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Idea #3: Embrace the Mediocrity Principle

Admitting we're just specks in the cosmos can help save the planet.

By Daniel Wood 24 Dec 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Daniel Wood is a widely published Vancouver-based journalist.

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New ideas for the new year.

[Editor's note: Back by popular demand, the Tyee again is offering its readers a series of New Ideas for the New Year. We're publishing a new one every weekday from Dec. 22 through Jan. 2. They're intended to get everyone's problem-solving, creative thinking going for 2009. Later in January we'll be asking you to suggest your own new ideas for the new year, and publish a selection.]

The shoe has dropped. But few are inclined to embrace the implications of the discoveries in the last few years that there are, almost certainly, millions of Earths out there and that the big rock you inhabit is as ordinary as phlegm.

Welcome to The Mediocrity Principle -- astrophysicists' scary gift to the third millennium. Unlike the famous Peter Principle that says people rise to fulfill their incompetence, the new and very real Mediocrity Principle says that wherever astronomers look, the universe -- and, by extension, all its constituents -- sinks into trans-galactic commonness.

The Earth isn't the least unique. Ipso facto: neither are you. You're unalterably average.

It's an idea that, cosmologically speaking, has been a long time coming. But, its acceptance as a guiding 21st century paradigm, say pundits of impending environmental and economic apocalypse, just might save humankind from its own bloated sense of superiority and greed.

Welcome to 2009: Year of the Hairshirt. SUVs are officially DUM. Sardines trump swordfish. Mediocrity begins to replace excess. Frugalism is the new black.

No longer centre of all

In a Very Brief History of Time (169 words), this is how the Earth and its occupants have fallen into dis-grace. A few centuries ago, people in the West thought this planet was the centre of the universe, that it began in 4004 B.C. (on Saturday, Oct. 22, to be exact), and that humans were made in the image of God. Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin put large holes in these beliefs.

In the early 20th century, astronomer Edwin Hubble said a lot of those stars out there aren't stars at all. They're distant galaxies -- billions of them. Each containing billions of stars.

To make matters worse for humankind's sense of uniqueness, it soon became clear that time didn't start with The Big Guy in 4004 B.C., but with The Big Bang in 15 billion B.C.

Now, using information from the Hubble telescope, the first 300 of what's-predicted-to-be millions of distant planets have been found. There are almost certainly tens of millions of life-sustaining, Earth-like rocks out there. We live, it appears, on a commonplace hunk of granite, Coca-Cola, and chop suey surrounded by 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars and innumerable solar systems.

"Why should we assume there is anything special about us? Mediocrity is the universal rule," says Alexander Vilenkin, the Boston cosmologist who in 1995 coined the phrase The Mediocrity Principle.

As this was happening, the late Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Gould pilloried Darwin's theory, saying evolution comes about, in part, through fluke and global catastrophe. Not just through a species' inherent superiority. Now, humans can no longer claim to be Heavenly or even evolutionarily blessed; we're the result -- in part -- of renegade luck.

Headed for newt status?

And the realization couldn't come at a more crucial moment. The Earth today is facing one of those planetary catastrophes that Gould and his doom-saying associates have often spoken about. Is our luck running out?

The planet's systems are breaking down: global warming, economic disintegration, energy and food crises, the accelerating extinction of species, rampant pollution, AIDS, regional economic ghettoization, and the threat of worldwide terror. The list is long and familiar.

Sixty-five million years ago, the dinosaurs failed to adapt to change and became, in time, newts. Mediocrity was forced on them. Today, there are creepy species waiting in the wings -- rats, blackberries, cockroaches, lawyers -- ready to claim humanity's position atop the Pig Pile. (Remember, the planet's dominant life-form throughout history is slime.)

It's beginning to look as if the wackos carrying the placards reading "The End Is Nigh‚" are right. Unless… UNLESS: This planet's brainiest inhabitants accept that The Mediocrity Principle applies to them.

Tad Homer-Dixon is no wacko. He's a 52 year-old University of Waterloo professor of international affairs and author of the 2001 Governor-General award-winning book The Ingenuity Gap.

In it he describes how the current convergence of global crises can no longer be dismissed by the 'Don't Worry, Be Happy' voices of hucksters promoting status, wealth, and consumption.

"The conceit of sustainable development," says Homer-Dixon, "is you can have your cake and eat it, too. You can't. There's only so much. The cliff-edge is out there."

As Homer-Dixon sees it, there are two human options for the future: 1) capitulation to drastic worldwide regulations and limits…or 2) chaos.

To achieve the former, there'd have to be restrictions on consumption and on freedoms that -- to use Homer-Dixon's phrase, "would be Holland -- times 10." It would be a world of unimaginable technocratic order, enforced mediocrity, and eco-police. Flagrant extravagance would be a crime.

That is the good option. To achieve the latter -- chaos -- Earthlings just have to keep doing what we're doing now. This route leads to fortified enclaves of wealth scattered amid widespread political and environmental collapse, plus the quarantine of entire sections of the planet. It would be -- again using Homer-Dixon's analogy, "a patchwork of global anarchy -- like many, many Haitis."

Which option would you choose?

Selling mediocrity

The point man for global mediocrity is Vancouver's Kalle Lasn, the 66-year-old founder of award-winning Adbusters magazine, and creator of the unlikely 'Buy Nothing Day.' His is not an easy task. In a world of exceptionalism, glitz, and vacuous spectacle, the satisfactions of the ordinary are, he knows, made to appear third-rate.

For example, recent ad copy hyping the Nissan Altima read: "May Promote Feelings of Superiority." There are no ads anywhere promoting the virtues of mediocrity. Lasn knows this because he has produced 25 anti-commercials and sought to air them on the three big American TV networks. His success rate? Zero for 25.

"Consumption is the mother of all evils," he says as he studies the foyer of a big-box Toys 'R' Us near his office. Colourful, inflated swimming pool animals float overhead. "People think business and technology will save us. But that's science fiction. Calamities lie ahead. Ordinariness will be resisted. In time, there'll be hell to pay. This over-consumptive culture of ours is going to die very hard."

As he leaves the store, he admits that he doesn't have much hope for the future. But he does, he says, have faith… in the potato. He'd dug one that morning in his backyard garden and fried it up for breakfast. At the memory, he smacks his lips.

Embrace our boringness

There are, cynics acknowledge, a few hopeful signs that mediocrity might take root amid a society that has, since the corporate scandals and economic turmoil of recent years, grown disenchanted with excess.

But first, we need to move past the idea's negative implications. Mediocrity is not about tastelessness. It's not about bad. It's not the Lada or carpet bowling or people who say, "Yo!" Mediocrity eschews the snobbishness of Calvin Klein for the practicality of Sears. Mediocrity does not go ga-ga over miniature summer squashes, when there are plenty of zucchinis -- grown locally, of course.

Mediocrity embraces home haircuts, tap water, elbow patches, Scrabble nights, and naps. Mediocrity celebrates the winners of the annual Darwin Awards for their fatal stupidity. They are the true heroes!

Mediocrity looks for guidance to Despair, Inc. -- a real business whose motto is: "Increasing Success by Lowering Expectations"; and whose logo features the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Mediocrity has as its most respected voice the man who gave the commencement address at his Yale University alma mater in 2001 and said there was nothing wrong with getting Cs. He'd done it himself. The usual venue for his speeches has been The White House.

There are some who'd argue that the Truth is out there and that extraterrestrials lurk at the periphery of our vision. The Mediocrity Principle provides a simpler explanation.

Mediocrity says there are no aliens nearby in their flying saucers because -- despite humankind's efforts to simultaneously Disney-fy and destroy the planet -- the Earth is a boring destination for intergalactic travellers.

Now let's make sure it remains a liveable place for ourselves.

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