Philosophical rantings brought on by an early morning train journey

Published: 2009-05-20
Updated: 2009-05-20

The 6.15am from Kings Cross to Edinburgh may seem like a strange place to be inspired into writing about the nature of our existence. Looking back on it now, I was thinking big in the presence of my own company on issues that, well, could only be confirmed by those that I’m unlikely to meet for a few years, I hope. Anyway, whilst staring out of the window at the fields of green and wondering why solar panels are not also green combined with some musing on how different man’s invention is compared to that of nature, I had a small epiphany about what was going on. It goes a little like this:

The human race is nature’s most risky experiment. I say this because DNA, the building blocks of all things living, has a generally conservative attitude to survival. It is my understanding that DNA has, as its sole purpose, the object of replicating itself. This replication, in the wide and fantastic form that it often takes, ensures DNA’s sole objective, that of survival. Its need to survive demonstrates the rawest form of purpose for any living creature and the forever replicating driver within our own cells fulfils this purpose. Replication as a form of survival, however, can only be described as incredibly conservative – nature has taken millions of years producing millions of species with the hope that some will survive pretty much anything the world can throw at them. In an apparent contradiction to this bet-hedging behaviour on nature’s part, the human race was born.

The achievements that the human race have engineered and the challenges that it has endured in such a small amount of time truly demonstrate some of our most non-conservative tendencies. Humans are willing to risk, willing to sacrifice, we are ingrained with the ability to experiment without the outcome being a certainty. Nature, has never taken such big risks before. For the first time, DNA has created a being that has the power to destroy the whole experiment, but it also has the power to extend it beyond the realms of Earth and long into the future. We are natures most high-tech, most risky experiment. Our collective wisdom will define the outcome of that experiment.

The collective wisdom of the human race is, at this moment, at a cross roads. We are in the age of diagnoses. We are measuring our impact on the environment that has nurtured us for so long and we are beginning to understand that our response to it must change. We are, naturally, in disagreement about how this should be done. Economists would call it supply or demand side options, however, I would prefer to describe it as a risk or risk-free debate.

The risky side wants to keep pushing the envelope, to enhance technology, to drive forward the planet in a low carbon economy that can still continue to grow in population and become wealthier as the years go on. The risk here is that we can not deliver the technologies to meet these challenges and that the world is overwhelmed and likely us with it.

The less risky approach is to take stock. To say that enough is enough and economic growth is an unnecessary and unsustainable risk. By turning off our machines and caring for the planet the same outcomes can be achieved as with new technology without the risk of failure. This more conservative approach is appealing in a society that seems to be changing at whirlwind pace. A return to better days of small communities and more caring societies. The challenge is that stopping the juggernaut of progress is incredibly hard, if not impossible in a world as complex as ours. It may be that such a conservative attitude will not fulfil the human need to risk and innovate that has governed our progress to date; nature itself may not provide such stability for us, especially in the wake of man made climate change.

The solution must surely lie in cooperation between both philosophies. It must be recognised that our risk taking has gained us much, but also at great cost. Now we can take account of our own impact on the planet and it is up to us to take care of it. Without innovation and progress to supplement a more reserved attitude to the natural environment it is unlikely that we will survive the predicted population growth over the next 100 years. If risk and conservatism can be implemented together as we continue our own great experiment then perhaps we have a chance. Perhaps we can take DNA to places it’s never been before (or back where it came from???). We have the ability to do both and I believe we must do both.