Spaceship Earth Explores Culture Space

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. (more)

Many love science fiction stories of brave crews risking their lives to explore strange new spaces, stories much like the older adventure stories about European explorers risking their lives centuries ago to explore new places on Earth. (Yes, often to conquer and enslave the locals.) Many lament that we don’t have as many real such explorer stories today, and they say that we should support more human space exploration now in order to create such real heroic exploration stories. Even though human space exploration is crazy expensive now, and offers few scientific, economic, or humanity-survival gains anytime soon. They say the good stories will be worth all that cost.

Since Henry George first invoked it in 1879, many have used the metaphor of Spaceship Earth to call attention to our common vulnerability and limited resources:

Spaceship Earth … is a world view encouraging everyone on Earth to act as a harmonious crew working toward the greater good. … “we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions” … “We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil.” (more)

In this post, I want to suggest that Spaceship Earth is in fact a story of a brave crew risking much to explore a strange new territory. But the space we explore is more cultural than physical.

During the industrial era, the world economy has doubled roughly every fifteen years. Each such doubling of output has moved us into new uncharted cultural territory. This growth has put new pressures on our environment, and has resulted in large and rapid changes to our culture and social organization.

This growth results mostly from innovation, and most innovations are small and well tested against local conditions, giving us little reason to doubt their local value. But all these small changes add up to big overall moves that are often entangled with externalities, coordination failures, and other reasons to doubt their net value.

So humanity continues to venture out into new untried and risky cultural spaces, via changes to cultural conditions with which we don’t have much experience, and which thus risk disaster and destruction. The good crew of Spaceship Earth should carefully weigh these risks when considering where and how fast to venture.

Consider seven examples:

  1. While humans seem to be adapting reasonably well to global warming, we risk big lumpy disruptive changes to Atlantic currents and Antarctic ice. Ecosystems also seem to be adapting okay, but we are risking big collapses to them as well.
  2. While ancient societies gave plenty of status and rewards to fertility, today high fertility behaviors are mostly seen as low status. This change is entwined with complex changes in gender norms and roles, but one result is that human fertility is falling toward below replacement in much of the world, and may fall much further. Over centuries this might produce a drastic decrease in world population, and productivity-threatening decreases in the scale of world production.
  3. While the world has become much more peaceful over the last century, this has been accompanied by big declines in cultural support for military action and tolerance for military losses. Is the world now more vulnerable to conquest by a new military power with more local cultural support and tolerance for losses?
  4. Farmer era self-control and self-discipline has weakened over time, in part via weaker religion. This has weakened cultural support for work and cultural suspicion of self-indulgence in sex, drugs, and media. So we now see less work and more drug addiction. How far will we slide?
  5. Via new media, we are exploring brave new worlds of how to make friends, form identities, achieve status, and learn about the world. As many have noted, these new ways risk many harms to happiness and social capital.
  6. Innovation was once greatly aided by tinkering, i.e., the ability to take apart and change familiar devices. Such tinkering is much less feasible in modern devices. Increasing regulation and risk aversion is also interfering with innovation. Are we as a result risking cultural support for innovation?
  7. Competition between firms has powered rapid growth, but winning bets on intangible capital is allowing leading firms to increasingly dominate industries. Does this undermine the competition that we’ve relied on so far to power growth?

The most common framing today for such issues is one of cultural war. You ask yourself which side feels right to you, commiserate with your moral allies, then puff yourself up with righteous indignation against those who see things differently, and go to war with them. But we might do better to frame these as reasonable debates on how much to risk as we explore culture space.

In a common scene from exploration stories, a crew must decide if to take a big risk. Or choose among several risks. Some in the crew see a risk as worth the potential reward, while others want to search longer for better options, or retreat to try again another day. They may disagree on the tradeoff, but they all agree that both the risks and the rewards are real. It is just a matter of tradeoff details.

We might similarly frame key “value” debates as reasonable differing judgements on what chances to take as spaceship Earth explores culture space. Those who love new changes could admit that we are taking some chances in adopting them so quickly, with so little data to go on, while those who are suspicious of recent changes could admit that many seem to like their early effects. Rather than focus on directly evaluating changes, we might focus more on setting up tracking systems to watch for potential problems, and arranging for repositories of old culture practices that might help us to reverse changes if things go badly. And we might all see ourselves as part of a grand heroic adventure story, wherein a mostly harmonious crew explores a great strange cosmos of possible cultures.

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