Labour + Industry

Humans Need a Prime Directive, Fast!

From climate change to AI, we’re not ready for our onrushing future.

By Mitchell Anderson 7 Dec 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver and a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has just done for the oil industry what was allegedly impossible to do for the planet: cap the production of bitumen. In a naked display of why politicians have been so ineffectual at tackling climate change, the provincial government invoked rarely used powers to limit petroleum extraction — not to avert environmental Armageddon, but because the oil industry demanded intervention for their own reckless overproduction. Ever call the cops on your own kegger? It’s like that.

As global leaders gather for yet another UN climate gabfest, this gulf between realpolitik and the real world has never been wider. Concentrations of atmospheric CO2 now top any time in the last five million years, when sea levels were some 30 metres higher. Our planet is again predictably obeying the laws of physics with ice caps melting and wildfires becoming frighteningly more common. However the implications of collective inaction seem comfortingly beyond the comprehension of much of the voting public.

Where outrage exists about climate catastrophe it is most likely against the meagre measures to prevent it. Three weeks of riots in France over a proposed new carbon tax threatened to topple the government of President Emmanuel Macron before he was forced finally back down. Here in Canada, public rallies in Alberta demand immediate construction of pipelines to scale up ever more bitumen extraction, which produces ever-less employment and public revenue.

The comparative hardship of paying more for a climate-destabilizing pollutant or forgoing perpetual increases in its extraction may seem surrealistic to future generations of a ruined world. Teachable moments abound. Learnable moments are less so. Not even the panicked evacuation of the entire city of Fort McMurray from catastrophic wildfires two years ago seemed make a dent in our expectation that the carbon economy can never end.

Such societal inertia stoked predictably by cynical stakeholders makes political progress at a pace required to meet these challenges all but impossible, given the myopic timelines of elected office. It is no exaggeration to say the very survival of civilization depends on our ability to swiftly adapt to accelerating change while restraining our exploding agency.

Disrupting babies

Climate is perhaps the most pressing crisis looming in the near future, but it is by no means the only one. A rogue Chinese scientist reportedly just genetically modified two babies using widely available and cheap CRISPR gene editing technology. The descendants of such newborns will pass on their engineered mutations to future generations and whatever inadvertent surprises nature might have in store. What could go wrong?

Silicon Valley drives societal transformation through a suite of addictive and disruptive technologies already upending everything from courtship to cab driving. Some observers rightly worry the secretive and unregulated technological arms race towards artificial intelligence (AI) will one-day end very badly. In the meantime many of us are enjoying the pleasantly warm phase of the frog-boiling exercise even as the transition to a high-tech world exacts a mounting human toll.

Up to 800 million jobs may be eliminated by 2030 to automation displacing occupations from the factory floor to brain surgery. Blue-collar workers are so far bearing the brunt of this transformation, driving droves of frightened and angry underclass into the arms of political populists. In the longer term, a profit-driven dash towards ubiquitous AI means none of our jobs may be safe. Are we philosophically prepared for the future? Or the present?

Coping with normal is hard enough without asking people to adapt to an existence they can’t even imagine. What would a world without fossil fuels even look like? People in such unsettling times are understandably clutching closer to culture and class as the ground beneath shifts. The gilets jaunes revolt in the streets of Paris is named for the yellow safety vests of the lower-wage workers most affected by rising fuel prices. Political leaders in Alberta are falling over themselves to seem the most slavishly devoted to the oil industry and present day workers rather than future generations.

Prime directive, anyone?

Our underlying ailment extends far beyond emissions bean-counting to the very value of existence in a post-employment world. In the last few centuries as religious institutions crumbled, capitalism filled the void. The quantum of western existence shifted from immortal soul, to worker to consumer. What then is a life without a deity to love or judge us? Or a job to identify with, or money to spend? Therein lies our core conundrum.

Humans now outnumber any species larger than a chicken. Our artifacts exceed the mass of all life on Earth. If we are to restrain our omnipotent agency — including what is happening to the atmosphere — we need to find a guiding principle beyond the minutia of the wage economy; a prime directive rooted deeper in morality than rotted religious dogma or the rule of law.

Such vision will not come from the Brotopia cohort of Silicon Valley, even more misogynist than Wall Street or Hollywood. It is definitely not coming from the political class who increasingly look to skittish voters to judge which way to jump.

One thing is clear. After 100,000 years of furtive human subsistence, we have won. The planet is ours for the taking. And no one can stop us but ourselves.  [Tyee]

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