Earth could be a paradise. It’s stunning natural beauty is unquestioned. Have you ever heard someone say, “I hate trees,” or, “Waterfalls are ugly,” or, “I wish the sky wasn’t so blue”? The sun feels good on our skin, and the night sky is a never-ending delight. Our planet is a finely tuned entity devoted to sustaining life, with radiant heating, clean drinking water falling from the sky, and food literally growing on trees.
Starting from this prodigious endowment, humans seem to have done their darnedest to muck it up. We moved from egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands of a hundred individuals to complex social hierarchies of millions, creating new classes of slaves and peasants and “the working poor” along the way. We refined warfare with deadly success, and set about plundering the resources of the Earth and eliminating other species with geologic ambition. We invented belief systems that practically guaranteed our perpetual misery. And in our effort to control everything for our benefit, we created social and technological systems so complex, and ecological systems so destabilized, that now we run the risk of everything spinning disastrously out of our control.
But it hasn’t been all bad. Indigenous Americans managed their landscapes in ways that increased their net productivity. Farming, when done well, created more food for not just humans, but wildlife too, while improving ecosystem function. Intelligent ecological design can de-desertify deserts. Humans have learned to cooperate in groups far larger than our initial hundred-strong bands, accomplishing feats undreamed of by our ancestors. We’ve erected buildings that have added to the beauty of their surroundings. We’ve developed a dizzying array of artforms, from music to comedy to cuisine, that elevate the enjoyment of our lives. Our life expectancy has never been greater, nor the threat of dying a violent death lesser than it is now. Science has deepened our understanding of the world, and technology our abilities, to the point where people of a few hundred years ago would regard us as magicians. And through all this we have reduced the time required to meet the basic necessities of life to such a degree that we now have an unprecedented amount of freedom to spend that time as we wish. The question is, how do we spend it?
The hunter-gatherer bands in which we lived for 95% of our history are often portrayed idyllically, and I’m sure there were many good points: loneliness unheard of, four-hour workday, no need for gyms, fresh food and air all the time, campfire cookouts every night of the week, no school, no boss; throw in some optional polyamory and things look pretty rosy. But there were also many limitations: limited social circle, limited lifespan, limited knowledge and beliefs, limited abilities to accomplish much collectively, limited pastimes. And then there was the constant low-level warfare with the neighbouring tribes, the omnipresent fear of violent death or rape or abduction, or of starvation if wild food supplies failed. We needed civilization to create something like eggs Benedict, and I think we can all agree that we would rather live in a world that includes eggs Benedict than one without.
So civilization has been a mixed bag – it’s given us eggs Benedict, but also nuclear missiles. We’ve lost most of the simple pleasures and dangers of our hunter-gatherer past, but gained a lot of new ones. Yet I believe that we are now at a time in our history where we have the potential to come full circle, and regain many of the things that made hunter-gatherer life good, while also holding on to the positive things about civilization. We could return to the four-hour workday of our ancestors, but with all the new things to do with our spare time, and many more worry-free years to do them in. And we could do this while ridding ourselves of many of the problems we have created for ourselves and our planet in our 10,000 year experiment with civilization. Sound like paradise?
The posts I’ll be writing over the coming months will be my shortlist of some changes we could make, right now if we wanted, to help make Earth the paradise it so clearly could be. I don’t claim for this list to be comprehensive – there are definitely some things missing (I’d love to hear about them in the comments). But I think that, if implemented, this list could get us a lot closer to paradise on Earth. Life will never be perfect, of course, but it could be so much better than it is now.
Read on for part one of this series: Basic Income.