Continued from Part 1.

So then Boulding goes on to say that now, with the advent of human society, which set evolution off on a whole new track, it's not that these other forms of physical and biological evolution didn't continue. But human evolution is something very different. Going back to his original formula, we add a different kind of know-how. That's human learning, what he called new genetics. So now you can figure things out, you engage in the scientific method, you can engage in philosophizing, you can teach, you can pool knowledge from countless individuals.

Quincy Wright identified four stages in the evolution of human know-how. We first emerged with special human traits with language and the ability to communicate sophisticated symbolic ideas between individuals, tell stories that allow those ideas to persist over time, and people could remember. You could spread it out over small areas. The next big revolution was writing, which allowed ideas to really be extended over time and space. In a very real sense, it made large-scale empires possible. With the printing press, Guttenberg made writing and books cheap enough that we could start to have universal literacy, with the opportunity for the explosion of learning which that made possible. And we now have digital information, and where that's going is still very much unknown. But I know that on my hip in a cute little cell phone, I probably have easier access to more information than the University's entire library had when I was just an undergraduate student.

So think about it: it took 500 million years from the Cambrian explosion to now, and in the space of a few thousand years, humans have gone from the most primitive of tool makers, chipping arrow heads off rocks, to the modern world. That's an astonishingly fast accomplishment. So what we've done is we've added to Charles Darwin's biological evolution a whole set of knowledge about social competitive interactions. Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations is maybe the most prominent example, but there's obviously much more.

The other thing that the advent of human society has done is add to the sort of biological ecodynamics and relationships in a whole series of other peculiarly human types of interaction. The three that Boulding highlighted in his book, The Three Faces of Power, again illustrate how exceptionally different people are. Animals ceratinly threaten one another, with competition for territory and the threat of predation. But you don't have threat in the same way that you have with humans. The threat goes: you do something I want or I'll do something that you don't want, and this essentially enslaves or oppresses somebody. There might be an excpetion somewhere, but that takes a kind of symbolic reasoning that the simple biological world just can't do it. We also have exchange. There are symbiotic relationships in the biological world, but nothing like economies, nothing like the mediums of exchange, and very complex sort of consciously agreed on relationships for mutual assistance. Also, in the animal world, you certainly have love in the sense of parents caring for their offspring and herds sort of protecting one another, and that sort of thing, but nothing like the really large-scale love-hate relationships that you get with the human world. So we're adding other forms of interaction, but it's still basically a set of competitive ecological interactions.

Now the other thing that is really important about this is that the speed of the evolution of the socio-sphere, the human society, is astonishingly fast. In the space of a few thousand years, we've gone from chipping stones to the modern world, and if you look at what's projected for just the next few years as computers get to be as smart as people, it's absolutely jaw-dropping. The problem is that when you have ideas that disseminate globally, virtually instantly, bad ideas can iinfect he whole planet in catastrophic ways. The big question is whether or not we're up to governing the global commons in a way that produces a kind world we want to live in.

Another fundamental principle about ecodynamics's ecosystems don't care. This is a picture of the great Yellowstone fires, which were absolutely devastating in some areas. The fires got so hot that it pretty much sterilized everything. But here's a case where in the space of a few short months, you had a fire weed coming in and taking advantage of the fact that all the lodgepole trees were gone. So for every sort of catastrophe, there will be beneficiaries. So, there's not really a sense in which you make the whole ecosystem better, except this notion of the tragedy of the commons, where you have cases where individuals pursuing their own self-interest can destroy the common ecosystem on which everyone depends. The results are catastrophic for pretty much everybody. And in a sense, what we need to do is to govern the planet in ways that avoid that.

So now, we're looking at the continuation of geologic history, except this time with humans. Now you can look backwards and say this is the Anthropocene, the year in which humans came and caused this great mass extinction, and pretty much ruined everything. You can make that argument, and it's fairly persuasive in many ways. But it's also the dawn of what you might call the Anthropozoic Era. So, the invention of human knowledge is as big a thing to happen to the planet as DNA. It's a whole new form of information, a whole new kind of evolution.

The deal is that we get to decide where it all goes. We can have again the kind of ecological competition that produces, to borrow a metaphor from Adam Smith, guides things in a way where we have an invisible hand, where competition in the social world guides things in a way that benefits everyone. Or, we could let power over oppression take over and have the invisible fist, in which a few dominate everyone else to the aggregate detriment of the planet. And it's basically a choice of where were going, and the key is that our ability to deal with conflict is going to be crucial in determining where we go. If you wanted to push this a bit more, here's a kind of dismal article that's been making the rounds lately, which says that humans could be extinct within 100 years if we don't get a handle on all this.

So, here are some questions to discuss:

  1. What do you see as the most promising strategies for promoting "power-with" efforts to govern the commons in ways that advance the common good?
  2. And what do you see as promising strategies for promoting a more enlightened view of self-interest -- one that focuses on protecting the commons, and avoiding devastating "I'll fight you for it" conflicts?

Guy Burgess is a Founder and Co-Director of the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and has been working in the conflict resolution field, as a scholar and a practitioner, since 1979. His primary interests involve the study and management of intractable conflicts, public policy dispute resolution, and the dissemination of conflict resolution knowledge over the Internet. He is one of the primary authors and creators of the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, and is the Co-Director of CRInfo -- the Conflict Resolution Information Source. Dr. Burgess has edited and authored a number of books and articles, the most recent being The Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution (with Heidi Burgess, ABC-Clio 1999).