Recommended Reading 41

This installment of Recommended Reading might almost be described as a special Apocalypse and Extinction edition, as evidenced by the first four items below. Today: A new book about the reality of mass extinction and the human race’s best strategies for survival. John Michael Greer on the entrenched historical tendency, especially among Americans, to posit and even long for all-encompassing apocalyptic disasters as a means of avoiding responsibility for the future. A consideration of why, in the face of the real-life threat of catastrophic climate change, we’re all likely to simply wring our hands and do nothing until it’s too late. Thoughts on the theological implications of our Orwellian society of total technological surveillance. Rupert Sheldrake on the parallels between bad religion and bad science. The sudden and widespread rise of belief in and about an afterlife, including among scientists.

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Scatter_Adapt_and_Remember_by_Annalee_NewitzScatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction
Annalee Newitz, Random House, published May 14, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This book, published just three days ago, is getting a lot of attention. It sounds pretty fascinating. My own reading queue is already overflowing, so if you happen to read this one sometime soon and want to post a report/reaction/review here at The Teeming Brain, I know that I and the rest of the Teeming Brain audience would appreciate it, since this book falls squarely in territory that we touch on constantly.]


Climate change. Pandemics. Catastrophic volcanoes. Should we just give up and accept our doom? Absolutely not. Homo sapiens will survive the next mass extinction.

Annalee Newitz’s brilliantly speculative and hopeful work of popular science focuses our attention on humanity’s long history of dodging the bullet of extinction — and suggests practical ways to keep doing it. From bacteria labs in St. Louis to ancient underground cities in central Turkey, we discover the keys to long-term survival. This book leads us away from apocalyptic thinking, into a future where we live to build a better world.

Newitz makes a powerful argument about human’s ability to survive at a time when many scientists and media commentators are hell-bent on preaching the opposite. Environmental cynicism rules public policy , and apocalyptic stories about zombie death plagues rule the world of fiction. It’s a time of tremendous uncertainty, and Scatter, Adapt, and Remember offers a note of pragmatic, scientifically grounded and humorous optimism to the current public conversation about our collective future. Readers will be equipped — scientifically, intellectually and even emotionally — to face challenges that promise to be far greater than contemporary humans have yet encountered.

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‘The Apocalypse Is Complicated’: A Future Tense Event Recap
Torie Bosch, Slate, May 16, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: While reading below about Ms. Newitz’s emphasis on “the vital role storytelling plays when it comes to human survival,” bear in mind the very same point that comes out in the long-established tradition of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction when it comes to the question of human cultural survival, as in, e.g., Fahrenheit 451 and A Canticle for Leibowitz. Also bear in mind the same point as articulated in Morris Berman’s laying-out of the monastic option to cultural decline and doom. This is an important isomorphism that will only become more important to recognize, and to act upon, in years to come.]

Newitz told the audience at the Science Club that she has long nursed “a fascination for doom and apocalypse,” so when she started writing the book, she envisioned it as a “nonfiction version of a Godzilla movie.” But in looking at the history of extinction events—both before and during humanity’s time on Earth so far—and assessing the risks that will face us in the million years to come, she realized that in truth, “The apocalypse is complicated.” And we need to start planning for it.

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember emphasizes the vital role storytelling plays when it comes to human survival. The way we share information can shape how others see the world and the actions they take. For instance, the story of Exodus is a great lesson for long-term survival, she argued. It demonstrates how there can be “bravery in retreat”: If it’s clear that things are going in a terrible direction, “Don’t stay and fight. Leave.” In this case, that means “we need to be putting ourselves on a path toward space colonization, because the Earth is a dangerous place,” she says.  (Newitz also recently discussed in Slate why humanity needs a plan to escape to space.)

Another important part of the Exodus story, Newitz says, is that the Jews who wandered the desert knew that they themselves would not make it to the Promised Land. But future generations would — and we, too, need to think beyond the present day. Much as she would like to, Newitz realizes that she herself may never make it to Mars. She wants others to make the trip there eventually, but humanity isn’t great at taking the long view. “We like short-term payoffs. We like pleasures that happen in our lifetimes. We aren’t going to be satisfied if someone says, ‘Hey, in a thousand years, it’s going to be great.’ ”

Whatever threats come our way in the millennia to come, Newitz is optimistic. “The one thing I know for sure is we will survive,” she says. “We have all the characteristics of a survivor species. It’s just, what the hell will we look like at the end of this?”

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The Pleasures of Extinction
John Michael Greer, The Archdruid Report, May 15, 2013

A little less than six months ago, as New Age bookstores around the world were quietly emptying entire bookshelves dedicated to December 21, 2012 and putting 50%-off stickers on the contents, I noted in a blog post here that it wouldn’t be long before people who were looking for an excuse to put off doing anything about the crisis of industrial society would have a replacement for 2012.

Well, it’s here. The latest apocalyptic fad is near-term human extinction, or NTE for short: the claim that humanity, along with most other life on Earth, will inevitably be extinct by 2030 at the latest.

It’s probably necessary to say up front that humanity will certainly go extinct eventually — no species lasts forever — and there’s always the chance that it could happen in short order; a stray asteroid with enough mass, or a few rearranged codons in some virus nobody’s heard about yet, could do the job quite readily. Still, there’s a great difference between claiming that human extinction is possible and insisting that it’s certainly going to happen in the next seventeen years, especially when the arguments used to defend that claim amount to nothing more than an insistence that worst-case scenarios are the only possible outcome.

. . . This is a familiar rhythm in the history of American popular spirituality.  At regular intervals, some movement that’s existed out on the fringes for decades suddenly gets a mass following, turns into a pop culture phenomenon, and has thirty to forty years of popularity before it returns to the fringes.

. . . If human beings were rational actors, as economists like to imagine, they wouldn’t respond to the disconfirmation of their beliefs by postulating world-wrecking catastrophes. Here as elsewhere, though, the fond fantasies of economists stand up poorly as models for predicting events in the real world. If you haven’t had the experience of devoting decades of your life to a failed belief system, dear reader, try to put yourself into such a person’s shoes.  It would take a degree of equanimity rare even among saints to look back on such an experience without harvesting a bumper crop of resentment, grief and guilt—and if fantasies of apocalyptic destruction play any role at all in your belief system, one way to deal with those difficult emotions in their first and rawest forms is to pour them into a belief in some cataclysm big enough to punish the world and everyone in it for their failure to live up to your hopes.

. . . If you want a justification for living as though there’s no tomorrow, insisting that in fact, there’s no tomorrow is certainly one option. If I’m right, the pleasures of believing in near-term human extinction are likely to appeal to a very large and well-heeled audience in the years immediately ahead, and those of my readers interested in cashing in on the next 2012-style bonanza should probably take note.

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Why the World Faces Climate Chaos
Martin Wolf, Financial Times, May 14, 2013

Teaser: We will watch the rise in greenhouse gases until it is too late to do anything about it.

Last week the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was reported to have passed 400 parts per million for the first time in 4.5m years. It is also continuing to rise at a rate of about 2 parts per million every year. On the present course, it could be 800 parts per million by the end of the century. Thus, all the discussions of mitigating the risks of catastrophic climate change have turned out to be empty words.

Collectively, humanity has yawned and decided to let the dangers mount. . . . What makes the inaction more remarkable is that we have been hearing so much hysteria about the dire consequences of piling up a big burden of public debt on our children and grandchildren. But all that is being bequeathed is financial claims of some people on other people. If the worst comes to the worst, a default will occur. Some people will be unhappy. But life will go on. Bequeathing a planet in climatic chaos is a rather bigger concern. There is nowhere else for people to go and no way to reset the planet’s climate system. If we are to take a prudential view of public finances, we should surely take a prudential view of something irreversible and much costlier.

. . . . The more one thinks about the challenge, the more impossible it is to envisage effective action. We will, instead, watch the rise in global concentrations of greenhouse gases. If it turns out to lead to a disaster, it will by then be far too late to do anything much about it. . . . So what might shift such a course? My view is, increasingly, that there is no point in making moral demands. People will not do something on this scale because they care about others, even including their own more remote descendants. They mostly care rather too much about themselves for that.

. . . . Neither the technological nor the institutional conditions exist at present. In their absence, there is no political will to do anything real about the process driving our experiment with the climate. Yes, there is talk and wringing of hands. But there is, predictably, no effective action. If that is to change, we must start by offering humanity a far better future. Fear of distant horror is not enough.

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Search Me, O God: The Implicit Theology of Technological Surveillance
Glenn C. Arbery, First Things, June/July 2013

What might never occur to the hacktivist readership [Cory] Doctorow anticipates [in his recent novel Homeland, set in a near-future San Francisco where the Department of Homeland Security throttles American liberties in its system of surveillance and coercion after a terrorist attack on the Bay Bridge] is the theology of surveillance he inherits from Orwell. In 1984, Big Brother represents the totalitarian state’s politically useful replacement for God. In Homeland, Big Brother not only replaces God but becomes the metaphor for God’s omniscience. What was once said of God — “O Lord, you have searched me and known me! / You know when I sit down and when I rise up; / you discern my thoughts from afar” — can now be said of the surveillance state.

The de facto displacement of the experience of God’s omniscience by techniques of surveillance is profoundly disquieting, especially if one considers the internet as a kind of world wiki-mind that reaches deep into individual lives. Advertisers now routinely draw upon traceable personal information, such as websites visited and online purchases made, to target their ads to individuals. Several years ago, users of Gmail began to notice ads popping up in the margins obviously chosen based on words in their private correspondence. Even though the process was completely automated and anonymous — no person was reading their emails — many didn’t like the feeling of intrusiveness.

And no wonder. Such processes expose a deep vulnerability in privacy. Everything confided to this wiki-mind world — where most people now spend much of their lives and invest their souls — can be revealed and used. If algorithms can gather the information, so can anyone who knows how to access it. Anyone with the skill can spy out anything stored on any device connected to the network.

Surveillance adds the dimension of unsettling (“creepy,” as [Homeland‘s protagonist] Marcus Yallow would put it) intentionality to the vulnerability to technology most people already feel. The problem is not only this power granted little by little to a system of connectivity that increasingly draws us into itself but also what it, as a metaphor for God, begins to do to the contemporary imagination.

. . . [At one point in the novel] Marcus engages in mindfulness meditation and feels the calming and hopeful effect — natural, not supernatural — of “just being right there.” But the strong suggestion is that the God associated with any kind of moral order, any kind of judgment on one’s interior dispositions, becomes another metaphor for “the system” that has to be escaped. God, if he exists, would represent a kind of Department of Homeland Security with the power to damn Marcus eternally. Since this “creepy” surveillance Nobodaddy (as William Blake called him) does not answer the young Marcus’ earnest entreaties on the spot, he does not exist. Nevertheless, the technological equivalent of an all-seeing, all-judging divinity with the capacity for absolutely intrusive surveillance does exist.

. . . Marcus can get rid of “God” without feeling any shame, because he never suspects that his own “I” has its being only in I Am. Where God might have been is Big Brother. The surveillance state most successfully estranges the subject from the ground of his being when it convinces him that it owns that ground. Big Brother exists not as a person but only as the personification of total surveillance. He does not sustain Marcus in being but steadily threatens him. And his very essence is not creative, self-emptying love, but sheer power.

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Why Bad Science Is Like Bad Religion
Rupert Sheldrake, The Huffington Post, December 1, 2012

I have been a scientist for more than 40 years, having studied at Cambridge and Harvard. I researched and taught at Cambridge University, was a research fellow of the Royal Society, and have more than 80 publications in peer-reviewed journals. I am strongly pro-science. But I am more and more convinced that that the spirit of free inquiry is being repressed within the scientific community by fear-based conformity. Institutional science is being crippled by dogmas and taboos. Increasingly expensive research is yielding diminishing returns.

. . . Science has been successful because it has been open to new discoveries. By contrast, committed materialists have made science into a kind of religion. They believe that there is no reality but material or physical reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Nature is mechanical. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.

These materialist beliefs are often taken for granted by scientists, not because they have thought about them critically, but because they haven’t. To deviate from them is heresy, and heresy harms careers.

Science_Set_Free_by_Rupert_SheldrakeSince the 19th century, materialists have promised that science will eventually explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry. Science will prove that living organisms are complex machines, nature is purposeless, and minds are nothing but brain activity. Believers are sustained by the implicit faith that scientific discoveries will justify their beliefs. The philosopher of science Karl Popper called this stance “promissory materialism” because it depends on issuing promissory notes for discoveries not yet made. Many promises have been issued, but few redeemed. Materialism is now facing a credibility crunch unimaginable in the 20th century.

As I show in my new book, Science Set Free, unexpected problems are disrupting the sciences from within. Many scientists prefer to think that these problems will eventually be solved by more research along established lines, but some, including myself, think that they are symptoms of a deeper malaise. Science is being held back by centuries-old assumptions that have hardened into dogmas.

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Why So Many People — Including Scientists — Suddenly Believe in an Afterlife
Brian Bethune, Maclean’s, May 7, 2013

Teaser: Heaven is hot again, and hell is colder than ever.

Death, it seems, is no longer Shakespeare’s undiscovered country, the one “from whose bourn no traveller returns.” Not according to contemporary bestseller lists. Dreams and visions of the afterlife have been constants across human history, and the near-death experiences (now known as NDEs) of those whose lives were saved by medical advances have established, for millions, a credible means by which someone could peek into the next world. Lately a fair-sized pack of witnesses claim to have actually entered into the afterlife before coming back again to write mega-selling accounts of what they saw and felt there. Afterlife speculation has become a vibrant part of the zeitgeist, the result of trends that include developments in neuroscience that have inspired new ideas about human consciousness, the ongoing evolution of theology, both popular and expert, and the hopes and fears of an aging population. Heaven is hot again. And hell is colder than ever.

Recent polls across the developed world are starting to tell an intriguing tale. In the U.S., religion central for the West, belief in heaven has held steady, even ticking upwards on occasion, over the past two decades. Belief in hell is also high, but even Americans show a gap between the two articles of faith—81 per cent believed in the former in 2011, as opposed to 71 per cent accepting the latter. Elsewhere in the Western world the gap between heaven and hell believers is more of a gulf — a 2010 Canadian poll found more than half of us think there is a heaven, while fewer than a third acknowledge hell. What’s more, monotheism’s two destinations are no longer all that are on offer. In December a survey of the 1970 British Cohort group — 9,000 people, currently 42 years old — found half believed in an afterlife, while only 31 per cent believed in God. No one has yet delved deeply into beliefs about the new afterlife — the cohort surveyors didn’t ask for details — but reincarnation, in an newly multicultural West, is one suggested factor. So too is belief in what one academic called “an unreligious afterlife,” the natural continuation of human consciousness after physical death.

. . .“Most people are no longer afraid of being seized at an unguarded moment,” judged wanting and flung into the fiery pit like [18th-century theologian and preacher Jonathan] Edwards’s congregants were, says [world religion professor Carol] Zaleski. “We are now more creatures of anxiety than of guilt.” The anxiety, as well as the interest, is surely tied to the greying of the Western world too, as our thoughts, conscious or not, increasingly turn to what’s next, whether we think that’s oblivion or some kind of afterlife. Baby boomers, by sheer force of numbers, have always driven cultural trends, from the lowering of voting and drinking ages in their youth to the politically untouchable status of retirement benefits today. It’s hardly surprising to see them favour not just the existence but the congenial nature of an afterlife.

And that is where the heaven tourists finally mesh, not just with each other, but with the larger culture. We seem to be moving inexorably from a society where organized religion dominates issues of morality — and mortality — but not to the secular promised land of reason. Rather, we are orienting ourselves to a more personal spirituality, at once vague and autonomous. Ordinary sinners increasingly don’t believe that they deserve judgment, let alone hell. Theists and atheists alike dispute any earthly authority’s right to judge, and both feel NDEs give them reason to hope for something beyond the grave. And many believers confidently expect that God isn’t judgmental either.


About Matt Cardin


Posted on May 17, 2013, in Environment & Ecology, Religion & Philosophy, Science & Technology, Teeming Links and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.

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