Essay from Christopher Bernard

Photo from astronaut Ron Garan

Photo from astronaut Ron Garan

Toward an Ecological Civilization: A Manifesto for the 21st Century

By Christopher Bernard

I am no moral authority—am neither a rabbi nor an imam, a minister nor a pope. But, as an average straight older European American male, I am deeply concerned about a future I may see only the dark, leading edge of, but that will be affected in many small ways by the life I and others like me have lived, to say nothing of our material “afterlife”: our words and actions and their effects, which will last long after our physical existence is over. And so this is as much a personal statement as it is a call to thought and action.

I offer the following as a modest part of a debate we will, all of us, need to have about the long-term future of life, including the life of human beings, on earth. The phrase “ecological civilization” is not a new one; it has become current over the last several years in a number of environmental circles, though its first official use may have been by the Sino-German Environment Partnership, which in 2012 used the phrase to describe the heart of its mission.

That we need to create a way of life in better balance with nature if we as a species hope to have a tolerable future is something most of us, I suspect, would agree on. I will not waste time in describing and trying to justify the sense that we are in a plight that is indeed dire, possibly as great as the human race as a whole has ever faced. The question is how to achieve that new balance. I describe below several basic goals to keep in mind as we take thought on how to act to face a crisis that will drastically affect the future life of the human species, even its survival, and the fate of all of life on earth.

In the following I sometimes take a deliberately provocative tone; I do this to inspire response and engagement, not in mere comments on the internet, but in the analog world where we live, breathe and have our being—and where we will decide how, and if, we will live in the future.

Five Goals for the 21st Century

Because a consensus of environmental scientists has concluded that, through its many environmental impacts, including, but not limited to

global warming and climate change,

species destruction and loss of biodiversity,

permanent loss of nonrenewable resources,

ocean acidification, with the imminent loss of much of current marine life,

high concentrations of soil nitrogen that will severely damage future agricultural fertility,

and other massive environmental deficits,

modern civilization presents a clear and present danger to human life, the higher mammals and many species of animal and plant life on planet earth—in particular:

modern civilization is headed for a possible catastrophe that could make much of planet earth uninhabitable, or only marginally inhabitable, by the human species and will certainly destroy many species currently alive, thereby hurting the rich gene pool available to future life on earth; leading, in short, to the multiple dangers of ecocide and a holocaust of the species, a multiple genocide that can only be compared to catastrophic geological and astrophysical events in the remote past –

we hereby proclaim the following as the minimal goals of global civilization as a whole by the end of the twenty-first century (the following list and descriptions are neither comprehensive nor complete; however, they describe some of the minimums that, in my own necessarily limited judgment, are required):

  1. Zero Carbon: We Must Reduce Our Use of Fossil Fuels to Zero. We, the human species, must eliminate our use of fossil fuels for the generation of energy through combustion—including, but not limited to, petroleum in all its forms, coal and gas—entirely, in every country, on every continent, on the sea, on land and in the air, by the end of this century.

  1. Smaller, Lighter, Stronger: We Just Reduce the Human Impact on the Earth’s Ecosystem. We must drastically reduce the human impact (through contraction both of our population and of our civilization as a whole) to an ecologically sustainable level in which the human species and most currently existing species will be able to survive indefinitely without catastrophic damage due to the activities of one species—namely, our own. Either we, the human species, will contract modern civilization deliberately and at a pace that we set, or nature will contract it for us violently and suddenly. We are living in a kind of “bubble civilization” that now encompasses the globe and, as we know from capitalist economies, when bubbles burst, they burst catastrophically and often without warning.

  2. Scrub Out the Carbon: We Must Reduce the Carbon Currently in the Atmosphere to Ecologically Sustainable Levels. We must actively reduce the greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere to pre-1970 levels; for example, through reforesting the northern hemisphere and the Amazonian and African rainforests, the forests of Madagascar, Malaysia and Indonesia, increasing the practice of vegetable diets and reducing our dependency on meat and fish accordingly, and such methods of carbon sequestration and capture as enhanced weathering, scrubbing towers, artificial trees, and biochar.

  1. In It for Keeps: We Must Create a Renewable Resource Economy That Has the Prospect of Survival Into the Indefinite Future. We had such an economy, based on primitive forms of agriculture, for several thousand years; we must create a new renewable-resource economy based entirely on the far more effective forms of agriculture, resource recycling (the ultimate ecological resource feedback loop) and renewable energy sources (solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower including tidal energy generation, etc.) invented over the last several centuries that (1) is sustainable indefinitely into the future and that (2) reduces species extinction rates to pre-industrial levels.

  1. A New Humanity: We Must Create a New Human Genome. We must create a new human being through recombinant DNA techniques by engineering a human genome that, as far as possible, eliminates the human instinct for self-destructive hubris and extreme violence, and that strengthens our capacity for moral courage, deepens our capacity for loyalty, compassion and concern for others, reduces our susceptibility to fear, aggression and hubris and reinforces our instinct to cooperate with each other and with other life forms to attain desirable ecological and social goals while keeping our drive to compete, which has led to the splendors of civilization as well as to its most heinous crimes, within nonviolent limits.

Some remedies for the human genome to explore might include (1) creating a “satiety” gene, much like the trigger we have in our gastrointestinal tracts that tells us when we have eaten enough and then switches off our desire for food – though in this case it would be for money, drink, possessions, drugs, power; (2) introducing a gene or gene complex that makes it impossible for us to inflict harm of any kind, physical, psychological, political, economic, on a fellow human being; and (3) rewiring our nervous system so that, contrary to the way it is now (when it has been proven in many studies that people are more sensitive, for example, to financial loss than to gain, to memories of pain than to memories of pleasure, to the fear of future suffering than the prospect of future happiness), we will be less sensitive to pain, loss and misery – more willing to take them for granted, and become numb to them as part of the inevitable background noise of human existence – and become, on the contrary, both more sensitive to pleasures, both small and great, as we experience them and as we anticipate them, and less susceptible to tedium and boredom, so that every moment seems to us fresh and new, with the shine of our first experiences in childhood even as we gain greater mastery over our world as we mature as adults.

In summary, by the end of the twenty-first century we must have created an ecological civilization, one that lives in a dynamic harmony and balance with the rest of the natural world on planet earth.

Is all of this likely to happen? Despite the fact that we already have, or soon will have, the means to reach many of these goals, if those means are applied immediately and universally, the only candid answer is no, it is not; and least of all the fifth requirement, even though it is possibly the most important thing that we will need to do: as long as we remain a primate that is best adapted to a hunter-gather way of life in small groups in a richly fertile wilderness and yet has world-changing and potentially world-destroying technologies, with enough cleverness to invent them but not enough to use them with constraint and wisdom, we will remain a mortal danger to ourselves and to any creature that we do or can affect.

The Need for Transformation: From Modernity to Ecology

Without such a transformation of humanity—a transformation that has been sought down the ages through religion, through education, through political and social and economic revolution, all of them failures up to now, as we now know—humanity may destroy itself and anything else it is able to in a delirium of fear, delusion, hatred, magical thinking and intoxication with self, as has been proven again and again in human history. Whatever humanity can destroy, it has shown repeatedly that it will destroy eventually—out of boredom, machismo, economic and political frustration, sociopathy, psychosis; this has been the story of human civilization for the last 5,000 years. This is the first time we have had the capacity to perform such destruction on a global scale, which is why our situation is so alarming.

Modern capitalist civilization—“modernity,” in a word—is, in the opinion of some, based on a misunderstanding of the basic principle that governs living organisms: it overemphasizes certain aspects of life while de-emphasizing or ignoring others, some of which may be the most fundamental of all. We have reason to believe that the fundamental law of life, of survival and flourishing, is cooperation, not competition, as we have believed since Darwin published On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection a century and a half ago, and Herbert Spencer subsequently coined the term “survival of the fittest.” For every act of competition, even in the internecine world of capitalism, there are a thousand acts of cooperation. Ask yourself this simple question: On any given day, how often do you compete, toe to toe, with another individual? Did you in fact compete murderously for the sandwich you had for lunch? Was it a really death match before you could take your seat on the bus? Did you actually have to kill the driver next to you to decide who would cross that intersection first?

Competition between individuals and species for survival seems to be a fairly late development in evolution, the product of large-scale organisms that required dense increments of energy through protein ingestion that they could only get through killing and eating other high-protein creatures like themselves, and that reproduced through sexual selection, thus making competition for mates an evolutionary priority.

But during the first two billion years of life on earth there is strong evidence to suggest that the micro-organisms that were the only living things on earth lived essentially through symbiotic, that is, through mutually supporting ecosystemic networks. The plant life that emerged afterward can be seen, arguably, as not based on competition but on the use of available resources of sunlight, water and minerals that are equally available—or equally scarce—for all.

Our projection of competition onto all of nature is not entirely inaccurate, of course—the struggle for existence is too evident for us to discount it as an illusion—but like many a deceptive idea, it owes its deception to being overdrawn, in this case because it is based on the privileging of competition in the western and capitalist economic, political and cultural system: what is in nature a specialized form of adaptation is mistakenly understood to be the only one and form of adaptation. We have based our civilization on that valid insight gone wrong, as well as on many other mistakes—not least of which is the heroic, and sometimes demonic, humanism of Western civilization, which combines the myth of the special creation of man in the image of God and the heritage of Greco-Roman humanism revived in the Renaissance with the overly focused rationalism of the Enlightenment, industrialism, and capitalism that has become the intoxicating, addictive, species-cidal and self-destructive brew of the modern world.

The New Humanity: Why Do We Have To? How Do We Dare?

Many will find the fifth goal troubling. Why must human beings be changed so radically? And how can we take it on ourselves to “play God” in deciding what human traits are to be encouraged and reinforced, and what traits discouraged or even eliminated? Doesn’t this reek of the very arrogance we need to eliminate?

Perhaps it does. But we have little choice in the matter: every effort to change society, to change ourselves, to change our world, whether for good or for evil, has succeeded only insofar as we have had the courage to act, often blindly, recklessly and callously, and on completely inadequate information. Now, when our capacity to do great good has been so powerfully shown to be countered by the evil effects of many of those same actions, we have no choice but to use our imagination, our talents, our intellect and our will to engage even more deeply in a world that we have already changed for good (it is, unfortunately, not hyperbolic, merely accurate, to say that) into a form that we and the rest of life on earth can and will, in the bluntest sense, be able to live with. And that must include changing ourselves down to the very roots of our being.

Changing the human genome is the logical next step in the education of the human species toward adaptation in a world that we have already changed irremediably. Is it dangerous? Of course it is dangerous. But not to do so would be fatal.

A New Humanity, A New Civilization

It is widely recognized that a fundamental problem with us human beings is that we are not well-adapted genetically to life in civilization, whereas we are very well adapted to life as hunter gatherers, which we were for many millennia before the first agriculturalist discovered that, at a certain season, he or she could plant a nut and soon it would flower. In order to live in civilization we have become addicted to illusion and fantasy of many different kinds, from drug and alcohol addiction to psychological addictions to success, celebrity, money, power. Civilized man is also neurotic man; many of us are in thrall to delusions that often keep us from facing and dealing with our real problems in a realistic way.

Since going back to a life as hunter-gatherers is not a likely possibility (if we destroy modern civilization, we will probably also destroy humanity itself, so hoping for a neo-paleo way of life is, however attractive to some, unlikely to be helpful), we have to adapt to the complex social order that we have created.

We must create a human being who is courageous and forthright enough to face any truth, however harsh, with gentleness, resourcefulness and endurance. This is what the current human being finds it impossible to do in any but the rarest of circumstances, even though many human beings see it as morally, and even spiritually, desirable to be able to behave this way at all times.

Our Choice: Transformation or Tragedy

It is in our hands to escape the crisis that we have created. And not only to escape it but to create the foundations of a long-lived human order within the natural order that created us, that is our parent and has been our unacknowledged guardian since the beginning of the human adventure several hundred thousand years ago, when we first left the trees near the Olduvai Gorge in eastern Africa.

Let us not allow the human adventure to turn into a human tragedy because of a civilization that is fueled by drives that may have helped us survive the first millennia of our existence but that today—when our power threatens to outweigh our wisdom and to overwhelm us like a Mephistopheles mocking a Faust who made a very foolish bargain and now must pay the price—merely encourages rapacity, arrogance, fear, greed and contempt for other forms of life.

What we must do, collectively and individually may seem vast, but so were the efforts of our ancestors over the centuries and, above all, over the last centuries that led, directly and indirectly, to this crisis. This is not a time for despair at the immensity of our task. Now is the time to act, bravely but also cautiously, wisely and faithfully—out of love of family, of friends, of the planet that is our home, of nature, and in the belief that, despite all the evil and folly that we humans are capable of, we are also capable of great and lasting good. Every newborn creature, human or otherwise, is a renewal of that hope.

Life on earth is sacred, and we must honor its sacredness, or we will be judged accordingly. Our own existence depends on the order of living nature; if we destroy that order, we will only destroy ourselves as well. Other civilizations have caused their own destruction because they did not understand or respect that law. We do not have the excuse of ignorance. We have two choices: to change and live, or not to change, and die. This is the law of life, of evolution, of nature, of our sacred traditions, of civilization itself. There is no alternative.

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Christopher Bernard is a journalist, novelist and poet; he is author of several books of fiction and poetry, including A Spy in the Ruins, The Rose Shipwreck and In the American Night. His novel Voyage to a Phantom City and his short-story collection Dangerous Stories for Boys are slated for publication later this year. He is coeditor of Caveat Lector and a regular contributor to Synchronized Chaos.