by Robert Conner
Five thousand years ago, when our species began to commit its fabulously mistaken notions about the world to writing, it barely mattered on a global scale what Homo sapiens knew or believed about anything. The humans that trudged out of Africa bearing their stone tools and scant belongings had neither the numbers nor the technology to inflict much lasting damage on the planetary environment. Admittedly, as their numbers grew and the sophistication of their weapons improved, the balance of power between humans and mega-fauna began to shift—it is possible if not likely that humans contributed to the extinction of North America’s mastodons and mammoths and that climate change did the rest. After all, stampeding a hundred animals off a cliff and then eating parts of one of them is pretty typical resource conservation where humanity is concerned.
It’s estimated that it required the span of time from the emergence of modern humans around 200,000 years ago until about 1800 for the world population of Homo sapiens to hit 1 billion, but within only 200 additional years the global population had topped 7 billion. A cynic might suppose that competition among religious groups helped spur this population explosion and that religious prohibitions on birth control arise less from concern about fetal personhood than from a realpolitik calculation that there is power in numbers.
In that same time span humans unlocked the black magic of fossil fuel, powered an industrial revolution, mechanized the world, and in the process pumped billions of tons of previously sequestered carbon into the atmosphere—burning a single gallon of gasoline produces nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. Given its numbers and technology, what humanity knew and what it believed about the world had suddenly started to matter. More importantly what humanity didn’t know had also assumed potentially lethal proportions.
Another hinge event occurred in 1945 when the only species created in the image of God demonstrated its capacity to weaponize nuclear fission. Seventy years later any motivated extremist with sufficient funding can produce a nuclear weapon—or steal one, or buy the ingredients from North Korea—and deliver it to a target population in a shipping container. A group of apocalyptic dimwits could, for the first and perhaps the last time in history, get their grubby god-bothering fingers on a real game changer.
Even worse, any one of God’s many Chosen People could prattle on about scriptures, prophets, Promised Lands, caliphates, Arks, Second Comings and Armageddon while the world ecology died. Or they could deny that a Sixth Mass Extinction was well underway, that oceans were acidifying, or that ice sheets and glaciers were melting because of some arcane pronouncement by their favorite Sky Fairy. Worse yet, they could imagine that provoking Armageddon advanced some divine Master Plan and lest anyone think that no such maniacs really walk among us, allow me to point out that American evangelical support for Israel is largely based on just such a premise—gone are the days when the denizens of the looniverse had to content themselves with merely looting Rome or Byzantium, or fighting with bows and arrows, lances and swords over the putrid religious corpse that is Jerusalem.
In the 8th century, delusions of Muslim world domination effectively ended at the Battle of Tours. In the 21st century, thanks to Facebook and the rest of anti-social media, a powerful tool for recruitment and coordination of religio-political planetary folly has been handed to the jihadis too stunted to develop such technology on their own. Today we need no Pope Urban II to preach crusade to the embeggared and embuggered masses—any fascist may now do so from his basement. While not blowing up priceless world heritage sites, the “Islamic State” uses social media to recruit disciples who drive trucks into crowds or blow themselves up in crowded venues. Stray sociopaths, certifiables and grievance collectors may now be mustered into one-man armies, trained, and turned loose on the unsuspecting without any real face time with a recruiter. As usual we are belatedly grasping the implications of our inventions.
The human species evolved to live in a world long past, not in this one. The brain of Homo sapiens is geared up to solve the immediate and the concrete—gather food, escape predators, get out of the rain and mate—not to ask, much less understand, The Big Questions. I had hoped, back in the day, that societies would evolve quickly enough to make up the difference between what is real and what viewers of The 700 Club or fans of squawk radio imagine is real, but my hope for that outcome has gone the way of the dodo and the thylacine. It turns out that societies, like ecologies, are more fragile than I’d imagined.
One could argue, as I certainly have, that centuries of theological glue sniffing, licking the ink off holy books and listening to evangelists and imams have prepared us for the present-day post-truth world of lobbyists, spinmeisters, consultants and shills. During the recently concluded “presidential” campaign, the eventual “winner” tweeted out a whole megillah of batshittery 140 characters at a time to his faith-crazed rabble. No, the crazies aren’t coming out from under the rocks—they’re coming out of the churches and mosques, synagogues and temples, just like they have for the past couple of thousand years, and they’re bringing their crazy with them, a heaping platter of crazy with a steaming side order of crazy.
If I had to make a wager, I’d bet the inaptly named Homo sapiens is a dead man walking.
Listen/download Robert’s interviews on Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio: