A Really Cool Blog

… about science & space, people & politics, various musings & other cool things too.

Month: March 2013

Introspection # 9: “Intellect, Our Greatest Asset or Most Dangerous Liability?”

Our species is absolutely unique on this planet; on a world filled with billions of different types of animals and varying species, we are the only one with the ability to consciously and deliberately end life on our planet. Ultimately, what sets us apart from the rest of life on Earth is our unrivaled ability to destroy it. Through our intelligence, for which all we owe our civilization and thus our societies, technologies, and capabilities, we have built tools which allow us to harness the most powerful forces in nature. Our manipulation of our environment, both that of the Earth and of the physical processes present in our universe, is unlike anything see anywhere else in nature. Our exploitation of the Earth for agriculture and for resources has given us the means to feed a planet-wide species and power its industrial development; it has also destroyed the balance of nature which had sustained life on our planet for the millions of years prior to our species rise. Our discovery of and subsequent manipulation of the atom has given us the capacity to unlock massive reserves of energy and power the world; it has also given us the capability to completely and utterly eradicate civilization and throw our world into peril.

Is intelligence then an evolutionary advantage? It enables a species to break free from nature and dictate its own evolution and shape the world around it in a manner unavailable to any creature without intelligence. Yet through this shaping of the world around it, a species with intelligence is endowed with the power to utterly destroy it. Our planet and our world has been in existence for a much longer time than our species has walked it, and during this time it has developed a precious and fragile ecosystem. Yes, this ecosystem can take damage through natural phenomena, but these events occur over timeframes of thousands to millions to billions of years. This is enough time for a balance in nature to be restored gradually without incurring too great a cost to the creatures who live in it. The manipulation of nature by mankind, and the wide-scale exploitation of its resources, have taken place along scales of time which range only in the hundreds of years. Our ability to radically change our planet in such a short period of time is thus a very dangerous ability; we do not live in a world where such massive and rapid changes can be reversed so easily and quickly.

This has gradually been revealed to us through our observation of the world around us and our use of science, both of which are benefits conferred to us by our intelligence. However, a species with intelligence may not necessarily be operating with this sort of knowledge when it behaves in destructive ways; the pollution of the Industrial Revolution was a major factor in damaging our planet’s ecosystem, but was produced at a time when its affects were completely unknown. Atomic weaponry was discovered at a time of war in a world full of antagonistic, suspicious nation-states; we still live in a world concerned about nuclear weapons and nuclear apocalypse. Is our species too immature, too learned, to possess such technologies? We may have advanced rapidly in our capabilities because of our intelligence, but we have not advanced rapidly in our civilization. As we continue to develop more means to destroy our planet and kill each other, but fail to develop a planet where the desire and need to wage war and have borders is nil, we push ourselves closer to the brink of extinction.

Is this a result of our intelligence? Again, I must put forth the question of whether intelligence is an evolutionary advantage. Yes, it allows for a species to develop more rapidly and more concretely than anything in nature is capable of doing. Indeed, it allows a species to largely remove itself from the constraints of nature and dictate its own path of evolution. Yet it also allows a species to destroy itself and the world it lives in. It gives a species the capacity to consciously and deliberately commit massive acts of murder and destruction. It allows that species to manipulate the world around it in ways which that world had never experienced before, and by doing so destroy the ecosystems which sustain all the other species of that world. Is this really so advantageous of a quality to possess as a species?

Ultimately, this question and issue is probably a rather moot point. Humanity has been endowed with intelligence, and thus we cannot question whether or not that intelligence is advantageous or dangerous. Rather, we must make sure that our intelligence prevents us from destroying ourselves and our planet. We must make a dedicated effort to evolve our civilization to the point where it is capable of responsibly using the vast sums of energy and power we have unlocked from our manipulation of the atom. We must use our intellect to discover how it allows us to impact our planet, and we must use it to prevent further damage to our planets fragile ecosystem. We must be proactive in trying to guard against ourselves. Unfortunately, humanity is a young species and a young civilization which has stumbled upon enormous power and capabilities. Perhaps we have not yet evolved to be mature enough to wield such power, because great power calls for great responsibility. This is why it should be the role of each individual, and the collective of individuals within society, to think about the human intellect, the powers it has given us, how those powers can have enormous consequences, and how we can prevent our greatest asset from also being our greatest liability.

North Korea’s Only “Talking the Talk”

Anybody watching and reading the news right now is likely being exposed to what might be the most tense confrontation the international community has had to deal with in recent months: the North Korean calls for war. For many, this may seem like the run up to an inevitable war; I have heard concerns that a war on the Korean peninsula could happen at any time. This is completely understandable, as North Korea is currently engaging on a strategy of brinkmanship to the extreme. But, as a student of international relations and foreign policy, I want to express my own firm belief on the matter: North Korea won’t do anything. There will be no war.

Recently China gave its vote in the UN Security Council for tightened sanctions against North Korea, following North Korea’s nuclear test earlier this year. This was the catalyst for North Korea’s current actions; they are now declaring their right to preemptively strike other countries with its nuclear arsenal, declaring that war with South Korea is ‘inevitable’, and ended its formal ceasefire with the South. These are all major escalations on the part of North Korea, but we must understand why they are doing this and what they seek out of it. The answers are not ‘war’.

First, we must remind ourselves that North Korea has recently had a change in its leader, and that Kim Jong Un is a young and fresh face in the North Korean political establishment. He must win over the support of the military and the other leaders within North Korea, as they control a very significant amount of power within the country. He does this by engaging in strong rhetoric and by demonstrating to the military and the rest of the world his toughness (the nuclear tests and the recent declarations, for example, are demonstrations of such). We must also keep in mind that North Korea is now ‘backed into a wall’ to a degree which it has never been before. It has always relied upon China for support and to provide a counterweight in the UN and in diplomatic talks against the United States and its allied powers. Now that China is siding with the United States against North Korea, North Korea has lost its only strategic ally in a region where it is surrounded by enemies.

With this in mind, North Korea is engaging in behavior which is entirely typical of and should be expected from a country which is backed into a wall and perceives itself surrounded by all sides. It is acting belligerent, making declarations of its strength and demonstrations of its nuclear capacity, so that it can try to swing the balance of power, or at least the perceived balance of power, back to its side. It is an entirely rational decision by the North Korean leadership to try to gain some breathing room at a time when they are being surrounded and contained. This can be seen in another country in our present day and time which feels the same way: Iran. Its no small wonder that the Iranian leadership keeps making calls for the destruction of Israel and pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Iran, like North Korea, is surrounded by its enemies on all sides and is also being backed into a corner by the international community through the UN sanctions.

Yet lets also keep in mind that North Korea is in absolutely no position to wage a war against the South, and they recognize that keenly along with us. The North Korean nuclear arsenal, if it really can be employed with any success, will be met with a major nuclear retaliation. As soon as North Korean troops cross the border into the South, the North Korean regime is doomed to be toppled. The North Korean leadership knows this, and rationally won’t take the final step of actually going to war because they want to preserve their own hold on power above anything else. The fact that the North hasn’t gone to war yet in the last 50 years says a lot about the rationality of the North Korean leadership and the fact that they recognize their inability to actually wage war.

To draw an analogy, the North is currently a school-yard pest who will kick, scream, shout, and throw rocks every once and a while to get attention and show off, but who knows that he can’t actually fight face to face with the bigger kids in the school-yard. He might be a pest, and will ‘talk the talk’, but when it comes down to it, he won’t ever get in a fight.

The difficulty with the current situation right now is the possibility for unintended escalation or miscalculation. At times of brinkmanship, even a minor action can spark a major escalation and then a conflict. Consider another case of brinkmanship, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nothing happened from it because both sides were rational actors just trying to push a conflict to the brink and emerge on top, but we came very close to a nuclear war; had any actor at that time miscalculated, war could very easily have broken out. Right now, North Korea has no plans to actually go to war, but a miscalculation or continued escalation on the part of the United States or by the North Koreans themselves can send the entire region into a conflict.

As such, the United States and the international community must approach the issue with extreme caution right now. We’re looking at a possible conflict which could erupt this year; if we’re careful enough, however, it will simply deescalate. The North Koreans are acting rationally and in what they see as their best interest. For them, these belligerent acts are what they see as the only way to get out of a situation where they see themselves backed up against a wall.

Introspection # 8: “The Hierarchies of Power”

Since the beginning of human civilization, we have found it necessary to organize ourselves into social structures and systems. From the lowest level of the family unit to the level of national government to the highest level of the international system, we have constructed a social structure of clear and defined hierarchies. Perhaps out of necessity, these hierarchies serve as a framework for the distribution of power within the system; at the very top power is monopolized, and at the very bottom power is almost non-existent. The family traditionally was led and headed by the powerful patriarch, the national government is structured into a system of positions with increasing levels of power culminating at the top with the office of president, and the international system is based around the concept of hegemony and dominated by the world’s most powerful states.

Since the earliest of times, power was monopolized by those at the top of the social structure; this trend has yet to be broken. Throughout the classic era, through the Middle Ages, and into the early modern era the justification to this power was often sought and found in divine mandate. Kings, who argued that they were placed upon their thrones by God, were granted absolute power and operated at the top of the social hierarchy. Gradually, the divine justification provided by kings was done away with as new mediums through which power could be developed were discovered. The predominant way power was acquired and enforced was through economic strength; the wealthy and the landed were often the nobility,  and even as the aristocratic systems were done away with the accumulation of capital remained the way to power. This became especially true with the industrial revolution and the rise of the capitalist economic system. The social hierarchy which we currently live in is thus dominated by power produced by capital; capital is the major driving factor behind our political institutions, the source of the tension between the powerless masses and the wealthy elite, and a major factor behind the actions of our country.

The emergence of capitalism as the dominant economic system following the Cold War solidified capitalism as the global economic theory for the foreseeable future, and as such the social hierarchy which the human civilization has always operated on, that of varying levels of power acquired by the means through which power is developed, is likely to continue unfettered. Yet the ideas of the communist ideology, and the hopes it held about the evolution of human civilization, remain significant. Indeed, I believe that they represent the ultimate direction our civilization will develop towards. Eventually, the hierarchies of power will be, and must be, broken down. The distribution of in the social structure, with an absolute monopolization at the top and the absence of power among the vast masses at the bottom, will eventually balance out. As history has demonstrated, over time social hierarchies have been broken down because of agitation for change from those who were left out of their distribution of power. Of course, one source of power has been substituted for another; divine mandate has been replaced by wealth. Yet the next step in the evolution of mankind is the total reformation of the social hierarchy, replacing one where different levels have different distributions of power with one where power is distributed evenly. The recognition of the unitary nature of our species, that were are all human in all regards, is steadily growing; the processes of globalization and instant communication are far more powerful then we may recognize at the moment, and they bond elements and members of our species together where before they were totally disparate. With this recognition comes a recognition of our common plight, a social consciousness of the disparities in power distribution. Eventually, I hope that this will lead to the evolution of our social hierarchy, and that the traditional power structure which we still live in withers away.

Communism failed as an economic system and as an ideology because it was designed in a time when human society was totally unprepared for it. Egalitarianism requires an equal and even distribution of power; the reality of our society is that power is entirely disproportionate. Without a social framework for egalitarianism, an economic theory built around it is doomed to fail. As society begins to reform its power structures, however, and as the global human race begins to recognize the natural equality in the human species, we will begin to move towards a more egalitarian society. Perhaps there will not be social equality, or even economic equality, but if the acquisition and utilization of power can be removed from the conventional sources which it has been developed and thus freely shared by all, then all will be liberated. In the end, everything in our world is determined by the use of power, and if we can change the way that power is used, then we can change everything about our world.

The concept of power and its distribution is something of extreme interest to me, and something which I continue develop and refine my ideas about. However, I think that there needs to be a much wider discussion about the distribution of power in our society, and a further discussion about the current, and future, nature of our civilization. We still live in a civilization dominated by the same structures and hierarchies of power which existed at its very beginning; we thus still live in a civilization in its infancy, in development. I believe that one day we will indeed reach the next stage in social evolution, but that day is perhaps far off. Nonetheless, it is the role of our current generation in our current day and place to work to accomplish this evolution. There is no greater goal than developing a society where every member can contribute equally, can live equally, and can participate equally. Until power and its means of acquisition is redistributed and reformed, this will not be a reality.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén