“You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change.
How is humanity saved if it is not allowed to evolve?”
You’re all puppets tangled in…strings…”
So perhaps how I choose to interpret these lines is a far cry from the intended meaning of the character Ultron. However, they do speak to me about the current state of the world and our efforts to change the course. Let me start off by clarifying a point. I am not some supporter of voluntary human extinction, whether it be by some insidious agent such as an engineered disease, or passively such as not reproducing and allowing ourselves to die out. I wouldn’t normally be so direct in addressing my opinion of a particular philosophy but to me, electing to surrender entirely is the ultimate form of laziness, the abandonment of any hope. I’m not saying that hopelessness isn’t justified sometimes. These are hard times for the global biosphere, for societies right around the world, both struggling against injustice, greed, and conflict, but I am of the opinion that there is always light somewhere. No matter how dark it gets, it’s there somewhere. It just requires courage and determination to keep looking for it.
Therefore, Ultron’s approach to achieving world peace by ending it all is anathema to me. However, anyone who has seen the movie knows that that was not his original purpose, nor did he go off mission in the beginning. So perhaps mine is a loose interpretation of his opening speech, but here’s what I take from it. In a nutshell, we want it all. We want to save the Earth that is, the one we have grown up in, the one we are used to but at the same time, we want massive reform. We want to stop war, crime, climate change, poverty, hunger, pollution, tyranny, extinctions, and every manner of social and environmental injustice. We wave our banners and our flags, we bemoan the state of the world and expect better from our leaders, and many of us maintain a happy-go-lucky attitude that things will change for the better simply because they should.
Just because they should doesn’t mean they will. Just because we complain about something doesn’t mean our leaders will listen.
Our civilization, as is, cannot be maintained if we really want an end to all the things I listed above. Why? Because all of those things are symptoms of the sickness that is our consumptive, capitalist system that reduces everything down to its monetary value, that dehumanises individuals, that allows room for human and environmental tragedy in the name of profit. We all live in this system, we all play into it, whether we like it or not. The demands we place upon the Earth, far beyond its capacity to sustain, is what is driving all our current ecological crises. They in turn feed back into injustices that already existed because of the very nature of our current system, exacerbating them further.
Why, honestly, would we want to save this?
Why would we want to hand down to future generations a system that offers equality, privilege, and abundance to the few at the expense of all others? Why would we want to hand down a system of governance so vulnerable to corruption that it can be moulded like putty in the hands of the already powerful? Why would we want to hand down a wrecked Earth, mired by pollution, racked by an unstable climate, bereft of life and vitality?
The answer is simply, put that way, we wouldn’t, and these questions are moot anyway. We can’t save the current system because it is unstable and at odds with any kind of peace and prosperity in the long-term, and possibly at odds with our continued survival as a species. It operates under the assumption of infinite space and resources on a planet that has neither. Already, the Earth is overburdened by our sheer numbers and the demands that each of us as individuals place upon it on a daily basis. Food, fresh water, living space, raw materials, all of it drawn from the Earth in a largely unsustainable fashion. Eventually, the planet will hit the brakes and cease to give, and where will that leave us?
I think we’ve all been duped into believing that something akin to the American dream is possible for us all, that we all can have huge houses, our own expensive cars, boundless food and material goods, that there can be no end to our satisfaction derived from purchasing disposable objects and gadgets that we can then easily replace. It’s a very dated, very immature mindset, and one that could doom us. One of my favourite quotes is from Gandhi that “the Earth has enough for everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed”. Generally speaking, that is fairly accurate. While the resources exist to provide every person with food, water, housing, transport, and energy, it isn’t possible for every single person to own a Bentley and their own mansion. Yet even to provide that much luxury to a small number of people whilst the other echelons of society in the West receive a diluted form is plunging billions into poverty in the Third World and upending the Earth’s natural systems unlike anything since the asteroid the wrought the extinction of the dinosaurs.
The fact of the matter is that this globalized, capitalist system is a thrill-seeking madman that we are passively riding along with, even as it drives over the edge of the ecological cliff. That is the only way business-as-usual can take us. Yes, we do need reform. Yes, we do need change. However, I don’t think many people appreciate how these changes might affect them personally as individuals. One example is our unsustainable food system. Providing meat and dairy to the West is already a massive drain on resources and is fuelling multiple environmental crises, as I discussed in my previous blogpost about the documentary Cowspiracy. If it meant saving the planet, if it meant feeding everyone on Earth, could everyone honestly say they’d sacrafice at least a portion of their meat and dairy intake and replace it with plant-based foods? Could you make-do with a few ounces a week? Could you take on the ultimate environmentally and socially responsible diet and go vegan? I’m not sure how many would voluntarily subscribe to such a policy if it were ever instituted, but when our Earth can no longer sustain the cattle ranches and the factory farms, it might become mandatory.
Here’s another one that mightn’t be so hard to comprehend but still a challenge. Could you give up on the concept of having your own personal vehicle, could you depend entirely on public transport? Let’s for a moment imagine that these services are timely, readily-available, and cheap if not completely free? That might indeed be easier to swallow. After all, buying and maintaining your own car is expensive and if you had a free alternative at hand, why wouldn’t you choose that instead? I think the reason is that our culture emphasizes private ownership, that having your own car is a symbol of achievement and independence. However, for the sake of cultural norms, we are polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and throwing more vehicles into the mix of a transport network that you might not come out alive from.
When it comes down to it, people aren’t going to make these changes unless they have a good incentive to do so, whether that’s achieved through policies that actually better all people’s lives, and not just corporations and the super-rich, or through the imminent collapse of civilisation as we know it is down to us. Collectively, we need to grow up and face the music. Between climate change, ocean acidification, sea level rise, habitat destruction, and all our other negative environmental influences, we have the potential to make the world a really nasty place where the type of dystopian rule that we imagine in fictional series like The Hunger Games becomes a real possibility, one we are already beginning to slip into, as governments exercise the wrong responses to the growing crises they face.
Our system, based entirely on monetary gain, placing a dollar value on everything, is both impractical and immoral given the realities of our world. It is a system that worked well in more primitive times when there were fewer of us placing a far smaller demand on the planet’s resources but now, it needs a massive overhaul, in fact a straight-up replacement, in order to bring human civilisation in line with the times. Our economy needs to be based on available resources and values, not financial gain and greed. We need to get it out of our heads that perpetual economic growth is a good thing because it only represents success in a narrow spectrum of society. Did you know that investments in health and education count against growth? Yet, the success of a company that manufactures guns or drones contributes to it. What does that say about our current system that educating our children and treating our sick and injured takes away from the value of our society whilst manufacturing weapons to kill does the opposite?
This is what we perpetuate. We are putting all our eggs in the wrong basket and hoping that it can still carry us to that wondrous place where we can have everything and everyone is happy. That isn’t impossible, but we have to accept changes, changes in what we value, in what makes us happy. Instead of our happiness and satisfaction in life being dependent on rampant materialism, perhaps we should emphasize experiencing the world we have and education, so that people can appreciate more what we’ve already been given by default. Maybe we should stop placing so much importance on owning one of everything and instead, rediscover sharing and interdependence, so that we consume less, waste less, and put a lesser strain on the Earth’s resources and its systems. Perhaps, we need just to accept that we are part of this world, not apart from it. The notion that we can somehow hold dominion over it is one that will destroy our environment and our society along with it, if not our entire species.
Our relationship with the planet is at a crossroads. Do we continue down the track we’re on into an unpredictable but most-likely dire future, or do we stop and choose a better path? Do we start to make informed decisions about our future, based on science, and take appropriate action, or do we leave our fate to the whims and opinions of self-motivated politicians and business leaders? As Ultron so aptly asked, how is humanity saved if it not allowed to evolve? How are we to progress under conditions where the ancient dogma and religious beliefs of political leaders can still hold sway and even overrule, or at least undermine, real science? We can’t move forward whilst holding on to the past, dated values, and prejudices. This is why we need a system overhaul. We need to educate ourselves away from these negative compulsions that rule our lives, so we can make better decisions for ourselves and the world at large.
At the end of Avengers, when the last of the Ultron bots faces its end, it states with indignant certainty to Vision, “They are doomed”. Vision agrees solemnly but responds that “something isn’t beautiful because it lasts forever. It is a privilege to be among them”. So, are we doomed? On the scale of geological time, most definitely. The sun, after all, is going to swell into a red giant and swallow the Earth, and the planet will become inhospitable long before that eventuality comes to pass. Unless now, we imagine some wondrous future where humanity is no longer confined to the Earth, even then, the universe itself will one-day, in perhaps trillions of years from now, be unable to support life as we know it. Back to the here and now, because that’s what really matters, our immediate future and that of the coming generations. What kind of world will we leave them to build upon, to work towards all manner of human endeavour, to reach for that amazing future where the fate of our race is not tied to the fate of the Earth?
Well, it won’t happen in a world where the biosphere is burning down around them. They won’t shoot for the stars when their most immediate concern is where the next morsel of food is coming from, as was depicted in the movie Interstellar. Even the achievement of saving ourselves from a dying Earth might be too much to hope for. We may instead devolve into the primitive hunter-gathers or proto-farmers we once were, or just go extinct. To quote Brian Cox, “We are the universe made conscious, we are the means by which the universe understands itself”. What a shame then if we used that remarkable gift to snuff ourselves out.
I don’t know about everyone else, but I think the time to act was thirty years ago. The next best thing we can do is to make the right choices now, for ourselves and together for all humanity, and cut the strings on us that prevent us from doing so. I’d like our privilege as a species of being here, now, to last a little longer than my lifetime.
All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions, and no offence is intended to anyone.