Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A thought experiment

Scenario 1: Imagine a technologically sophisticated civilization of about seven billion people.  Imagine that this civilization has managed to solve most of the big problems that affect us in our own global technologically sophisticated civilization, including the problem of power generation.  Imagine that this civilization has discovered an unlimited source of environmentally-friendly renewable power.  Imagine that the power source is human beings, specifically a novel kind of energy released through the painful and slow incineration of human beings while they are still alive.  Assume for thought-experiment’s sake that no other animal will work, it has to be living humans.   Imagine that it takes the combustion of several million humans each year to meet the massive energy demands of this civilization, but since infertility is low and most disease has been eliminated, there will always be plenty of people to feed the furnaces.  The process is completely sustainable.  Imagine further that this society has arrived at a completely equitable method of determining who ends up in the furnace, perhaps a lottery in which each and every living person has an equal chance of being selected on any given day. 

Now for the thought experiment part, what would it be like to be a citizen in this world, knowing that any day you or your children might be hauled away and fed into the furnaces, knowing that in order for you to toast your bread in the morning someone has to die a slow and agonizing death?  What kind of moral monsters would people have to become in order to accept this kind of an arrangement? 

Scenario 2: Imagine our own technologically sophisticated civilization, one in which tens of millions of people are killed each year in order to support our industrial infrastructure.  Technology kills people directly through car, train, boat, and plane wrecks (I refuse to call them “accidents” because, although they are not predictable, they are expected and unavoidable results of mechanical failure and operator error), industrial mishaps, bridge and building collapse, appliance malfunction or misuse, and through the deliberate use of military weaponry.  The latter category is by far the largest and is likely to grow larger in inverse proportion to the decrease in available fossil fuel--itself a direct result of industrial technology.  These deaths are not avoidable, or even theoretically avoidable.  They are part and parcel of how our industrial system works.  Technology also kills people directly in less observable ways, such as through exposure to industrial carcinogens, through the chemical alteration of the air, water, and soil, and through metabolic and vascular diseases of all flavors caused by processed food and technology-mediated lifestyles.  Add to that drug and alcohol use, homicide, suicide, and diseases that would never exist if they did not have densely populated urban settings in which to incubate, mutate, and spread.   

Now back to the thought experiment part.  What are the essential differences between scenario 1 and scenario 2?  In both scenarios millions of people have to die each year in order to power the machine of civilization, in order to maintain the technological infrastructure.  The most obvious difference is the lack of explicit acknowledgment (or even vague awareness) of the relationship between technology and death in scenario 2.  Another way that the second scenario differs from the first is that in our society the selection process is not random.  The method of choosing who dies on a given day is not equitable but is heavily weighted toward certain groups of people: you are more likely to die as a direct result of industrial technology if you live in the third world, if you live below the poverty line, if you are a person of color, or if you are a child. 

What would it be like to live in our own civilization as a fully aware and conscious human being?  What would it be like knowing that in order for you to toast your bread in the morning someone has to die a (perhaps) slow and agonizing death?  What kind of moral monsters would we have to become in order to accept this kind of arrangement?


1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting thought experiment, I wonder how many people would actually choose scenario one (and maybe start to cop out of it by asking for different ways to select the victims, or pull out the "it will just be temporary, we will find ways to be more efficient and find better technologies to reduce the effect"-card). Would be interesting to pose that scenario to some people.