I trust that evolution will deliver humankind to a sustainable future. Does that mean I have faith in evolution rather than in God?

What if evolution is God?

First, understand that cultural evolution picked up where biological evolution left off. Biological evolution got us to where an infant’s brain is as big as it can be and still allow the baby to pass through the mother’s birth canal. But to bring a human being to full maturity requires a lengthy period of gestation outside the womb while the child grows to adulthood under the care of adult providers.

Because of this lengthy period of child development, human beings were designed to live in communities where people work together to provide nourishment and protection for their offspring and for one another. Accepted norms of behavior are necessary for people to live together with some degree of harmony. We call these norms and customs “cultures.” The organization of early human cultures was directly related to nature and its cycles because it was obvious to people who lived off the land that human survival was directly dependent on what the earth and sky provided.

Fast forward to the 18th century AD. Many diverse cultures have risen and fallen around the world, but until just 200 years ago human communities continued to be organized around the primary activities of agriculture, resource extraction, manual fabrication, and trade.

Industrialization, or machine-based manufacturing, began in the textile industry in the British Isles in the late 1700s, later spreading to Europe and North America and gradually around the world. With industrial technology came an unprecedented creation of wealth, improved standards of living, and dramatic increases in population. All of the above have contributed to the climate change that now threatens our future.

The implications of industrialization to human life have been staggering and continue to unfold today, as this monumental cultural revolution is only now reaching many parts of the world.  Relative to the period of time since human beings first appeared, the industrialized world has existed for a mere blink of an eye.

The most disturbing impact of the industrial/technological revolution is the increasing separation of humankind from the natural world. When America gained its independence from Britain, we were a nation of farmers. Today, the farms themselves have been industrialized, with all the related ominous consequences to our food supply that worry many people.

When I was a kid in suburban America in the 1950s and 60s, I was so removed from the farm that I thought mushrooms were meat. Many people today, both children and adults, think food comes from grocery stores, and give little or no thought to how it got to the store. It’s just not a top issue in many people’s manic, stressful lives. In our culture it is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that we are still dependent on the earth and the sky for everything that sustains us.

But just when the developed world is losing its psychic connection to the earth, nature confronts us with evidence that our activities have altered the earth’s protective atmosphere, our cosmic security blanket. We have changed the sky and there will be consequences here on earth. Reminds me of an old commercial from the 70s “it’s not nice to fool (with) Mother Nature.”

Nature’s order and power exert a kind of discipline on us. Rapid technological change allowed mankind to seemingly slip out of nature’s protective grasp, with disastrous consequences. Look at the unprecedented slaughter wrought in the twentieth century, including two world wars and the unleashing of the atomic bomb.  I think of the sinking of the Titanic, the ship that industrialists of the day described as “unsinkable”, as a parable about mankind’s hubris when we think we can supersede nature’s power over us.

What does it mean to trust evolution to deliver us from the mess that we have evolved ourselves into? What drives cultural evolution, which has taken over from biological evolution to allow humans to adapt to environmental changes? Does evolution just happen—nature takes its course? Or do we have a role in directing the course of cultural evolution?

The failure of communism taught us is that centralized decision-making is an ineffective way to allocate resources to meet desired goals.  So yes, we must allow free-markets to operate. Aren’t free markets just a form of economic evolution?

The American experiment with democracy shows that freeing individuals to exercise their wills results in unprecedented creativity. Unleash the human spirit, and the creativity of the human mind seems to know no bounds. Now we must marshal human creativity toward our collective human survival challenge.

To effectively direct human creativity, we must align human value systems with the laws that govern the natural world. I have learned some of these laws while working in my garden. Nature uses or recycles every iota of matter. In an ecosystem, everything works together and must remain in balance. Diversity helps to provide balance and makes for a richer environment.

Can we really trust that natural laws, the creativity of the human spirit, and free market resource allocation can somehow work together to evolve mankind into a sustainable future?

Do you believe in God?

“Power is only important as an instrument for service to the powerless.”  -Lech Walesa, human rights activist, Polish president, Nobel laureate (b. 1943)

We’ve got to stop passing the buck.

On this, and perhaps nothing else, I agree with Republican Mike Huckabee, who spoke on July 4 at the “part religious revival, part political rally” at First Baptist Church here in Charlotte.

The 2008 Wall Street debacle, said Mike, was caused less by a lack of regulation or a failure in finance policy than by the business traders’ flouting of ethical principles. Huckabee called on his audience “to get involved in politics as a way of restoring America’s moral bearings.”

Yes, we have ethics problems in America, where greed and treating one another with contempt have become socially acceptable behaviors.

And yes, we had all better get involved. The two recent collossal regulatory failures, first of financial markets and now of oil producers, are compelling evidence that government regulators can’t save us from ourselves. The regulators and top managers at the industries they regulate  play musical chairs, and the interests the regulators protect the best are their own, not ours. Our legislators, who write the regulations, are also part of this game.

But if the powers that be want to play musical chairs, it’s the American people who turn the music on and off, and it is time we stop letting ourselves be the ones who end up without a chair.

Even as we despair that government as we know it has become gridlocked and corrupted, new forms of citizen involvement are evolving that may dramatically change the way government and politics work in our country. For example, social networking sites can now connect us individually with organizations that can keep us informed about issues we care about. These new organizations make it easy to contact legislators and can make us aware of other, perhaps new ways to take personal action. (This link will take you to a MSNBC report on the BP Makes me Sick Coalition.)

These new non-governmental organizations are embryonic, but hopefully the period from gestation to maturity of this new modus operandi will be short,  just as the evolutionary cycle of new technologies has accelerated in recent years.

It seems to me that systemic change is necessary for us to work our way out of the mess we have gotten ourselves into. As the saying goes, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.” In so many areas–energy policy, education, national and individual fiscal status, health care, the environment, even the way we produce our food–we have gotten ourselves into situations that make us vulnerable both as individuals and as a nation.

So it is as individuals that we must find a way to act that will change the course of our nation. That is the way our system of government was designed to work, and if there is a system of government on this planet that offers more hope to the individual, I and the millions of immigrants that clamor to our shores don’t know about it.

So, evolve people, evolve! Don’t wait for somebody else to fix things for you, because we are all in this together. You and me and Mike Huckabee are all in the same boat, and we all better start rowing, even if just to keep from capsizing, while we figure out which way leads us out of the storm.

 


Apocalypse Now

June 7, 2010

“Apocalypse Now” the cartoon jeers, satirizing the cuts in local government services. If only it were funny. But can we afford to laugh as we are forced to make dramatic cuts in the school budget, even as we fail to educate all of our children? We must drastically reduce library hours, cutting job-hunters off from the computers they need to search for jobs in a stubbornly sluggish economy. If you play tennis in a public park rather than at a country club, who will maintain your tennis court when the Park and Rec budget is cut? When the new budget year starts the first day of sizzling hot July, will the children who rely on public swimming pools to escape the heat be disappointed?

Listening to public radio in my car, I learn that AIDS activists in poor countries are angry that America is reneging on pledges for treatment of people who will die without our help. Americans are angry too, and are throwing tea parties to protest…what? That their taxes are too high, even as governments around the country are unable to provide even the most basic of services?

Forgive me if I seem confused. Because in truth I am not perplexed at all. An economics major in college, I have feared this meltdown for a long time, although I confess that I am stunned at the reality of my wealthy and beloved country faltering in such apparent disarray.

Economics, you see, is all about resource allocation. Where did all of our wealth go? You might start by looking inside the oversized houses located far from workplaces that no longer exist, houses that no one can now afford to heat or cool. Check out the kitchens where families eat their McDonalds take-out on granite countertops amid state-of-the-art appliances. Look in closets and consignment shops and yard sales and even in landfills for the purchases we made when 70% of our country’s annual spending went for consumer goods and services. Purchases of goods and services that were not necessary, and that I knew would be easy to forego when times got tough. But then, where would such belt-tightening leave our economy?

It left us right here, with bridges in our highway system no longer safe due to our failure to fund infrastructure maintenance. With a health care system capable of the greatest medical miracles on earth, yet unable to efficiently deliver basic care to tens of millions of uninsured citizens. With a government no longer able of to govern because its participants are incapable of compromise, the underlying principle on which this country was founded. With an oil well spewing millions upon millions of gallons of oil into the environment, while the people we trusted with our vital natural resources scramble about helplessly.

We have let each other down. We have let the world down, as we have allowed ourselves to squander our resources, exploiting one another in the process. We have even failed to take care of the planet that sustains us. We are indeed the “foolish school of fish on wheels” that James Taylor dubbed us in his elegy for the earth “Gaia.”

I am nonetheless optimistic. Technology has brought us a new world order, one in which the individual is empowered as never before. And some of those individuals, people who seem motivated by a different ethic than the ethic of greed that has for so long been condoned in this country, are creating enterprises that I believe will take us in a new direction.

I see this trend at the Apple computer store, abuzz with customers who paid only $100 for a vast array of resources to help them learn to use their computers, customer-friendly resources hard to imagine coming from any PC vendor. “We want our customers to know how to get the most out of our products,” an Apple trainer said sincerely. I see it in the human services organization Common Ground, started in 1990 by one woman in her twenties, now mobilizing resources worldwide to end homelessness. I see it in the revolutionary use of technology that helped to elect our current president.

It may look like an apocalypse now, but economics calls this a “dislocation.” Like a dislocated joint, this is a painful experience, confirmed by the yelling and screaming of those most fearful of the new day coming.  But from among the ruins, I expect to see new leaders with a new morality arise to mobilize the vast human capital now lying fallow. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and God fulfills himself in many ways.” May this fulfillment be a world in which we take care of our planet and of one another. Or we will be destined for Apocalypse Anew.