Sunday, October 04, 2009

Realizing that we are part of a global organism

For some reason it struck me particularly strongly the other day how important it is that we conceptualize the world as an organism that we are a part of and whose health and viability we must be aware of. To many people this may seem like a trivial point: of course we must develop a global consciousness. But for some reason it seemed that doing so would require a form of conceptual phase transition, not just thinking about the global system in some metaphorical way.

In attempting to explain what I mean, I wrote the following, which feels to me like a groping attempt to say something that many people may consider obvious. I think it's more than the usual global awareness meme, but I'm having a hard time explaining precisely why.
It seems to me that what we need on a world-wide basis is a realization that we have reached the point that we must look at the world as a whole as a single organism. What that means is that instead of thinking of ourselves as multiple organisms (at the individual or country level) living within a relatively open and unlimited environment—which had made some reasonable sense in the past—we are now at the point of global organization, influence, and connectivity that we must think of ourselves as components, e.g,. organs. of a single larger organism.

Many people are going to resist that change of perspective, saying that it gives up national autonomy. But I'm afraid there's no longer a real question of national autonomy. The heart can't say that it doesn't want to think of itself as being a part of a larger organism because that reduces its autonomy. The fact is, it is a part of a larger organism, like it or not. The only valid large-scale question from now on will be what should be done to ensure that the larger organism remains healthy. There will always be smaller-scale questions having to do with dividing up resources made available by a healthy overall organism. But the fundamental question will have to do with maintaining the health and viability of the larger organism itself.

This really is a change of perspective. The world (the planet) as an organism can be healthy or not given the the use it makes of the resources available to it. It can even be healthy without imposing a rigid overall controlling agency. Fortunately we now know of many entities that are successful without an overall top-down controller. Most biological organisms are examples as are stable ecological systems and many successful social organisms/organizations. But there will have to be some overall structures that constrain various aspects of the component elements. And people will complain about those constraints as violations of their freedom or national autonomy.

But I'm convinced that if our current civilization is to survive as a global system in anything like its current form, we have to make the switch from thinking of ourselves as elements living within an open environment (the rugged American frontiersman) to being components of a larger organism whose overall health we must monitor and maintain—for our own survival.

This is not just a metaphor: the world as an global system. It is a different perspective on what actually exists. We have known (but have not paid too much attention to) the idea that the global ecosystem cannot be understood except on a global scale. But for most of human history that ecosystem has taken care of itself—and us—without our having to think about it very much. Our increasing global environmental awareness now adds to our understanding of the global ecosystem the fact that we (human society) can actually affect it—for good or more likely for bad—and if we are not aware of how we are affecting it we are likely to suffer serious consequences.

But I'm saying even more than this. The global system is not just ecological. It is economic, social, political, and cultural as well. We are now a global economic system—and ignoring the importance of that will do us at least as much harm as ignoring the fact that human society is now a significant aspect of the global ecological system. Being a global social and economic system doesn't mean that we must be homogeneous. The US and many other countries demonstrate that economic and cultural diversity can survive within a larger overall cultural, social, and political system. But pockets of diversity can't survive on their own. And they can't be absolutely free to do whatever they want. There will have to be some overall cultural, social, and political constraints. Figuring out how to organize the overall system so that it is minimally constraining is one of the challenges we have faced and will continue to face. But we can't pretend that there will not be an overall system that must be kept viable and healthy.

Is the world a single organisms whose health we must look after? If so—and at this point we are so interconnected that it seems hard to doubt it—we must acknowledge that fact and begin to take seriously our responsibility for maintaining the health of that global organism. Thinking this way is a transition that will be difficult for many people. But it's a transition we must make.

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