How Big is Too Big?

August 12, 2009

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 2008: the world is watching as a building rises to surpass the height of all previous human-made objects. Its architects and builder will not reveal the final altitude of their creation. Size matters. They won’t accept second place in the tall building Olympics. How big will it be?

Most of us know the end of that story–the Burj Dubai became the world’s tallest building at 818 meters (2684 feet). We live in a society obsessed with growth, wealth, obsessive eating, size, mass, volume, area. It’s all about big. Huge even. Everything has to be bigger, better, faster, louder, more powerful, more luxurious. The Biggest Loser vies with Survivor for ratings on television. It’s ironic that the biggest losers will be humans when the global energy crisis leaves little to sustain life. The Survivors will be the cockroaches.

A profound new book by Quaker economists has posed the question of why seven billion people continue to behave as if the earth’s resources were infinite. Each month economists publish figures for GDP percentage increases, stock index gains, inflation, national wealth. The message is that growth in economic activity, increases in monetary wealth, and expansion of all kinds of technology will outpace the degradation of the earth’s systems and save the planet from ruin before 2100. Most ecologists are not sanguine about these prospects.

Instead, Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver argue that humankind should seek a “right relationship” between sustainable economic activity and the earth’s delicate biosphere. All current evidence from climatologists, biologists, ecologists and other earth scientists is that the current pace of economic growth is not only too great, but that significant retrenchment will be required if humans are to save themselves and their environment from catastrophic ruin in the next century. What does this mean for a society that wants to build “bigger and better” with every new technological leap?

Among the prescient messages in this book is that one of our society’s most destructive obsessions is the quest for bigger economies and more stuff. While many of us profess a desire to live with less, we fail to understand that less does not mean a small step backward in personal wealth and consumption. Less means a complete transformation of our expectations for personal fulfillment, affluence, material wealth and physical well-being.

When it comes to how we live, and the spaces we inhabit, our vocabulary and standards for adequate accommodation are about to change in ways we never thought possible. Americans in particular will be forced to live with less. Our houses will be subdivided, our rooms diminished in size, our possessions curtailed. And we will become wealthier as members of the commonwealth of life on our planet, if not at the bank or stock brokerage.

Some people think that technology in sports is a non-issue. Steroids, blood doping and new snowboard compounds should be considered outside the realm of athletic performance, as if we were still in ancient Athens watching naked male runners stride around a dirt track from stone seats. I’m not one of those people.

Technology has invaded every cell in our bodies, every joint in our limbs, every corner of our houses. If we drive high performance cars and ride high performance bikes, we may as well improve performance in every area of our existence. Viagra and cialis are supposed to be for men with erectile dysfunction, but advertisers wink when they show television spots with virile looking older men and nubile younger partners.

The recent controversy over hyper buoyant swimsuits and world records should be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. At least until scientists perfect a genetic compound that will make human skin into a replica of dolphin hide, the Lazer suit and its progeny will remain the ne plus ultra of techology invading the realm of human sporting performance, and we should attend to its effects.

Consider the fact that Michael Phelps is likely to be the most gifted swimmer who ever did a flip turn, and that he was just beaten by an upstart who was four seconds slower a year ago and you will understand the gravity of this problem. Science has provided humans with methods of defying gravity, decoding genes, and flying to Mars. There is no reason to think that technological progress will stop pushing the envelope in the next century, with the result that robots will think and feel analogous to humans, and humans will be filled with bionic parts that slow the aging process. However, the line between what is human and what is not must be drawn definitively and soon or we will lose what is most precious to our species. Star Trek gave us warnings about this issue in the 1960s and science fiction continues to probe the ethics of artificial versus human nature.

The beauty and majesty of human movement, and of the body’s capacity for new physical achievements, should not be tainted by any form of technology that creates a false advantage or which eliminates an inherently natural limitation in what animals (humans) can do. Athletic regulations, standards and governng organizations have been lax in examining the role of technology in sports. It is high time ethicists (who look a medical issues) and other philosophical and psychological experts looked seriously at challenges to our most basic physical and mental capacity for “performance” in many realms, not just sports. Hats off to Mr. Phelps for forcing the issue. Now we can tackle the harder question of how to make a swimsuit that makes any woman’s body look like that of a supermodel. Now that would be technology we could believe in.