Will We Reach Herd Intelligence Before We Crash Our Civilization?

by James Wallace Harris, 4/19/21

  • Collapsed: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
  • Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben
  • Seaspiracy – a documentary on Netflix

All indicators point to the collapse of civilization sometimes this century. Despite all the press about this perfect storm of self destruction, few people are willing to worry, and even fewer willing to do anything. Must the conclusion be that failure is our only option?

Most of humanity is either preoccupied with personal problems, or if they contemplate the future at all, assume our species will muddle through as it always has in the past. All the evidence suggests otherwise, that the biosphere cannot absorb the impacts of Homo sapiens without a significant destabilization of its system, which in turn will alter the course of civilization.

Civilizations have always come and gone, and so have species. Nothing lasts forever, not even the Earth or the Sun. It’s rather disheartening to consider what we could have become. We almost had the intelligence to create a global civilization that could have lasted thousands, if not millions of years. Theoretically, we still have a chance, but few people who think about such things give that chance much hope. It would have required everyone pulling together towards a common cause, and we’re just not that kind of species.

However, don’t worry, don’t get depressed or do anything irrational. No need to become a prepper assuming an Armageddon is just around every corner. The collapse of civilization will probably be so slow you might not even notice it. Humans are very adaptable to hard times and excellent at rationalizing things aren’t what they seem. Just take every day one day at a time and enjoy the passing parade of history.

As an individual who reads many books and watch many documentaries like the ones above, I keep thinking we should be doing something. But I realize there’s a problem with that assumption. First, we all need to be doing the same thing, and second, we should all stop what we’ve been doing our whole lives. Now is that going to happen? Is humanity a ship that can be steered or a bullet on a trajectory? It really comes down to the Serenity Prayer,

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and Wisdom to know the difference.

It’s the last line that’s so hard to achieve. What can we change, and what can’t we change? Theoretically we could change everything in society if we could just change ourselves. Is it Pollyannaish to think we could, and fatalistic to think we can’t? I wonder if people have always believed in God just to redirect that burden of responsibility?

If you read the above books maybe you will also ask who is smart enough to understand and solve these problems? If we built giant AI minds that could think their way through these immense challenges, would we take their advice? Aren’t we too egotistical to listen? Or even if a God spoke directly to the world would we obey? I’m not sure that’s in our nature either.

Maybe the only path an individual can take and stay sane is learning to accept and endure. But that doesn’t seem to be the way either because too many people today are angry. Anger means still trying to control. If you watch the news pay attention to anger. Too many hate what’s happening to them. And it’s on both sides of the political spectrum. All the people who fight for freedom and all the people who want rules and regulations are motivated by anger. That’s what I dread about the collapse of civilization, living with all these angry people. And the only solution to that is find a place away from them, but that’s not really possible either, is it?

This is a strange book review. But I find it’s getting harder and harder to review books like these by talking about the issues they cover. I’m down to evaluating their emotional impact. The penultimate question is: Can we do anything? The answer is yes. The ultimate question is: Will we? I used to hope that was a yes too, but my faith is fading.

JWH

11 thoughts on “Will We Reach Herd Intelligence Before We Crash Our Civilization?”

  1. Very thought-provoking post. I used to find it depressing to think about the likely demise of the human species, now I find it almost comforting to imagine the planet without us—how quiet, how peaceful…. I agree that anger is driving our destruction, but see fear as the real root of the problem. The anger is how most people respond to their fear.

  2. “herd intelligence” — love this! Especially during this pandemic when we’ve been hearing so much about herd immunity.

  3. I have no doubt that current civilisation is in end-game territory – and yes, I expect it will be slow. Maybe not even this century. But we are not wired for large societies, and the innate drive to exploit environments to destruction is deep-set. All these things were, doubtless, good survival tactics in hunter-gatherer days, but they don’t work now. However, we can’t escape them; all we end up doing, as a species, is fighting ourselves over it – because we’re wired that way. Intelligence allows us to individually overcome those limits. Sometimes that ideal is shared by groups. But it never lasts.

    1. That’s true, we’re wired to be who we are. I was hoping new information would let us transcend our programming, but that’s wishful thinking. It sure would be cool to go into suspended animation and wake up in two thousand years to see what happens. Many a writer in the 19th century had that idea too.

  4. I’ve read Jared Diamond’s COLLAPSE and the trends for the future don’t look good. This Pandemic has accelerated dysfunction–just look at India and Brazil–and we will all have to pay the price. Waking up 2000 years from now might be very disappointing.

  5. WOW! Our species are not good caretakers of planet Earth. So many animals are on the verge of extinction that in fifty years from now they will be gone. It’s that people don’t care and the ones that do are fighting an uphill battle. I remember growing in New York in the 1970’s I still remember the first Earth Day and everyone participated in the celebration, today nobody notices. People building homes in the middle of the forest and who needs a house that is 10,000 square feet or even 5,000 square feet. My house measures just 1,200 square feet and its enough for me. At least when the Earth rebels against us at least I won’t be around to witness it. I’m glad for that.

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