Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Another Book on Collapse, Another Set of Markers to Mark Our Extinction?

Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" might be a portending story of coming times:

Her interview was a bit contentious. On 94.3 FM, Seattle -- http://www.kuow.org/program.php?id=23970

Complexity, the human brain not wired through several million years of evolution to understand long-term risk, socio-biology of Stephen Gould and E.O. Wilson, the problematic issue of most humans not able to think abstractly or holistically, the driving force of constant upgrades on technology, the continued boulder avalanche of yet more social media networks -- Facebook 3.0? -- and humanity. Costa draws these challenges into her book that is now getting a lot of air play and promoting.

Read the preface and the book review Costa's book. Here are her supermemes that hobble humanity.
Is this what keeps us inactive understanding how to work as a global society, supposedly networked by technology, communication, with all these super transnational organizations like the United Nations, all the NGOs, and the corporate state? Are we not wired to understand and plan for climate change? Do we have a brain wired to only go so far? Are we just apes with nuclear weapons? Read on, and consider these five human collective thinking patterns to conjure up how we can deal with a planet without ice.  

1) Irrational opposition  2) The personalization of blame 3) Counterfeit correlation
4) Silo thinking  5) Extreme economics

"The Watchman's Rattle," Rebecca Costa

What fascinating and enigmatic creatures we are. A short history of our rocketing ascent into dominance over the fragile patina of life enveloping this planet might extend as far back as 50 thousand years but its most telling and suspenseful chapter is surely the latest one, the one witnessed by most of the readers of this book. At its core, The Watchman’s Rattle is one person’s panoramic step backward from the breathtaking hubbub of daily news—its wars, failing economies, and biological calamities-- to calmly ask: Who’s piloting this ship and where is it going?” Our author for this journey is Rebecca D. Costa, an unabashed optimist herself but hardly one to suffer a polyannish makeover of the social problems that beset us. This is a serious and thoughtful work, as admirable for its cut-to-the-chase analysis of how we become captive to our social complexity, as for its insightful and practical suggestions for finding a way out of it. This is a book worthy of study.

Serious as the subject matter is (subtitled ‘Thinking our way out of extinction’), The Watchman’s Rattle reads like an engaging story, in this case a crime novel. The opening chapters set the stage for us—evolution of the human species and its cognitive abilities for reasoning and the use of powerful tools. The plot thickens as the author samples the history of human social development from its biological underpinnings, exponential ascension to untenable complexity and ultimate demise. The causes of death are the usual suspects for these anthropological intrigues – famine, disease, drought, loss of biodiversity-- but the actual murder weapon, Ms. Costa argues, is always the same: the incapacity of humans to deal with the exponentially expanding complexity of their social systems. How can we escape Hobson’s Choice, the certain catastrophic failure of a society too big to manage its unsustainable growth?

Insight usually begins with a sudden penetrating vision of the problem at hand. In this regard, the middle of this book shows the author at her best, in a clear and systematic application of biological principles to explain the origins and persistence of human social behaviors both good and bad. By her own characterization Ms. Costa is profoundly influenced by the principles of Darwinian evolution and the elegantly simple power of natural selection to shape both the biological and sociological characteristics of animals for the environments they live in. The transmittable units of social behavior, so-called ‘memes’, propagate through cultures much as genes do, increasing or decreasing reproductive success in accordance with their fitness for a particular time and place within our culture. Ms. Costa expands this treatment to identify five powerful and self-perpetuating “supermemes”, essentially cultural beliefs or habits so powerfully ingrained in our day-to-day lives that expression of even the most reasonable and adaptive alternative actions is suppressed. Our uniquely human powers of imagination, exploration and experimentation are thus effectively imprisoned by these supermemes, ultimately quenching even the most rational applications of knowledge so painstakingly accumulated by science. Beliefs and knowledge, Ms Costa warns us, are dangerously out of balance.

Review of the book:

New Hope for Those Searching for Signs of Intelligent Life On Earth

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen

I'd just about given up hope in my search for signs of intelligent life on Earth -- let alone the Universe -- when two events gave me hope: The successful extraction of 33 miners from almost half a mile under the surface of the desert of northern Chile. and finishing reading Rebecca D. Costa's "The Watchman's Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction" (Vanguard Press, 384 pages, notes, bibliography, index, $26.95).

Actually, I should clarify the latter statement: I read "The Watchman's Rattle" for the first time. It's the kind of book you'll want to keep and read over and over. You'll end up, as I did, underlining and annotating your copy as you discover "aha!" moments. In fact, this is one of the most important books I've read all year and I recommend it for anyone who wants to get an introductory course in the discipline of sociobiology that was pioneered by Edward O. Wilson, who contributed the foreward to "The Watchman's Rattle."

One of the essential messages of Costas' book is to look beyond "memes" -- widely held beliefs, conventional wisdom or behaviors -- and to challenge the five "supermemes" that defeat humans even before they engage the problem. Costas says supermemes encompass "any belief, thought, or behavior that becomes so pervasive, so stubbornly embedded, that it contaminates or suppresses all other beliefs and behaviors in a society."

What are the five supermemes?

1) Irrational opposition (pages 67-86)

2) The personalization of blame (pages 87-109)

3) Counterfeit correlation (pages 111- 128)

4) Silo thinking (pages 129-145)

5) Extreme economics (pages 147-178)

I'm listing the page numbers because it's important -- vital, even -- that these five supermemes be understood and absorbed. It's a case of knowing your enemy. Read those five chapters over and over again, and read the chapters preceeding and following the five, too. Material contained in the seven chapters may be in the next pop quiz! (Before ending up in journalism, I considered a career in academe).

Irrational opposition occurs "when the act of rejecting, criticizing, suppressing, ignoring, misrepresenting, marginalizing and resisting rational solutions becomes the accepted norm," Costa says. She cites the case of Wag Dodge, a firefighter who discovered a major lifesaving concept while he was fighting a major wildfire: "Imagine for a moment if Dodge has dismissed his revelation that lighting a smaller fire around him would save him from a more dangerous one. Imagine if Darwin had abandoned the notion of evolution simply because he could not prove the existence of genes. Imagine if Einstein's theory of relativity had been cast aside because it wasn't consistent with accepted Newtonian physics."

One example Costa uses for personalization of blame, the second supermeme, is the demonization of the Big Three auto executives who flew in their private planes to Washington, DC in 2008, to ask Congress for billions of dollars of federal funds to restructure their businesses --- a move that has turned out to be a success, the author notes (as did Pulitzer Prize-winning auto writer Dan Neil on Bill Maher's Friday night, Oct. 15 HBO show "Real Time"). "With news that they had flown in private planes...every politician, political commentator, talk show host, reporter, and citizen suddenly objected to helping rich CEOs who don't fly commercial like the rest of us." Costa adds that the subsequent firing of General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner confirms the truth of the saying of American business icon Robert Half: "The search for someone to blame is always successful."

The third supermeme, counterfeit correlation, is called, in the author's shorthand, "Clavinism" after the know-it-all postman Cliff Clavin on the popular TV show "Cheers." Cliff Clavin always prefaced the trivia that he mistook for reliable research with the statement: "It's a little known fact that...." Costa says that in the 21st century "we have not only perfected counterfeit correlation, but we have fallen under its spell."

The fourth supermeme is silo thinking, "compartmentalizing thinking and behaviors that prohibit the collaboration needed to address highly complex problems." Silos exist everywhere, Costa says: the CIA doesn't talk to the FBI; physics professors don't set foot in the economics departments of universities; Republicans don't talk to Democrats; defendants don't talk to prosecutors, etc., etc. "And we wonder," Costa states, "why society is gridlocked and broad, complex, systemic problems continue to worsen."

The fifth and final supermeme, extreme economics, "occurs when simple principles in business, such as risk/reward and profit/loss, become the litmus test for determining the value of people and priorities, initiatives and institutions," says Costa. Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway scooter, is one of the visionaries Costa cites in her chapter on extreme economics. In 2008 Kamen's company announced a small water purifying system, called the Slingshot, that produces "10 gallons of clean water an hour on 500 watts of electricity" -- about the amount of electricity needed to power one string of Christmas tree lights for an hour. Kamen says the system can be fueled by methane gas produced by cow manure, a readily available commodity in the developing world, where potable water is a critical need.

Another example Costa cites -- in the chapter after the one on extreme economics -- is the concept of microloans, developed by Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus, who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for perfecting and popularizing microfinance.

Yunus began his experiment in microfinance in 1974, when he loaned to a group of 47 impoverished people the equivalent of $27, out of his personal savings, to buy materials for their baskets. The women basketmakers established self-sustaining businesses and repaid Yunus in full, with interest. The success of his Grameen ("Village") Bank, established in 1983, led to the creation of thousand of microlending organizations around the world. To date, more than 97 percent of Grameen Bank's loans to the poor have been repaid on time and with interest, demolishing the commonly held belief that poor people are bad credit risks.

Costa believes that the mounting complexity of a problem can outpace the brain's ability to absorb and address it. With compelling evidence, she shows how we tend to quick-fix our problems by addressing the symptoms, instead of finding permanent solutions, leading to dangerous long-term consequences.

Costa presents -- in clear, easy-to-grasp prose -- ideas that can show us how to reverse our own downward spiral. Citing cutting-edge research, she reveals how the human brain can spontaneously call upon a powerful cognitive tool -- insight -- to overcome the negative stereotypes inherent in five supermemes. If we don't, we may suffer the fate of early advanced civilizations, like the Maya of Central America, and become extinct.

The final chapters of The Watchman’s Rattle turn our attention to a possible off-ramp from paralytic indecision and fractious failure to act: the cultivation and application of Insightful Thinking. There is much to be learned from modern neurosciences about the human potential for imaginative thought and adaptive behavior. Though not a neuroscientist herself, Ms Costa has no reticence to suggest ways to accelerate our performance in this area. Where she lacks firsthand authority she finds it in the professional expertise of others and translates their thoughts into layman’s language for the rest of us. Frequent references to personal experiences with her family and friends give a biographical air to this reading; there are even some recommendations for a better diet (thankfully no recipes) and physical exercise to improve mental functions. Maternal as these admonitions may come across to the reader, they remind each of us that a mind prepared for insightful thinking probably needs better feeding and regular mental exercise to sustain good function throughout life. Each of us has a role to play here -- call it Costa’s Parallel Incrementalism -- where the seemingly insignificant force of one person’s unconstrained revaluation of habit becomes the ‘Aha’ experience that seeds explosive change in others. Evolution of new structure and function is glacially slow for most of our organ systems, but the capacity for enhanced performance of the human brain through synaptic rewiring of neural networks will have immediate affect.

It’s a good place to begin looking for a solution.
The Watchman’s Rattle will eventually take its place on the bookshelf amid many other laudable works that move human society one step closer to a stable and graceful cohabitation of this planet. Let us hope that the courage, determination and compassion expressed in these few pages will draw out new appreciation for both the difficulty and attainability of this quintessentially important objective.

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