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We Are an Amazing Species

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In July I spent four days in Edinburgh at TEDGlobal listening to a broad range of talks by amazing people who are doing amazing things. The creativity of these people is inspiring. What we are capable of is truly awesome. It is awesome in the good it can produce and awesome in the destruction it is causing.

I opened my Blackberry one morning to read about the latest 17-year study on the role forests play in keeping our world in balance and, in short, they are even more powerful agents than we have assumed. Yet we are collectively destroying them at an unprecedented rate -- it's as if we were slowly cutting our lungs out while partying. We have been listening to the "Surgeon General" warning us about the perils of destroying the Amazon rainforests since I was a kid. Yet it goes on.

So, I went for a walk outside in a Scottish forest and spent an hour looking at some of the most magnificent spruce trees I have ever seen. They were surely there years before brilliant Scotsmen sculpted society as we know it today. Did they have any idea that their inventions would bring us to the brink of collapse? Did they know, as they perfected their steam engines, drew up their legal system, evolved democracy, that in only a few hundred years man would have taken this creativity and in the blink of an evolutionary eye produced what we have today? Could they have imagined the amazing things that would have resulted? And, could they have imagined it could all lead to the destruction of the world?

I mused about why Scotland? Why did all this creativity occur in this small, chilly, rainy place? But looking around me it was clear. This must have been heaven a few hundred years ago -- lots of water, beautiful, abundant forests teeming with wildlife, an ocean nearby well stocked with fish -- the perfect place to develop agriculture and have time to think, a Garden of Eden. They invented the stuff that would allow us to build cities in deserts, pump water from aquifers that had been there for thousands of years, cut forests down at an ever-accelerating rate. They started the ball rolling. They took us, at lightning evolutionary speed, to a place with challenges that we are not equipped to solve.

We, as a species, need to collaborate on an unprecedented scale to avoid a catastrophe. It is hard to see how we can get there. We are not wired for this. We need to evolve socially as rapidly as we are evolving technologically. We need to get to a point where we can maintain and share our world's resources for the good of all species and we need to do this in record time. Evolution is too slow. We need social innovation, innovation in world governance that I cannot foresee happening fast enough. We are still cavemen standing guard over the animal we just killed.

It is even more difficult to imagine as I read about the squabbling and petty discussions that are happening leading up to elections in my home province of Ontario where conservation is becoming a dirty word and where electoral rhetoric is about trivia that doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things. And why should we care? We are fat cats living well in the world with lots of resources at our disposal. We are in the first class cabins on the Titanic. So what about those poor buggers on deck who are screaming just because they saw an iceberg cut a hole in the side of the boat? I want to know why it is taking the waiters so long to bring the champagne.