possible view into a universe of wisdom:
The problem of how to transmit our ecological reasoning to those whom we wish to influence in what seems to us to be an ecologically good direction is (thus) itself an ecological problem.
To want control is the pathology! Not that the person can get control, because of course you never do… Man is only a part of larger systems, and the part can never control the whole…
The whole of our thinking about what we are and what other people are has got to be restructured. This is not funny, and I do not know how long we have to do it in.
The myth of power, is of course, a very powerful myth; and probably most people in this world more or less believe in it… But it is still epistemological lunacy and leads inevitably to all sorts of disaster… If we continue to operate in terms of a Cartesian dualism of mind versus matter, we shall probably also come to see the world in terms of God versus man; chosen race versus others; nation versus nation and man versus environment. It is doubtful whether a species having both an advanced technology and this strange way of looking at the world can endure…
Combine modern contradictions in problem solving processes that takes place in the actual minds of managers of interacting institutional systems, and logical and linear processes within the hierarchy of the institutions that have developed in order to achieve minimum costs in achieving goals and the profit of goals for continuing and endless growth, alongside the rise of a surplus capital-based, deeply alluring and immensely powerful technologies of the industrial revolution, and we come to the crux of this modern day, human-oriented crisis.
Studies in human species pathology anyone?