To Prevent Extinction
Loosely defined, the term “dramatic irony” describes the phenomenon whereby the reader of a work of literature gains a greater knowledge and understanding of a particular situation than the characters in said work. This effect creates an interesting dichotomy where the words and actions of the characters take on a different meaning for the audience than they have for the other characters. When examining modern history, the concept of dramatic irony is an interesting one, especially when scholars, philosophers and scientists take on the role of the audience. Through his book One Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse did just that. By challenging the way our society conducted its existence, Marcuse let it be known that not only did he disagree with the way the characters were acting out the proverbial play, but also that he understood, on a higher level, what it was that was leading them astray.
Highly controversial at the time, One Dimensional Man served as a direct response to what Marcuse was observing during the mid twentieth century. On October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy said “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” Taking a strong stance against Kennedy’s ideology, Marcuse opened his book by saying “Does not the threat of an atomic catastrophe which could wipe out the human race also serve to protect the very forces which perpetuate this danger?” With this revolutionary idea, Marcuse referenced the ‘forces’ of classism and thus challenged the capitalist principles that in his mind were contributing to the ever-growing gap between the upper and lower class. Marcuse also argued that using extreme, atomic power merely as a means to threaten and destroy would only serve to create more danger in the future. When combined, these two ideas – that the ‘forces’ of capitalism must be destroyed and that tremendous power should only be used constructively – formed a radical lens through which Marcuse saw the world.
When applied to modern history and our current times, Marcuse’s point of view is perhaps even more relevant than when he originally formulated his ideas. In an age where global instability is influenced by two primary factors – poverty and nuclear proliferation, Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man remains significant as a guide for how to continue through the world as it did when he wrote it.
Marcuse argues that to free ourselves of our problems we must pacify nature. He claims that if we as a race are able to understand the principle that governs and develops the technology in our world. This understanding would change the way we are as a global society for the better. It seems that technologies relating to nuclear weapons greatly influenced Marcuse’s claims. So, if we can understand that classism is what leads nations to turn down violent radical paths, we can prevent them from developing and using nuclear weapons that will not only hurt the enemy nation but also their own nation. This understanding will lead us closer to a peaceful world. Likewise, the same classism is what fuels our defense budget, allowing us to create weapons to defend our upper status.
Psychologically it is clear that if one person has something and another does not, those without will seek what the other has. This becomes a defining factor that separates people into two sections; the haves and the have-nots.
Furthermore, the solution as Marcuse describes it is as easy as the kindergarten lesson of sharing. Problems arise however, when a mob mentality takes over. In this case the upper class acts as a mob when making decisions. Herein lay two severe problems. First the principle that Marcuse argues, we must understand the principles that govern and develop our technology. Which in this case are the desires of an over paid individual seeking lavish goods, a very poor principle governing the development of our technology? Second, the idea that people who manage to get paid large amounts of money are not necessarily smart, they are simply capitalist.
Moreover educated people need to be the ones who govern and develop our technology.
The mob or group mentality can be very dangerous and have strongly negative effects. People must make decisions for individually, not follow a standard. When people follow a standard it is nearly impossible for change to occur, until the mob sways unreasonably and uncontrollably in a different direction. An example of where this is currently hurting our society is with current environmental issues. Now, few people worry about their carbon footprint on the world. Slowly it is becoming more common to think about where your trash will end up or people making attempts to grow more plants. However millions of people still commute in gas driven automobiles instead of choosing an alternative not only better for the environment but better for the individual, bicycling. Possibly soon the mob will suddenly sway and it will become popular to live close to work and ride a bicycle. These mob-like decisions of society are very radical often dangerous yet natural.
Science has shown that before our sun burns out, an entity that runs on nuclear fusion, it will engulf our plant and destroy everything we know. The very thing that made it possible for us to spawn and exist will eventually lead to our demise. We need to produce the technology to understand our sun and why it behaves the way it does. This technology will come through nuclear research. Further we must use reason to overcome this obstacle if we plan to live through it. As Marcuse says we must transcend nature, “a transcendence in which the mastery of Nature is itself subordinated to liberation and pacification of existence.” Clearly we must master nature if its course is to destroy us.
Marcuse talks about the mastery of nature to the point where it is subordinated to liberation and pacification of existence. By this he means we must truly stand above nature. To reach this point our technology must progress significantly. We are now reaching a point where we are beginning to understand some of the more complex trends of our planet and how what we do affects it. We are starting to be able to predict the results of our actions and change our habits so we have a better future. Good examples of this are with dieting and carbon emissions, two things we have learned are bad and we are now trying to correct. If a point in technology is reached, one where we fully comprehend all aspects of our world, we as a race will be freed into a peaceful worry free existence. To reach this point we must all understand what Marcuse is trying to convey, progress is what should drive our technology, not lavish excess or the fear of death.
Death is a natural part of existence. In primitive times, before farming and domestication, to merely exist was a brutal and violent life. The option humans were left with was to kill or die. It is natural to look out for one’s existence, so when faced with this decision most chose to kill. They would prey on weak, injured or sleeping animals so they would be able to feed. To me this is as far from true freedom as society can get. To move forward as a race safety for all people is essential.
In 1775 Benjamin Franklin wrote “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” I feel this brings us to a crucial step in moving forward. In a good world there would be no need to trade your freedom for your security, no fear of war, no need to hide behind walls or avoid dangerous neighborhoods. When Marcuse talks about the final cause materializing and opening up new relations between man and man he is implying that all men will be free and all men will be secure. No man will desire to wage war on another because there will be nothing to gain. All men are created equal and all men will live equal.
One danger that would come with the pacification of nature is the elimination of competition. This would only be acceptable if the end we reach is truly a perfect existence. If nature is pacified and there is no longer any reason to fight for food or strive for a higher salary. If all people were satisfied, there would be no reason to change, no reason to compete. So essentially if this cause were ever met, progress would cease and there would exist a utopia. However, I feel when Marcuse says that “All joy and happiness derive form the ability to transcend Nature.” He is making a claim that is too general. To say that there is no joy anywhere else is not true, I feel the quote would be better if it were not so definite, maybe lasting joy and happiness derive from the ability to transcend nature. For example, in nature when a man hunts to bring dinner home to his family, when he has satisfied there hunger, there surely must be some joy felt by the parent even though nature is not fully pacified.
Marcuse states it is natural for big fish to eat little fish, no matter how much the little fish disagrees. He points out “Civilization produces the means for freeing nature form its own brutality, its on insufficiency, its own business.” This is a very powerful and true statement, and becomes clear with examples. Before civilization people would have to produce everything for themselves and would have no access to objects beyond their geographical reach. As society and technology progress all people posses the same, all encompassing, geographical reach. This is civilization freeing nature from insufficiency. However, nuclear war is an example of civilization strangling itself with insufficiencies. As a world, any sort of nuclear attack would be a devastating event to society. We are yet to produce the means for freeing nature from this brutality. However through education of the masses and developing technology the means may be revealed shortly.
To expand on the fact that education needs to be the driving force behind our technology, earlier we discussed two of the large problems driving our technology were the desire for decadent excess and the desire to wage war. It seems these problems are one in the same; countries want to attack us because of our lavish excess. So it follows if we are able to limit our lavish excess we will limit the desire of others to attack. Although it seems living in excess has become deeply rooted in American society, the current economic conditions are causing all people to cut back on certain luxuries. The current recession could potentially be a blessing in disguise. It could lead us unknowingly into a safer world.
Garrett Hardin published a very influential article in 1968 about what may happen if many men live equally with limited recourses. The article, titled Tragedy of the Commons, lays out a theory in which multiple individuals acting in the own self-interest can deplete these shared limited recourses through short term over consumption when it is clear it is nobody’s long term interest for this to occur. A common medium for this theory is farmers placing animals on a field, and if one farmer gets selfish and puts too many animals on the field, the rate of consumption will go too high and all of the plant food will die leaving all of the animals to die. In 1940, during WWII, 40% of produce was cultivated in victory gardens. This is an easy solution to this specific version of the tragedy; nonetheless it is somewhat humorous that our country needs to be involved in a world war to be self sufficient with our food.
This theory may become a very serious problem to our society in the future. While we have worked to pacify nature in several ways such as purifying water, growing farms, raising domestic animals and building fires. Other things such as energy have yet to yield a renewable solution. While wind, solar and hydro-electric plants produce energy all day, combined they do not make up enough energy to power one seventh of our world. This is a time when we must put more research into nuclear technology. Not to create bombs, but to create power plants. A breeder reactor is a nuclear reactor that is capable of producing as much fuel as it uses while producing power, or in other words sustainable energy. However President Jimmy Carter placed a ban on the researching of breeder reactors in the late 70’s which has yet to be lifted. It is difficult for technology to guide in the pacification of nature when it is limited by governmental sanctions.
Still, technological humanity is on the way to transcending nature in many ways. Although some decide to fight it, as Marcuse puts it “Glorification of the natural is part of the ideology which protects an unnatural society in its struggle against liberation.” By this he means that individuals place too much value in happenings, just because they are natural. Value comes from the result of something, not the reason that it happened. If you are strolling through a park and you stumble upon a beautiful purple and yellow flower it will hold value to you. Nonetheless, a flower can be bred in a greenhouse to have purple and yellow leaves, if it is truly the same as the wildflower, it would hold the exact same value. An example Marcuse uses is childbirth, which is most certainly a beautiful thing. However, if left uncontrolled in our current world birth rates would be far too high and cause population problems. Marcuse points out “The defamation of birth control” as an example of what a natural society does to stop itself from being free. Just because birth control is unnatural does not mean that it is not for the greater good. If people are going to have sex, it is better for birth control to be an option so children will only be conceived when they are desired. People should be brought into this world with their parents will. Still I must disagree with this point on the grounds that if we truly did transcend nature that would involve transcending our natural desires for the opposite sex. To transcend nature would be to control natural urges. Instead of acting impulsively we would think about our actions and use reason to make a decision.
Currently this is exactly what the radical dictator ruling North Korea is failing to do. Possibly he is truly insane or possibly he wants to create mayhem across the world because he feels the people of his nation do not share the luxuries the rest of the world does. He feels his people are part of the have not group discussed earlier and that reparations are due. Still nuclear war will yield no winner. Or perhaps this individual is so selfish he is not concerned with the future simply to create mayhem, in which case the principals that drive our technological developments should lead to taking this man out of power. If we are to transcend nature we are to overcome things like mentally ill dictators.
Extinction is a natural occurrence, it is in our best interested to avoid this occurrence and rise above nature. In the attempt to stand above nature our reason is what we have that nature does not. We are able to study and understand trends, then apply reason to decide on a course of action. Technology has a far way to come before we are able to fully understand nature, space and the mind. The human body is a glorious development of nature and is our tool to move on. As Marcuse puts it “Reason can fulfill this function only as post-technological rationality.” The function he speaks of is civilization freeing nature from itself. To move to a post-technological rational we need to understand everything in our world, in our universe. To do this we must research and study all aspects of nature, the universe and ourselves. To prevent extinction we must fully comprehend the principals that develop it. The goal of these advancements, the end, is when reason, fueled by technology and art merge. “The function of reason then converges with the function of art.” We as a society will then be liberated and pacified, freed and peaceful, everlasting.
(1) John F. Kennedy
(2) Herbert Marcuse – One Dimensional Man
(3) NY times – www.nytimes.com