Knowledge, our Achilles’ heel
“In your thirst for knowledge, be sure not to drown in all the information”. Anthony J. D’Angelo, founder of Collegiate Empowerment
It is hard today to hear a conversation that doesn’t involve the belief that our technology will be the key to solve our problems. We truly trust that our salvation lies in our ability to invent and create. We think that the issues we see do not reflect a problem that lies at the core of our values, but rather simply needs an adjustment in its application. At pretty much any conservation summit (The World Ocean in Singapore, BLUE in Monterey, etc) the message is always the same – the problem is only a question of bad management. If we could only find out the missing pieces of the puzzle, if we could only know more about the planet, nature, and its resources, then, only then, would we be able to act accordingly and “save” what is left. Our understanding is that the destruction of the planet and the abuses we have been responsible for, have occurred only because we lacked the know-how. So now we look at the present and the future and conclude that we must know more if we want to change. This, to my opinion is the root of the problem.
We consider ourselves to be the most intelligent species ever to populate the planet. We look at the past and compare ourselves to what was before. The fact is that all previous cultures once thought of themselves as omnipotent, powerful and of being capable of ruling the world. Each empire thought of itself as better than the one before. And each fell to its demise. We continue to understand our role as “stewards” of this planet. We think it is our duty to protect it. We continually see ourselves at the top of the pyramid looking down over our dominion. We don’t believe we are part of nature, but rather that we stand above it, separated from it, since we are better than it. We think of nature as this disconnected thing that exists outside of ourselves.
Our obsession for knowledge has turned us arrogant and immature. We are addicted to our brain and its capacities. We get high on what we can do. Our society lives in a constant sugar rush, drinking the technology & knowledge “Kool Aid” without any filter. We have kicked wisdom out of our lives, deeming it boring and against progress. But it is not because the chocolate cake is on the table that we have to eat it. We don’t think about the long-term consequences. We don’t think about the social impact of our discoveries. We only focus on the short-term gains. We only look for quick personal individual gratification. Frankenstein’s tale was precisely about that. When Mary Shelley wrote the horror story of the scientist and a monster, she did more than creating a new genre. Her novel was a premonition to what is in store for our world.
From within our cities, sitting behind computers or staring down at our “smart” phones, we claim our superiority and gaze at the world around us in a conceited way. Detached from any realities, we think of aging as a disease, that good parenting means monitoring our children every single second, that consuming green will fix our consumerism, that the idea of implanting a device in our brain to fix an imbalance is pure genius, that people who gamble our savings have a right to do so, that Facebook is real, that the web brings us closer, that food is only a recipe of carbs, proteins, sugars, and fats, and that nature is only a resource that demands to be quantified and managed. What Richard Louv wrote in his book “The Last Child in the Woods” can’t be measured so it is hardly considered. So we go the opposite way and go crazy with our quantification. We have to put a value on Planet Earth (5,000 trillion dollars according to astrophysicist Greg Laughlin) and on the oceans (check the Ocean Health Index for an orgy of numbers) to understand their importance. If it doesn’t have a number, we can’t understand it, or more, we don’ know how to value it. Knowledge is indeed important but it should not be the horse we ride on.
We have lost the ability to see the big picture. Because we are so good a looking at everything on an anatomical level we have become blind at grasping the bigger perspective. William R Catton does an amazing job at explaining why in his books Overshoot and Bottleneck. I strongly recommend you read the two.
Knowledge is not the reason why people change. If it was so, no one would smoke cigarettes, everybody would pay their credit cards on time, no one would break the law, everybody would follow the rules, there would be no economic crash and every politician would always make decisions for the good of society. The reality is that our life structure is based on values. And values differ. If we want to change, we will have to understand how people come to truly value things, and unfortunately, it is not through knowledge. No one that cherishes nature do so because of numbers, they all got to care and love nature by spending time in it. And here is the core of the argument.
For people to change, for children to develop the love and care for nature, we will have to literally reconnect our society with life and the planet. First, there needs to be direct correlation between our lifestyle and the state of the environment. We can talk about garbage littering our beaches and polluting our oceans as much as we want to and for many years, the fact remains that each and one of us is totally disconnected with the amount of garbage he or she produces and its impact. Everyone takes their garbage to the curb and says goodbye – out of sight, out of mind. There are absolutely no incentives whatsoever for people to produce less garbage and to understand the consequences of their consuming habits. Something they can’t physically feel is simply impossible to understand and care about. How can we make society care about the state of fishing stocks when subsidies create an illusion that masquerades the tragedy? How can they grasp the seriousness of the situation when the price of fish at the market has barely risen over the years. Even if they hear about the problems, the reality doesn’t touch them. Our world lives in a bubble detached from any consequences. We are sheltered from the impact our lifestyle creates. For our society to change, we will foremost have to accept the blame and consequences of our actions. We will have to be open to the idea that the fundamentals of our society are no longer valid with the current state of the planet. Until that day comes, all we will be doing is keep drowning in our own arrogance.
Daniel J. Boorstin, in his book “The Discoverers” said: ”The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” I think, today, it would be more accurate to say that “The greatest obstacle to living sustainably and in harmony with our environment is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge”.