I took my sweetie to London’s best holiday nerdfest last night – Robin Ince’s 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People. It was a three-hour celebration of the wonders and beauties that science can reveal – along with lots of hilarious British standup comedy. Throughout, there was lots of emphasis on the role of evolution in creating fantastically complex organisms – and societies. But there was something bittersweet, to me, about celebrating how much our society has evolved, especially in the wake of the disastrous lack of results from Copenhagen.
Yes, our society has evolved and created astonishing innovations like the computer I’m using to write this, and the network that ensures all of you can read it. The internal combustion engine, in particular, has facilitated extraordinary developments in transportation, commerce, health and well-being.
But such development comes with consequences, as we now know. Our evolved intelligence has got us into this mess, and now must get us out of it. Unfortunately, much of society is now in thrall to a particularly well-evolved form of self-interested greed. The policy debates about how to respond to climate change illustrate this well: everyone agrees that something must be done, the conclusive data is building up, but there is hesitation. Why? In many cases, because agreeing to collectively solve a problem interferes with the pursuit of individual gains – a pursuit so well supported by today’s capitalism.
Luckily, we have also evolved an ethics of collective action. Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize winning work explains that societies have also evolved innovative ways of sharing resources to avoid the “tragedy of the commons.” As the pressure to define ourselves as self-interested consumers mounts in this holiday shopping week, it’s important to remember what else our society has evolved: ethics, compassion, and a sense of the collective good.
Happy holidays – I’m off to slow down and enjoy the snow.