Masters of the Anthropocene: Choosing our Future

The human race is staggering relentlessly toward catastrophe. We have now exceeded the planetary boundaries in at least three of nine identified domains, climate change being the most urgent. This is an appeal to the better angels of our nature. We must recognise that we are masters of our destiny and act now, before it is too late.

Humanity occupies a privileged place in the natural world, but biological evolution has an Achilles’ heel, an intrinsic consequence of the process itself. It cannot anticipate the future. Evolution depends simply upon replication, mutation, and selection, repeated again and again, and natural selection’s yardstick is purely survival and reproductive success. In a finite system, biological evolution is potentially a recipe for disaster, as the population of the dominant species generally increases until the carrying capacity is breached, leading to population collapse. Indeed, could this be humanity’s fate?

Because civilisation arose only 10,000 years ago, humans retain many of the instincts that promoted survival and reproductive success during the hundreds of thousands of years when our ancestors were navigating the Stone Age. Therefore, much of our decision-making is emotional and innate.

Intelligence was a game-changer that took competition to a whole new level, promoting competition for status and the accumulation of material possessions. Cooperation evolved because groups who hunted cooperatively succeeded where others failed. However, group selection for cooperation only succeeds when ‘freeloaders’ are punished or excluded, so our obsession with fairness grew alongside our ability to cooperate.

Even the evolution of intelligence itself was a double-edged sword. Civilisation was predicated upon farming, which increased population growth, and technology, which encouraged us to exploit the earth’s resources, creating an unsustainable system.

Reasoning has other innate limitations, all consequences of our evolutionary journey. It is biased by mental shortcuts: for example, we live in the present and discount the future, we select information that fits our pre-existing worldview, we adopt the opinions of high-status individuals, and we generally employ reasoning simply to rationalise our emotional decisions.

Human culture was an outgrowth of evolution that heralded a new kind of progress. Knowledge could build upon knowledge, enabling each generation to stand upon the shoulders of those who came before, in a process somewhat akin to biological evolution. However, one need only consider humanity’s checkered past and the rise and fall of dictators, demagogues, and indeed, entire civilisations, to realise that the propagation of ideas does not ensure rational behaviour and survival.

I see one glimmer of hope. Intelligence does allow us to conduct thought experiments, so we can peer into the future to identify possible, alternative scenarios. This exercise doesn’t come easily because it conflicts with emotional thinking and challenges our worldview. Its application depends upon intelligence and personality, which, in turn, depend upon inheritance and environment.

Surviving the challenges of the future will depend upon individuals who are intelligent, are open to new ideas, care about humanity, recognise the role of fairness, and are prepared to dedicate themselves to finding solutions. Among this group will be scientists, politicians, educators, and communicators, along with a groundswell of concerned citizens.

Scientists must continue to study climate change and improve ways to transition to cheap renewable power and draw down CO2 from the atmosphere; politicians must prioritise education and science funding, and join with social scientists, economists, and psychologists to design equitable policies for implementing new technology and adhering to the limits of sustainability. How we measure progress must include environmental and social costs for future generations and people beyond our borders, making re-working capitalism a priority. We need political leaders with the ability to inspire the public, and educators, journalists, authors, and advertising to educate, reassure, and motivate the general public.

Many of us recognise the threat of climate change and the limitations of a finite planet, but we instinctively compete with our peers, striving for an increased standard of living and engaging in conspicuous consumption. Cooperative, sustainable behaviour can be encouraged or legislated, however, provided our overwhelming desire for fairness is satisfied.

In adversarial democracies like the US and Australia, equitable and effective climate policies will require political cooperation, perhaps through National Unity Government or Bipartisan Committees. Alternatively, Independent Think Tanks sponsored by Government, containing a broad range of experts, might design climate policy in a manner analogous to control of monetary policy by the US Federal Reserve and the Reserve Bank of Australia. Such bipartisan policy will be much more acceptable to the public.

In these countries, such a cooperative system for determining climate policy might become a model for democracy itself, replacing the winner-take-all mentality that encourages undermining the opposition, liaising with big business and pandering to the hip-pocket nerve.

The fundamental characteristics of a sustainable society will be the wisdom to understand the challenges, the ingenuity to find the answers, and the ability to encourage altruism by recognising that its evolutionary roots require satisfaction of our desire for fairness and equity.