If humanity is self-destructing, is throwing yourself in society's gears moral?

“They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.” — Willard to Kurtz, Apocalypse Now

When I read the news about James Lee taking hostages at Discovery Communications after “the man’s years-long protest campaign against what he saw as the company’s failures to adequately program shows that made clear the threat to the planet from overpopulation and animal extinction,” I immediately thought of The Unibomber, Theodore Kaczynski, who also turned to violence in what he considered a desperate effort to stop humanity from destroying itself.

I disapprove of both men’s methods. Yet I can understand their desperation. Society seems hell-bent on pushing technology and our precious environment beyond the point humanity can survive itself. We’re already responsible for the fastest mass extinction in Earth’s history. Previous mass extinctions required tens of thousands to millions of years. Humanity is killing off millions of species in an evolutionary eye-blink. We’ve pulled most of large fish from the oceans in just a century. And we know of no parallels to our current pace of scientific and technological progress, which brings both benefits and dangers. It’s no one’s job to ask, “Is our current pace of scientific and technological advance too fast?” And that frightens me. We think of something cool and rush to do it before thinking through the many possible negative impacts. I bet Chernobyl looked like a great nuclear reactor to the engineers who designed it. And the Germans aquarium managers at the Wilhelma Zoo really loved the “a cold-tolerant and fast-growing strain of the species Caulerpa taxifolia” they developed, and many aquarium owners shared their love until the species escaped into the wild and quickly “smother[ed] other algal species, seagrasses and sessile invertebrate communities,” first in the Mediterranean and now all over the world. I fear we’re gaining enough knowledge to be extremely dangerous without adequate wisdom about how to deploy — or not deploy — our new technological toys.

Since society seems so unwilling to consider — or incapable of considering — such questions, I wonder at what point it becomes a moral imperative to throw oneself into society’s gears and try to slow down the process or force people to pay attention.

Though he has been painted as a loon, Ted Kaczynski was in many respects a brilliant man. Sadly, after identifying a potentially society-destroying threat, he couldn’t conceive of a better way to force society to slow down and act more deliberatively than by mailing bombs to scientists whose work he feared. Given the futility of actions taken by such men — so desperate to shake society from what they perceive to be our collective insanity — I doubt there’s much hope any of us can restrain society since society refuses to ask itself whether the rapidity with which we jump from idea to application is making our world better or increasing the odds we destroy ourselves and the amazing planet that sustains us.

Posted by James on Thursday, September 02, 2010