The Watchman's Rattle: inconvenient truths
December 31, 2010
Man has arrived at a point where the rate of progress has outpaced evolution to such an extent that we've reached mental gridlock. So says Rebecca D Costa, in a polemical new book which asks whether the human race is capable of "thinking our way out of extinction".
When complexity makes knowledge difficult to obtain we defer to beliefs, Costa argues. In the past this meant believing the Earth was flat. Today it means ignoring evidence that, if all houses and roads were painted white, it would have the environmental impact of taking 11 billion cars off the roads for 11 years, or thinking that nuclear energy is a "clean" fuel because it does not produce carbon emissions.
Costa highlights five "supermemes", or unquestioned beliefs, which are preventing us from turning things around. The most important of these is extreme economics. "Today," she writes, "economic considerations overwhelm other values to such an extent they now have the power to decide how and if humankind's greatest threats will be solved." This is one of many passages which appear in italics, as if to ensure that mere mortals know when Costa is saying something really important.