Leslie Paul Thiele


On his book Indra's Net and the Midas Touch: Living Sustainably in a Connected World

Cover Interview of November 22, 2011

A close-up

After much delay, there is in my own country widespread acknowledgement that global warming is real and human-caused.  That is a welcome development.  Still, to admit that we have engineered the greatest change to the atmosphere, and potentially to the biosphere, that the earth has seen in the last half million years, is to obscure a still more potent truth.

To be sure, humankind is a powerful force on this planet.  As a species, we are game changers.  But the more important acknowledgement is that our potentially irreversible alteration of natural cycles and planetary conditions has been an unintended consequence. Like overpopulation, pollution, and the loss of biodiversity, climate change is a side effect.  It is the unforeseen result of our consumption of fossil fuels and forests.  The most menacing and pressing problems that we face today, the things that undermine prospects for our progeny, are by-products.

Climate change presents an unparalleled crisis.  It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of the problem—and likewise, the opportunity—it presents.  Still, the more daunting challenge is to come to grips with a simple truth: we can never do merely one thing.  And it is the things that we unintentionally do that now come back to haunt us with a vengeance.

In this light, to confront climate change, or any other environmental issue, as a problem to be bested by human ingenuity is to commit a fateful error.

I don’t want to be misunderstood here.  We need to combat climate change—as well as pollution, species extinction, resource depletion, and overpopulation—with greater urgency.  And technology can and should be a powerful ally.  But the only sustainable means of addressing such dire concerns, for net-dwellers like us, is through a fundamental transformation of what it means to solve problems.

Today we find ourselves grappling with the unintended consequences of actions that were once proffered as answers.  That is to say, most of our current problems are the legacy of former solutions.  Typically, they were solutions to some specific problem that was itself the unintended consequence of an earlier solution.  As the myth of Midas testifies, the human race has been playing at this game for thousands of years.  The legendary King Midas had his wish granted that everything he touched be transformed into gold.  But gaining unsurpassed riches had the unintended consequence of threatening his life, as every morsel of food touching his lips became petrified into indigestible metal.

Ironically, the story of Midas has itself received the Midas touch.  It was meant as a forewarning of the unintended consequences of self-serving and shortsighted choices.  But today when we attribute the Midas touch to an individual—typically in business affairs—we mean that this person has a knack for transforming opportunities into enduring economic success.  Effectively, we have gilded the myth of Midas, conveniently ignoring its profound and disturbing moral.