Decades ago, sitting in Professor Shaista Sirajuddin’s class and discussing Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, we talked about many themes, even wondered why Faustus would make such a bargain, acting more like a Greek hero that defies the gods at his own peril than a Christian accepting man’s limits — sin, pride, redemption, condemnation?
But what I didn’t figure out until some years later, especially when you shear the play of its Christian roots, was the paradox, regression inhering in our progress. Dr. Faustus, a polymath, whose “bills [are] hung up as monuments,” is nonetheless dissatisfied. There has to be more, “a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,” so he can raise the wind and rend the clouds.
When I finally understood the paradox, whether it is the paradox of progress or that of innovation, I realised that Faustus is us, Homo Sapiens, the only species in the animal kingdom to have the inordinate desire and the capability to create surplus, to constantly innovate and discover, to create complex institutions and organisations, to draw on the planet’s resources in ways no other species can, ever did or will do.
Goethe’s Faust is ultimately saved. Marlowe’s Faustus is damned; the difference between enlightenment and medieval Christian ethos. To me, as we move towards the Sixth Extinction, Marlowe’s Faustus, more than Goethe’s Faust, is closer to where we stand. We have condemned ourselves, not because we were and are laggards, but because we are actually too good at what we do. Gordon Moore’s observation that “the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles about every two years,” what came to be known as Moore’s Law, can be loosely applied to the pace of development in the last six decades.
It is somewhat disconcerting to think that progress (innovation and for two decades now, disruption) can lead to our downfall, a term historian Dr. Ilhan Niaz uses in his most recent book on the creeping climate disaster. But it is important to note that unlike success in an examination, the paradox here works in favour of less, not more intelligence. Of course, there’s a tradeoff. But for progress, we would still be riding horses and traveling in carriages drawn by carthorses. But our inconvenience would have kept the greenhouse effect within manageable limits. Staying close to nature and being one with it, instead of conquering it, would have helped us a great deal more than the potential destruction we face now because of our high intelligence.
To me, as we move towards the Sixth Extinction, Marlowe’s Faustus, more than Goethe’s Faust, is closer to where we stand. We have condemned ourselves, not because we were and are laggards, but because we are actually too good at what we do.
But this is just one aspect of our bargain. The other paradox is our habituation. Personal computers hit the market in 1977. But it wasn’t until the eighties that they became common. We know there was life before PCs, but we can’t seem to visualise it any more. As it happens, we have come a long way since 1977 and now have handheld gizmos with more computing power than the best supercomputers at the turn of the 21st century. Can we visualise the world that existed before these innovations? We can’t.
Why? Because every innovation creates an ecosystem. Take a modern car. It has hundreds of components. Today’s cars also come with sensors that require microchips. From fossil fuel cycle (drilling to crude oil to refining to transportation) to steel industries to car designing and manufacturing to microchips, multiple components and their supply chains are involved in producing a car. And it brings us the convenience of comfy and fast travel. It habituates us, besides creating jobs and wealth for millions across the globe. To think anyone could abandon this ecosystem, now a rock-bed of our existence and taken for granted, is a pipe dream.
And this is just one example. Every innovation results in the formation of such an ecosystem or habitat. In determining growth in economic terms, introducing new training disciplines and experts, generating wealth and jobs and making life convenient these innovations are now so hardwired into our daily lives that it is simply impossible to walk away from them. As George Tsakraklides has put it, “the innovations need the civilisation to exist, and the civilisation simply cannot carry on without them. It has become hostage to the innovations it invented, almost like an organism giving birth to its own parasite.”
The speed with which we created vaccines and rolled them out was, and is, impressive. But given the paradox, it also means that we now have the knowhow to defeat nature’s acts of rebalancing.
Imagine, and it’s easy to do that in Pakistan, an evening without power and natural gas. Imagine also that there’s no generator or heavy-duty UPS. How do you cook or warm food? The internet has died on you, as has the phone and laptop. Suddenly, your life has gone topsy-turvy. Can you imagine life before these conveniences? Possibly not. And yet, for millennia, there was life without any of these conveniences.
Our progress has had many positives. Epidemics and pandemics used to wipe out fifty per cent of the population on a continent. We now have the scientific knowledge to control and manage them. No one in his sane mind wants to die of a curable disease. Developments in medicine, genetics and bioengineering are leading to longer, healthier lives. Thankfully, even in many developing countries children no longer die as they used to. No one wants to see their infant child die.
And yet, ugly as death is, it is nature’s way of rebalancing populations and the resources that would be consumed by higher numbers. The world has just survived a pandemic. The speed with which we created vaccines and rolled them out was, and is, impressive. But given the paradox, it also means that we now have the knowhow to defeat nature’s acts of rebalancing.
This is where the paradox gets really stark. As Sapiens, we can be bestial and kill our own kind in the name of nationalism, ethnicity, language, tribal solidarity. Equally, we do not like death and will do anything in our power to keep those alive who would have surely died of their ailments just a century ago. In fact, saving lives is our highest virtue. It would be considered extremely cruel to suggest that we should let people die of ailments and infirmities. No one would do that, the acceptance of euthanasia in some countries notwithstanding.
But this high virtue is in direct contrast to how nature rebalances. Cruel or practical, we see this logic constantly at work through the food chain.
By all scientific accounts, the climate disaster stares us in the face. Efforts are afoot to address this grey rhinoceros event. But more than just its divisive politics and pushback from interest groups — the fossil fuel lobby, for instance — we are losing the race because of the conveniences modern innovations bring to us and which we just cannot do without.
In other words, it is more than just a collective action problem. We are in a bind and there’s no escaping from it.