Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Too Much of a Good Thing

I am wondering if you optimistic or pessimistic about the long-term survival and well-being of the human species?

I try to be optimistic, but sometimes it is hard. When I see some of the foolishness that can become widely accepted, I fear that the human species has the capacity to walk straight off of an evolutionary cliff into extinction and either denies that the cliff is there, or admit that there is a cliff but that humans are immune to the effects of gravity.

These thoughts are inspired, in part, by a recent Supreme Court decision that the Environmental Protection Agency needs to do more to justify the claim that excess carbon dioxide is not harmful to human health, before it can justify its claim that the Clean Air Act does not require its regulation.

Of course, for the purposes of this blog, I am not here to report what the Clean Air Act does or does not require of the EPA. My interest is in the widespread popularity that carbon dioxide cannot be considered bad for us because, at historic concentrations, it produces beneficial effects.

Let’s see . . . how many substances are good for us when we are exposed to them within certain confined ranges, but will kill us when its concentration goes outside of those limits?

Like . . . radiation. We would be unable to survive in a universe without radiation. Heat is infrared radiation. Without a source of heat, we would all be dead by now. In fact, the human body produces radiation in the form of infrared energy. Visible light is another band of radiation. The radio waves that we use to communicate provide another example of useful radiation.

Now, imagine somebody trying to argue that because all of these forms of radiation are useful or even necessary for life, that an atomic bomb could not possibly have any ill effects. “Radiation is our friend. Radiation is a source of life. All of those people who are claiming that an atomic bomb can kill people and destroy cities are simply using scare tactics to push a political agenda.”

Pharmaceuticals provide another example of chemicals that can be useful within certain prescribed limits (and I use the term ‘prescribed’ intentionally). Certain pain relievers are quite effective when taken in small quantities. Take too many of them all at once, and you will die. Anti-depressants are another group in this category. Toothpaste is great for helping to build strong teeth; yet swallowing enough toothpaste is fatal.

Even water is poisonous in large enough quantities. Not long ago, a radio station in held a contest where it would give an iPod to whomever can go the longest without going to the bathroom. They required that their contestants drink a certain amount of water over that time, and the last one to go to the bathroom won. One of those contestants, a mother of three, came in second. Later, she died. Cause of death – water intoxication.

This idea that too much of a good thing is not necessarily good is widely known. We draw on these principles every day. Yet, some people argue that because carbon dioxide is not harmful in normal concentrations, that it cannot produce ill effects at higher concentrations. People say this, and other people allow themselves to be convinced by it. In fact, enough people allow themselves to think this way that they can affect national policy.

It’s stuff like this that makes it clear that enough people can lead the human race right off of an evolutionary cliff, and either deny the existence or deny the importance of that cliff.

I’m not saying that global warming itself threatens the well-being of the human species. I am saying that if something like global warming were to threaten the well-being of the human species, that too many humans will blind themselves to the threat until it is too late.

When we combine this uncanny ability on the part of most humans to ignore reality with another human trait, the threat becomes all the more serious. This is the fact that a great many wealthy and powerful people, concerned only about their immediate short-term well being, if given a choice between a few hundred million dollars today or the long-term well-being of the human race, will choose the former, and will face no moral censure because of it.

The problem here is not the fact that some wealthy and powerful people are evil. Among a sufficiently large population, that is to be expected. The problem is not that wealthy and powerful people can commit great evil and get away with it. Sometimes, they are simply too powerful for good people to resist.

But where to wealthy and powerful people get their power?

Hitler would have been nothing but an impoverished criminal without an army of regular people willing to serve him. The same is true of Lenin. This makes me wonder whether the founding of this country was the result of people actually, intelligently binding themselves to an enlightenment morality, or whether we got lucky and, just this once, people blindly flocked to an idea that, quite by chance and not at all by skill, actually had some merit.

The executives at Exxon-Mobile would be greeters at Wal-Mart if not for the fact that there is an army of regular people contributing to their practice of destroying trillions of dollars of future well-being (mostly paid for by the poor people of the world) for the sake of adding millions to their own bank accounts.

Tobacco companies would be impoverished, if not for an army of regular people helping to get one generation after another addicted to their products.

The Bush Administration would not be able to engage in all of the moral crimes that it has committed without a sufficiently large number of regular people willing to support his actions and even to execute them.

Without the willing cooperation of regular people in large numbers to contribute to these movements – ignoring every-day facts such as, “In some cases, too much of a good thing can kill you,” when they are told to do so.

When a sufficiently large percentage of the population is willing to blind themselves so thoroughly, it is not at all unreasonable to worry if that majority could ignore an obvious cliff, that somebody who cared more about current wealth and power than the future well-being of humanity, told them to ignore.

It is a cause for concern. We could sit back and confidently assert that nothing bad could possibly happen - that everything will work out in the end. However, this is not entirely true. In the history of the universe, it is not unreasonable to expect that more than one society will reach our level of technological and social development, and wipe itself out. The question of whether humans will be in that list has not been answered.


Thayne said...

Alonzo --

Put me in the pessimistic camp.

Nuclear weapons, combined with the human qualities you discussed have me feeling pretty glum about the future of humanity. I wouldn't be at all suprised to see a nuclear attack somewhere in the world within my lifetime. Indeed, I'd probably bet on it.

I heard on NPR a couple of weeks ago that right now there are 9 counties with nuclear weapons, but 9 new countries are expected within a decade.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I have always been of the opinion that a nuclear terrorist attack was inevitable - a matter of time.

It's like the inevitability of an asteroid hitting the earth, or a major tsunami wiping out huge regions of coastline, or a supervolcano going off, or a new plaque.

The human race has survived worse.

My two major concerns are:

(1) A global Christian/Muslim holy war (with its environmental and economic devitation).

(2) That each generation will end up being worse off than the preceeding generation because of the preceeding generation's selfishness - that everything will go slowly downhill.

Examples of item (2) include the fact that we are spending the next generation's income at the rate of $500 million per year. We enjoy spending the money, but the next generation gets the bill in terms of a multi-trillion-dollar national debt. We sacrifice their economic well-being for the sake of our current consumption.

It also includes global warming. Bush says that we cannot take action against this because it will damage the economy. Again, this is a case where we obtain the benefits, and we force future generations to pay the bill. That bill will make the national debt look like pocket change.

But, what do we care? We're not the ones who have to pay it, so we have no incentive to consider what it would be.

It's like living off of somebody else's credit card - somebody who has not even been born yet and cannot take the credit card away from us regardless of how much we abuse it.

Seven Star Hand said...

Did you ever consider that greed and ignorance in the forms of money, religion, and politics are the root causes of global warming and much other human folly? The only permanent cure for ignorance and folly are truth and justice through verifiable wisdom. Would it be so bad if the Creator were to provide a true solution to humanity's seemingly neverending problems that resulted in the end of money, religion, and poltics? Are you willing to re-examine your own opinions and prejudices in an effort to seek a solution where everyone sacrifices something so everyone wins something even better?

Here is Wisdom !!

EvilPoet said...

In order to fix a problem you have to understand the problem. If you want to get rid of that problem you have to strike at the root. What happens if you don't pull a weed up from its root? It grows back. With people like this running things - I remain pessimistic.

Atheist Observer said...

If you want to decide between optimism or pessimism about humans, look at what they are good and not good at. They tend to be good at things with short feedback loops (consequence quickly follows action) and low ambiguity (the consequence is certain). That's why few people accidentally die of cyanide pills. They know what's going to happen quickly if they do. Contrast that with cigarettes. Cigarettes kill millions, but they don't do it quickly, and they don't kill everybody. And the short term feedback is the pleasurable, addictive nicotine rush.
We'll probably always struggle to change behavior that is immediately rewarding to self, but eventually bad for others. Our conscious mind and moral sensibilities must overcome our emotional, simple-survival instincts.
Can we do it? I predict we'll do best when the negative consequences aren't too far away, and are closest to inevitable, and we'll do worst when the bad consequences are vague and distant and the immediate rewards are biggest.

The Crater Lake Hermit said...

I am optimistic about our survival, IF we can establish self sustaining colonies on other planets.

I am pessimistic about our ability to do that.

Thayne said...

Alonzo --

I agree that a nuclear terrorist attack is inevitable. That would result in 1 or a few cities being destroyed, which would be a horrible thing indeed.

But what do you think are the odds of a large scale nuclear exchange of the sort we used to imagine between the US and USSR? Or of some fanatical leader unleashing the nuclear arsenal of one country?

Future global warfare also seems inevitable to me. I can't imagine that it just won't ever happen again. And such a war could easily involve nuclear weapons.

But, I think there are plenty of other potential causes for global war other than religious animosity. For example, I don't see how we can sustain the current rate of population growth. As the population booms, resources will become scarce, which could well lead to such a war.

Indeeed, our exploding population is a potential source of humanity's destruction even if one removes the threat of war.

When the population of a species in the wild surges beyond the ecosystem's abiltiy to sustain it, the population can crash quite dramatically. I don't see why that wouldn't apply to us. Indeed, animals in the wild have an advantage over us -- most of them know how to survive. We, on the other hand, rely quite heavily on our collective abilities (we neeed farmers, engineers, mechanics, manufacturers, etc.)and technology to get by. If some future event disrupts basic societal functions, then things could decline drastically.

I take my doomsday population explosion then collapse scenario as an example of your second type of concern -- insufficient concern for the needs of our descendants to motivate our leaders of today to take the tough measures necessary to assure a long and properous future.

Les said...

I'm optimistic that we will go extinct as so many other species have. The question is whether we go voluntarily or involuntarily.

If we choose to stop breeding, we avoid sentencing our descendents to wage slavery paying off the aforementioned debts, and we reduce our need to fight over resources. Conflicts, from tribal battles to world wars, have always been over resources -- excuses like religion and ideology are simply used to dupe the fighters.

We're converting wildlife habitat to our habitat and causing more extinctions than at any time in the past 65 million years. Pulling strands from the web of life, and jumping up and down on it, will lead to our involuntary extinction when it falls apart.

We are often told that birth rates are falling, which is true. However, our numbers continue to increase and we're expected to have 50% more of us in the next 50 years. As scarce as potable water is becoming, I wonder if this increase is possible. We don't have to create a descendent who will find out the hard way if Earth can support an additional 200,000 humans each day.

Thank you for not breeding.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The human race will almost certainly go extinct eventually. Though, even then, a question will remain whether (and how many) future species can trace their genetic heritage through us.

Because of the distances among the stars, I suspect that once humans move out of this solar system, we will begin to evolve along different lines, forming different species.

If we survive that long.

I do have concerns about overpopulation. However, there are a great many variables that I do not know about. Ultimately, the only real limit to population growth is available energy. Even land area is not that critical, given the fact that we can "stack" people in multi-story structures.

(I suspect that we will someday see vertical cities - a structure capable of housing 250,000+ people, and floating cities with the same capacity.)

If we can make it that long.

Though, ultimately, I would say that the one factor that would most increase our survival potential is, as Crater Lake Hermit suggested, self-sustainable colonies.

(They do not actually have to be self-sustaining. They just need the capacity to become self-sustaining in an emergency.)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

Your point is a major part of what I was thinking when I wrote the essay.

We tend to do a better job of thinking about short-term threats than long-term threats.

Yet, when your ship is sailing ahead at full speed, will you have time to turn once you realize that there is an iceberg ahead?

The world economy and culture is a huge machine with a great deal of inertia. It cannot be quickly turned when we see the danger.

So, what we truly need is better ways of spotting danger, and responding to it appropriately, when it is far away.

Yet, as you said, this is precisely what we are NOT good at.