Thursday, September 13, 2018


The Great Filter...and Beyond

I must confess to feeling like I’ve been traversing a morass, the molasses-tarbaby into which I fell in the last post. The whole point of “Losing Earth” and its critics is to assign blame for our apparent failure to steward the Earth and to steward a future for our offspring. I found myself agreeing in some ways with both sides, thus the tarbaby.

But what if there is no blame at the level of either individual choice or social system/policy? There may well be something at the species level that dooms us to prefer maximizing present advantages to planning for a longterm future we can neither understand nor imagine. This is the position of Craig Dilworth, and I have yet to read a a cogent counterargument to his Too Smart for Our Own Good.

Another line of thinking derives from Fermi’s Paradox, the apparent contradiction between the high probability for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for them. As Fermi said, “Where is everybody?” Robin Hanson and Glen Brin have responded with the idea that the Great Silence with which we are greeted from apparently dead space is caused by the “Great Filter”: it is in the nature of advanced civilizations to destroy themselves before they get to the point of colonizing other suitable planets. This occurs either by (something like) nuclear war, ecological collapse, or simply because complex civilizations fall victim to their own complexity. One writer noted that the success of complex civilizations means that they grow until they outstrip their energy resources, and in the process doom themselves to death by carbon.

Advanced industrial civilizations extract so much from their planetary base that they eventually destroy their very conditions for life. If life on other planets – and the odds are huge that it is commonplace in the universe – does not reach the level of interplanetary communication or travel, then it is either because it never reached the level of complexity of our global civilization, or it was able to restrain itself before it reached the Great Filter. Many Hindu sages point to the legend about their ancient forebears backing off rocketry, because ancestral sages foresaw the inevitable results. This may not be true, but respect for wisdom, rather than power, would certainly rein in the potential for a civilization to project itself far into interstellar space. But look at India now, trying to be like the US as fast as possible, and using more coal per energy unit than any other nation on Earth. In the case of the lost decade in the Climate Wars, it is not neoliberalism per se that was the culprit. The socio-political structure was going to somehow manifest this flaw in hyperadvanced higher life forms.
I am a deeply spiritual person, and I agree that the spiritual maturation of the species would mean that anthropogenic climate change would never have become our endgame. Nobody wants to give up on the prospect of breaking through to the level of species wisdom for which I referenced Joanna Macy’s comments in my last post. As Thomas Berry wrote in The Great Work, we need “to reinvent the human at the species level.” But when Gary Snyder was asked about when he thought humans would reach that level, he answered with a chuckle, “ten thousand years.”

In the meantime, what do we do now? E.O. Wilson keeps emphasizing conserving hotspots (his latest, perhaps bravest book is Half Earth, arguing for putting half of the Earth aside for other species). We will not be able to preserve coastal cities, grainbelts, and fisheries. Conserving genetically diverse hot spots will help prime the evolutionary pump for the next efflorescence, the rapid speciation which will follow, when the time is ripe, the current Sixth Extinction.

Even if it is too late to save civilization, which has not been so kind to the Earth community, even if we have broken our covenant with the Unnameable, those of us who are faithful need to avoid cynicism and despair. (Not easy, my friends!) We need to live and work as if we were in covenant relationship with God. We need to work to restore the covenant, recognizing that this will not bear fruit in this incarnation of higher life. The end is near, and the future will unfold, but living in affirmation of that future, preserving what we can of gene pools and best practices, even as the culture for those practices heads into its death spiral, is the task. This is the huge role of spiritual leaders, conservationists, traditional culture bearers, teachers, and honest, caring writers and artists.

It is unutterably sad to observe that the desperately needed transformation of humans simply has not happened quickly enough to avert climate catastrophe. I mourn the end of the holocene period and the splendid, diverse array of life the era which has been our home, the cenozoic. But the basis for true hope lies in the regenerative potential of evolution on Earth. In the end, we must not read Biblical hope locally in terms of life in the holocene, or even in terms of Earth. history The Creator is not simply a middle eastern sky god hanging out in an Islamic Paradise Garden trying to manage his wayward children. “He” is the Unnameable, creator and lord of worlds upon worlds, with no limits. Not only does She (It) not look like your grandfather; God isn’t even a noun, which is form of hypostasy and idolatry. Godding (GK Chesterton) is the process by which the indwelling Source manifests itself throughout Creation.

I have many conversations these days with folks where we agree that those of us alive today will neither save nor lose the Earth, for she will endure. The biggest fault in the Nathaniel Rich piece is in the false title, chosen for dramatic effect, “Losing Earth.” Balderdash. As I have posted here before, there are one to two billion years of evolutionary history ahead of us on this sweet spot in the Universe. And now astronomers and astrophysicists are realizing another insight of the ancient Hindus, that the universe is not a one-time event. It is not a Big Bang as much as a Big Bounce. The cosmological theory that has reigned during my lifetime is fast being replaced by one that fits the facts better. The universe appears, ends, and reappears. It is regenerative. That is another story, one which both reinforces a sense of covenant stewardship towards the Deep Future and helps us forgive ourselves for failing this time around.

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