Thursday, November 25, 2010

Freeman Dyson & the Hubris of Humankind

I read this article with great interest, as I'd known of Dyson's skeptical attitude towards global climate change (or more accurately called, I think, "global weirding"), and I know of his genius. This article tries to make sense of his position. The header sets the tone of the article:

In the range of his genius, Freeman Dyson is heir to Einstein--a visionary who has reshaped thinking in fields from math to astrophysics o medicine, and who has conceived nuclear-propelled spaceships designed to transport human colonists to distant planets. And yet on the matter of global warming he is, as an outspoken skeptic dead wrong: wrong on the facts, wrong on the science. How could someone as smart as Dyson be so dumb about the environment? The answer lies in his almost religious faith in the power of man and science to bring nature to heel.

The author, Kenneth Brower, I might add, knows Dyson and has obvious admiration and appreciation of Dysons's skills and merits. This is not a hatchet job, but a carefully considered assessment of Dyson's peculiar attitude. In the end, Brower believes that Dyson is (almost literally) a man of the cosmos, and not a mere terrestrial being.

However, the article really caught my attention because, like my comments on Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, I'm skeptical of humankind's ability to tame Nature. In this perspective, I am a skeptic and conservative. I'm conservative in the Burkean sense, except that I'm less skeptical about social change than I am about environmental change (or better yet, I see social change as a species of environmental change). Burke didn't have to address the huge environmental changes that industrialization has wrought since his lifetime. To compare to a more contemporary figure, as far as the environment is concerned, I side more with the perspective of Nassim Taleb, who, I believe, shares a very cautious attitude toward the environment, as well as toward financial and economic systems. Also, Thomas Homer-Dixon has also written about what could be our Ingenuity Gap. As Brower writes, we have lots of technological schemes to address global climate change, and they're very pie-in-the-sky (or something in the sky or the ocean, etc.). We don't even have a public that thinks we have a problem, whether caused by humans or not.

This leads to my last thought: reading Morris's Why the West Rules--For Now, which goes back to the earliest humans, we have survived, but it often seems we did so despite ourselves. Since I'm listening to a Jack Kornfield recording currently, speaking of the Buddhist perspective of innate goodness, I want to believe that, and I do believe we have some grounds for this perspective. However, I also have my inner Calvinist (hey, my dad was a Presbyterian!). Frankly, the weight of the evidence is against us. Take Exhibit A, Dyson, a genius of incredible stature, seems really out to lunch on this crucial issue. If he's out to lunch, where are we mortals? Well, perhaps something less than genius intelligence--or a different array of multiple intelligences--is rather a good thing. Anyway, we fiddle while Earth burns. Are we the Nero species? How on earth (pun intended) can we change this? Advice welcome.

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