My recent blog post "The resource leak bug of our civilization" has gathered some interest recently, especially after getting noticed by Ran Prieur in his blog. I therefore decided to translate another essay to give it a wider context. Titled "A few words about humans and the world", it is intended to be a kind of wholesome summary of my worldview, and it is especially intended for people who have had difficulties in understanding the basis of some of my opinions.
This writeup is supposed to be concise rather than convincing. It therefore skips a lot of argumentation, linking and breakdowns that might be considered necessary by some. I'll get back to them in more specific texts.
Humans are builders. We build not only houses, devices and production machinery, but also cultures, conceptual systems and worldviews. Various constructions can be useful as tools, however we also have an unfortunate tendency to chain ourselves to them.
Right now, humankind has chained itself to the worship of abundance: it is imperative to produce and consume more and more of everything. Quantitative growth is imagined to be the same thing as progress. Especially during the last hundred years, the theology of abundance has invaded so deep and profound levels, that most people don't even realize its effect. It's not just about consumerism on a superficial level, but about the whole economic system and worldview.
Extreme examples of growth ideology can be easily found in the digital world, where it manifests as a raised-to-the-power-two version. What happens if worshippers of abundance get their hands on a virtual world where the amount of available resources increases exponentially? Right, they will start bloating up the use of resources, sometimes even for its own sake. It is not at all uncommon to require a thousand times more memory and computational power than necessary for a given task. Mindless complexity and purposeless activities are equated with technological advancement. The tools and methods the virtual world is being built with have been designed from the point of view of idealized expansion, so it is difficult to even imagine alternatives.
I have some background in a branch of hacker culture, demoscene, where the highest ideal is to use minimal resources in an optimal way. The nature of the most valued progress there is condensing rather than expanding: doing new things under ever stricter limitations. This has helped me perceive the distortions of the digital world and their counterparts in the material world.
In everyday life, the worship of growth shows up, above all, as complexification of everything. It is becoming increasingly difficult to understand various socio-economic networks or even the functionality of ordinary technological devices. This alienates people from the basics of their lives. Many try to fight this alienation by creating pockets of understandability. Escapism, conservatism and extremism rise. On the other hand, there is also an increase in do-it-yourself culture and longing to a more self-sufficient way of life. People should be encouraged into these latter-mentioned, positive means to counter alienation instead of channels that increase conflicts.
An ever greater portion of techno-economical structures consists of useless clutter, so-called economic tumors. They form when various decision-makers attempt to keep their acquired cake-pieces as big as possible. Unnecessary complexity slows down and unilateralizes progress instead of being a requirement for it. Expansion needs to be balanced with contraction -- you can't breath in without breating out.
The current phase of expansion is finally about to end, since the fossil fuels that made it possible are getting rarer, and we still don't know about an equally powerful replacement. As the phase took so long, the transition into contraction will be difficult to many. An increasingly bigger portion of economy will escape into the digital world, where it is possible to maintain the unrealistic swelling longer than in the material world.
Dependencies of production can be depicted as a pyramid where the things on the higher levels are built from the things below. In today's world, people always try to build on the top, so the result looks more like a shaky tower than a pyramid. Most new things could be easily built at lower levels. The lowest levels of the pyramid could also be strengthened by giving more room for various self-sufficient communities, local production and low-tech inventions. Technological and cultural evolution is not a one-dimensional road where "forward" and "backward" are the only alternatives. Rather, it is a network of possibilities burgeoning towards every direction, and even its strange side-loops are worth knowing.
It is often assumed that growth would increase the amount of available options. In principle, this is true -- there are more and more different products on store shelves -- but their differences are more and more superficial. The same is true with ways of life: it is increasingly difficult to choose a way of life that wouldn't be attached to the same chains of production or models of thinking as every other way of life. The alternatives boil down into the same basic consumer-whoredom.
Proprietors overstandardize the world with their choices, but this probably isn't very conscious activity. When there are enough decision-makers who play the same game with the same rules, the world will eventually shape around these rules (including all the ingrained bugs and glitches). Conspiracy theories or evil-incarnates are therefore not required to explain what's going on.
The human-built machinery is getting increasingly more complex, so it is also increasingly more difficult to talk about it in concrete terms. Many therefore seek help from conceptual tools such as economic theories, legal terminology or ideologies, and subsequently forget that they are just tools. Nowadays, money- and production-centered ways of conceptualizing the world have become so dominant that people often don't realize that there are other alternatives.
Diversity helps nature adapt to changes and recover from disasters. For the same reason, human culture should be as diverse as possible especially now that the future is very uncertain and we have already started to crash into the wall. It is necessary to make it considerably less difficult to choose radically different ways of life. Much more room should be given to experimental societies. Small and unique languages and cultures should be treasured.
There's no one-size-fits-all model that would be best for everyone. However, I believe that most people would be happiest in a society that actively maintains human rights and makes certain that no one is left behind. Dictatorship of majority, however, is not that crucial feature of a political system in a world where everyone can freely choose a suitable system. Regardless, dissidents should be given enough room in every society: everyone doesn't necessarily have the chance to choose a society, and excessive unanimosity tends to be quite harmful anyway.
Thousands of years ago, the passion for construction became so overwhelming that the quest for mental refinement didn't keep with the pace. I regard this as the main reason why human beings are so prone to become slaves of their constructs. Rational analysis is the only mental skill that has been nurtured somewhat sufficiently, and even rational analysis often becomes just a tool for various emotional outbursts and desires. Even very intelligent people may be completely lost with their emotions and motivations, making them inclined to adopt ridiculously one-dimensional thought constructs.
Putting one's own herd before anyone else is an example of attitude that may work among small hunter-gatherer groups, but which should have no more place in the modern civilization. A population that has the intellectual facilities to build global networks of cause and effect should also have the ability to make decisions on the corresponding level of understanding instead of being driven by pre-intellectual instincts.
Assuming that humankind still wants to maintain complex societal and technological structures, it should fill its consciousness gap. Any school system should teach the understanding and control of one's own mind at least as seriously as reading and writing. New practical mental methods, suitable for an ever greater variety of people, should be developed at least as passionately as new material technology.
For many people, worldview is still primarily a way of expressing one's herd instincts. They argue and even fight about whose worldview is superior. It is hopeful that future will bring a more individual attitude towards them: there is no single "truth" but different ways for conceptualizing the reality. A way that is suitable for one mind may be even destructive to another mind. Science produces facts and theories that can be used as building blocks for different worldviews, but it is not possible to put these worldviews into an objective order of preference.
The purposes of life for individual human beings stem from their individual worldviews, so it is futile to suggest rules-of-thumb that suit all of them. It is much easier to talk about the purpose of biological life, however.
The basic nature of life, based on how life is generally defined, is active self-preservation: life continuously maintains its form, spreads and adapts into different circumstances. The biological role of a living being is therefore to be part of an ecosystem, strengthening the ecosystem's potential for continued existence.
The longer there is life on Earth, the more likely it is to expand into outer space at some point of time. This expansion may already take place during the human era, but I don't think we should specifically strive for it before we have learned how to behave non-destructively. However, I'm all for the production of raw material and energy in space, if it helps us abstain from raping our home planet.
At their best, intelligent lifeforms could function as some sort of gardeners. Gardeners that strengthen and protect the life in their respective homeworlds and help spread it to other spheres. However, I don't dare to suggest that the current human species have the prequisites for this kind of role. At this moment, we are so lost that we couldn't become even a galactic plague.
Some people regard the human species as a mistake of evolution and want us to abandon everything that differentiates us from other animals. I see no problem per se in the natural behavior of homo sapiens, however: there's just an unfortunate misbalance of traits. We shouldn't therefore abandon reason, abstractions or constructivity but rebalance them with more conscious self-improvement and mental refinement.
5. The end of the world
It is not possible to save the world, if it means saving the current societies and consumer-centric lifestyles. At most, we can soften the crash a little bit. It is therefore more relevant to concentrate on activities that make the postapocalyptic world more life-friendly.
As there is still an increasing amount of communications technology and automation in the world, and the privileged even have increasingly more free time, these facilities should be used right now for sowing the seeds for a better world. If we start building alternative constructs only when the circumstances force us to, the transition will be extremely painful.
People increasingly dwell in easiness bubbles facilitated by technology. It is therefore a good idea to bring suitable signals and facilities into these bubbles. Video game technology, for example, can be used to help reclaim one's mind, life and material environment. Entertainment in general can be used to increase the interest in such a reclaim.
Many people imagine progress as a kind of unidirectional growth curve and therefore regard the postapocalyptic era as a "return to the past". However, the future world is more likely to become radically different from any previous historical era -- regardless of some possible "old-fashioned" aspects. It may therefore more relevant to use fantasy rather than history to envision the future.