Let’s face it — as anyone who is paying attention knows, we humans are in a bit of an ‘emergence through emergency’ scenario. Every day the people and institutions that we used to be able to rely on are falling apart; failing to do even a little part of their job. Yet, at the same time, every day, the world is getting more complex and harder to make sense of. This is getting serious — staying the course and hoping to muddle through isn’t going to do it.
Our options: evolve or die.
If we want to stay in the game, we’re going to need to seriously level up.
There are a lot of different ways that we could examine our situation. We can look at our energy infrastructure and the way that it interfaces with our ecology. We can look at the relationship between education and exponential technology. We can look at radically empowered individuals and their tension with legacies of injustice and oppression. Each one of these is a deep, rich challenge and they combine into a set of problems that is, well, above our current capacity.
To understand our perspective on this, we have to take a look at a bigger (and older) picture.
For all of our evolutionary history until very recently, we lived in relatively small geographic areas with a relatively small number of people, and our technological / industrial capability could only affect a relatively small portion of our world.
We evolved to be able to process at this kind of scale. For example, there is something called “The Dunbar Number” that reflects what appears to be the fact that our primate brain is only able to handle quality relationships with around 150 people. We evolved to live in bands and small tribes — and when we have to deal with more people than that, we are out of our element.
What this means is that we broadly seem to be limited to having empathy for people that we actually see and for taking responsibility where we can actually see and feel the effects. Where the consequences of our actions are distant — like where we can make purchases and then throw stuff out, or we don’t see the open pit mine where the stuff came from, or the landfill that it goes to, then we struggle to connect the dots.
In our modern world where many issues have profound complexity between many different financial interests and nation-states and cultures, we are really daunted. Yes, we have access to a level of information and technology that would have seemed like pure magic to folks even a few centuries ago. But as useful as it is, our contemporary technical prowess is a double edged sword.
Our always-on connected info lifestyle immerses us in a barrage of demands on our attention and processing power. Social media overwhelms us with the daily realities of war, brutality, and climate change — not to mention the demands of a social graph that is orders of magnitude larger than our Dunbar number. Put simply, our poor hominid brains are overwhelmed by the rate of information coming in and the level of stress it produces. Even at our best, we can’t make use of all this power.
And, of course, we are not positioning ourselves to be at our best. Consider nutrition. Our tool using hunter-gatherer ancestors had access to food that provided a diversity of nutrients without really any toxicity in the environment — or at least a level of toxicity that we had been adapting to for millions of years. These days most of our food is produced, processed and transported in a in a complex soup of chemistry that we don’t come close to fully understanding. And even if we have the time and resources to try and only “eat healthy” — even the food is grown in minerally-depleted soil that leaves many of our known nutritional needs unmet.
Or consider pollution and our toxic lifestyle. High frequency EMFs are generated by all our wireless devices causing pollution-induced stress. We spend much of our time indoors, not getting enough vitamin D and breathing in a host of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from all of our modern building materials. Going back even farther, consider that the average mother in the United States has 136 different carcinogenic and neurotoxic petrochemicals in her breastmilk. We are born in struggle against the environment that our own power and desire has brought into being and, as a consequence, most of us end up living our day to day lives far below even our hunter-gatherer baseline.
So our situation is this: we need to seriously level up. We need to modify ourselves and our inputs to be able to respond effectively in the current environment. We need to ameliorate the downsides of modern technology and add more capacity to use that technology without creating even more “side effects”. This requires, at a minimum, coming to understand how to resource core nutrients; how to improve the functioning of our immune and detoxification systems; and how to improve our ability to deal with and process environmental and psychological stress.
And then we need to meaningfully improve the full spectrum of our information processing capabilities.