Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Ishmael, Issues in Sustainability or Is the Mission to Mars Pointless?
Lead: Justin Bourque


Summary by Christina Downs:


Ishmael, Issues in Sustainability
Is the Mission to Mars Pointless?

Justin began the discussion by referencing Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael. He talked about the ‘takers’ and ‘leavers’ identified by Quinn. Leavers are hunters/gatherers, who live to survive the day. Takers are those who deplete agriculture by taking/growing more than what they need at that specific time. Quinn says this is fundamentally wrong because it leads to division of labor, technology and thus exploitation of natural resources (over consumption), etc. Why it is fundamentally wrong isn’t obvious, though it’s easy to see why hogging resources that are vital for survival is, to say the least, morally questionable.

Are there possible solutions to reduce production, or rather just even it out? Quinn seems to allude to going back to hunting and gathering as the best solution. Whether or not this means we should stop production and allow other people to starve is another moral matter that might rival over consumption. It also seems quite Malthusian (shouldn’t feed the poor because you’re only making the problem worse). Bill DeVries argued that, squirrels store food away, so why is it such a bad idea? Also, hunter gatherers planned ahead. They had rules of allocation and distribution of goods. The problem lies within our allocation system, not do we have enough goods. The group then decided that the argument that we treat ourselves as superior is invalid: Many species are self-interested.

Irina brought up the fact that 300,000 Americans a year are dying of obesity. Every 8 minutes 1 human dies of starvation. The over-production is being over-consumed by obese, and that excess would be allocated better to the starving. Tom Davis then said (and I quote), “Our population growth is coming by weight not numbers!”

Next topic was whether or not right/wrong implies a goal, and does Quinn have a desire for humanity to wind up as hunter-gatherers? We concluded that right/wrong doesn’t imply a goal in that it is natural, but that it is moral. Lions don’t have to figure out right/wrong, we do because we are the only ones capable. We don’t have to become animals again to achieve this. Animals are a-moral. Zeb stated that perhaps Quinn doesn’t want us to go back to hunter gatherers, but rather to a value system that hunter gatherers had.

The conversation then went into religion, in which Bill DeVries was asked “What’s the Chinese’s story?” as he proclaimed (and I quote), “I claim no competency!”

Whether or not there is a direct correlation between increase in food production and increase in population, how to stop/influence population growth, and evolution were among the next topics discussed.

It was decided that there are other correlations to population growth. For instance, subliminal messages such as the ideal family picture in which there are only a couple kids. Other ways to influence population growth are through medical care and the empowerment of women.
Sustainability as Quinn’s core value was then questioned. What is the rationale for embracing sustainability as opposed to some other moral maxim? It doesn’t seem that nature in any aspect, advocates sustainability in their actions, so why should we? We haven’t stepped outside of nature, simply by being moral agents. In the past, nature has curbed any overly successful organism by a complex system of checks and balances – similar to the way our government works. However, it might be argued that the same problem we find in our current government – the finding of ways to exploit unchecked power – is also present in nature. Humans seem to be very good at finding ways to get around checks and balances forced upon them.

It was concluded that we have this ability to plan in anticipation of future, and others don’t. We have the urge to plan our future. A being who does try to plan for the future, would have as a value the desire to seek to plan to make sure that they preserve themselves long-term. Someone also suggested that we concoct plans with our sustainability in mind, though this seems a more difficult task than concocting plans to overproduce today so you can eat tomorrow. The idea of sustainability might be a ‘higher’ function of the mind… inaccessible to most but the most mentally ‘advanced’ of a species.

This brought us to the evolution discussion, when it was said that animals don’t make the decision to co-evolve. It was countered by: no animal decides to co-evolve, you either do or you don’t. You might be said to co-evolve with your environment, and a specific species might be more readily available as a resource or predator, but this doesn’t mean the two have come to any sort of agreement (DNA or otherwise) to cooperate. Since each is part of the others’ environment, the two must learn to cope with each other’s presence.

The idea that, if you take yourself out of evolution, you’ve stopped it right there, simply by making that decision, was mentioned. It was said that it is impossible by definition to take us out of evolution, since it is a recording. In addition, doing so would thus halt natural selection – something that isn’t possible unless the environment is absolutely static.

We tend to put a lot of selection pressure on the environment. Selection is acting in a different way nowadays. Medicine is altering the role of natural selection, but this doesn’t mean that natural selection isn’t working – rather, our environment is simply more accepting of mutations that would not have been able to survive prior to medicine.

The argument was made that if the population is stable, then selection is stable and evolution stops nearly, save genetic mutations that might not have the opportunity to express themselves. We have not escaped from natural selection. Unless we can come up with some way to not reproduce, yet live forever there would not be any evolution or natural selection under those circumstances. No mutations, no adaptations, no changes in environment = no evolution or natural selection. But this is tough to do.

Nancy then gave her interpretation of Quinn’s thesis, that being power, how we’ve misused it, and how we continue to do it. She pointed out the connections with Moby Dick, (domination), which led to a discussion where dominion and sustainability were compared. It was insinuated that in order to keep our plans for the future, we are becoming more dominative to secure that future. It was suggested that sustainability stems from dominance. But, is it wrong to abandon the quest for power? Well, if you do then you get ‘selected’ out. It’s not the ‘badness’ of power, but rather the misuse of power that is the problem. A lot of times we arrogantly think we know more than we do and keep getting knocked down by the law of unintended consequences. (“SMACK!”) “But it is good policy to acquire as much as you can because it reduces your problems,” reasoned Bill DeVries concerning survival.

Tom referenced Childhood’s End: Species emerge into not needing the Earth anymore. Sustainability was then re-challenged as a core value. Lots of things evolve into extinction. It was added that is true only if they don’t co-evolve, the meaning of which remains unclear.

Well, what about a Mars occupation? That seems to just postpone the problem and not achieve sustainability. Someone said that until we stop thinking of Earth as a resource to use, we can’t begin to be sustainable. If you try to fix something that you have done wrong (e.g. the environment), everything that we do to fix it will use energy and we will therefore increase entropy. We’re increasing the wrong that was done by trying to solve it with yet more energy and resources.

Co-evolution was re-challenged and it was stated that interdependency of all species, not just one, is needed. The discussion led to whether or not we choose to co-evolve with anything else. To co-evolve requires at least 2 species. The argument was made that this system is co-dependant and has a feedback loop that further changes the other (e.g. prey better get faster if predator does). There is no will there, only instinct/need. The counter was made that we do indeed choose, but other species don’t have nearly as much choice. This ‘choice’ seems to deflate into ‘Do you want to survive or not?’

Yet another argument was made against this: ears of corn don’t choose to co-evolve. But then it was said that DNA inside corn respond to selection pressure. Selection pressure is the picking of the ‘better corn.’ It co-evolved because it (the population’s gene pool), has changed due to the selection we bestowed upon it. But it isn’t clear that simple reactions can qualify as true choice in the way we use the term.

Whether or not we are more deserving of resources than any other species was discussed. It was concluded that whoever can get those resources best, gets them despite who should or shouldn’t. We didn’t like the selection pressure that we were given by nature. We are ‘evolution accelerators.’