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Darwin's Dangerous Idea! A Gardener's Hopeful Idea!

Updated: Oct 19, 2018

Darwin Evolution

As I look out of my breakfast window at the dolphins playing in the north sea off Craster my mind is boiling with frustration. Last night I watched a powerful and well crafted documentary by Andrew Marr. In 60 minutes he began by explaining just how radical and threatening was the idea which came to the young Darwin as he walked the beaches of Argentina (in the early 19th century) and puzzled over the old fossil bones he found there. Despite the dominant orthodox christian teachings (that all of Earth's species were created by God) Darwin became more and more convinced that natural forces had shaped new species through a process of evolution. It was clear to him that some (many) species had become extinct while others had evolved that could survive changing environmental conditions more effectively.

Yes – species could become extinct! This was the core of his “dangerous idea”.

Darwin knew his idea would be extremely controversial. So much so that he did not have the courage to publish until very late in his life. Marr then takes his audience through the more modern story of how the seemingly wonderful applications of science and technology had brought with them potentially disastrous environmental consequences. He visits the work of Rachel Carson (Silent Spring – published in 1963), James Lovelock (the Gaia hypothesis) and Norman Meyer (the need for ecological reservcs and the vital importance of invertebrate extinctions). He repeats (again and again) the brutal statistical facts that show humans are responsible for the highest ever rate of global species extinction. He repeats again and again that humans can only exist as part of a larger healthy global eco-system.

We all know by the end of this documentary that humans too may very well suffer the uncomfortable consequence of Darwin's Dangerous Idea!

Yes – even humans could become extinct!

What we don't know, of course, is how humanity can find the social and cultural mechanisms to avoid this fate!

Like David Attenborough (Life on Earth etc.), the scientific report “Planet under Pressure” and 101 other doomladen reports from NGOs and activists, the potential disaster facing humanity is spelled out in blazing capital letters. All this we know.

The frustrating part of all this is that the main response from green parties and activists is to say we must stop behaving like this!!

Stop polluting the seas,

stop using hydrocarbons for energy,

stop dumping plastic everywhere,

stop consumerism, control profit seeking corporations,

find better politicians, limit the damage caused by industrial agriculture – and so it goes on.

Even the wise and clever Cambridge philosopher, Alan Watts, found nature too complex to even consider how humans could manage their relationships with it better!

Probably 95 percent of the world's human population agrees with the need to behave more ecologically with the natural world. But, surprise, surprise, they simply go on consuming whilst enjoying their Nike trainers and Macdonald's plastic fast food. Politicians talk about sustainability and put taxes on plastic shopping bags. Individuals do a bit of recyling and give small donations to environmental NGOs.

No doubt this helps them sleep better at night but it does NOTHING to change the nature of our “cultural prison”.

The paradox is that humans do have all the knowledge and technology they need to live wonderfully rich and comfortable lives within a vibrant and diverse planetary eco-system. If we can create smart phones, particle accelerators and visit the moon then surely we can find ways to manager our social and cultural affairs in a more life enhancing way?

We have thousands (possibly millions) of academics and pundits studying these problems yet nobody has found a way to engineer the cultural changes/evolution which could enable us to escape our present disastrous evolutionary path! We are, in effect, caught in a cultural prison where we are so conditioned we cannot see the “bars”.

As a gardener (perhaps like Chancey Gardener in Peter Sellers last film “Being There) I see the world from a different perspective. Each of the large dominant cultures on our planet is in some ways like a garden. The “plants” in each garden are the institutions which work and grow and give each culture its identity and means of existence. Of course humans like to think of themselves as individuals who have “free will”. What they do each minute of every day seems to be governed by their own needs within a system of rules they simply take for granted. This is, if you like, a serious case of not being able to `'see the shape of the wood because we are looking all the time at the shape of each tree!”

Humans are above all brilliant inventors of complex systems of rules which have enabled them to live and work together more effectively than almost any other species. Just as long as we have been able to behave as the Earth's most successful predatory species (mining and exploiting other species and the life giving resources of our planet) this skill has been our greatest asset. Unfortunately, as all of recorded history shows us, every one of Earth's seemingly successful civilizations has crashed because they were unable to change the rules and conventions they lived by even when it became obvious that these were leading to disaster. (We all know about the madness of the person who cut the last tree down on Easter Island!)

So when the gardener sees that plants in the garden are growing so strongly that they threaten to engulf the whole place with unwanted fruit and foliage the best solution is not simply to cut the plants back. Much better to change the plants themselves for those that will not threaten the long term health of this small eco-system. Exactly the same logic applies to the present cultural situation on our planet Earth.

The solution to our comfortable long term survival will not be found by simply restricting the activities promoted by our present cultural institutions. The only long term solution is to replace them with new ones. Put simply this is the “gardener's hopeful idea”!

We might call the idea of creating and installing new institutions a form of cultural “gardening” but I prefer to call it “cultural engineering”. My extreme frustration lies in the fact that this seemingly obvious truth does not appear to be evident anywhere in current human thinking. It is true that Peter Joseph's Zeitgeist movement and his series of youtube videos (Culture in Decline) have achieved some public recognition. But his answer to the problem (what he calls “resource based economics”) seems pretty simplistic.

So watching Marr's coherent and articulate story made me boil with frustration. Surely, I thought, he can go one step further and at least begin to identify some of the cultural institutions which are leading humanity towards extinction. Marr is a clever fellow and a good journalist but, like so many others before him, he simply leaves the extinction question hanging in the air. Is he perhaps preparing another even more direct analysis of our human condition? How can we open the eyes of the public to the realities of their cultural prisons? How can we find experts in the social sciences who might help design (and promote) new institutional forms before it is too late? How can we find clever ways to help people break free from the cultural institutions which have always dominated their lives? These are important, urgent and exciting questions – much more important than the political gossip and infighting which tend to dominate world news; much more important than the football results or the latest number one in the hit parade. Much more important even than slowing down the rate of rainforest destruction or burning of fossil fuels.

Is there anyone out there, I wonder, who wants to join me to explore creative and radical answers to try and make a “gardener's hopeful idea” a reality? As Einstein said – you cannot solve a problem by using the logic and tools which created the problem in the first place. It's not so hard to begin designing potentially new cultural institutions which could be less life threatening.

The greatest challenge lies in finding suitable (cultural) tools which could be effective in establishing (planting) such new institutions (and replacing the old ones). We can use a spade and a fork in the vegetable garden but it's not so easy to find/invent effective tools for our troublesome cultural “garden”.

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