Tuesday, June 24, 2008

H u m a n i t y . V s . E a r t h

My old roommates were a very intelligent and environmentally conscious people. We used to chat a lot. After a furious debate one day, I remember having this conversation with them.

"Imagine this hypothetical scenario. A large explosion is going to destroy our planet. You have two choices - save all the mankind and destroy the earth, or save the earth but destroy mankind. What would you do ? "

"But what will become of mankind if earth is destroyed ?"

"Imagine that we can ship us all in a spaceship, which has enough resources to keep us floating in space for a few centuries."

"But why will the earth be destroyed ? "

"Yeah. If you choose this option, earth will be destroyed with all the plants and animal life."

"And if you want to save the earth ? "

"Then not a single man will survive. That will be the end of mankind. The earth will remain intact though, along with all the plants and animals."

"But we don't understand. What are you talking about ? Why would it be like this ? "

"I told you it is a hypothetical scenario. Something like science fiction. I presented it just to know your judgement. Well, imagine that an asteroid is going to hit the earth, and that it contains a poisonous chemical. Contamination with this chemical in the atmosphere will kill all mankind, but it harms no other life form. To save mankind, imagine we can build a huge spaceship which is driven by some nuclear fusion energy. And to obtain this energy, a huge particle accelerator has to be built, which is known to create a black hole and destroy the earth. Now you have this choice - save the earth or save mankind. What will you do ?"

Then, my roommates gave me an answer which I did not expect.

"Save the earth, ofcourse. This whole spaceship plan for mankind is very silly. What about you ?"

"I think I will destroy the earth, and save mankind in this spaceship."

Instead of resolving the debate, this hypothetical scenario exposed the crux of our differences.

"Kiran, I didn't know you can be so cruel and insensitive. What is so great about mankind ? This planet is like our mother. How can you be so selfish as to destroy it for your own sake ? Infact, throughout history, we did nothing but damage to this planet. "

"But look at what is at stake. We human beings have discovered science, we have discovered art. All this will die along with mankind."

"What is so great about the things we have discovered ? Nature is a thousand times more beautiful than all the art that man can produce. Is there anything as pretty as nature .. with its waterfalls, forests and oceans ?"

"Yeah, I agree. Nature is amazingly beautiful. But I think you are underestimating the value of mankind. Imagine the great masters of art - Van Gogh, Beethoven, Kalidas. And all the great mathematicians and scientists that have come about."

"But this is nothing compared to the earth. If not for man, earth will produce another life form. We are no better than dolphins, or peacocks, or tigers. It is the earth that has the genius. Can man ever engineer something more amazing than an animal which occurs in nature ?"

"I think human beings are different from the rest of the animals. We do abstract thinking, which no other animal can do. Also, compassion is the sole propriety of human beings. The rest of the animal world is full of violence."

"This is crap. Human beings are the most selfish creatures to have ever evolved. To top it all, would be people like you, who want to destroy the earth to save themselves. You call this compassion ?"

"No, aren't you human beings as well ? You are even considering to kill yourselves to save the planet. This kind of thinking would not exist in other life forms. As for my decision, it has nothing to do with selfishness. I am arguing objectively for the sake of humanity, which I think deserves a lot of respect for its genius."

"Okay, we agree that human beings have some good qualities. But a good human being is an exception, and not the norm. There are only a few human beings that are intelligent, creative or compassionate. Most of the rest are selfish idiots that are better dead than alive."

"I think it is the opposite. I think the vast majority of human beings are creative and compassionate. There are only a few selfish persons who are evil."

"What kind of a world are you living in ? You have no commonsense. You will go about trusting every random person that comes across you ? "

"No, I don't completely trust a random person. But I give him a huge probability that he is good natured. I will confirm this opinion in a few interactions. More importantly, in a huge crowd of randomly sampled individuals, I trust that the majority will always make a good decision, provided they are all well informed."

My roommates laughed at this. "Look at our grand democracy, here in France. You think the majority makes a good decision ?". My roommates were referring to the president Sarkozy, quite unpopular in the student community, and always the butt's end for a lot of jokes. "No, the vast majority of them are selfish and stupid."

"I agree that the majority makes a bad decision, but only because they are uneducated or malinformed. I trust in the general goodness of mankind."

"That makes you a very stupid person. I agree that there are a few people who make all mankind proud. I will trust such a person and will do anything for him. But to destroy the earth for a handful of these people is stupid and also selfish."

"I think each single human being is capable of a genius, either in creativity or in compassion. This is what makes us different from animals, and why we are so precious. Each person is a candle waiting to be lit, an inspiration waiting to happen. It is unfortunate that most of us die without ever coming close to realizing our potential. Earth is our home, and ofcourse I love it. But would you like more the house or the people who live in it ?"

"Earth is not just an appartment, she is our mother. Even if you are so self centered as to think earth is your house, what will happen to you if there is no earth."

"It will be a sad day, but the genius of mankind will find a solution. May be we will colonize another planet. Also, you see, human beings live on multiple abstract planes, not just on the physical plane of this world. Imagine we might create a world of virtual reality as in Matrix, and float in the spaceship".

"There you go, you are degenerating from stupid to insane."

At this point, we agreed to disagree. My roommates were visibly angry with me, for what they thought is a selfish attitude. Myself, I was dumbstruck that such nice people as my roommates would devalue humanity over something so mundane.

This difference of opinion was vital in the way we thought about the world's problems.

I believed that global warming will be solved, by something very creative, such as carbon sequestration through sea algae, or by genetically modified bacteria which eat C02. My roommates will want to reduce the speed of the economy and stop pollution.

I contested that we can revert to nuclear power, and emit no greenhouse gases at all. They believed that nuclear waste would be an artificial damage which we human beings cannot consciously impose on this planet.

I argued that reducing the speed of the economy will push some people towards perennial poverty. They believed that reducing global poverty is important, but only secondary to saving the planet.

According to me, the biggest criminal thing in the world is extreme poverty, how several children die of hunger and diseases, or get pushed to perennial poverty without ever coming close to realizing their potentials and genius. According to them, the biggest criminal thing is the way we human beings mistreat the planet by our obscene consumption.

It is true that they and I often support the same issues. But we differ on a few points.

Not to disparage the environmentalist cause, but one should remember that Nazis were environmentalists too. For all my readers who haven't made their minds yet, I echo the Russell-Einstein manifesto. "Remember your humanity, and forget the rest."

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