The future was to be excellent. Thanks to the endless progress of human knowledge, technology would deliver the right solution at the right time. As industrial powers scaled up, though, and hacked their way out of diminishing returns with brute force, the picture of a bright future turned out to be as naive and grotesque as the vision of the year 2000 as seen from 1902.
Modernity is totalitarian. Following Descartes’ proclamation of the prevalence of the mind over matter, modern science engaged in a process of stripping away uncertainty and contradiction. The world of the mechanical clock was thoroughly explained, controlled, and made to serve mankind, in accordance with the Biblical injunction of breeding and multiplying, and using the God-given resources of the Earth. But the world is not complicated: it’s complex, and contradiction is built-in.
Capitalism was a fantastic booster that propelled us from candle light to LED, from parchment to digital computer, from horse carriage to spacecraft. Its premises, though, require endless growth, and some time would pass before we could replicate our own spaceship Earth. As it attained global operational scale, capitalism was panting like a hamster on its wheel ready for a heart attack. The myth of progress was on artificial respiration. The capitalist system now reached capacity and still requires new markets, better outcomes, more efficient ways to suck fossil and mineral resources off the ground. The system is ticking seamlessly: grab a piece of primary rainforest, cut down the trees for construction and furniture, plant soy to feed millions of pigs on thousands of farms, then when the soil is sucked dead 5 years later, mine for minerals and frack for oil shale.
We would already need to harvest the resources of four planets like Earth to keep up with the pace at which the global industrial war machine exploits and decays our environment. But we barely can send robots to Mars, so this option is off. We could wait for the next super-technology-that-will-save-us-all, but as Jevons observed, any technological progress increases the efficiency of resource use, consumption of resources rise as more demand is met. If a new engine can be made more cheaply, it will sell more, and the net result will be a faster and stronger pressure on resources. Even if such super-technology could potentially appear, it remains a big IF, and would it come in time for us to reverse the damage already done to the fragile conditions that maintain the Earth livable for our species?
An obvious course of action would be to stop running and relinquish a bit of comfort to bring about the possibility of our survival. This solution, though, requires the end of growth, which fundamentally contradicts the extraction system that fueled the technological boom in the last two centuries. Given the importance, in terms of scale, of the problem at hand, the possibility of a peaceful solution remains both remote and indispensable. Other paths can only amplify the crisis and lead to catastrophe.
Thought, here, has reached its limits: only action remains possible. Mindful, ethical, and compassionate action. Loving, caring, and sensible action may unlock the true potential of a successful humanity, and freedom, yet undefined, remains a golden key.