Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MILLENNIUM : January 23, 2000
Of nature and artifacts
The shape of things to come in the next millennium will depend on the equation that will be established among the world of humans, the world of their artifacts, and the natural world.
The million dollar question of the new millennium is this: will humanity be crushed under the burden of its own creations, its tools, its artifacts? These have been our companions for long, ever since our half-ape, half-human ancestors learnt to use their opposable thumbs to handle stone, bone, wooden tools. For much of our history such tools were few, simple, crude. But they played a crucial role in the emergence of our own species with its enormous brain. The human species took an important next step, manipulating not just materials, but life itself. Over 10,000 years ago people learnt to cultivate plants, to husband animals. They then settled in sizable groups in villages and invented entirely new kinds of artifacts such as pots and ploughs. Having thus entered a new phase of rapid growth the variety and mass of artifacts have verily exploded in the last millennium.
The world of artifacts
In Douglas Adam's Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, the earth watchers conclude that automobiles are the dominant form of life on planet earth. After all the mass of cars and trucks greatly exceeds that of puny humans. The vehicles too move around, react to their surroundings, signal to each other. They continually grow in numbers, their forms change and evolve with time. The new forms move into novel zones as when jeeps move off the roads, and snowmobiles invade the icy expanses. Indeed, like life itself the artifacts seem propelled by an urge to expand forever, to multiply in numbers, to assume even newer forms, to colonise ever newer environments.
Artifacts come in all shapes and sizes. The smallest are novel atoms fashioned by physicists, and novel molecules produced by the art of the synthetic chemist. Pesticides like DDT are a good example of new molecules, hitherto unknown to life. As a result they are effective killers, killers that persist for a long, long time. Indeed this long persistence was initially considered a desirable property, one that enhanced their utility as killers of pests. The problem of course is that these persistent killers murder all sorts of other creatures, such as birds of prey and finally target humans themselves, promoting cancer. Other novel molecules such as chlorofluorocarbons used in refrigeration and aerosols have diffused to the outermost reaches of the atmosphere, destroying ozone, permitting higher levels of ultraviolet radiation to reach the earth, again targeting humans by promoting skin cancer.
Servants or masters?
The exploding artifacts then seem to have an uncanny way of turning back upon us. Of course we produce them to serve ourselves. And without them we could not exist. It was artifacts that enabled our ancestors to expand our diet to embrace everything from mammoths with their tough hides to tubers buried deep under the soil, to fish in waters to fowl in air. It was artifacts that enabled humans to spread to all parts of the earth. But in the end, how much do they really serve us? True, automobiles help us move around rapidly. But have automobiles actually enhanced the quality of human life? Have they, for instance, reduced the time people have to spend commuting from their homes to places of work? Not at all. In a modern city, commuters spend an average of a couple of hours a day in moving around, no less than an average farmer or farm labourer does walking from his hut to the fields. Nor is that farmer's walk any less enjoyable than a ride on a Delhi bus, or a drive along the crowded streets of Chennai. The walk is good for the farmer's health, the drive, inhaling all the fumes pretty bad for urbanite lungs.
The ocean waves too are ruled by transport vehicles. Largest among these are factory ships that catch fish, process them, can them, freeze them. They are exceedingly efficient at detecting fish schools, pursuing them, surrounding them with giant nets, scooping them up. But is the result more fish for people to eat? Not quite. Mechanised fishing has led to over-harvests of more than 60 per cent of the world's fish stocks. Off the east coast of Canada, for instance, cods were once available in abundance and employed a huge fishing community. They have all but vanished today, so the fishermen now ply their well equipped boats for no more than six weeks of the year. For the other forty-six weeks they live on unemployment allowance of the Government.
A world of fantasy
Ever since the time of the pyramids, we have believed that big is beautiful. Showpieces of our civilisation are giant dams like the Aswan on the Nile. But Aswan has failed to live up to its promise, disrupting the supply of nutrient rich silt to the rice fields, and promoting the spread of diseases like Bilharzia by creating happy breeding grounds for its alternative host, the snails. As the millennium ends though, the tide is turning in favour of the snail. Its symbols are the Sony walkman, the laptop computer. What these little devices pack today is information, ideas, images, sounds, perhaps tomorrow they will deliver smells and flavours as well. They are enabling people to immerse themselves in a world of make-believe, a virtual world.
This is nothing new; people have woven a world of imagination around themselves at least since they painted vivid scenes of hunt on walls of caves tens of thousands of years ago. Among rock shelters along the old course of the Narmada, for example, we see depictions of herds of deer and elephants, rhinos and gaur. There are scenes of people hunting monkeys, fishing turtles, smoking out rats. Man has subsequently elaborated an enormous range of other devices; stories and poems, music and theatre, movies and video-games. Pretty soon we would be able to surround ourselves by such a well designed cocoon of virtual reality that the natural world outside may come to mean little. What matters after all if elephants no longer walk the earth, if we can see them, smell them, indeed safely play hide and seek with them in our virtual universe?
Champions of the artificial
Evidently, it is the artifacts, big and small that matter. Numbers of people, exploding as they are, will not by themselves overwhelm the earth. After all we weigh little compared to our houses, our cars, our factories, our dams. On one aeroplane trip to Delhi I consume more calories than all the meals I digest in a whole year. So, by itself, population will not be a real problem in the coming millennium. The issue will be the equation of the human world with the world of the artificial and its concern for the world of the natural.
Mastery over artifacts means domination over the human world. The United States of America is today striving to create a world dominated by its own culture. It can do so because of its mastery of the artificial. After all it has been the locus of invention of many of the most significant artifacts of the last millennium; the electric bulb, the telephone, the aeroplane, the nuclear bomb, the transistor radio, the computer, the internet, the plastics, genetically manipulated organisms. The United States is, therefore, the natural champion of the world of the artificial. It opposes any restraint on the use of the automobile, refusing to tax petrol, selling it cheaper than bottled water. It refuses to ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity that could create an international machinery to protect the world of natural against the inroads of the artificial. It is bullying reluctant Europeans to accept produce of genetically modified crops.
At the receiving end of the world order are nations with lowest levels of mastery over the artificial, nations like Ghana or Bolivia. Yet they are among the richest in terms of wealth of the natural world. They want badly the produce of the industrial world, and the only way they can pay for them is by liquidating their natural wealth. That does not augur too well for the welfare of the natural on the earth. But the industrialised world may care little, for after all its citizens can afford to submerge themselves in a world of fantasy, pretending, if they wish, that they are strolling through the forests of Bolivia or Ghana in the safety of their homes.
Treading lightly on earth
But headlong, as the world seems to be rushing into the millennium, we must remember that man is the only animal with a genuinely purposive behaviour. Till his arrival on the scene the earth underwent many dramatic changes entirely as a result of blind chance. In the beginning its air and waters held little oxygen, it was a world fit for anaerobic microorganisms, such as ferment cow dung in a biogas plant today. It was the activity of the green plants that came on the scene later which introduced oxygen to the air and water. This gas, so vital to us today, was poison for the early organisms. It was only gradually that oxygen loving creatures came to populate the earth. So in a manner of speaking living organisms once poisoned the atmospheres and oceans for themselves, till they could evolve to relish the new surroundings.
So if humanity now destroys its wonderful heritage of the natural world, it would be nothing new for the earth. But man is the first purposeful creature on the earth. We are aware of the history of the last millennium, and of the millennia before that. We also have notions of what is in store for us in the coming centuries. We had among us thinkers like Mahatma Gandhi who see clearly that man must tread lightly on the earth. We may then come round to establishing a reasonable equation with artifacts; stopping them from overwhelming our existence. We may also learn to establish more equitable relationships among ourselves, so that some parts of the world are not forced to deteriorate to nurture others.
In this optimistic vein, one may visualise a special purpose for our artifacts. For we may soon be in a position to create new kinds of artificial life; artificial life that can survive in the outer space. Indeed the physicist Freeman Dyson has written a technical paper on how to design organisms which could survive and multiply in the great void. Like other life, they will vary as they multiply, producing by chance better designs, designs suited to a variety of different conditions. Just as life, beginning in shallow, warm seas spread to the cold depths of oceans, came out on land, took to air, this artificial life, beginning with our solar system may gradually come to colonise the entire universe. Man may then fulfil in the millennium a grand new destiny, that of livening up the entire cosmos.
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