Putting Dread on the Table

Staff writer Cormac Dineen reflects on the dire implications of one of humanity’s most innate principles: the care of the next generation.

It’s unprecedented. The Earth now unwittingly plays host to some post-ape species who have learned how to utilise its resources such that they can hurtle themselves through the air in oddly shaped machines, travelling faster than the speed of sound. Other members of this unique species crawl along the ocean floor in metal-whales, surfacing only twice a year, to service weapons that could decimate entire colonies. These incredible mammals who once fought each other with sticks and stones can now watch digital representations of their own history — hell, even their own imaginations — on screens the size of cliff-faces. We’ve come a long way. For me however, one of the most interesting things about our development is that we’ve done it all using the same hardware. I find it fascinating that our bodies and instincts, largely remain unchanged. That is to say that it is merely our minds, and our collective wealth of knowledge that have been upgraded. The fingers I use to type these words on a supercomputer that sits in my lap, are the same as the ones with which our ancestors would pull insects from holes. The impulse to chat to a person you find attractive in a bar (albeit somewhat hindered by the 7 or 8 drinks that preceded it), is the very same impulse that struck Fred Flintstone the first time he clapped eyes on Wilma.

Our technological advancement as a species, coupled with our primitive, animalistic instincts, and our fallible, mortal bodies is absolutely fascinating, and I believe, also our Achilles Heel. The analogy that springs to mind is an attempt to run IOS 11 software on an original Apple Mac; the computer is destined to crash.

The relationship between parent and child is at the very core of the human experience. In fact, it’s at the core of all biological experience, and the overbearing, almost numinous instinct to protect genetic offspring is what keeps life, in all its weird and wonderful guises, flourishing. Without this instinct, it is almost certain that all life on Earth would have been extinguished long before you or I had the chance to choke back our first gasp of air. If the instinct were suddenly to be eliminated in the morning, it’s hard to believe that we’d survive past another generation. This unconditional love for family is what gets people out of bed in the morning. It’s why people work for 40 years in a job that bores them, for a boss whom they’d gladly see cast into the Sarlacc’s pit, with a smile on their face and a sense of fulfilment in their heart.  However, giving your children the opportunity to have a better life, despite the romantic notions associated with it, is merely your DNA expressing itself.

The best natural example I can think of was explained to me in dulcet tones by David Attenborough. In Planet Earth II, Attenborough describes the life of the chinstrap penguins who inhabit the far-flung Zavodovski Island in the Southern Ocean. A particularly unforgiving corner of the world, the esteemed broadcaster articulates this better than I ever could: the island, he tells us, “is not only surrounded by the stormiest of seas, it is itself an active volcano. It’s the last place on earth you’d choose to live—unless you’re a chinstrap penguin”. The waters surrounding the island provide an abundant food supply – enough fish to feed the 1.5 million penguins who live there (one of the largest penguin colonies in the world) – however, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and day after day, the penguins risk their lives to feed their young. In one of the most dramatic pieces of nature film ever captured, we see penguins attempt to jump from the jagged cliffs of the island into the sea, in the face of waves so scary that they could easily be found hiding in the boogeyman’s closet. Having caught a sufficient amount of fish to feed their young, they attempt to come ashore to deliver the food; an even more perilous stunt, which literally sees flightless birds alighting from the air, such is the power of the waves. Thousands of the penguins die, dashed on the polygonal rocks, and even more are wounded to the extent that recovery is unlikely. In this intimate, and brutal piece of nature footage, we see that the life of these creatures is nothing more than a barbaric struggle, from the day they’re born to the day they die. Yet, they repeat this process again and again and again, until the chick that they are feeding has matured, and eventually risks everything like its parents before it, to feed its own chicks, thus ensuring the survival of the species.

These birds hold a mirror to human society; we can see that these creatures which we deem to be devoid of any sentience, operate under identical social parameters to us, and that is fascinating.

What we call love, they have no word for; however, that instinct that forces them to jump off that cliff in the morning is the very same one which forces people to get in their car and drive to work.

It must be said this instinct is key to the success of our species. It has brought us — if even subconsciously — all of the technological advancements we have seen since our ancestors first gained self-awareness and began hitting stones together to make fire. Each step forward, each piece of knowledge written down on a page, is an unwitting attempt at ensuring the survival of our species, and, thus far, it’s worked. On balance, all complexities being considered, I think it’s fair to say that the quality of life and chance of survival of any generation of humankind is drastically increased when compared with any prior generation, and that is due to the instincts that govern our behaviour, and in particular, the instinct to protect our family.

It permeates all aspects of human society. In the arts it is a central theme. How many times have you seen a Hollywood film in which a single mother works several jobs to ensure that her child can get the best education available? Or a working-class father with a broken body, who labours all day to ensure his family are fed and watered? In business, people employ every asset at their disposal, they work for more hours than could possibly be considered healthy, they manipulate and lie and cause devastation, all to create vast empires which they can pass on to their children upon their death, ensuring the survival of their lineage for generations to come.

There is one issue in particular which plays centre stage in the majority of the world’s social problems, and indirectly causes the single greatest risk to the survival of our species: climate change. In the media, a lot of weight is placed behind the idea that modern consumerism is some rapacious manifestation of new or recent social attitudes. I disagree. We are, by definition, consumers. Consumerism (which in my opinion is now wrongly conflated with greed, or some other ethical shortcoming), to me, is nothing more than a social manifestation of one of our most basic and primal instincts coupled with the exponential increase in our ability to consume. Anyone of those chinstrap penguins would naturally bring infinite fish back to their offspring, had they the ways or means of achieving it, just as human parents will provide their children with all the material possessions they can, to increase their standing in society and subsequently their chance of survival.

However, it is through consumption that we are causing the Earth’s climate to change. The regenerative capacity of the biosphere is currently being overshot by a factor of 1.5, which means that our planet would have to be 1.5 times bigger than it is to be able to mitigate our current (growing) activities. Our budget for annual greenhouse gas emissions was last year spent by early August. Our oceans are overfished and our groundwater is over-polluted. We have become so efficient at consuming that the Earth cannot keep pace, and we have reached tipping point. If something doesn’t change within the next few generations, then we can bid sayonara to any dream that our descendants might evolve into some kind of transcendent super-species that traverses galaxies (admittedly that dream may be exclusive to myself).

Realistically however, if we don’t change, we could be ushering in an era of enormous pain and suffering for people whose instinct dictates that we should protect. This an eventuality that must be avoided, whatever the cost.

The point I am trying to make is that the basic instinct to protect our children — though it carries an inherent nobility and is, very possibly, the only legitimately selfless aspect of our entire existence —  is becoming outdated. When the mirror cracks, we see that we are no longer a species who, like those penguins of Zavodovski Island, can count on merely food and water to ensure the survival of our species. Our consumption, which stems from the exact same instinct to protect our family as all other animals, has now exposed itself as our greatest threat. We are in uncharted waters, and should we stay our course, there is no telling what could happen in future years. I believe that without redefining what it means to provide for our children, and recasting our own natural instincts, doom is unavoidable. If we don’t adjust our own protection instinct to include the provision of a habitable world for our offspring, and not just the basic requirements for survival, then I’m afraid to say that the Apple Mac that is our species is destined to crash.