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Humanism in the 21st Century

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I wrote in a previous entry about the population crisis currently in the offing, and I wanted to put down a few more remarks regarding its implications from a humanist perspective. The trends of the 20th century have thrown much of what we hold as sacred truth into serious question. In particular, I am concerned with what exponential growth implies for our long-cherished beliefs of “freedom”, “equality”, and “the greatest good for the greatest number”. For if the evidence before us is correct, we are analogous to a germ or a peculiar strain of bacteria, and we are no different in substance to that bloom of algae over the pond next door.  Having held a stable population under 1 Billion units for our entire previous existence, we passed that mark in 1804 and have quickly doubled since, hitting 2 Billion in 1927, 3 Billion in 1959, 4 Billion in 1974, and so forth up to today, where we stand at just under 7 Billion. Clearly some questions need answering.

Nearly all modern conceptions of morality have a strong dose of humanism at their root. Certainly all ideologies “to the left” have appealed at one point or another to a self-evident nobility of mankind. Modern humanism derives from the enlightenment philosophers, but one can trace its origins to the birth of monotheism, the human-centric universe, and the benevolent creator deity. One finds always a strong undercurrent of  human exceptionalism, the belief of man apart from his surroundings and capable of choosing his own destiny.

We want to believe we are different from the other manifestations of life, and even those who smugly declare that “man is an animal” do not truly believe this to be so.  It is convenient enough to compare aspects of our behavior – our will to dominate, for instance, or our obedience to authority – to that of the  lion or sheep. Some would go further to observe that our essential characteristics – the propensity to multiply or the DNA structure – are found throughout the animal and floral kingdoms, and conclude we are no different. But very few would dare compare humanity to those of the lower orders, the bacteria and fungi. Few can deny that there is “something more” humanity possesses, some special trait usually called  a “soul”, or if you are a scientist, “cognition”.

Thence flows much of our philosophies regarding “brotherhood of man”, “deliverance from suffering”, and so forth. “I think, therefore I am” implies much more than an affirmation of existence. It declares our separation from the natural realm, our unique and fundamental essence. It would be as if a housefly were to declare: “No other creature can fly or feed as I do. This is my natural essence and the only way I can be sure I exist. All matter exists outside of me, and my “essence” exists wholly outside the physical realm.” and then proceed to multiply at an exponential rate.

All our humanistic ideals, our desire to make the world a better place (for people), the philosophy that “man is the measure of all things”, and the conviction that man is an animal apart stem from Descartes’ famous declaration, refutations for which have since become apparent. Cognitive science dismantled, partially, the idea of mental phenomena as wholly separate from the physical realm, while our frightening proliferation across the globe throws the concept of human society removed from nature into serious question. And from these observations flow a few salient implications:

1) That plant and animal life is incompatible with human existence, save for those species directly involved with human survival.

By this I mean all lions, tigers, zebra, snakes, primates, etc. The only surviving animals will be the cow, the horse, the sheep, the chicken, etc. This trend already has a name (The Holocene Extinction Event), and has progressed to a marked extent, some sources estimating up to 250 unique species extinctions per day. Likewise our last remaining great forests, the Amazon and Congo, are being extracted at a rate of several thousand square miles per year, further exacerbating the problem. The point here is that such developments are inevitable – or at least highly encouraged – under exponential human population growth. It is significant that much of the deforested land has been converted to farms and cattle pasture.

2) That humanistic impulses to eliminate poverty, deprivation, suffering, etc. have a hidden restriction.

The restriction, of course, being the constant addition of new humans and the constant depletion of non-renewable resources. The poorest countries in the world also have the highest rates of growth, so efforts to eliminate poverty are always hampered by the ever-increasing number of persons actually in poverty. Likewise, many of the things we consider to reduce poverty – steady food, shelter, transportation, running water – have energy implications which are frightening to contemplate. As oil and coal are virtually the only sources, the question becomes: is there enough?

3) That resistance to climate change is anti-human in nature.

By this I mean that the expulsion of carbon dioxide is necessary for the proliferation and comfort of human beings – and if we are to stop emitting CO2, we must necessarily reduce our numbers or standard of living, or both.

We live now in a frightening world of resource depletion, exponential growth, and overpopulation. The most salient question of the 21st century is whether or not we can reconcile our humanistic beliefs with the situation before us.

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Written by pavanvan

September 25, 2009 at 5:36 pm

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