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From Start to Finish: Why We Won and How We Are Losing

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That's good advice in any endeavor. The idea that human innovation will save us -- summed up in the truism that "necessity is the mother of invention" -- may be one of those received ideas that we need to jettison, asap. Because we've invented our way out of some problems in the past doesn't mean that will continue to do that indefinitely, especially since the unintended consequences of those inventions keep piling up.

In the end, the science that helps reveal our past or create our present is likely to be inadequate in providing the moral guidance we need for the future. These are times when I find religious language to be helpful, no matter what any person's particular beliefs about theology. One way to sum up the human predicament is to think of ourselves as cursed, with consciousness. Back to Tattersall:

Other creatures live in the world more or less as Nature presents it to them; and they react to it more or less directly, albeit sometimes with remarkable sophistication. In contrast, we human beings live to a significant degree in the worlds that our brains remake -- though brute reality too often intrudes (p. xiv).

That reality is getting more brutal by the minute. Homo sapiens have the gift of an amazing symbolic capacity which has allowed us to create a wondrous world in which we cannot live much longer if we remain on our current trajectory. In one of humans' more popular origin myths, we once were banished from a glorious garden as a result of that symbolic capacity, and after that banishment we sharpened our symbolic capacity and created civilization, which has never stopped being a source of problems. The unintended consequences of civilization now leave us a choice: use the big brain to face our problems or continue our denying, minimizing, and ignoring. The former path is uncertain; the latter is guaranteed to end ugly.

Will this send us back to the garden, hat in hand, asking for a second chance to understand our place in Nature rather than trying to rule over Nature? We once gave up the Tree of Life for a bite at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. To suggest we rethink our relationship to that second tree is not an argument against knowledge but rather a reminder of our limits.

We may not be godlike in our ability to know good and evil, but we can, as Kunstler recommends, do our best to understand the signals that reality is sending and act intelligently. The same consciousness that brought us to this place in history provides the vehicle for getting us out. We are stuck using the asset that got us in trouble to try to get out.

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This suggests to me that there is, indeed, a god: the God of Irony.

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)

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