Apr 082011

By Terry O’Neill

One doubts whether the millions of Japanese directly affected by the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant will give a hoot about the prophecies of a Canadian academic named Thomas Homer-Dixon, but it’s still worth noting the professor believes that issues associated with events at that northern Japanese power station could lead humanity to a pivotal point in its history.

In fact, the professor goes so far as to assert in a recent Globe and Mail op-ed that the manner in which the world solves the energy-production problem, that has been brought into sharp focus by Fukushima, not only “should mark a turning point in human history,” but also “will be a defining challenge in the evolution of our species.”

Evolution of our species, eh? Given the widespread concern about the adverse effects of radiation, one’s first reaction upon reading this phrase might be to assume that the learned professor was attempting to pump some life into the hoary old science-fiction theme of radiation’s tendency to mutate living organisms into monstrosities. Some classic films from the 1950s come to mind, including Them! (giant, angry ants), The Amazing Colossal Man (think Yao Ming, but much, much bigger) and Attack of the Crab Monsters (which pretty much speaks for itself).

Fun stuff. But, alas, Homer-Dixon, who is identified as “the CIGI Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ont.,” is not predicting a plague of gigantism but, rather, the potential for the development of some sort of fundamental change in our species’ consciousness associated with the recognition that our supply of carbon-based fuels is finite and that nuclear energy is too dangerous. Either we evolve, he says, or “it’s game over for anything resembling modern civilization.”

But not only is this evolution idea far more mundane than all that monster stuff, but it’s also almost impossible to understand. In fact, Homer-Dixon never actually gets around to explaining how the adoption of new energy sources such as “ultra-deep geothermal power” (his personal favourite) would represent an “evolution” of our species instead of, say, yet another example of the sort of intellectual and technological advance for which we humans have become justly famous throughout the galaxy.

Rather, he leaves the impression this undefined evolution would represent some sort of fundamental transformation. Remember the apes who encountered the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Fast forward to the present, and Homer-Dixon would have us believe that we’re the apes once again, but that this time the black slab has been replaced by an overheated nuclear reactor.

Or something like that. It’s difficult to know exactly what he’s getting at. It kind of makes me miss the old Homer-Dixon, who gained some notoriety over the past decade, first, for his neo-Marxist theorizing that the 9-11 terrorist attacks were manifestations of social and economic disparities and, second, for his apocalyptic views about how environmental problems, ranging from global warming to declining fish stocks, might spark violent conflicts among the peoples of the world. In fact, he was often quoted as saying that the world was on the cusp of a “planetary emergency.”

Interesting, isn’t it, that Homer-Dixon’s world has now gone from the eve of destruction to the dawn of a new age? It’s nice to know that, unlike old dogs, tenured academics can learn new tricks.

Then again, for those of us party-poopers who think that Homer-Dixon has always been noted more for the quantity of the overheated atmosphere he produces than for its quality, this “evolution of the species” stuff is simply more of the same.

Moreover, it puts him into the same premier division of esoteric snake charmers as the likes of Oprah’s favourite guru, Deepak Chopra, who talks about human evolution as being linked to some sort of harnessing of creativity. Perhaps this is what the hippies meant when they dreamed of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

In fact, while the U.S. public school system may be smoldering over evolution-related questions about where humans came from, it seems that the whole New Age, transcendental, Taro-card-reading, astrologically-inclined, Mayan-calendar-predicting, Gaia-worshipping subculture is burning with questions involving the direction in which humans are now evolving towards.

Personally speaking, I’m quite content with the idea that the evolution of the branch of the species with which I am most familiar was completed when my ancestors, Francis and Julia O’Neill, left Ireland at the beginning of the potato famine and settled in the Ottawa Valley. Nevertheless, I understand how others may believe the species must still deal with unfinished developmental business.

Even then, I’m more inclined to view this, not as some sort of hypothetical evolutionary leap, but simply as something with which I am in full agreement: the advance of civilization.

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