Searching For Hope Thanksgiving 2015

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 26, 2015

Yesterday was my 64th birthday. I had planned to publish “100 Signs of Hope for the Future” in reaction to my 63rd birthday post, “50 Reasons Why The Human Race Is Too Stupid To Survive.” That essay, the most popular one I wrote this year, still gets 20-50 hits a day. This year I felt challenged to discover twice as many signs of hope for my 64th birthday. I’ve been working for weeks, but alas I have failed. Not because I couldn’t find that many signs of hope, but because the essay just got too big to finish on time. I’ve decided to break it into several essays.

Thanksgiving 2015 

I’ve switched to searching for hope because pursuing pessimism is pointless. Even if we know we’re going to lose, we have to bet to win. Signs of despair are everywhere, so it’s too easy to find roads to apocalypses. The real existential challenge is to find  routes out of our maze of problems. Deciding what we want is the first step on the journey. I want an Earth friendly society, where everyone is equal, who follow universally accepted standards of ethics, with lifestyles that are sustainable over millions of years, that leads to opportunity for all Homo sapiens while still fairly sharing this planet with the rest of our fellow species.

When we are young we have great hope for the future, but as we age, little by little, that hope fades. I grew up with a tremendous sense of wonder for this amazing reality around us, but as I’ve grown old, I’ve become increasing pessimistic about the future of our species. Most people on this planet hide from reality in childish beliefs about God and Heaven, but as an atheist, I have to live with the scientific assessment of our existence. The future looks bleak. But I want to fight the natural tendency of becoming cynical while growing wrinkles. I desperately want to the human race to get its shit together and make the most out of this astonishing piece of ontological luck.

Finding hope for the future is a Mt. Everest size challenge. News reporting makes us all want to stick our heads in the sand. How can we overcome our sense of powerlessness? Why does being spectators on the sidelines of history feel so soul destroying? When will weathervanes stop pointing to countless hurricanes bearing down on us from all the directions of the compass? I actually believe there are ways to solve our collective problems. The trouble is we are our own worst enemies.

It would have been much easier to find a 1,000 signs of despair than 100 signs of hope. We all cope by ignoring what we don’t want to see, and rationalize things will magically get better. It’s impossible for one person to even comprehend the holographic information behind one half-hour news program. Having access to the internet overwhelms our minds with infinite data. We can’t even tell the facts from misinformation. We all maintain an ever shifting illusion about the future. The easier path is to ignore what might be, and focus on our personal needs and wants. I see hope in just defining our problems, which is what I want to do in future essays.

The other night I found an especially important sign of hope in a very strange place, the documentary Pandora’s Promise. This film is about environmentalists who were once passionately against nuclear power that have changed their minds. The hope I find, is not in the promise of cleaner energy, but in the fact that fervent true believers can admit they were wrong. To survive all the ill winds that blow our way, will require open minds with a strong willingness to study new information. We’re currently being bombarded by politicians who regurgitate the same brainwashed propaganda of their parties. This gives us little reason for hope. We need more Sauls who become Pauls, transformed by the light of reality. And before all you conservative Christians gloat with glee over my metaphor, let me tell you that you’ve still got your own Road to Damascus to travel.

For all of us to find hope for the future will require each of us to transform ourselves. Last year I was pessimistic because I doubted we could change. Recently I decided to bet on hope than spend my waning years becoming bitter about the human race, like the aging Mark Twain. What I need, and I think every else needs too, are signs of hope. I’ve spent a lifetime reading science fiction, so thinking about the future comes easy to me. If this essay seems more worried over despair that’s because it illustrates two significant points. One, finding hope is Sisyphean task. Two, recognizing that we have a problem is the beginning of transcendence.

Our problem as ordinary citizens, is we feel powerless at controlling our own fates. We think leaders should enact policies that will change the way we live. That passivity is dangerous. It is our individual decisions to change ourselves that is the solution. The key issue is sustainability. The ways we live our lives are not sustainable. For me to find 100 true signs of hope will require finding signs we are all choosing sustainable ways live.

People seldom change without being forced to change. Few people will unilaterally sacrifice what they have to help others, or even help themselves. It’s one thing to have a lot, and share some extra. It’s a whole other thing to give up what you have. This past year I’ve chosen to go on a plant-based diet for health reasons. I’m constantly tormented by what I can’t have. It’s not easy doing without. I know so many people who have far more serious health issues, yet they say they won’t change how they live to save themselves. They pray for magical solutions. Such false hope will destroy us.

I agree we won’t change without technological help. We’re more likely to survive if clever engineers invent technology that bypass our human failings. But technology can’t be our only salvation. Anyone who has been on a diet knows how hard it is to change the momentum of habits. Anyone who has succeeded at losing weight and transforming their health, knows how empowering new habits can be. No civilization of the past has survived a major disruption, so we have a perfect record of losing. On the other hand, our species has been mutating and transforming at a hyper-rate since The Enlightenment. Scientific knowledge has transformed our cognitive abilities dramatically, and with technology we’ve transformed human society, the face of the Earth, and the biosphere. So far this knowledge has allowed us to become a cancer upon the planet.

The reason why I wrote that pessimistic essay last year was because I felt people are incapable of change, but a year of reflection tells me the human race constantly changes. Recent research shows the brain is very plastic, capable of rewiring, even late in life. Another good sign of hope. However, humans tend to change because of powerful outside forces rather than by personal choice. We evolve through survival. And now it’s time to evolve like we never evolved before. Is it possible to intentionally guide our evolution? Can we choose to do what’s hard instead of what’s easy? Will the seven deadly sins always rule our habits?

There seems to be little reason to expect a political solution. A U.S. president from either party will never be bold enough to defy political self interest. In fact, their self interest thrives on our weaknesses. Does that mean we should just give up and wait for the apocalypse? I’d like to believe when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and we’re all tough enough.

Everything is interrelated. Solving any of our major problems requires solving our other major problems. Finding hope also involves recognizing the problem—we cannot solve problems we refuse to see. We cannot solve our problems without becoming different people from who we are now. Learning what we need to do will require reeducation, and that means a lot of reading and watching of documentaries. We need to learn how reality works. We need to stop pursing mindless forms of escapism. We’ve spent thousands of years praying to God, and we know that doesn’t work. Waiting for a Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, isn’t practical either.

To stop acting like lemmings rushing to the cliffs of oblivion requires thinking for ourselves.

Essay #982 – Table of Contents

Climate Change Observations #1

Here’s a week’s reading about climate change happening now.

  1. The Face of Climate Change: Walloped Wildlife and Flowers in the Colorado Rockies
  2. Scientists Adopt Tiny Island as a Warming Bellwether
  3. Climate change helps local man set Arctic sailing record
  4. Warming Lakes: Barometers of Climate Change?
  5. Climate-change denial getting harder to defend
  6. Climate change may force evacuation of vulnerable island states within a decade
  7. Dutch Drinking Water May Be Hurt by Changing Climate, Pollution
  8. Polling climate change in thirteen countries
  9. Climate Change And Seafood Supply: Developing Countries Most Vulnerable To Ocean Acidification
  10. Pentagon Study Cites Climate Change as National Security Threat
  11. Climate Victims Deserve a Hearing, Whether Here or in The Hague
  12. Climate Change’s Effect On Marine Life Will Leave Winners And Losers
  13. Climate change cripples forests
  14. Global Warming Is Already Causing Loss of Life and Damage to the Economy Around the World: New Report
  15. Climate change is already damaging global economy, report finds
  16. Research reports climate change could cripple Southwestern forests
  17. Are we wrong about climate change?
  18. Carbon Feedback From Thawing Permafrost Will Likely Add 0.4°F – 1.5°F To Total Global Warming By 2100
  19. Unanimous vote to support climate change refugees
  20. Climate Change Offers Grim Long-Term Prognosis for Seafood

I have Google Alerts configured to send me links to anything published about “climate change” every day.  Often the daily update links to climate change deniers, or just to articles about climate change in general, but frequently enough, it finds articles that relate stories about places around the world where climate change is happening now.  The links above are just a week’s worth of stories I found interesting.  I get many more links total.

I am not a scientist, but like Bob Dylan’s famous line, “You don’t need a weather man To know which way the wind blows,” I feel keeping the pulse of what’s happening is revealing.  I’ve given up thinking humanity will work on limiting climate change, so now I’m just an observer.  Go configure a Google Alert for yourself and read the stories.   [Or for that matter, create an alert on any topic and just watch it.  It’s a real learning experience.]

And there’s more than one story happening.  The political fight against even believing that global warming is happening is fascinating.  It’s the forces of greed versus the forces of science.  It’s a story of how delusion works wonders on minds who refuse to listen.  It’s a story of psychological warfare and FUD.

I don’t know what will happen.  However, if the liberals are wrong, the worst that happens is we spend billions making America very energy efficient.  If the the conservatives are wrong, millions die and suffer.  In making a moral decision, it’s not about who is right, but the harm you cause by thinking you’re right.

JWH – 10/7/12

Rethinking the Great Books of History

I am listening to “Books That Have Made History:  Books That Can Change Your Life” from The Teaching Company, taught by Professor J. Rufus Fears and I’m wondering if the “classic” books of history are being oversold.

great-courses

I’m a life-long bookworm.  I got my degree in English Literature.  I study books about books, such as those by Harold Bloom, and I even study the Bible as literature although I’m an atheist.  I wish I had the time to master the great books.  And I started listening to these lectures expecting to expand on my knowledge of the great books of history.  However, Dr. Fears is making me think otherwise.

Books That Have Made History is a popular course for The Great Courses, but I think it has a fatal flaw.  And I’m not the only one to criticize this series, just read the customer reviews at the site.

Dr. Fears approaches these 36 lessons with the assumption the greatest books of history have great moral lessons to teach.  He expects great books to explore and answer four questions:

  • Does God or do gods exist?
  • What is fate?
  • What do we mean by good and evil?
  • How should we live?

Dr. Fears teaches these books with a firm belief in the answers.  He teaches each title by fitting them into his own theological beliefs.  In his opening lecture he discusses Dietrich Bonhoeffer and how he was imprisoned by the Nazi’s and hanged on April 9, 1945.  Dr. Fears said Bonhoeffer and the judge that sentenced him to die both read and studied the same classic books of history, and asks:  How did they come to such morally different conclusions?

Dr. Fears assumes the great books of history have answers to the great questions of history.  I think he’s wrong. 

Dr. Fears assumes there is a God, there is good and evil, that we’re expected to live by definite rules, and we have a fate or destiny in our lives.  I think he’s wrong.

Dr. Fears refuses to believe that the universe is accidental, that there is no good or evil, that there are no moral laws embedded in the universe, and the universe expects nothing from us.   I think he’s wrong.

Dr. Fears advocates The Iliad was the Bible for the ancient Greeks like the Christian Bible is for the western world, and that Homer was a singular real person.  I disagree.

Dr. Fears believe Moses was a real historical figure and there’s amble historical and anthropological evidence to support his story.  I disagree and even think many Jewish scholars disagree.

Now my point is not to say I dislike this lecture series because I disagree with the professor.  I’m asking why we should read the great books of history?  If they exist for the reasons Dr. Fears suggests, then I say, let’s forget them.  I’m dead tired of trying to puzzle out truth about reality from ancient thinkers.  I’m willing to read their books to understand the evolution of mankind and its history, but I have no interest in acquiring their beliefs.

Dr. Fears believes studying these books are valuable and relevant to teaching modern people how to think and act.  I think that’s wrong.  I think that’s why our world is confused and full of conflicting belief systems.

Great books make you think about life and reality, but they should give no answers.  Explicit answers are dangerous.  We live in the 21st century and we need to study the moment.  Now it’s actually impossible to study the current “now” in books, since books take years to write.  But for example, if you are studying cosmology, anthropology, or geology, or another other science, you really need to be reading books written in the last five years, and no more than 10 year old.

History and biographies can have a trailing edge of maybe 25 years, but that’s because some topics don’t get written about all that often.

If you’re studying the great books of history, I believe they should be read as primary sources to supplement current historical research.  Your research efforts should go into studying how and why they were written in context of their times, and not use them for acquiring personal beliefs.

This represents a schism in approaching reality.  If you believe that science has been the only consistent human endeavor to answer questions about reality, ancient knowledge will only be superstitious beliefs and endless philosophizing.  If you believe in God, then ancient writings are a goldmine of potentially revealed secrets.  Books That Have Made History falls in the later category.  My thinking falls in the former, so these lectures have little value to me.

However, they do make me ask:  Should or can we write current books that summarize good and ethical behavior for people to study?  If people are wanting to read books about how to live their lives in a “proper” manner, can’t we come up with something a little more current and based on contemporary knowledge?

JWH – 9/12/12

Who Are the Abolitionists of Our Times?

What peculiar institutions do we embrace today that modern abolitionists see as evil?

Humans are an evolving social species and in every era some people see further than others.  They understand that common assumptions are wrong.  19th century abolitionists could see that slavery was a vile institution where most were blind to its cruelty.  They wanted to abolish a long held practice that other people embraced dearly.  This brought about the war of America against itself that was so violent that no other enemy has ever come close to hurting us so much.  And even though the war came to an end in 1865 some people are still fighting it today.  It’s very hard for people to change.

What I ask:  What evil do we embrace that is invisible to the society at large that a few people rightly want to abolish today?

The list could be quite long and it might take a century or two before the issues become obvious to everyone.  Evil is not invisible.  Evil doesn’t take a century of social evolution to see.  Evil is ignored.  Everyone in the 19th century should have seen that slavery was evil.  Southern states embraced slavery because it benefitted them economically.  They had to rationalize the practice.  The framers of the Constitution had to carefully dance around the issue in words.  Our forefathers accepted a level of cruelty in life that we can’t rationalize, but instead of feeling enlighten, we have to ask:  What cruelty do we rationalize so easily?  What vile practices do we embrace because we don’t want to see its evil because it profits us?

The first thing that comes to mind are animals.  Factory farms are nightmares of animal cruelty that slaughter billions of beings each year.  We’re also destroying animal habitats worldwide and causing extinctions only slightly slower than mass extinction events.  Given our trends, we’ll start surpassing some of those events soon.

The second thing that comes to mind is how we’re destroying the environment for future generations.  A century from now the the people of the world will hate us far worse than we ever hated slavers, colonialists, Nazis, Communists, terrorists, serial killers or child molesters.  Our excesses will make us the worst of the worst.

Most people today if confronted will go, “Huh, not me, I’m not doing anything wrong.”

And you can’t claim ignorance because we do have our own abolitionists.  They are out there.  They are telling us what’s wrong.  We’re just not listening.

JWH – 2/5/12

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