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A climate researcher drinks from a pool of melting ice water on an iceberg that broke off from the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland. Photo/Getty

How NZ's future is threatened by our ingenuity

Humans can change the world, but the cost of our ingenuity is high. Two great science thinkers – New Zealand’s Sir Peter Gluckman and Britain’s Professor Mark Hanson – have collaborated to produce a new book, Ingenious, on the challenges and consequences of our success. 

Are we simply too clever for our own good? We’ve harnessed nature to feed a growing population with increasingly energy-dense foods, and now many of us are obese. We’ve invented antibiotics, but many bugs are now resistant. Our dependence on digital technology has been linked with mental ill-health.

Our ingenuity, say scientists Distinguished Professor Sir Peter Gluckman from the University of Auckland and British Heart Foundation Professor Mark Hanson from the University of Southampton, has not only changed the world, it has changed us. Their new book, Ingenious: The Unintended Consequences of Human Innovation, sounds a warning about the pace of that change and how we can continue to function well in the world we’ve created. It’s the seventh book the pair has co-authored or co-edited, through their shared research interest in the developmental origins of non-communicable diseases.

Gluckman founded the Liggins Institute in Auckland, which researches maternal, fetal and neonatal health, and was the first person appointed as chief science adviser to the Prime Minister.

Ingenious, however, focuses on our future survival. When humans first invented a new tool 20,000 years ago, says Gluckman, the pace of change was slow, but since the industrial revolution, it’s accelerated exponentially. “When considering the rapid developments in technology that have taken place during the young lives of the ‘millennials’ and are shaping even more the lives of today’s children – Generation Z – from the internet to smartphones, fast food to Facebook, we realised the battle between man and his nature is still very much raging,” they write in Ingenious.

“The tacit assumption is that, because through our ingenuity we have invented these brilliant new technologies, we are winning. But the more we looked, the more it appears that we are, at the same time, losing – whether it is the epidemic of obesity and its morbid disease associations, cyberbullying and mental health, climate change, antimicrobial-resistant bacteria or our societal organisation and conduct. All these result from our brilliant technological ingenuity, yet all challenge fundamental aspects of our biology.”

What will it all mean for our future? We sat down with them to find out.

Technology is changing our sense of reality about the world, say Gluckman, left, and Hanson, who argue we need to become more psychologically resilient to deal with the pace of that change. Photo/Ken Downie

North & South: Are we in some kind of a lucky bubble, in that we haven’t yet been mown down by the freight trains of climate change, antibiotic resistance, obesity, and nuclear and digital Armageddon? In the history of humanity, will this be seen as a lucky time?

Mark Hanson: [Psychologist and author] Steven Pinker and the “New Optimists” would argue actually things have got better and better. The world population has grown, most people aren’t starving, we are living longer lives and we have conquered the diseases that killed even our parents, and so on. So, yes, you could say these are good times. But we haven’t thought about the future, really, and that’s what we are saying. You can already see the seeds of quite a lot of discontent, disharmony and things fracturing in ways we probably don’t even realise and don’t have any control over, particularly in the digital world. How that’s affecting kids even in preschool and early school years now is something we are very worried about. It is changing their ideas about the world, their sense of themselves, their sense of relationships – their sense of reality, actually.

N&S: Has the pace of change in recent decades moved so exponentially we have lost control of it in some way? Does it have its own momentum, as events with Facebook and the Christchurch massacre suggest? Do we lack the will or lack the control?

Peter Gluckman: There is a lot of evidence we can cope with change when it’s slow, but we don’t cope as individuals or a society when it’s fast. The point of the book is to say well, we’ve got to take a breath now and think. What’s different about previous innovation is that after a massive development like industrialisation, there was a period of relative stability. Things settled.

What we are seeing now in the last decade or two is the pace of change, driven by the commercial imperative, but also the consumer imperative, and it seems to us that the institutions of society, of self, of civil life – not physical ones but the way we operate as societies – has changed. Digitalisation is limiting the ability of a liberal democracy to be the model of survival for a nation state. Can the nation state survive against the background of, say, a platform company?

The Prime Minister is talking a lot about a global approach to try to deal with social media in a limited way. I’d like to see her succeed, but we are dealing with very, very complex systems here and the problem with a complex system is, where do you intervene to change it? You’ve got a changed media dynamic that means the world is in a very unstable state. We can’t even make a decision on dealing with the big existential threat of climate change.

N&S: We can’t unplug a generation. Don’t we have very few levers to pull in trying to manage this?

PG: It depends which bit you want to manage. You can’t unplug the internet. We have to make people more psychologically resilient… we know how to do that, we know about educational systems.

N&S: Isn’t that a long-term process?

PG: Of course, but that’s no reason not to do it – and there is every reason to do it because the only time we can really impact on people’s psychology is when they are young. The other thing that has to be worked through is that the peak optimism of a decade ago, when the world was in a more connected state in the way of policy and globalisation, has been replaced by a fracturing into a nativist-nationalist environment at the very time the issues of the global commons are getting bigger – not just climate change but the loss of social cohesion – and they need a global perspective that is much harder to achieve now. We have extremes on both sides.

N&S: In New Zealand, we seem to be getting more appreciation for and education about our past, about the land wars, colonialism; what Māori have been through as indigenous people. But that doesn’t seem to be reflected in other places?

PG: We are an outlier.

MH: Yes, I think you are. Maybe [in Europe], we just have a massive case of post-empire melancholia. The Brexit issue is a classic example of something that should be a national dialogue but has polarised people… the idea of having a yes-no referendum means you have to be on one side or another, and now people have got further and further apart because everybody in the country is fed up with it.

N&S: I’m interested in why you think we are an outlier.

MH: One observes it. We have more racial tension than you do, and the United States has more than us. Maybe it’s because you’ve managed to integrate Māori and Pacific people more; they’ve managed to preserve their culture more, or perhaps it’s just that the country is relatively small, with a smaller economy and a smaller society and things have grown up more organically.

N&S: We still can’t take pride in our Māori and Pacific statistics in health and other things.

PG: The counterfactual argument suggests if we were managing it the way some other countries were, or we had a different historical background where we hadn’t had the Treaty and the Waitangi process, a reconciliation process, and if Te Puni Kōkiri and Whānau Ora and all those things hadn’t been set up, it could have been worse. We are young, and young is important. Look at Europe now and despite all that happened, we are seeing the rise of anti-Semitism again. New Zealand started in a different place without that deep, embedded history of dysfunction.

MH: You haven’t had things like the Windrush generation [from Caribbean countries], with a history of importing several generations of people simultaneously who have been exploited and disregarded.

N&S: Our equivalent is Pacific migrants, though, particularly in the era of the dawn raids.

PG: No place is perfect and people will always take their views depending on where they sit in society, but the point in the book is that the dynamics of social media and public discourse polarise people. One of the big points we make is that we live within groups and move within groups, whereas 200 years ago we didn’t. We lived in a village, had a particular religion, a particular caste or class in life and there was not much mobility. In the modern world, groups are much more diffused – you can be in a football club one minute and a religious group the next. Groups as they used to exist in evolutionary terms, largely small hunter-gatherer clans, had to reach consensus. In social media, you select groups you already believe in. It pulls people apart because you become more extreme in your views. It doesn’t matter what you are talking about, whether on environmental matters or economic matters or attitudes to other people, social media tends to polarise rather than bring people together.

MH: As humans, we never evolved to deal with that sheer number of people. Most Facebook friends are not those you would normally regard as friends in that you’d sit down and have a chat with them or a cup of tea... Now with Facebook you can have thousands of “friends” who are nothing more than acquaintances, but who echo your views.

Related articles: Why futurist Michio Kaku is optimistic about our chances here on Earth

Scientists and other demonstrators join a call to support and safeguard the scientific community at a March for Science in Los Angeles. Photo/Getty 

N&S: Are you on social media?

PG: I use it only for information. You can’t convey the nuances of any concept and we have lost the nature of a long discourse. It quickly reduces to ad hominem attacks, misunderstandings between people, and manipulation. Fake news has always existed, but now it’s at a speed it has never been before. The next stage is going to be loss of reality altogether, deep fakes. There are videos you may have seen already of the president of the US declaring war on Russia; they’re not quite perfect yet but are getting close to it with augmented or virtual reality transmitted in different ways. They’re all going to lead to the loss of confidence. At what point do you trust what you see and what you hear?

Why do the myths persist? Because people think they no longer need a knowledge mediator, a doctor, scientist or expert to mediate between them and the information that abounds, from reliable to unreliable, on the internet. Everybody goes on the internet with their own biases to find out things that support their views. There’s reaction against elites, which includes science. The virtual world is now taking over from the real world. This is so fundamental to how we think about ourselves, how we think about and interact with other people; the way society is organised, the power structures, the implied contract between citizen and state, the power of the nation state, all those things are being changed. Some would argue in a good direction, others would argue bad, but they are changing. And so how do you get more of the upside and less of the down? We have seen the downside growing in importance. In the case of digital technology, the initial impact of the internet was all about the fact people could see the benefit to them, and it was adopted universally at an incredible rate.

MH: No one asked if there was a downside.

N&S: You must look at this with a great amount of foreboding about our future.

MH: The book is called Ingenious because one of the fundamental characteristics of humans is that we are endlessly innovating, changing our environment, modifying it in various ways. No other species does that. Lots of species create environments that help buffer them against small changes, but humans endlessly change their environment for all sorts of reasons – to have more fun, to have a more comfortable life, for example, and we think that’s interesting and exciting. The trouble is, as we know, almost every innovation has its downside at some time. With antibiotics, bacteria evolved to have resistance. One of the themes of the book is that as the speed [of change] accelerates, we are endlessly trying to come up with new interventions to deal with the downsides of previous interventions, and sooner or later, we worry we will lose the arms race.

N&S: You say in the book that we can force nature to bend to us and we think we are winning, but we are losing. Is that the takeout here?

PG: In a technical sense, we are well adapted. We have ways of using technology to live on every point on the planet.

MH: But only by changing the environment.

N&S: Is this showing us we have been too clever by half and the environment is going to get us in the end? That humanity could be assured of its future on the planet only if we had lived more simply, like our ancestors?

MH: Since the beginning of time, human groups have been saying the world is coming to an end. We are still at the same place… we are saying there are bad times ahead and we need to do something about it.

N&S: Do you not think the bad times ahead are apocalyptic, that we are facing a real threat? 

PG: Yes, depending on your definition of apocalyptic. It could be climate change or loss of social cohesion or a fundamental change in global power structures, which has other consequences... all of those things.

N&S: So let’s assume you have the power to do anything that could change the trajectory of where your book suggests we are heading. What are your priorities for the next 20 years?

PG: You have asked the hardest question – the one we’ve grappled with for the last three or four years. You can have utopian solutions that you can describe but won’t happen. We need to think about early education, because I do think the way young people grow up, the way they look at themselves, the way they look at the world, the way we make them emotionally resilient to give them self-control, will be a part of helping to provide social cohesion. The second thing we need to do is think about policy-making, which has become very short-term, driven in part by social media. It’s very reactive rather than pre-emptive. In New Zealand, there is little long-term thinking in the policy process. The amount of thinking on these long-term issues, as opposed to simple rhetoric, is quite light globally. The issue is how do we get the population to demand long-term thinking and planning?

N&S: Isn’t the problem that everyone says they want long-term thinking, but in the short-term they want what benefits them now?

PG: Correct. And I would argue there has been a generational shift towards more and more thinking in the short-term.

MH: Or selfish thinking. Wellbeing is much more around the number of likes I have rather than whether I live in a stable community and I’m making a contribution to something bigger.

N&S: Would a four-year parliamentary term be better?

PG: Yes. I would expand it to five personally. The policy community needs the space to do some long-term thinking and it’s hard when your political masters or mistresses are driving short-termism. That’s where think tanks and academia come into play. They provide a landscape for a different kind of thinking.

N&S: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

MH: We would probably describe ourselves as pragmatic optimists. Humans haven’t got where they are today without being ingenious, therefore we could hope we will be able to fix this, but we have to recognise the problem, we have to engage the actors who might be able to fix it – but that means educating them and engaging a new generation. I think young people are the secret in this. Fundamentally, I’m on the side of optimism.

PG: I started off many years ago very optimistic. I think the outcome can still be good but we have to recognise we can’t just do it on gut, we have to rely far more on thinking… The whole point of this book is to say humans are ingenious, we can work out how to do things, but there is a downside to every ingenious invention or development made. The downsides [associated with] rapid change are much more likely to be adverse than when change is slow – and it’s time for political systems and societal systems to react.

N&S: Do you think we will beat climate change?

PG: I think we are still in danger of believing as a society that we can leave it to another generation for a technological fix. In New Zealand, there is a growing recognition that it needs a societal fix. Decisions made in one part of the world reverberate all around the world. Climate change, digital and nuclear technology and antibiotic resistance are all things that happen on a global scale. The difficulty for New Zealand is we can be a moral leader, but ultimately the solutions require decisions to be made by actors we have very little, if any, influence over.

MH: We have grown as a species to change the niche in which we live, but now the environment is changed remotely. Zuckerberg from his castle changed the digital environment of the kid sitting out there looking at his phone, and the Chinese building their coal-fired power stations every week change the atmosphere in the world. Our niche is now global even though we live local. We’re at the diagnostic stage with some vague ideas about the treatment phase. But the treatment is complex – there is no magic bullet here.

PG: The book’s primary purpose is to promote the discussion. We don’t have all the knowledge to write a recipe for a solution. The solution is going to require lots of actions, but the point is if you don’t at least make a diagnosis of disease you choose the wrong therapy. The book is diagnostic. The patient is saying, can you treat this? No. Can you make it better? Possibly. Will I die of it? Possibly, but you might die of something else. Do I need to do something about it? Bloody hell, yes, take it seriously.

Ingenious: The Unintended Consequences of Human Innovation by Peter Gluckman and Mark Hanson (Harvard University Press, $65).

This article was first published in the November 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.