#6 Keeping the Central Challenge Always Before Our Eyes

In our race against time, especially if our chances are anything like a toss-up, humankind as a species would be wise to keep asking itself – in a thoughtful and sustained way:

“How can we manage to order our civilization – in time – to avoid self-destruction, and to secure for the generations to come a civilization in which the Forces of Brokenness have been overcome, allowing life – human and other – to thrive for the long haul?”

A (Hypothetical) Cosmic History of Attempts at Civilization

One way of thinking about our challenge is to imagine that our situation can be seen as part of a larger story—a more cosmic story of Life evolving, in various places in this vast universe, to give rise to civilization-creating creatures.

Because even if homo sapiens have played a unique role on this planet, we’re probably just one instance of a number of species who have inevitably faced the same challenge:  to overcome the disorder that inevitably would have arisen as a consequence of the breakthrough into “civilization,” which means a “break out” from a biologically evolved order.

The scientists now estimate that there are six billion earth-like planets just in our galaxy. It’s not clear just how rarely or frequently the requirements of life might be met on such planets. But it is difficult for me to imagine that – with so many planets out there – there aren’t a great number of places in which Life has arisen.

And where life does arise, it seems reasonable to expect that it will not be all that rare that, in time, life would evolve to the point where there was some species with the abilities required to “extricate itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically by inventing its way of life.” I.e., to embark on the path of Civilization.

(In the case of homo sapiens on planet Earth, it seems that all that’s been required to set this whole civilization process in motion – for better and for worse – is the emergence of a particular animal with the requisite degree of creative intelligence. If we hadn’t emerged, would we not expect that given another many millions of years, some other species would have evolved to have those capabilities? Consider how much smarter a chimpanzee is than an alligator or, presumably, a T. Rex.)

So it probably makes sense to think of this “central challenge” as something that has been – or will be – faced by a variety of civilization-creating species on a variety of planets (even considering only the Milky Way, which is just one of billions of galaxies!). Likely, in other words – first — that life itself will arise many times, and — second – that in some non-negligible proportion of those times, Life will bring forth that inevitably perilous experiment with civilization.

Civilization: Something that Can Go Either Way

And if my gut feeling is anywhere close to right — that it is a “toss-up” whether human civilization will make it beyond the next several centuries — that would suggest that in the history of the Milky Way there will be different outcomes regarding that Central Challenge—i.e. that there will be some civilizations that got their act together while some others destroyed themselves because they failed to get their civilizations in good order in time.

That assumes that – in the relevant ways – our species is reasonably typical among the various species on various planets that find their way out of the natural order by starting to invent their way of life. That may not be true: perhaps there’s something in human nature that would make us either more or less able (than other civilization-creating species) to meet that challenge. But I don’t see any reason to imagine us very atypical.

And besides, such is the working of “the selection for the ways of power” from the beginnings of any civilization that the inherent (biologically evolved) nature of the animal may not matter as much as we might think.

  • On whatever planet, the civilization-creating animal would necessarily be inherently cultural.
  • That means that they would all be born capable of assuming a great variety of forms depending on the culture into which they were born.
  • And that means that the selection for power will have a fairly free hand in deforming these cultural animals according to the dictates of the Force of Brokenness, and its inevitable Reign of Power, that emerged with civilization. Any cultural creature can be shaped into a monstrous form.

All of which leads me to see our situation as part of that larger cosmic history in which there have been some abundance of attempts at civilization in which – in any given case — it could have gone either way.

Imagining an Analysis of the Mixed Picture of Life’s Risky Experiments with Civilization

Looking at our own challenge — “How can we order our civilization…?” – in that context, I can imagine some historian of cosmic civilization studying the various histories of success and failure with the purpose of discovering what factors proved to help a civilization get its act together in time, and what factors enable the Force of Brokenness, which would have inevitably erupted along with the rise of civilization, to take the civilization down into ruin.

I’d really like to read that book.

Of course I have no empirical knowledge of what that hypothetical cosmic historian would discover. But I’ll bet this would be among his/her findings:

  • Those civilizations were more likely to survive the more – and the sooner – its creatures recognized the nature of the challenge they face;
  • More likely to survive, too, the more and the sooner they made deliberate efforts to meet that challenge;
  • Conversely, the longer a civilization essentially “backed into the future” – dealing with only the immediate problems, and leaving the longer-term future to define itself – the more likely that civilization would be to end up in ruins.

A Proposal for Meeting Our Challenge

The effort to meet our Central Challenge should start with our working continually to envision where it is we need to get to, to embody that “good order” our long-term survival requires.

  • What would our civilization look like, if it were best ordered to preclude the possibility of self-destruction through war?
  • How would civilization have to be ordered so that human activity was compatible with the long-term health of the biosphere (on which we also depend for our survival)?

How, in other words, to supplant Brokenness with “peace” and “harmony”?

Envision the desired – the necessary – destination.

Surely, different people will have different visions of that destination. That’s not a problem. It is, indeed, part of the solution: that should lead to the kind of conversation humankind will need to have as an ongoing process over the coming years and, if we’re fortunate, even centuries.

Even as we work to envision the destination, the second question to be addressed is:

“What steps would it be wise to take now that will help us reach that destination?”

Here’s one place where understanding what the ugliness of human history means and doesn’t mean can really matter. For how good a strategy for healing our broken world we can fashioned will surely depend on how well we understand how it got broken, and the various ways that brokenness gets manifested.

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