Evolution and Climate Change

Ken Wilber is one of the most original thinkers of our age. In his A Brief History of Everything he traces the path, the hierarchy, of evolution from sub-atomic particles right through to humanity. He points out that each step of increasing complexity, transcends what went before and opens up a potential that could not have been predicted from the prior individual components. So, for example, the various properties of a molecule could not have been anticipated from the properties of the atoms from which it is composed. Likewise the properties of bacteria, in which we already begin to discern ‘life’, could not have been predicted from those of simple molecules. And so it goes on; the ability for self-awareness and abstract thought in human beings could not be anticipated by considering other primates to whom we are remarkably, physically similar. Wilber characterizes each evolutionary stage as a holon; something which is whole in itself, but which emerges from and yet is quite different to the holon lower down the hierarchy. He also argues that transition from one holon to the next is accompanied by struggle and contradiction of some sort.

Now we have no reason to believe that evolution has come to an end with humankind. Indeed Wilber argues that, even if individual human beings have maintained a physical appearance similar to our pre-historic ancestors, and no doubt a similar genetic structure, humanity is nevertheless continuing to evolve in its understanding as it passes through increasingly sophisticated phases of awareness. Wilber’s argument is quite detailed, but we can note in particular the similarity with other commentators who have pointed to the Axial Age, the moment in about 3000 BC, when humankind, in different parts of the world, first became aware of the transcendent. This was the moment of the founding of the world’s great religious traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism of which Christianity and later Islam are outcrops.

Although Wilber makes little reference to him, his ideas on humanity’s continuing evolution echo those of Teilhard de Chardin (notably both priest and scientist) who, in the Phenomenon of Man, wrote about the emerging noosphere. Somehow humanity coalesces into something larger and more complex in which human knowledge and wisdom no longer reside in any particular individual. At a dinner party recently all manner of questions came up to which the reaction invariably was to ‘Google it’. Perhaps we’re already living in the noosphere. Google’s cloud, Wikipedia and so on contain a great deal of knowledge which can no longer be located or associated with any particular individual but rather with humanity as a whole. And if, as some extreme pessimists believe, most of humanity, most individual humans, are wiped out by climate change will human knowledge survive? I like to think it will somehow, somewhere. The noosphere becomes a new holon largely independent of the lower steps in the evolutionary hierarchy.

But what has this got to do with the seemingly more concrete problem of the environmental challenges that the humanity now faces? Well it is the first truly global problem, the first to be faced by humanity as a whole, by this new ‘holon’ or de Chardin’s noosphere. No individual or collection of individuals can solve it on their own[1]. Economists would call this a ‘free-rider’ issue, but it a free-rider issue on a scale never before experienced. And, as Wilber would have anticipated, the coming into being of this new holon in such a way that it can act effectively, is a moment of struggle – like a new birth. This is the background against which to see the outcome of the COP21, the Paris Conference on Climate Change which took place in December 2015. It was the first time that representatives of the whole of humanity, the emergent noosphere agreed to act together – albeit for now tentatively and inadequately – against a perceived common problem. It remains to be seen what happens next, but it seems to me that on that occasion a step transition occurred – an evolutionary jump [2].

One could perhaps cite other earlier occasions when the noosphere acted. The proclamation of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights being a candidate, though that was largely the outcome of a group of countries, recently successful in world war, imposing (if that is not too strong a word) on others. Or we could consider Neil Armstrong’s: ‘That’s one small step for man one giant leap for mankind’ in 1969 as he steps onto the Moon. But notwithstanding his sentiment the event was in fact the outcome of a ‘space race’ between two nations, not the action of humanity as a whole. Still, these are unimportant debating points.

And to point to the 2015 Paris Conference as an act of the noosphere in no way belittles the hugely critical preparation done by many individuals (other holons, lower down the hierarchy!), nor the very skillful diplomacy of the French hosts. Personally I would add to this the action of Pope Francis (and his team) in writing his timely encyclical Laudato Si. I believe, though it could never be demonstrated, that this radical, critical but ultimately hopeful document, read and commented upon by millions of people prior to the Conference, had an enormous influence on its outcome. And to me it is significant that this document, with its lyrical description of the beauty of Creation and its insistence on the Earth as a common home for all of humanity, came from the pen of the leader of the world’s largest religious organisation, an organisation which proclaims a set of values somewhat at odds with those by which most of us live our lives.

Now dear reader, you may ask: What’s the point of this rather abstract discussion of holons and the noosphere? What does it add? Well for me it shows that there are still new, emergent possibilities, scarcely discerned for now, for humanity as a body, as a new holon, to act in the face of a common problem. And here I think we have reason to hope for the world and for the future of humanity. But just as an atom does not ‘know’ that it is part of a molecule, we may not yet appreciate what is actually happening here.

[1] Nevertheless, wealthy individuals and nations may be able to protect themselves for a while against some of the consequences of environmental destruction. Billionaires will be inclined still to fly around the world in their private jets, even while the poor are driven into destitution by the consequences of climate change – one reason why inequality in the distribution of wealth and income is so crucial.

[2] Notwithstanding the idea of slow change through natural selection, there is evidence that evolution frequently occurs by such sudden unanticipated jumps.

End of the era of mass consumption?

Yesterday (18 January) Steve Howard, IKEA’s head of sustainability said that we are witnessing a ‘peak’ in home furnishings – like peak oil (!) Today it is announced that China’s growth rate  has fallen to its lowest level, at 6.9%, in twenty five years, primarily as a result of slow down in manufacturing. Are we beginning to see the end of the era of mass consumption? There will certainly come a day, sometime, when people give up worshipping this false god. According to Grant McKraken: ‘Consumer culture perpetuates itself here precisely because it succeeds so well at failure.’ It offers a brief flicker of satisfaction which quickly dies away.

Then of course there are the arguments made by Robert Gordon in his famous 2012 article and his new book, that high rates of economic growth, as witnessed over the last 250 years,  are a thing of the past – at least for countries on the technological frontier, such as the US and Europe. His explanation is that there is no technical discovery on the horizon that could have anything like the same impact as that of first steam power and then electricity. (The telegraph was a more significant innovation than the internet.) So if we’re going to see decling demand as people get turned off mass-consumption, and declining supply of technical innovation all the government and central banks playing with mirrors will not restore economic growth. A more likely outcome will be, again, asset price inflation which will only further increase wealth inequality.

Yet in the West we live in an economy of great abundance. There is no absolute need for people to be homeless or cold or hungry. But there is a need to rethink economic institutions and structures so that thise abundance is shared more equally.  For this, at the moment a universal basic or citizen income seems to be the best idea around.