In The Machine Stops, a novella written over a century ago, the author EM Forster describes a civilisation that “in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine."
Spoiler alert: there is no fairy-tale ending.
Those who rely on technology to vouchsafe our future might usefully read Forster’s short book. Tools and machines have played a transformational role for humanity since we crawled tentatively out of the caves to an apparently limitless landscape, and now reach out beyond our atmosphere to an unfathomable universe.
However, there is nothing inevitable to suggest that machines, even intelligent ones, will guarantee a fail-safe legacy for our space-exploring descendants. Ultimately, machines have their origins in the minds of humans. For us, as a living species, “extinction is the rule, survival the exception”, to quote Carl Sagan. So, for a benevolent future, technology is necessary, but it is not sufficient.
To improve our chances of beating the evolutionary odds, we need to go back to those other underwriters of our survival - our relationships with nature and with each other.
The Latin root of nature (natura) means, literally, birth - the ultimate antidote to species destruction. Creativity is inherent in this process which, as Lao Tzu put it, “does not hurry but accomplishes everything.” Without respect for nature, all other bets are off.
Today, while nature endows us daily with vegetation, air and water to sustain us, we use her rich reservoirs of the soils, atmosphere and oceans as rubbish dumps. How mad is that?
We have lost Mahatma Ghandi’s message that to forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves. To be starved of air, even for a couple of minutes, is fatal for any human. Deprivation of water ensures premature death. Only when the well is dry do we understand what it is worth. We live in a ‘polluter plays’ not ‘polluter pays’ world, taking nature for granted.
An alien looking in would surely conclude that we have lost our way. It is an unanswered question why we exploit nature in this fashion - but one clue was articulated by the biologist E.O. Wilson: “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology.”
To Wilson’s conjecture we would add a further problem: our inability to see the connections that bind us to our fellow humans – past, present and future. An intricate nexus of family trees links us all over time. Ultimately, we have common ancestors, and our survival as a species requires new branches to grow for the future. We fail to pay attention to this integrated and rejuvenating forest at our peril.
Blind to our relations with nature and each other, the danger is that we destroy the present, restricting our options for the world to come. We eat, drink and are merry, for tomorrow we die, justifying this ill-considered generational ideology on a myopic individualism. Bringing it down to Monty Python farce, we ask “what has the future done for us?” Well, nothing - so why worry about it or our descendants?
Closer scrutiny shows the emptiness of such a libertine philosophy. A moment’s thought reveals nature points us to a different path. The clue written in human nature is our love for our friends, relations, and above all, our children. Working together, we comprehend the benefits of achieving our goals jointly, as a family, or in teams and communities.
The philosopher David Runciman may have gone a step too far in suggesting we give kids the right to vote from the age of six. However, he has a point. We constantly learn from them, as they do from us. That is how we evolve. It is the same with our friends and colleagues.
In short, it is when we club together that we cheat the evolutionary probabilities.
And so, nature has not only ordained us with her visible bounties, but she has instilled in us from birth an invisible defence against naked individualism – the benefits of teamwork and mutual respect. The sum can be much greater than the parts in human endeavour, a message that is more important than ever in today’s fractious world.
In the end, the greatest insurance for our survival goes beyond technology, artificial intelligence, or our quest to reach for the stars. It involves hearing the whispers of nature. If we all listen hard to that tune, then there is a chance that “the piper will lead us to reason”, in the words of the haunting Led Zeppelin song. If we do not, Forster’s tale reminds us that the Machine augurs a more damning denouement.
Jo Christie works in Product Development at Investec within the UK Equity Research team. After completing a BSc in Hotel Management at Strathclyde University, she spent time in New Zealand, where she discovered a love for cycling, before returning to the UK. Outside of work, she takes a keen interest in painting and nature. She is determined to encourage a sense of wonder and love of nature in her two young children, Jack and Layla, as they grow up to play their part in creating a sustainable future for us all.
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