Learning to think as a species - RSA

Learning to think as a species

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  • Picture of Julian Cribb
    Julian Cribb
    Science writer, author and newspaper editor.
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Julian Crib FRSA responds to the RSA ANZ blogging challenge, hosted in collaboration with 92Y as part of the Seven Days of Genius Festival - a global festival celebrating the power of new ideas. Julian advocates for humans to learn to think collaboratively to tackle the greatest risks we face as a species.

Humanity is in the early stages of the most significant evolution in its history: learning to think as a species.

This is the linking of human minds, values, information and solutions at lightspeed and in real time around the planet, via the internet and social media.

Global thought may be arriving in the nick of time, opening the way to solving some of humanity’s greatest threats – including climate change, famine, global poisoning, weapons of mass destruction, environmental collapse, resource scarcity, pandemic disease, dangerous new technologies and overpopulation.

Thanks to the spread of the internet and social media, people are for the first time communicating across the barriers of language, race, nationality, religion, region and gender that have long divided us.

While the internet contains much rubbish and malignance, it also contains huge amounts of goodwill, trustworthy science-based advice, practical solutions to problems – and people joining hands in good causes. We just have to learn to choose wisely between the two.

There is a parallel. In the second trimester of a baby’s gestation a marvellous thing happens: the nerve cells in the embryonic brain begin to connect – and a mind is born. An inanimate mass of cells becomes a sentient being, capable of thought, imagination, memory, logic, feelings and dreams.

Today individual humans are connecting, at lightspeed, around a planet – just like the neurons in the foetal brain. We are now in the process of forming a universal, Earth-sized ‘mind’.

A higher understanding, and potentially a higher intellect, is in genesis – capable of thought, reason and resolute action to counter the existential threats that are building up around us.

Humans are learning to think at supra-human level by applying millions of minds simultaneously to the issues, in real time, by sharing our knowledge freely and by generating faster global consensus on what needs to be done to secure our future.

Today, hard scientific evidence confirms humanity faces 10 mega-risks, the result of our burgeoning population and the overgrowth in its demands on the Earth’s natural resources and systems.

However, practical solutions to all of these problems exist – and are capable of being shared universally.

The problem we face is that some governments and big corporations are reluctant to act. They are placing short-term self-interest above the interests of the human species in sustaining our existence on the planet.

The internet is showing that their time is up – the energy debate, and the way it is accelerating the transition to clean energy, is a perfect example of this. The growing worldwide resistance to toxic food and consumer products, from the US and China to Europe, Australasia and South America is another case.

What will take over from failing national governments and transnational autocracies will not be a ‘world government’, as some people imagine. It will be a human species that shares thought, ideas, values and solutions at lightspeed. An Earth-sized democracy, capable of disciplining any government or corporation that puts self-interest before human interest.

By 2020 there will be 4.1 billion internet users – over half the population. By 2030, it is forecast, everyone will be online. For the first time in history a conversation among the whole of humanity becomes possible – and what more urgent and appropriate topic than the survival of the human species?

Through the internet young people and elders alike are reaching out to one another in real time, across the divides of race, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, generation, gender, socioeconomic status and prejudice. They are learning how similar we all are. How many things we share. How we can ‘like’, help, support and depend on each other.

They are also learning how deadly are the prejudices, the ignorance, the fears and the hatreds of our parents towards other humans – the things which bred the wars of previous centuries. And how utterly pointless.

The antidotes to ignorance and fear are knowledge and understanding. The internet is capable of supplying both. People just need to be able to discriminate between what is good for humanity – and what isn’t. What is true and trustworthy, from ‘fake news’. We need to become ‘informed consumers’ on the internet, as we do in choosing foods or any other product for safety, health and sustainability.

Above all, we need to hear more women’s voices about the human future. I would argue, as a rule, women do not start wars, strip-mine landscapes, plunder the oceans, clear-fell forests, exterminate wildlife or poison the food, air and water we need for survival.

Women tend to consider the needs of the next generation. This is the thinking, and global leadership, we now need to ensure human survival in this, the century of mega-threats. A universal internet offers the vehicle for it.

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  • Julian Cribb is a friend of mine, a prodigious researcher and a brilliant thinker. He cares deeply about humanity, and is far more aware than most of us that we are self-destructing environmentally.
    Against the background humanity is in an existential emergency, Cribb’s post does not go far enough. He ends by noting:

    "Women tend to consider the needs of the next generation. This is the thinking, and global leadership, we now need to ensure human survival in this, the century of mega-threats. A universal internet offers the vehicle for it."

    Cribb’s point is that given disastrous environmental trends, we need to ensure human survival. His hope/vision is that our global Internet will enable a cross-fertilisation of ideas and solutions that will enable us to solve our threats.

    I don’t think so. Not all by itself. Julian’s point about the Internet being potentially a very powerful tool for social change is valid. But I challenge the notion that a massive number of unstructured cross-fertilising conversations will induce rapid change at the scale and speed we need.

    We need, in addition, that people come to terms with the reality of our imminent extinction. Cribb’s own book, Surviving The 21st Century, is the best book I know for this. It is marvellous. But still, we have the question: how do we enable millions of people to come to grips with humanity’ existential emergency? Cribb’s book − or any book − cannot do this on its own.

    And once people get that we are on a disastrous track, we need a positive goal to aim for to turn things around. I think that our proper goal is to transition to a life affirming global culture, rather than continuing on our present course of ecological self-destruction.

    Once people adopt such a goal, they then need to understand how to make it happen.
    You will notice that I use the phrase, “We need…” at a number of points. If I left it at that, my thinking would not have gone far enough. Such good ideas are virtually useless without a program to bring them into reality. They need to be embedded in a larger design process. My article Applying design thinking to large-scale social change outlines such a design process. It shows a way that the multitude of groups that care about environmental and social well-being can align to affect public consciousness.

    But even that could be ‘just another good idea’. So the Great Transition Initiative has been set up as a platform to support citizen educators and thought catalysts in inspiring mainstream commitment to transitioning to a life affirming culture. We have a growing international network of colleagues.

    Cribb it is right, we are in the century of mega-threats. If you care about the future, I request that you critically review what we are doing, and lend your influence to it.