Could our imagination be the way to act on climate change?

6/7/2015 Guardian: Could human imagination save us from extinction?

- by Andrew Simms

We have been driving many species to extinction, seemingly without a care about who and what we push over the edge, including ourselves. But our ability to empathise may be key to our survival

If you wandered around planet Earth 100,000 years ago you would have come across at least half a dozen distinct species, or sub-species, of human. At least one, Homo erectus, centred around East Asia, lasted for nearly two million years. That makes the duration of us, recognisably modern Homo sapiens, at around 200,000 years, seem modest.

It will remain so if Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is correct. He suggests on current trends we’ll be lucky to see out the millennium.

Some of those other human species we seem to have absorbed, such as the Neanderthals whose DNA we carry, while others we probably drove to extinction, directly or inadvertently. Scratching for positives you could argue that at least we don’t discriminate over who or what we push over the edge, including ourselves.

Is this, counter-intuitively what we will be remembered for – if there is anything or anyone else to remember us? Not our art, technology or great cities, but our epochal knack for driving others, and possibly ourselves in the process, to extinction?

That we are living through the planet’s sixth great (or not so great) mass extinction event was reinforced again last month. A new paper by scientists from the US and Mexico confirmed that vertebrate species, conservatively, are being lost at a rate up to 100 times faster than the natural background rate.

Humans creating sixth great extinction of animal species, say scientists

So, like some super accelerated ageing process, we’re losing in a year what otherwise would have taken a century. The rate for invertebrates isn’t known.

Usually when we reflect on what makes us different as a species it is things such as our large brains (Homo sapiens meaning, roughly and controversially, ‘wise man’), or our complex language and tool-handling ability that come to mind. But what if, reduced by the long view of history, our significance is marked out simply by our destructive ability? That would be ironic.
In Caleb Scharf’s recent book The Copernicus Complex the question of our significance is reduced, in effect, to one about the likelihood of life in general, and our lives in particular, existing at all. In that view, if common, we’re insignificant. If the opposite is true and we’re rare, we matter.

He reveals still-evolving planetary systems, including our own, that are not fixed but are dynamic and bewilderingly diverse. You see just how much luck and chance (a lot) meant that we could evolve at all. It gives a view of the future suffused with darkness like the voids between stars. Life is “ultimately condemned to a distant future of bleak isolation within an increasingly indecipherable universe.”

But do things have to be incredibly rare before they matter or take on significance, and is there not enough here on Earth for rich fulfilment? Watch someone, almost anyone, experience childbirth and you might think differently. Whether we’re alone in the cosmos or not, we can still experience joy and wonder, and that creates significance out of nothing, much like the universe coming into existence itself.

A slightly reductive laboratory view equating rarity with significance may even be part of the problem. Because one of the things that truly marks us out as a species is our consciousness and remarkable ability to experience empathy – with some now pushing an empathy revolution.

And, related to that, there is our skill at cooperation. An injection and cultivation of these facets and abilities can develop our significance positively, and may even save our species’ reputation from being cemented as the dark destroyers. The Parliament of Things is an innovative writing contest that does just that, inviting people to put themselves in the position of a thing or animal and imagine their voice. What would they say about the world as it is right now, being shaped by human civilisation?

If that sounds like a stretch, consider that in New Zealand recently a river was granted legal personhood with two advocates designated, one of them Maori, to speak on its behalf. The organisers point out that in the Old Norse, English and Dutch, an assembly was called a Ding, or Thing, and was used to settle disputes and find consensus.

Up until 1 September you can imagine yourself as something else in 500 words, or how a parliament of things itself might work in 2,000 words. Being able to express a sense of extended responsibility in this way, which humans are capable of in abundance, is itself rare and significant among life forms.

Our human species appears not as happy as the last one standing, seemingly at war with itself and the rest of life. And yet we’re gifted with empathy and the ability to wonder consciously at the world we’re in. Much remains yet to explore, for which our physical senses are inadequate. Our highly evolved sight stumbles at the invisible light spectrum. A dog’s sense of smell is over 1,000 times more sensitive than ours, meaning they inhabit a different world to us.

Perhaps, like hope being the last thing plucked from Pandora’s box, our other great, unusual talent - imagination - could be the thing to save us.
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