2. Hostile environments

Summary: Ingenuity helps create critical situations from which humans are unable to emerge. Societies often become accustomed to hardship, unmotivated to prevent it. While learning is one of the human species' special skills, it sometimes fails. Innovation has unpredictable results that defy solutions unless humans are boldly creative. Science creates complex factors such pollution related disease, or climate change. Subjugating nature is part of man's culture, but while science has given us powers for dominating nature, it has created new forces that we cannot easily overcome.


    One explanation for our failure to learn about environmental degradation may be the very slow pace at which we learn about our world. Merlin Donald, in Origins of the Modern Mind points out that in human evolution this learning process is minutely refined and very slow indeed. Clearly, if we innovate much faster than we learn, we will land up in hot water.
    At the start of the new millennium there are ominous signs, particularly from the environment, that our technical progress often has harmful side effects that we cannot easily undo. Stratospheric ozone loss and accompanying cancer cases loom large. So does global warming, with climate change and extremes in weather. Desertification, along with exacerbated overpopulation and hunger, are also crying out for attention. On their own these have not yet produced disasters so massive that social reform is energetic and universal. Fossil-fuel burning contributes to global warming, and military conflict in oil-producing areas causes great damage, but not enough to prompt abandonment of fossil fuels. Quite the contrary: just when we should eagerly be using energy which does not involve the burning of burn fossil fuel, we rapaciously accelerate the use of that very commodity, literally adding fuel to the fire.

    The idea of subjugating and manipulating nature as the first farmers did, still drives human endeavour. As Sigmund Freud put it in Civilization and its Discontents,* "Against the dreaded external world one can only defend oneself by...becoming a member of the human community, and, with the help of...science, going over to the attack on nature and subjecting her to the human will."

* Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, W. W. Norton, New York, 1989, p. 27.