What's the Point?

Time for a new paint job on the house?

Having developed a perspective that modernity is fated to fail, and that many of our culture’s current pursuits and institutions are misguided efforts to prop up temporary structures, I often encounter the reaction that I am being defeatist. If what I am saying is true, then what’s the point? Yeah: what is this point that others believe justifies all the craziness? Whatever they think “the point” is could well be based on unexamined and incorrect beliefs.

I will attempt in this post to explain what I mean by this, in multiple passes. A starter example may seem a little patronizing, but could still be helpful. If your world only makes sense and has meaning on the premise that Santa Claus exists, then you’ve put yourself in an unfortunate place. Others have found ways to appreciate life without that requirement based on a falsehood.

Let’s also try generalizing the concept before getting to specific examples.  We start with something I present that happens to be essentially true (or indeed comes to pass in due time), whether or not we can say so with absolute certainty. Then imagine that the reaction is: “well, if that’s true, then what’s the point of living?” Well, we obviously are living, and if we do so in the context of this truth, then it makes little sense to say there’s no point in living. The problem must then lie in what the person believes “the point” to be, and therefore must be wrong about that. In this sense, a “what’s the point” challenge might be taken to signal a flawed worldview.

Okay. That’s the template. Let’s do a few practice cases (optional if you want to cut to the chase), and work our way toward the main event regarding modernity.

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How Far Are Stars?

Photo by Michael J. Bennett

This week’s post is a bit of a distraction from the usual business, based on a question I wondered about. Rather than ask Google, I dug in like a nerd to get a more complete picture.

One of my frequent spiels is about the vastness of space, in the context that we can dismiss fantasies about humans traveling to the stars. I do throw in an old-school calculation at the end to reinforce this point, but until then we’ll entertain ourselves with a sense for the scale of the sky we see with our eyes.

When we consider a scale model in which the sun is reduced to the size of a sand grain (about 1 millimeter), the closest neighbor star is about 30 km away. One light year at this scale is about 7 km. But how typical is this yawning gulf in our region of the galaxy? And how far away are the stars we lay eyes on in the night sky, typically?

Before getting to those questions, just how many stars can we see, naked-eye? It depends on the darkness of your sky. According to the Hipparcos catalog, rounding apparent visual magnitudes to the nearest integer, there are two −1 magnitude stars: Sirius and Canopus. Eight more join at magnitude zero; 12 at first magnitude; 71 at second; 192 at third; 622 at fourth; 1909 at fifth; and 5976 at sixth—at which point our eyes run out of steam. A suburban sky might allow fourth magnitude, or roughly 1,000 stars (not all at once, since only half are up at a time). At fifth magnitude, we get about 3,000 (all-sky). At the limit, we tally about 9,000 stars. About half this number would be above the horizon at any given time.

Incidentally, going to space hardly does a thing to improve visibility: the atmosphere is pretty impressively transparent at visible wavelengths (only “eating” about a tenth of a magnitude). I was excited to see the night sky from Mauna Kea on my first observing trip there as a graduate student. Being above 40% of the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s the closest I had been to space. The thing is, low oxygen levels impair visual sensitivity, so when I first went outside it really sucked: I could barely see a thing (eventually dark-adapted, but way slower than at lower elevations). Space is even worse on the oxygen front.

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Outside the Fishbowl

Image by Jazella from Pixabay

One consequence of having developed a perspective on the long-term fate of modernity is a major disconnect when communicating with others. Even among people who have a sense for our predicament, my views often come across as “out there.”

Let me first say that I don’t enjoy it. Having different views than those around me makes me uncomfortable. I was never one to make a point of standing out or of having a contrary opinion for the sport of it (we all know those people). My favorite teams as a kid were the local ones (Falcons, Braves, Mocs), like everyone else around me. I wear blue jeans basically every day, blending in to Americana. No tattoos, piercings, or “non-conformist” affectations. It is, in fact, because of my continual discomfort at having stumbled onto a divergent view that I am compelled to write and write and write about it. I feel trapped between what analysis suggests and what almost everyone else around me thinks/assumes. The discomfort means that I keep trying to discover where I’m wrong (my life would be easier!), but the exercise usually just acts to reinforce the unpopular view.

In this post, I want to try to turn the tables: make members of the mainstream feel uncomfortable for a change. It probably won’t work, but I’ll try all the same. I could have titled the post: “No, You’re Crazy.”

My mental image for this post is one of a fishbowl in a vast and varied space devoid of other fishbowls. The fish living in the bowl have each other, the enveloping water, a gravel floor, fake plants, a decorative castle, and manna from heaven morning and night. Concerns of the fish need not, and in a way cannot extend beyond the boundaries of the bowl. The awkwardness is that the bowl is wildly different than the rest of the space in all directions. It’s the anomaly that the inhabitants deem to be normal. The analogy to ourselves in modernity should be clear…

What happens when the caretaker of the fishbowl disappears: when the food stops coming, and the environment becomes fouled? The artificial context of the bowl ceases to function or even make sense. The best outcome for the fish might be to get back to a pond or stream where they could live within their original context: woven into the web of life, enjoying and contributing to a rich set of “ecosystem services.” But getting there is not easy. Once there, figuring out how to live outside of the dumbed-down artificial construct presents another major challenge. As good as the fish seemed to have it, the fishbowl turns out to have been an unfortunate place to live. I invite you now to re-read this paragraph, substituting modernity for the fishbowl.

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The Anthropic Biodiversity Principle

When I proposed ten tenets of a new “religion” around life a few months back, the first tenet on the list said:

The universe is not here for us, or because of us, or designed to lead to us. We are simply here because we can be. It would not be possible for us to find ourselves in a universe in which the rules did not permit our existence.

While simply stated—perhaps to the point of being obvious—it is shorthand for a fundamental principle that has become a wedge issue among professionals who seek to understand the nature of the universe we live in, and the rules by which it operates. In this post, I will elaborate on the meaning and the controversy behind this deceptively simple statement.

The Schism

As a form of entertainment accompanying my journey through astrophysics, I witnessed a schism develop at the deepest roots of physics and cosmology. In brief, many physicists pursue a common quest to elucidate the one logically self-consistent set of rules by which the universe works: a Theory of Everything (ToE), so to speak. In other words, every mystery such as why the electron has the mass that it does, why the fundamental forces have the behaviors and relative strengths they do, why we have three generations of quarks and of leptons, etc. would all make sense someday as the only way the universe could have been.

An opposing camp allows that some of these properties may be essentially random and forever defy full understanding. Those in the ToE camp see this attitude as defeatist and point out that holding such a belief might have prevented discovery of the underlying (quantum) order in atomic energy levels, the unification of electricity and magnetism, reduction of a veritable zoo of particles into a small set of quarks, or any number of other discoveries in physics. Having self-identified in the “defeatist” camp, I knew for sure that the purists were just plain wrong about my position stifling curiosity to learn what we could. Our end goals were just different. I was content to describe the amazing universe—figuring out how rather than why it worked—and didn’t need to find a “god” substitute in an ultimate Theory of Everything (a big ToE).

The counter-cultural viewpoint I hold sometimes goes by the name The Anthropic Principle, simply because it acknowledges the fact that we humans are here—so that whatever form physics takes, it is constrained by this simple and incontrovertible observation to produce conditions supporting life. It amounts to a selection effect that would be insane to pretend isn’t manifestly true.

Scientists are perhaps too well trained to remove humans from the “equation,” and I can definitely get behind the spirit of this practice. After all, the history of science has involved one demotion after another for human importance: Earth is not the center of creation; the sun is not the center of the universe (the universe doesn’t even have a center)—or even the center of our galaxy; moreover, our galaxy is not special among the many billions. Ironically, even through the Anthropic moniker seems to attribute special importance to humans, the core idea is actually the opposite, translating to the ultimate cosmological demotion: our universe isn’t even special: a random instance among myriad possibilities. Yet, I suspect the name itself is a barrier for many scientists, as it seems superficially to describe an idea built around humans—which is a non-starter for many.

I can definitely sympathize with this reaction, as an avowed hater of human supremacy—a sworn enemy of the Human Reich. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a misanthrope. I love humans, just not all at once on a destructive, self-aggrandizing rampage. Yet for all my loathing of anthropocentrism, I am fond of the Anthropic Principle. What gives?

Basically, I have to ignore the unfortunate label. A rose by any other name is still a rose. I propose using a less problematic name that gets to the same fundamental point: The Biodiversity Principle. I’ll explain what the principle is (by any name), and eventually how it relates to modernity and the meta-crisis as a compatible foundation for long-term sustainability.

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Humans: the Movie

What follows is a story involving a movie watched by animals. The pacing of the movie to be described might seem like a very odd choice, but it simply mirrors the pacing of human life on the planet. A vivid visual imagination on your part will help to bring the story to life. So, put on your creative cap and let’s dive in!

Picture a small-town movie theater on a street so quiet and unimposing that the surrounding prairie and forest sidle right up to the back of the theater. The marquee advertises a feature film called The Human Saga.

As the afternoon shadows lengthen, a trickle of woodland creatures start to emerge from the forest, mosey up to the theater, pay for tickets, and go in. You notice rabbits, a fox, a group of turkeys, a band of raccoons, some stoats, newts, a skunk (who will be lucky enough to sit next to it?), a hoppy group of frogs, some chittering squirrels, a family of porcupines, a pair of doves, an ancient looking tortoise, a doe and her two fawns, and even a mama bear with cubs. They and many others have all come to absorb a tale of what these humans are all about. It’s a long movie: almost three hours chronicling the almost 3 million years of humans on Earth. But it’s fine: no one is in a big hurry.

The animals amicably settle into their seats, enjoying candy, popcorn, and a hot dog here and there. They’re relaxed, but wide-eyed with excitement for this special treat.

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Post-Modernity

As sketched in the previous post, I believe modernity to be an unsustainable flash that will not persist into future millennia. Uncomfortable with untethered speculation, I have said little about what might come after, but feel I owe something in this vein. Semantically, what follows the modern age must be the post-modern age, right? Except that name is already taken by a rather inane school of thought that may be even worse than modernist thought (it actually does not fundamentally refute modernism anyway, just throws sand into any conversation).

Despite my disdain for post-modernism, I will appropriate the term for what it will likely come to mean in centuries hence (long after people have finally forgotten the silly modern version of post-modernism). I feel better already.

The simplest explanation for why I have not written much on post-modernity is that I don’t feel I have much to say. The range of possibilities is quite large, and I would be a fool to pretend that I—or anyone, really—can paint a credible picture. I’m virtually certain I know how humans will live on the planet tomorrow, fairly sure I could paint an accurate picture for life one year from now, reasonably confident about a decade out, pretty damned fuzzy on a century from now, perhaps a little more clear a millennium into the future (as most of modernity has melted by then), have a decent guess for several million years hence (less likely to still have homo sapiens), and am increasingly certain when the number turns to billions of years (complex life on Earth extinguished). For me, the hardest part is the century scale: the messy, chaotic transition likely characterized by de-industrial scavenging.

Ignoring my discomfort of wading deep into the unknown, it may at least help some folks to get a screenshot of my fuzzy imaginings in this space.

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Distilled Disintegration

Photo by Nigel Brown; licensed under Creative Commons

My adult life has run on two diverging tracks. On one, I played science. The other track branched off at age 34—twenty years ago this month—when I started teaching a class on Energy and the Environment. I was eager to piece together our likely energy future: how we would beat climate change and leave fossil fuels in the dust. Against my wishes, this fork presented unexpected turns that took a long time to sink in. The two tracks eventually became too divergent to keep a foot on each. At this stage, I can’t seem to muster the denial it would take to disregard what I have learned so that I might return to the more blissful play-time track.

Much of my writing in the last few years has tried to capture why I have become convinced that modernity can’t last, likely to begin disintegrating in the near-term. In this post, I attempt to distill core elements informing this sense. My apologies if this seems like a rehash. For what it’s worth, the packaging exercise is something that helps me address the question I constantly ask myself: what part of this might I have wrong? It’s a way to take stock.

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They Didn't Stand a Chance

My apologies for such a dismal post topic, but modernity made me do it. I’ve borne witness to a number of the following tragedies first-hand. When exposed to similar atrocities in your own life, I recommend repeating the mantra that appears at the end of every point below. I think it helps in fighting human supremacism, validating other life and recognizing the pain we inflict—often unwittingly as we animate the maw of modernity. Evolution did not prepare the plants and animals of this planet for a sudden and dramatic up-ending of the world they were customized to inhabit. That’s on us.

Twenty Terrible Tales

A massive tree that took hundreds of years to attain tremendous height and bulk was no match for an hour of chainsaw action. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A gangly moose was minding its own business in the willow thicket along the stream edge, when—BAM—its head was taken to grace the lodge wall. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Domesticated bees were bred to produce more honey and be less aggressive. Weakened against parasites and disease, their colonies crashed. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A deer, finding itself on a strange, hard, flat ribbon stood transfixed as two unearthly lights sped closer, seemingly set to pass on either side. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Orangutans who lived for countless generations in the dense and biodiverse rainforest found their home destroyed and replaced by oil palms. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance. [Warning: only watch the link if you are ready to be haunted for life by seeing the skinny, muddy “bean” at the end of all things.  It grieves me to my core.]

A butterfly created a caterpillar who had the misfortune to eat pesticide-coated leaves, undergoing metamorphosis into a dead lump. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The noble forebears of our dumb-bred domesticated (captive) animals had no evolutionary answer to ropes and tall fences. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The chattering swallows returned in spring to raise a new set of chicks. But the local mosquitos had been exterminated, leaving the parents and chicks to starve. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

An 80-year-old tortoise followed the familiar route through the forest, across a road that wasn’t there in its youth, just as a truck came along. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The wasps weren’t bothering anybody when they went about their business raising young in a nest under the eaves, only to be shot by a 3 meter jet of poison. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Native grasses and flowers tried to restore health to a corn field, only to be coated in herbicide dropped by an airplane. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Crabs, lobsters, clams, and oysters found that they were no longer able to make protective shells in more acidic water, ultimately perishing from this earth. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A rough-skinned newt, in bursts of slowness, made its way across a wet road at dusk, only to have its innards abruptly and rudely squashed out through its mouth. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The exquisite ruffed grouse cruised into a clearing, aiming for trees that turned out to be a reflection in a house window. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Salmon had fed the forest for millions of years, but demand for heat pumps, electric vehicles, and chat-bots put a dam in their way. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A large prairie dog colony had lived on this patch of land as long as anyone could remember. The commercial developer orchestrated their final solution. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The polar bear cubs got exhausted from swimming in a futile effort to find ice and seals. Their inevitable end was cold, wet, hungry, and oh-so skinny. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The foxes in the Mojave desert required large unobstructed habitat, which vast new solar farms fenced, shaded, and uprooted. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A sea turtle had no notion of the word “bycatch,” yet found itself dying in a crowded net all the same, only to be discarded as waste upon discovery. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Pursuers of modernity forgot themselves, thinking they owned and controlled the world, no longer subject to limits or part of a larger ecology. The world taught them a cruel lesson on the definition of unsustainability. They, for a change, might have known better, but as it was didn’t stand a chance.

End Note

The common thread is forcing plants and animals out of their evolutionary context, as we have done to ourselves as well via modernity.

I kept coming up with more examples, and eventually decided to stop because I felt I was beating a dead horse. It’s surprising how many more examples I could have used, and I suspect you could come up with a number not covered here yourself. It is telling that we are not running short on grim accounts of biodiversity loss.

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Can't Spell Fail Without AI

Abstinence is a word that frequently applies to me. Alcohol, coffee, cigarettes, drugs, Facebook, Twitter, Insta, TikTok, Bitcoin, stocks, email on smart phone, and lots more: not for me, thanks. I also semi-abstain from various energy/resource-heavy activities. Part of this tendency may have been shaped by the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie, where characters Indiana Jones and Marion are tied to a post in the rear of a crowd waiting to see the marvels inside the Ark of the Covenant. Indy had the instinct to shut his eyes, and advised Marion to do the same, which spared them and only them. Just because everybody else is doing it is not reason enough.

In this light, I am practically ashamed to admit to using AI for image creation. It’s not like me. On the text-generation side (chat-bots), while I think it’s a pretty neat stunt they’ve pulled off, I am deeply unimpressed by the milquetoast blather that comes out of ChatGPT and its ilk when asked hard questions. When students tried to use AI to submit answers to questions, I could spot the style from across the room (based on simple formatting). It is not too surprising that nothing remarkable comes out, since the chat-bots are designed to construct sentences very much in the style of what it’s parsed in all its input data. They aren’t producing original thoughts, but function more as an averaging content generator.

But images: I’m more impressed—in that it’s more mysterious to me how it works. The parameter space is much larger than for regimented language. Even so, I think it’s actually somewhat similar to language in that images also have structure, and certain things tend to be close to certain other things, as is true for words as well.

When selecting a copyright-free header image for a Do the Math post, I usually have an idea for what I want it to show, and first look for pre-made content. If I can’t find something via a few channels, I now turn to AI, using the Bing interface to Dall-E. Admittedly, I’m no expert at speaking AI, but I still marvel at how inept it can be in forming an image that a 4-year-old would have little trouble picturing if using the same prompt language.

I was planning to do a post illustrating my failures over time, but was dismayed to learn that my past creations have disappeared on the Bing platform (not unique to me). What’s worse, I no longer have prompt language for the ones I kept. The EXIF information in the JPEG files lack any such prompt text. Why is it that the world is still being designed by unpaid interns?

So, this post isn’t all that I hoped it would be, given that loss. But, as with many things in life, I’ll work with what I have.

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The Game of Life

Step 400 of the acorn methuselah.  Gliders exit at 12:30 and 5:00.

Despite a lifetime of overlap, and many opportunities to cross paths, I am only now learning of the Game of Life, introduced by John Conway in 1970—the same year that I was introduced to the world. After a few exploratory hours, I knew I’d have to share the insights I gained from it relating to how we react to the present predicament.

What is it that I mean by The Game of Life? Aren’t we all caught up in it? I refer, here, to a zero-player “game” taking place on a two-dimensional grid of square cells (pixels) that can either be alive (on; black) or dead (off; white). Only two simple rules govern whether a cell will live or die in the next time step of the game:

  1. Only “live” squares having two or three adjacent live neighbors (out of 8 possible) survive to the next step.
  2. An empty (“dead”) square having exactly three live neighbors will be “born” into living status on the next step.

The first rule captures a sense of balanced population density: too sparse and survival is hard; too dense and overshoot kills. The second rule is a sexy three-way approach to procreation. Settle down, people.

A surprising degree of complexity emerges from these simple rules, whose deterministic prescription nonetheless leads to essentially unpredictable outcomes. The lessons and parallels to real life—and even breakdowns in the comparison—are highly instructive, I find.

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