OCTOBER 28, 2014
To anyone worried about climate change the announcement by Lockheed Martin that it is developing a fusion reactor that will be ready for market within ten years could be seen as a cause for hope. Though I’ve yearned for this development for years, now I’m not so sure.
Our technologies are causing ecological degradation and climate change. But what is technology except an amplifier of the effects that our minds have on the world? It is what we desire and believe that is the ultimate cause. Our inability to moderate our desires, and our false beliefs are, through technology, writ large on the life, substance and natural systems of this planet. No technological fix can fix our lack of wisdom. If through technology we manage to avoid a looming disaster this will only encourage ‘business as usual’. Fusion might save us from climate change, but at the price of turbo-charging our despoiling of the Earth’s resources, our extermination of its other creatures and ecosystems. Even were we to find a way of surviving without these, they would be an incalculable loss.
Perhaps the solution to the Fermi Paradox is that any species acquiring godlike power without godlike wisdom destroys itself. The path we must follow is not that of conquering Nature, but is that of trying to understand her. This may not be the flashy, exhilarating rollercoaster ride that we have been on since at least the Industrial Revolution – and whose ultimate destination has become for many the stupendous godlike existences promised to us by some sci-fi writers. But then it is looking likely that rollercoaster rails are going to run out somewhere not very far ahead.
Seeking after wisdom is a path we have walked before. Everywhere and at all periods, people – sometimes whole societies – have attempted to walk it. It is true that many versions of this path were mixed up with metaphysical conjectures. In the face of Science, these religions clung to their imagined metaphysics, and so consigned their whole project to ruin. Science is a better tool for finding out about the universe than our imaginations. It is not however sufficient to tell us about ourselves, and has been admitting to that for some time now. Uncertainty principles, emergent properties of complexity, chaos theory are Science showing us its limits. The best instrument that we have for probing the mind’s complexities and possibilities, and exploring how we should live harmonious lives, is the mind itself. Science is advancing our understanding of reality and, through that understanding, is giving us ever more power. What is increasingly obvious is that we are not using much of that power wisely. Would it not make sense to set aside those powers that we are not yet wise enough to use without harming our world or ourselves?
A characteristic of our age is the speed of change. Why are we in such a hurry? If the rollercoaster is heading for disaster, why not get off and walk? We would be on a slower path, but a surer one. If we give ourselves the time, Earth could be a paradise. And however long it takes, we will be happily occupied: science and the exploration of our psyches are unending quests.