“To survive in this world, man himself must adapt himself completely to the machine. Non-adaptable types like the artist and the poet, the saint and the peasant, will either be made over by or be eliminated by social selection. All the creativities associated with Old World religion and culture will disappear. To become more human, to explore further into the depth of man’s nature, to pursue the divine, are no longer goals for machine made man.”
Lewis Mumford, “The Transformations of Man” 1978
So wrote the greatest social historian America or the world has ever known. Mumford, born of a time when America was becoming the “great” society we now know it as, was not just an uncanny critic and thinker able to describe the rise of technology and civilization like no one since, but a very concerned humanist who realized that the human species in many ways was departing from its most noble capacities and duties. His contemporary, unequalled philosopher of history Arnold J Toynbee agreed in his book “Mankind and Mother Earth” when he asked, “shall we murder mother Earth or shall we redeem her?”
With those able men as allies I would like to ask Messrs. Musk, Bezos and Branson to put some of their able-bodied ventures to restoring and maintaining what remains of earth’s life support system. Mr. Musk, I applaud your vision of changing the industrial dynamic of cars and technology as we know it. We need it. But your desire to build a civilization on Mars is premature. We as a species may be up to the task technically but not spiritually or emotionally. Mr, Branson, your sending the elite on joy rides not far from our house in the New Mexican desert is folly and will burn more carbon fuel that any one individual deserves for mere recreation. Mr. Bezos, if we try to live elsewhere on planets we were not meant to live on, we will create the same havoc we have here on Earth now.
In his essay “Post Historic Man” Mumford was warning us that man’s existence would be focused on “the external world and its incessant manipulation.” Scientific ideation and technical skill are now at the mercy of an “infantile scheme of life, seeking extravagant supermechanisms of escape from the problems that mature men and a mature society must face.” I know Columbus and Magellan, and Cabot and Cook and de Gama inspire technocrats to seek new horizons, but the explorers of yesteryear floated across the seas and their feet were still planted on a recognizable Earth. Today, the ocean is needing life support, and the Great Barrier Reef is going to witness another bleaching event soon. We have proven through neglect, ignorance and greed that our species does not love this earth enough to make the changes needed, or if it can, it will have to be this decade or an insufferable heat will consume us and all life as we know it. An apocalyptically burning Australia, the melting Arctic and Antarctic and scorched Amazon were the first salvos from Earth: the cries of the birth pangs of the sixth extinction are upon us.
Mumford exclaims, “no one can pretend, without falsifying every fact, that existence on a space satellite or on the barren face of the moon would bear any resemblance to human life. His end is to turn himself into an artificial homunculus in a self propelling capsule, travelling at maximum speed, and depressing to the point of extinction his natural gifts, above all, eliminating any spontaneous trace of spirit.” Soon Mumford says, “The incentive to think, the incentive to feel and act, in fact the incentive to live, will soon disappear.”
I would encourage the able technocrats and businessmen of our species to turn the ship of Earth around instead. To realize before it is too late that we are biologically, emotionally and spiritually tied to this planet and while our curiosity propels us outward, it does necessarily exceed our grasp. We are mature enough to dream of colonizing other planets, but our values are not. It is natural to reach for other worlds, but we are condemning this one to inferno and we are running out of time.
I applaud the pictures of Saturn and Jupiter and Mars’ surface we have received of late, but they were done with satellites. The ground of our being is literally the Earth with its several million species that we are literally allowing to slip through our fingers. We may reach Mars and find some microbes in 20 years’ time. What will we have lost on Earth in a generation’s time? Possibly everything.
“The entrance of nature into his mind seems to be the birth of man,” said the great essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. And yet today nature seems to be exiting from our gaze just when we need her most. Our hands can reach for the stars, but it is here that the monarch butterfly migration could be reaching its final period on Earth. It is here that one-third of North America’s birds have been silenced in the last generation. It is here that 90 percent of Earth’s whales have been slaughtered since Darwin was born. It is here on Earth that the rainforests and coral reefs languish and 90 percent of the elephants on Earth have been destroyed for vanity since the beginning of the 20th century. It was Dostoyevsky who once said that everything depends on the 20th century, and the way we have conducted ourselves betrays our place on Earth. As Mumford says, very skeptical of the cybernetic intelligentsia, “man is on the verge of displacing the only organ of the human anatomy he fully values: the frontal lobe of the brain.”
And what of the heart? The very organ a Hopi elder told Carl Jung the dominant needed to learn to think with. What of giving back to humanity, what we have given to the machine, Mumford asks. Will we be forced to live “on the cold asteroid of post historic culture: indisputably new, mechanically efficient, slickly uniform, but incapable of sustaining human life?” Mumford is urging us to transition from a money economy to a life economy, and it starts here on Earth. Investors like BlackRock realize they have to transition away from fossil fuels; Norway’s Equinor has decided to not drill in the Great Australian Bight; Canada’s Teck Corporation has decided against the Frontier oil sands project in Alberta. The hundreds of billions that would be spent to live on Mars should be used to maintain planet Earth because we haven’t yet learned to do so, and this decade a Paris accord for the environment and biodiversity must redirect human civilization.
Our values, our morals need a reboot not just a rocket-propelled booster to other worlds. We won’t be able to live on Mars if we can’t save the oceans and rainforests here on Earth. Mars is farther and more ambitious than the moon but let us remember that most of the problems humanity faces came after we saw the first photo of Earth from the moon. As Mumford insists, “In pursuit of objectivity and certainty, we have elevated the object and depressed the subject: that is, our very selves.” If automation and industry for its own sake are not corrected by “the intervention of the feeling, evaluating, loving, life directing elements in the human personality, will probably bring the whole long effort of human history to a catastrophic close, like that foretold in the Norse myth of Ragnarok; the end of the world, marked by the conquest of the gods by the giants.”
We have to land on Earth before it’s too late. If we can’t save the bumblebees it won’t be worth striving for Mars. As an 8-year-old boy once told me, “We have landed on the moon but we haven’t landed on Earth yet.” It is time we set our sights for this planet while we still have one.