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Is Silicon Valley a threat to humanity?

In his new book, pioneering environmentalist Bill McKibben sounds the alarm on technology's role in our extinction

Journalist and activist Bill McKibben has been writing about climate change longer than the vast majority of inhabitants of the planet have been aware of the issue.

In 1989, McKibben's "The End of Nature" was the first book for a popular audience to address the topic of what was then called "the greenhouse effect." Since then, the former New Yorker staff writer has written more than a dozen books (including one novel), and helped found the grassroots climate activist organization 350.org.

McKibben's new book, "Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?," takes stock of how well humankind is coping with the effects of climate change. The resulting picture is far from encouraging. Arctic ice keeps melting, the oceans continue to rise and extreme weather -- from firestorms to hurricanes -- still spreads across the globe. Meanwhile, powerful new technologies threaten to strip people of their jobs and perhaps their humanity.

McKibben places blame for the sad state of affairs in many directions. McKibben takes aim at the climate change denialists, such as the Koch brothers and their libertarian networks that are known for lobbying against efforts to expand government's role in health care and combating global warming. He shows how the Koch brothers aren't shy about funneling billions of dollars into campaigns to convince people to vote against their own interests, especially when it comes to climate change.

But in "Falter," he concentrates some of his disdain for one author in particular, Ayn Rand, author of "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged." A fanatical believer in the libertarian "rugged individualist" and an opponent of anything that could be construed as altruism, Rand espoused a system wherein kindness and compassion were for chumps.

He writes, "You could argue that the most important political philosopher of our time is the novelist Ayn Rand. Indeed, given the leverage of the present moment, leverage that is threatening to end the human game, you could argue that she's the most important philosopher of all time."

McKibben also turns his attention to artificial intelligence and bioengineering, not for what they might do to the environment, but how they might change the soul of humanity.

For example, in "Falter," he writes about Ray Kurzweil, a "director of engineering" at Google, whose transhumanist beliefs offer the possibility of uploading consciousness to a digital storage site.

Assuming such cyberpunkish aspirations ever come to fruition, McKibben asks what happens when smarter-than-human, disembodied intelligences become divorced from mortal concerns. On top of that scenario, McKibben also considers what might occur if the cheap and easy gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 suddenly begins to allow doctors to alter genes before birth to create physically superior offspring.

After doling out a heaping portion of doom and gloom, McKibben, a Gandhi Peace Prize Laureate, takes care in "Falter" to offer some hope for anyone who would like to see humanity survive for another century or more. "Falter" is a bracing call to arms, one that concerned readers ignore at their peril.

Asked what we've done to combat climate change in the three decades since the publication of "The End of Nature," McKibben said succinctly, "We've pretty much wasted them."

Readers will be happy to know that McKibben does perceive two possible escape hatches from our collective folly -- solar energy and nonviolent resistance.

Solar panels offer the rapid spread of renewable energy across the developing world, he argues.

As for resistance, he notes that 350.org has organized thousands of rallies around the world, demonstrating particular resistance to the Keystone Pipeline and facilitating the launch of a fossil fuel divestment movement. The organization is named for climate scientist James E. Hansen's contention that any atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide above 350 parts per million is unsafe. Concentration levels are now estimated to exceed 400 parts per million.

McKibben is a Methodist who especially appreciates the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He writes, "I believe, as I've said before, that nonviolence is one of the signal inventions of our time -- perhaps, if we are lucky, the innovation for which historians will most revere the twentieth century."

McKibben emphasizes that he operates as both an organizer and a reporter.

"I've ended up in a lot of places the last few years that let me tell stories, from Greenland to Africa and from all the places where I've been organizing. When I'm doing that, I always keep a notebook in my back pocket so I can do some reporting, too."

Some of that writing will likely emphasize the need for rapid, thoughtful responses to the monumental challenges ahead, a response not likely to come from the current Executive Branch in Washington.

"I've said before that climate change is a timed test, and we're running out of presidential cycles," McKibben said. "The idea that we would waste another four years in Trump World is almost too painful to imagine."

McKibben will appear at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on Sunday, April 28, at 4 p.m.

The event is a homecoming of sorts. McKibben is a Palo Alto native, who now resides in Vermont. He spent many of his formative years in the Northeast, attending high school in Lexington, Massachusetts, and graduating from Harvard University. But his roots are in the West. His father, Gordon, a former business editor of the Boston Globe, had gone to Stanford and was editor-in-chief of the Stanford Daily.

McKibben has few memories of his early years in Palo Alto, given his young age.

"My main memories of Palo Alto are my father (being) sad at the fact that the house he sold would've sold for 80 times as much 30 years later," he said.

Freelance writer Michael Berry can be emailed at mikeberry@mindspring.com.

What: Bill McKibben will speak about his new book "Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?"

Where: Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real

Menlo Park.

When: 4-5:30 p.m., Sunday, April 28.

Cost: $15-$45.

Info: For more information, go to keplers.org.

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Comments

42 people like this
Posted by Moving To Montana
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 18, 2019 at 1:50 pm

Title > Is Silicon Valley a threat to humanity?

From the standpoint of quality of life...YES. The area has gotten way too commercialized & lifestyles have become tacky. In fact they are the norm.

Old timers will recall when Stanford Shopping Center was just another shopping center with regular stores & regular customers. Now it is upscale tacky.

Old timers will recall when downtown Palo Alto was an eclectic mix of various specialty stores & businesses. Now it is restaurant tacky.

Teslas & BMWs have become upscale tacky along with Rolex watches & Martin guitars.

Palo Alto is the epicenter of SF Bay Area tacky & the newer residents (post mid 1970s) epitomize the downfall of a once relatively nice community. The newer 9and now firmly entrenched pos-era residents) are now the NIMBY's who act as though they invented the city...not so. They represent the seeds of what we see & experience in Palo Alto today because it is no longer an affordable community representing various levels of socio-economic strata.


22 people like this
Posted by Just Walk Away From The Plastic People
a resident of Portola Valley
on Apr 18, 2019 at 5:39 pm

"Is Silicon Valley a threat to humanity?"

Not so much a 'threat to humanity' but more an indicator of human de-evolution.

Ironic how advanced technology breeds soulessness. Convenience & ease of access tends to make people even more superficial. Social media is a prime example of this trend towards de-evolution.

Planned technological obsolescence is another indicator...seems like every 2 years consumers have to upgrade in order to stay 'current'.

Current with what? The same old BS?


2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 18, 2019 at 6:08 pm

"Is Silicon Valley a threat to humanity?"

Who cares about that? Just look at all the money everybody's making!

TIC


1 person likes this
Posted by Jack Crawford
a resident of another community
on Apr 19, 2019 at 5:41 am

Bill McKibben says "you could argue that she's (Ayn Rand) the most important philosopher of all time." I certainly agree with that statement.


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 19, 2019 at 6:09 am

You could say that ever since cavemen discovered the ability to control fire and started burning wood for warmth, protection from wide animals and to cook food, they were starting to pollute the world with smoke pollution and destruction of trees.

Instead of being hunter gatherers and nomads, cavemen started building permanent homes out of whatever building materials were available in the area and started living in village communities. Once again, this change of lifestyle destroyed the natural habitat of what was there before.


6 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 19, 2019 at 7:12 am

Silicon Valley is like capitalism evolution speeded up and turned up to 11, that just happens to have the nerve to bet all of the world on their marketing BS ... and it refuses to look at itself or be critical as it incubates some of the most toxic things in the planet. It is the people, it is the system, but there used to be a ton of technical people who were and some still are very altruistic and wanted this to go a whole different way.

It has to go the different way because the alternative is disaster ... but it is also not just Silicon Valley or tech.


2 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 19, 2019 at 7:21 am

When tech took the business turn, the end result is that whoever has the access to the most data and the ability to process that data will be able to present different views of reality to everyone, and then be able to use behavioral data taken from everyone to charge them the highest price for everything. Once one monopoly can do that, it will have the money and power to buy up other things and set a system in motion to roll up everything forcing its reality onto everyone ... no diversity, no respect, no freedom, no escape. Kind of what happened with the military industrial complex and the weapon manufacturers, who bought up the media, and now pretty much compresses everything into one reality that no one gets to acknowledge, study, vote on, comment on, or talk about, but that we are all subject to the constant propaganda about how great it is all is.


6 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 19, 2019 at 7:38 am

There is a great new series on PBS called "First Civilizations" that has a
basic premise that since human beings left hunter-gathering and began
to farm the predominate pattern of human life has been war, and that is
the main impetus for all of our inventions. All of the technologies are just
someone realizing how to threaten, kill, fool, convince, or dominate
more quickly. At first it was very slow with plenty of room and time for
long periods of peace and equilibirum until something changed and
affected society in ways that of course were not conscious and no one
talked about or studied - it just happened. When we became farmers and
had to defend ourselves, producing lots of people was in high-demand,
and it meant raising them and feeding the on grains, and specializing
and stratifying society. The average person got smaller, less healthy
and their brains shrunk - and less leisure time and more stress.

Now the situation has gotten to where we could find a new mode of life
and end the war paradigm, but the victors are addicted to it, and love it
too much, and they have so much control now in so many ways. The
clock went from asynchronous/nothing to seasons, to lunar, to days, to
hours and not to nanoseconds, and human being were never designed
to understand or live like this.

Humans were designed to live in small cooperative groups, and modern
life is driving people insane, or why else would we be destroying our planet
and our leaders telling us don't worry, nothing to see here? All this S***
is about putting you apart from your world and stealing it from you,
it keeps you from the life you were meant to be able to understand and
enjoy. It ain't just Silicon Valley - by far!


4 people like this
Posted by Just Walk Away From The Plastic People
a resident of Portola Valley
on Apr 19, 2019 at 8:01 am

> All of the technologies are just someone realizing how to threaten, kill, fool, convince, or dominate more quickly.

^^^ The Renaissance, The Industrial Revolution and 'High-Tech' have brought this about.

A double-edged sword from which mankind will eventually destroy itself...after living conditions have reached rock bottom.


13 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 19, 2019 at 6:35 pm

"Silicon Valley is like capitalism evolution speeded up ..."

Time to drop this "Silicon Valley" conceit. Nobody around here is pioneering anything silicon today. This is Madison Avenue West.


2 people like this
Posted by Between a rock and a hard place
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 19, 2019 at 7:14 pm

Ok, I cringe at the awesome power of vapid billionaires (see: social media, many apps) and mourn the overlooking nowadays of the heritage electronics and equipment industries here. Some people actually invented and built meaningful things!
Meanwhile, Eliz. Warren calls for regulation of the “tech industry” - but we are caught between a rock and hard place.
As we regulate (how, what!?) via our oh so smart Washington bureaucrats, guess who powers full steam ahead to world domination: China. I view this a a very serious situation demanding careful decisions, not populist or socialist posturing by politicians who haven’t generally ever invented anything, much less worked in the private sector. Ideas?


2 people like this
Posted by CresentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 19, 2019 at 10:51 pm

> guess who powers full steam ahead to world domination

Interesting question ... but, how are they doing that? Mathematically, how does the US beat China at its own game? The answer is we do not. We cannot. We pride ourselves on our individuality and freedom and yet we do not have the confidence to even think about looking for another way than the authoritarian slave state redefined. Instead we pretend we are holding onto our own uniqueness while undercutting it and selling ourselves out.

But that is such a great point illustrating about how we do not know what the future might bring, yet we have to barrel ahead like teen-agers in some mindless drag race where the car is about to shake apart but we are determined not to lose, even if we might die.

First of all, how do we know that what wins the future? Maybe it is not buidling the machine that chews up the world faster than anyone else. It might be that the country that can build the most humane environment for the realization of human potential wins the day, and the buy-in and following of the rest of the world? We Americans have diverged from the path of the Western nations in general to our detriment so far. In terms of health care and education we are sinking and doing worse than all the other developed nations. For quite a while now other countries, and not just the bad guy countries, have been perceiving the US as the greatest threat to world peace or any country. Of course we are ahead militarily and technologically, we spend more on that than the rest of the world combined.

Look at for example the GMO industry. The US so far leads in genetic engineering, which is a critical industry for technology and understanding of how life works, yet why do we have to do that by forcing it on our people. The Showa Denko disaster, which very few even know about is a possible result from using people are guinea pigs for products they do not understand and have not been tested. What value is a system that must keep its people in the dark to sustain itself?

Our capitalist system with patent protections driven by an ignorant corrupt legal system pushes us to always react in the way that provides the same people with the same money to always own and control everything - while most of the time it is taxpayer funding that primes the pump for these technologies and taxpayers never even get s word of thanks, let alone see a return from their investment.

If we pursued rational systemic change like we chase after money we'd have a system that responded to people's needs, did it in a safe and sustainable way, and inspired other countries and systems to do it our way ( like we used to ) instead of always turning everything into a war. Competing to meet human and environmental needs is ultimately going to win the day, not gambling that we can walk the line closer and closer to the ultimate military confrontation until at some point we end up with the steady state of a monopoly game where one person owns everything.

A larger evolutionary competition is shaping up to where old formats are driving us into dysfunction. I always think of that guy who lectures on the exponential function and his perception that the system always seems the greatest and the least questionable just one time period before the whole thing collapses. We are great at teasing out and duplicating the brilliance of nature and evolutionary solutions to problems, while completely missing the wisdom that the millions of years of evolution have built into those solutions. We need to move past just being ignorant apes.


Like this comment
Posted by Dug
a resident of another community
on Apr 20, 2019 at 6:48 am

The article says; “Rand espoused a system wherein kindness and compassion were for chumps”. If one knows anything at all about Rand or virtue ethics or philosophy in general, it’s obvious that’s a lie and completely backwards from the truth. What’s the motivation here?


2 people like this
Posted by wassamatta w Kansas?
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 20, 2019 at 8:09 am

"much less worked in the private sector"

George W Bush?
Dick Cheney?
Rex Tillerson?
Trump?

Private sector presidents are the worst for working families. But great for corporations and billionaires!


2 people like this
Posted by wassamatta w Kansas?
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 20, 2019 at 8:11 am

Rand was selfish and a hypocrite.


Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Downtown North

on Apr 20, 2019 at 8:24 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


12 people like this
Posted by Silly Question = Simplistic Answer
a resident of Portola Valley
on Apr 20, 2019 at 12:29 pm

People are a threat to humanity...especially larger numbers of them.

Silicon Valley is just a blip on the radar screen when it comes to the greater scheme of things.


15 people like this
Posted by No More Mr. Nice Guy
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 20, 2019 at 2:57 pm

> “Rand espoused a system wherein kindness and compassion were for chumps”.

Conveying kindness & compassion towards certain individuals is OK but some people are not worthy (or deserving) of the gesture.

"Nice guys finish last."
-Leo Durocher (Manager/Brooklyn Dodgers)


7 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 20, 2019 at 6:57 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

We have two tech companies in our own backyard who represent the immense threat to humanity, freedom and democracy:Facebook and Palantir. The fact that Palo Alto is a willing host to one of them is an indication of how soulless and morally bankrupt this town has become.


18 people like this
Posted by It's All Over Now Baby Blue
a resident of another community
on Apr 20, 2019 at 9:20 pm

QUESTION/TITLE: Is Silicon Valley a threat to humanity?

NOTEWORTHY ANSWERS/POSTS:

> From the standpoint of quality of life...YES. The area has gotten way too commercialized & lifestyles have become tacky. In fact they are the norm.

> Ironic how advanced technology breeds soulessness. Convenience & ease of access tends to make people even more superficial.

> Who cares about that? Just look at all the money everybody's making!

> ... how soulless and morally bankrupt this town has become.


Downtown Palo Alto being a college town, once had a certain esoteric vibrancy to it...kind of like Berkeley but not quite as extreme. And there were choices.

We had three mountaineering shops, two specialized music and camera stores, a couple of folk clubs, two hardware stores, a 24-hour creamery/coffee shop (where some people seemed to read until dawn), a couple of traditional grocery stores, clothing stores to accommodate all ages and genders, two sporting goods stores, an electric appliance shop, three jewelry stores, four movie theaters and some unique art galleries...not to mention all the cool bars and normal (as in non-culinary snob) places to dine-out. Not any more.

University Avenue has become 'drag central' and about the only ones who can actually appreciate (if that's even possible) are the newbies who never had an opportunity to experience PA town when things were genuinely enjoyable and actually INTERESTING.

And now the irony...the traffic and parking quagmire to accommodate the growing number of forlorn visitors and office workers who feel a compelling necessity to enter into this utter wasteland of extrinsic HUMANITY.


2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 21, 2019 at 7:21 pm

>> Asked what we've done to combat climate change in the three decades since the publication of "The End of Nature," McKibben said succinctly, "We've pretty much wasted them."

Nah, we've increased global population by 50 percent in that short time!

"Do the math" was the title of his 10-Nov-2012 show I saw here at Spangenberg.
Interesting assortment of attendees almost filled the place.
Might drop by Kepler's next Sunday to see what kind of crowd appears for "Falter".

Looking forward to Chevron's annual shareholder meeting in San Ramon, May 29.
Always attracts an entertaining crop of climate advocates.


17 people like this
Posted by It's All Over Now Baby Blue
a resident of another community
on Apr 22, 2019 at 8:26 am

> >> Asked what we've done to combat climate change in the three decades since the publication of "The End of Nature," McKibben said succinctly, "We've pretty much wasted them."

>>Nah, we've increased global population by 50 percent in that short time!


Speaking of environmental warnings & books...Paul Erlich's "Population Bomb" was written over 50 years ago (1968) & since then the global population has increased from 3.8 billion to 7.6 billion. In the United States alone, the population has almost doubled from around 200 million in the mid 1960s to close to 375 million today.

Causal US factors: (1) longer human life spans due to advances in medicine, (2) a massive influx of immigration with families who opt to have more than 2 children.

Using the old Malthusian Model...population can only be controlled by: (1) infant mortality, (2) disease, (3) famine, and (4) war.

Moderrn medicine & improved health care neutralize (1) & (2).

Global food relief, food stamps & local food banks help to stem (3) and war mortalities vary with location.

That leaves birth control as the only viable solution but this is difficult to encourage or enforce due to respective religions & ethnic beliefs.

Global warming is the by-product of increased population due to the additional needs & necessity for increased goods & services.

Reduce population & global warming is reduced...simple as that.

Though far from a 3rd world or developing country environment, the SF Bay Area is a prime example of overpopulation & these concerns are reflected in the numerous housing & traffic issues/concerns that seem to permeate countless PA Weekly threads.



10 people like this
Posted by Parker Leahy
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Apr 22, 2019 at 11:50 am

Parker Leahy is a registered user.

"Is Silicon Valley a threat to humanity?"

It is a threat to quality of life issues. Congestion & mass commercialism is not good for the soul or one's mental/physical health.

Too many post 1980 newbies in Silicon valley. Blame the corporations & the cities that have accommodated them.


Like this comment
Posted by Bananie
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 25, 2019 at 8:44 pm

Bananie is a registered user.

Bill McKibben will also be the guest preacher this Sunday at First Presbyterian Church Palo Alto, corner of Lincoln and Cowper, 10:30am.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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