Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Humanity Getting Ahead of Itself: A Mass-Extinction Event Already Underway

Around 252 million years ago, the “Great Dying” took out 90% of the world’s species. About 66 million years ago, a meteor caused the extinction of three out of four species, including those known to us as dinosaurs.[1] After 1.8 million years of existence, our own species is triggering yet another mass extinction event, according to a study in the journal Science by Stuart Pimm and Clinton Jenkins. According to Pimm, species are now going extinct at about ten times faster than scientists had thought. Prior to the arrival of homo sapiens (i.e., our species), the extinction rate was about 0.1 out of a million species per year; as of 2014, the rate had climbed to 100 to 1000 species per 1 million.[2] Behind this evolutionarily abrupt bump is not only the complicity of our species, but also unforeseen consequences that could easily take homo sapiens out of the equation.

Beyond the positive correlation of our species and the rate increase, Pimm and Jenkins posit a causal relationship, pointing in particular to habitat loss due to the territorially expansive attribute of an expansive human population globally. Climate change and overfishing, both of which are related to the increase in the human population, are also salient factors.

As observable as this leap in the extinction rate is, the implications may elude our cognitive grasp, and thus be especially dangerous for our species. In other words, our collective failure to manage our population level may result ironically in the downfall of the species.
In another study in 2014, Rodolfo Dirzo points to the overexploitation of resources and habitat destruction as examples of human activities responsible for the rise in the extinction rate of species. Since 1500, 322 terrestrial vertebrates had gone extinct, with the remaining species declining in numbers by an average of 25 percent; for invertebrates, the typical decline in population is a whopping 45 percent.[3] With these stark changes naturally come unforeseen consequences. “We tend to think about extinction as loss of a species from the face of the Earth, and that’s very important, but there’s a loss of critical ecosystem functioning in which animals play a central role that we need to pay attention to as well,” Dirzo said in a statement.[4] Even amid all of our advanced technology, we are a species that lives within ecosystems; the collapse of such a system means all bets are off in things like food supply that we take for granted.

For example, “(w)here human density is high,” Dirzo continues, “you get high rates of [animal decline], high incidence of rodents, and thus high levels of pathogens, which increases the risks of disease transmission. It can be a vicious circle.”[5] Rodents and pathogens can of course hit our food sources as well as us. Ironically, our own technological advances can exacerbate the potential harm.

Air transportation, for example, could turn the massive spread of the Ebola virus in Africa during 2014 into a worldwide pandemic. Even as we were congratulating ourselves on finally accepting what climatologists had been telling us for over a decade concerning the harmful impact of our carbon-dioxide emissions on the planet’s temperature, we were blissfully unaware of the contribution being made by methane, a gas with ten-times the “greenhouse” effect as carbon dioxide, through leaks in extracting and distributing natural gas—the “clean” gas—as well as in the melting of the permafrost around the Artic. With the kind of scales to which our technology can be applied, both the unforeseen impacts and the damage can be much greater than we know. Put another way, we have increased the size of our footprint so much as a species that we cannot get our minds around all of the unintended consequences.

In short, we have gotten too big, both in population and the scales in which we chose to operate, for our own good. While our genes are doubtlessly quite pleased with their success in replication, they are clearly not smart enough for their own long-term survival. The human brain seems naturally inclined to assume the absence of unforeseen implications rather than holding as a default that they exist “out there” even if we have not yet detected them. As superior as our species’ brain is, it sports a major flaw in having or adopting a schizogenic (i.e., a variable that maximizes itself without limit) mentality rather than one that is homeostatic, or steady-state (e.g., ecologizing).[6] This explains why we have been so hesitant as a species even to reduce the increases in our carbon footprint, let alone bring it down to a level at which the warming of the planet will allow for the continued survival of our species. In short, we tend to be all about maximizing—even as if it were an end in itself—in line with our greed and hubris rather than valuing the achievement of equilibrium in line with, rather than puncturing, the ecosystems within which we live and breathe.

[1] Seth Borenstein, “World on Brink of Sixth Great Extinction, Species Disappearing Faster than Ever Before,” The Huffington Post, May 29, 2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Sara Gates, “Earth Is in the Early Days of a New Mass-Extinction Event, Researchers Warn,” The Huffington Post, July 25, 2014.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] On this distinction, see Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Israel vs. Gaza: Why Does the World Tolerate Unfair Fights within Countries?

In the very nature of occupation and in particular its attribute of a near-monopoly on military force within a given territory, the superior power is essentially inert to any normative constraints, whether from within or abroad. Such power can be drunk with anger, blatantly ignoring what even allies recognize as blatantly unfair actions. That such power may actually perceive the unfairness as fair to the innocent victims demonstrates just how much cognitive dissonance a human brain consumed with its will to power can muster, let alone tolerate, as a mental shield hiding the naked aggression. To be sure, it takes two to get tangled in a fight, so rarely is either party "the bad guy." Yet major dimensions of a conflict can be sliced and put under the proverbial microscope for close examination. Tolerance for an unfair fight, whether involving a rapist, a school-yard bully, or an occupying state, is problematic in not only the predominant aggressor but also any bystanders. In the case of Israel and Gaza in July 2014, the lopsidedness of the death-tolls stands out, as does the tacit refusal of the international community to step in and stop the fight as a result. 

After six days of missile-fire, the death-toll in Gaza had reached 156, with over 1,060 wounded. The U.N. estimated that 77% of the dead had been civilians.  Israel’s 1,200 airstrikes targeted some inherently civilian areas, including a center for the disabled, a mosque, and the home of the Gaza police chief. [1] Despite Israeli claims of having issued warnings, families were killed in their homes because they had not had time enough to leave before being hit. 

Meanwhile, Israel incurred no fatalities and only five people were injured.[2] Many of Hamas’ 700 missiles were intercepted by the U.S.-funded anti-missile “Iron dome.” In the past, such enabling prompted deadly hatred of Israel’s major financial and military supplier. Hence, refusing to do more than condemn the violence represented a long-term risk to the U.S. As if slapping the hand that was feeding it, the Israeli prime minister ignored the American president's pleas—doubtlessly confident of the power of the Jewish lobby in Washington, and thus of continued American aid of over $3 billion a year.[3]  Furthermore, prime minister Netanyahu defied the U.N. Security Council’s unanimous call for a cease-fire by unabashedly insisting there was no end in sight to the offensive.[4] Yet the international organization did not sanction Israel or cancel its membership. Internationally, parchment is particularly impotent when it comes to constraining an energized will to power; ethical suasion is like tissue-paper tossed in front of an accelerating train.  

All that hardware, in spite of any fatalities to justify the escalation. (Image Source: AFP)

In fact, the Israeli military was actually widening its bombing targets and extending the offensive to include troops on the ground. Four days into the foray of tanks and troops into Gaza, UNICEF reported that "the overwhelming majority of people killed so far are Palestinians."[5] Specifically, more than 500 had been killed, 121 of whom were Palestinian children, while 29 Israelis, all but one having been killed in the line of duty, had died.[6] As the incursion continued, the ratio widened, especially in regard to civilians killed. 

As of July 31, 2014

On August 3rd, Israel dropped a bomb on a U.N. school that was sheltering displaced civilians, killing 10 of them.[7] The Israeli government pointed to a Palestinian rocket launch nearby the school. Refusing to accord this claim legitimating status, Robert Turner, the operations director for the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency in Gaza, noted that the "locations of all these institutions [had] been passed to the Israeli military multiple times. They know where these shelters are. . . . How this continues to happen, I have no idea."[8] He concluded that the attack violates international law. "It is a moral outrage and a criminal act," he declared.[9] This moral problem can be distinguished from not only the legal argument, but also the unfairness of the quantitative imbalance in the number of deaths. Counting the attack on the shelter, 1,800 Palestinians and 60 Israelis had been killed in the conflict so far.

Escalation is also discernable in terms of the Israeli goals. Initially, the intent was to continue firing rockets until the rockets from Hamas stopped. Then, the ground offensive would go on until all the tunnels had been destroyed, though the actual extended goal may have been to fight until Hamas becomes paralyzed not only militarily, but politically too, within Gaza. At the very least, killing as many Hamas fighters and supporters as possible would mean that the party would not likely win another election in Gaza. It could indeed be said that in escalating its objectives, therefore, the Israeli government was being opportunistic. 

To be sure, Hamas had hardly been blameless; my intent here is not to defend that organization or even the Palestinian cause; rather, I am isolating a stark element of unfairness in the immediate fight in order to ask why human beings generally appear to be so willing to put power or political dynamics ahead of normative constraints. To maintain my focus on this particular imbalance in juxtaposition to the ethical principle of a fair fight, I am excluding property damage and even injury counts on both sides. In focusing on the death tolls exclusively, I am treating actual (rather than anticipated) deaths as constituting the bottom-line and asking why the people in the Israeli government and in governments around the world did not say in actions, "Ok, enough is enough; the actual (i.e., immediate) fighting has to end now, and we're going to step in and stop it." 

If the exchange of rocket-fire and Israel's ground offensive were part of a boxing match, the referee would have stopped the fight lest the stronger fighter, drunk with overwhelming power, kill the other man three or four times over. In such a case, a politically impotent referee would represent quite a danger, as would the aggressor of course. Faire le dessus est prévaloir; l’autre prérit.

Why did the world look on, "demanding" an immediate cease fire but yet refusing to put actions behind those words to make them stick? Even the Arab neighbors were uncharacteristically quiet, no doubt in part because some had internal rebellions of their own to keep contained. Moreover, power and money in support of Israel around the world, as well as the ironic generalized sense of deserved accommodation due to the Nazi holocaust in the twentieth century, have explanatory value. However, I submit that the inordinate weight that government officials around the world and the officials and members of international bodies such as the U.N. put on the doctrine of national sovereignty is also a key ingredient. 

Regarding the supervening power in the conflict, an opportunistic, escalating platform is two degrees of freedom from what the huge imbalance of killing ought ethically to have triggered in even the aggressor human beings. Perhaps our species fights to the death when given the chance; through the 1.8 million years in which our ancestors lived in small, vulnerable bands rather than large, complex social arrangements such as societies, nations, and a global community, forces of natural selection likely favored overkill given the threats from strangers and wild animals. Such an evolved instinctual defense-mechanism is not well suited for the socio-political artifices our organized predecessors built up in the blink of an eye. I contend that our structures magnify both the intensity and extent of the now-bad instinct to take out our adversaries before they can subjugate or kill us. Even in the fifth century, Augustine pointed to war as evidence that our species could be “far more cruel and bloodthirsty than wild animals.”[10] Both the underlying instinct and the organized extensions of warfare are relevant here. In other words, to account both for the lack of intervention internationally and the Israeli government officials’ escalation of the unfair fight, I find the source in the human instinct to wield power over other people, whether individually or grouped by some criterion often related to the power-interest, and from this basis I broaden out to how the urge is extended through human artifice.

In 1963 at Yale, Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in which local residents selected at random operated what they thought were escalating electric shocks to other subjects in a "memory test." Actors played both those other subjects and the experts in lab coats whose task it was to have the true subjects increase the shock level at each successive wrong answer. In spite of the (recordings of) screams, 65% of the electric shock administrators (i.e., the real subjects) pulled the lever marked "XXX deadly electric shock." The subjects could not see the recipients, but could hear the (recorded) screams. Even this distance from the harm was sufficient for the majority of the subjects to administer what they thought was a fatal shock to punish a wrong answer to a memory test (which of course was rigged).

Although the lesson taken from the experiment concerned the extent to which human beings will do immoral acts in following orders, the fact that implementers throughout organizations use devices like gate-keeping to amass power, the subjects of the experiment can also be suspected as going ahead in part out of the pleasure that comes in exercising power over another human being. Psychological and physical distance from the target only tilts the balance further in the direction of succumbing to the pressure of a superior and putting the anticipated pleasure before any ethical reservations. I contend that this dynamic applies in the case of the Israeli government officials and military officers (and troops), owing in large part to the huge surplus of power at their fingertips over the Palestinians in Gaza. This is not to say that the same dynamic applies also to the Palestinians behind the rockets going into Israel, albeit with much less potent power and thus intensity. 

Making matters worse both with respect to the intensity of the dynamic and the scope of its destructiveness, the doctrine of absolutist national sovereignty has acted as an enabler. The artifice that came of age as complex social arrangements (i.e., the nation-state) expanded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe is far indeed from the state of nature, even as the doctrine gives the unsavory instinct more free rein. In addition to the larger territory and increased population subject to a government's military might, the power of the already powerful is magnified by its virtual monopoly made possible by the high external walls constructed out of the doctrine. 

As Hobbes advocates in Leviathan, the sovereign is to have all power in a kingdom or republic, to stave off civil war (Hobbes' own century being particularly bloody in this regard) and external interference from sovereigns of other countries. The people are thus at the mercy of the sovereign, who not only makes and enforces civic law, but interprets it and divine law too. 

Yet as the Hebrew Bible points out, the Abrahamic deity tends to have the last word, particularly with an unrighteous, unjust Israel. Of course, Yahweh also ostensibly had the ancient Hebrews commit genocide at Jerico because its occupants would not convert from worshipping Baal. Whether from an ethical or religious standpoint, it is difficult to see what normative force could possibly counter the natural proclivity of superordinate power and the tacit enabling of third parties.

1. Khaled Khazziha and Mohammed Daraghmeh, “Israel Widens Gaza Bombing Targets, Deploys Ground Troops,” The Associated Press, July 12, 2014.
2. BBC News, “UN Calls for Israel-Gaza Ceasefire,” July 12, 2014.
3.U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel. Congressional Research Service report. April 11, 2013
4. Khaled Khazziha and Mohammed Daraghmeh, “Israel Widens Gaza Bombing Targets, Deploys Ground Troops,” The Associated Press, July 12, 2014.
5.Reuters, "In Gaza, No Safe Place For Civilians: UN," The World Post, July 22, 2014.
6. Ibid.
7. Associated Press, "Strike Near UN School in Gaza Leaves 10 Dead," The World Post, August 3, 2014.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibld.
10. Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (Harper and Row: New York, 1987), p. 171. See Augustine, City of God, 3.14; 12.22.