On superpowers

Hubris calls for nemesis, and in one form or another it’s going to get it, not as a punishment from outside but as the completion of a pattern already started.

Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live by

According to Stewart Brand, we are as gods; and this certainly seems to be a widespread view, judging by the sort of thing people seem to think they can get away with. I’m not just talking about the Darwin Awards, although some of those stories are quite revealing. There are more than a few divine of quasi-divine attributes that we in the industrial world believe – or would like to believe – we possess.

We can live forever

One of the many interesting things which the Covid-19 pandemic has flushed out of the cultural woodwork is just how poorly our civilisation copes with death. People do of course die all the time, but we make heroic efforts not to notice this unless the people in question are our close relatives or celebrities (categories that for many people seem to merge into one another). A death can be tragic, but that’s to do with the surrounding circumstances and not because death in itself always is.

I personally would hope to have a good death after a life well lived. This used to be a common attitude, but to many people the whole notion of “a good death” seems paradoxical. Consequently, some of our more avant-garde would-be deities are seriously claiming that death is now optional, or will be soon, or at any rate ought to be.

We can go faster than a speeding bullet

The fastest speed ever attained by a human being is 39,897 km/h (24790.85 mph), which I guess is technically faster than the speed of a bullet (generally somewhere between between 370 m/s and 460 m/s). On the other hand, this was achieved basically by falling from an extremely great height, which is not that amazing a trick. Inanimate objects can and do pull that one off all the time; some meteors may be travelling at close to the speed of light when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere. And on a more mundane level, no human being can run anything like as fast as a cheetah, for example.

We can go to the stars

Elon Musk’s grandiose plans to colonise Mars are, on his own admission, merely the preliminary to spreading across the entire galaxy. We can debate whether this would be a good idea if it were a practical possibility – you won’t be surprised I think it wouldn’t be – but it isn’t a practical possibility, and we might as well admit it. The distances involved are too vast, the time and energy and materials required are all on far too gigantic a scale.

With immense effort and expenditure, we just about managed to get a few people to the Moon and back, which in galactic terms is almost nothing. If we do somehow get human beings to Mars, there doesn’t seem to be much chance of ever getting them back again. (Apparently there are some people who are up for that. It takes all sorts.) Even the outer planets of our own solar system would appear to be off-limits, let alone other star-systems.

There’s a reason why unmanned probes are considered the way forward in space exploration nowadays.

We can terraform other planets

Even if we could get to other planets (and back again), there is the small matter of living there. We evolved to live on this planet, which offers a number of conveniences such as a breathable atmosphere, shielding from toxic radiation, and a comfortable amount of gravity. None of those are available elsewhere, and providing them for ourselves is not going to be easy.

It has been usefully pointed out that Antarctica is far more human-friendly environment than, say, Mars. Antarctica is not especially pleasant. Its human population today consists entirely of research scientists whose work obliges them to be there, and those people are not camping out and living off the land.

I’m not in favour of trying to “improve” Antarctica by terraforming techniques, but it would be a darn sight easier than trying to do it to another planet. Apart from anything else, assembling the equipment and workers required and shunting them down to the Southern Ocean would be a picnic compared to doing the same just for the distance between here and Mars, our nearest planet, let alone exoplanets.

We can do what we like to this planet

I suppose this one is true – although if we wanted, say, to move the Himalayas three feet to the left it might pose a bit of a challenge – but we need to be realistic about the consequences of our actions. We are currently trying to burn down the Amazon rain-forest, for example. We may even succeed in this project, but if we do we shall regret it. As Satish Kumar has pointed out: “If we ever win the war against nature, we will find ourselves on the losing side.”

Human beings have wiped out the seemingly inexhaustible numbers of the passenger pigeon and almost did the same to the plains buffalo. Indeed, exhausting the apparently inexhaustible is our party trick. According to some researchers, we will soon have removed all the fish from the sea; which, impressive at it kind of is in one way, is surely an extraordinarily bad move, even from the narrow perspective of commercial fisheries.

We (can or will) know everything

Many, many years ago, an Oxford undergraduate wrote a skit featuring many of the prominent dons of his time, starting with the then Master of Balliol, Benjamin Jowett:

First come I, my name is Jowett;

There’s no knowledge but I know it.

I am the Master of this college,

What I know not is not knowledge.

Anon.

This is the intellectual life of Western civilisation in a nutshell. The truth is that our collective ignorance is nothing short of encyclopaedic. We know almost nothing, for example, of the life of the soil under our feet, on which our lives depend. We can only guess how many species we are rendering extinct, because we only have a very patchy knowledge of what species there were to begin with.

Mathematics is an honourable exception to this tendency, because it has the honesty to admit – indeed, to rigorously define – questions that cannot be decided, propositions that can never be shown to be true or false. But of course industrial civilisation only cares about mathematics to the extent that you can make a buck out of it, which indeed is the only extent to which it cares about anything.

Another relevant saying here is one attributed to Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” There is a great deal of such “knowledge” underpinning much of our civilisation; I can highly recommend this list from Wendell Berry as a starting-point for your explorations.

We are unique and special

And we are, of course; as is the orang-utan, the coelacanth, and the pistol shrimp. And so were the dodo, the elephant bird, and Gardiner’s giant mite. Unlike them, we’re still around, although if we carry on like this we may not be for much longer.

Is this sustainable?

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

2 thoughts on “On superpowers

  1. Good post!

    How much do you think our pursuit of godlike power, knowledge and control of each other and our environments… is simply because we don’t know how to enjoy ourselves? How to be content with life as it is? From my perspective, we don’t really need much to be truly *fulfilled* as human beings. Life is simple. But obviously, not to everyone…

    Like

    1. I think a lot of it has to do with not having a sense of purpose or belonging any more. It certainly seems to be a disorder of industrial civilisation rather than an intrinsic part of the human condition. Above a very, very low threshold, we don’t actually need riches or power in order to be happy, and seeing what a (materially) high standard of living has done to us I suspect it’s counter-productive.

      Life is indeed simple, but that doesn’t always make it easy…

      Liked by 1 person

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