Humankind has control issues, and they’re about to get a lot worse.
As a species, we’ve developed remarkable power over our environments, and the process started a long time ago—with the harnessing of fire at least 200,000 years back and with the development of stone, bone, and wood tools during the past 50 millennia or so. Even our great grandparents were relatively powerless against the cold, the heat, famine, insects, diseases, and the rest of nature’s inconveniences when compared to ourselves.
Today, as the result of cheap energy and the technologies it fuels, we enjoy climate-controlled living and shopping areas; our physicians cure previously fatal illnesses; we conquer problems of distance and time without a thought or care.
When I say “we,” I am of course referring to the collectivity of our kind: there are plenty of people in the world today who are still relatively powerless. But just knowing that some world leader, financier, inventor, or engineer is able to do a particular thing nurtures a shared sense of our growing, ultimately limitless capability. “We” can even redesign our own genes, eventually enabling us to conquer death itself.
The trajectory of our relationship with control is about to change. With the end of cheap fossil fuels, and therefore the end of cheap energy, our ability to control our environment begins to wane. This of course has abundant practical implications, but also a collective psychological, even spiritual impact.
Once we lived with a sense of our own limits. We may have been a hubristic kind of animal, but we knew that our precocity was contained within a universe that was overwhelmingly beyond our influence. That sensibility is about to return. Along with it will come a sense of frustration at finding many expectations dashed.
Will the waning of human control over the environment lead to a religious revival? Perhaps. Given our propensity for language-making and hence question-posing and story-telling, it is likely that many of us will find mythological lessons in this historic transformation (recall Icarus or Prometheus).
Whether or not it’s ultimately good for us morally to have a sense of limits, the reality is that our powers are indeed limited, and our ability to control our environment must ever be subordinated to the imperative to live in harmony with it.