Here We Are

I was asked some months ago by the Australian Foodweb Education organization to participate in their Here We Are project. The idea is to reflect on the statement: “Here we are, alive, at this moment, in this place, together.”

Over the course of several months, I occasionally tried a written-form response, which might later form the basis for a recording. But I was never quite happy with the result—in part because my viewpoint has been rapidly evolving, making it hard to be completely satisfied.

Finally, in April, I felt ready. So I sat on a grassy slope in La Jolla soaking in a chorus of frog song and jotted down bullet points in some semblance of order. I am not talented enough to read a script without it sounding like I’m reading a script, so kept it light. But when I got to my office to make a recording, I wrote the prompt on my whiteboard and realized I could dissect the sentence in a way that captured my perspectives pretty well. I was able to adapt most of the frog-inspired points into something that seems well designed, but in truth emerged rather rapidly.

For my zoom-recorded session background, I chose from the two or three stock images one that both reminds me of the grassy slope where I committed ideas to paper, and fittingly puts me in my place with respect to nature.

Okay—that’s enough backstory. Here is the video recording, and what follows is a relatively faithful transcript, removing a surprising number of “ums” and “you knows,” and patching up a few things with [insertions]. It’s not as polished as a written work, but it is what it is. I did take the liberty of inserting two bits that it pains me not to have included in the recording, which I represent in green font.

Hi, I’m Tom Murphy, and I’m going to be responding to a prompt that goes:

Here we are, alive, at this moment, in this place, together.

And I think it’s a nice way to frame the kinds of things I want to say.

But first, I’ll introduce myself as…lately I’ve been saying I’m a recovering astrophysicist. I’ve had a career building instrumentation for telescopes, and some space projects, and just exploring the universe and what makes it tick. It’s been challenging; it’s fun; it’s demanding, rewarding; [using] cutting edge technology. But it’s also given me a lot of perspective on large time scales, large spatial scales, and I’m less interested lately in the science of astrophysics and more in what those perspectives can lend to our understanding of our current place as humanity on this planet.

So, what I want to do is pick apart this prompt, and treat it piece by piece, and then modify it as I go, and rebuild it in a slightly different way.

So it starts: Here we are

And the first thing we have to decide is: who do we mean by “we?”

Typically, when we say “we” in this context, we’re talking about humans, and specifically members of our civilization. Less so, say, hunter-gatherers or the Kalahari bushmen; we’re not on the same train. So think of it as human civilization. And I’d like to broaden that. I think we have to broaden that definition of “we,” and recognize that we’re part of a community of life: that humans are only 3% of animals by mass, and 0.01% of all life by mass—’cause there’s a lot of stuff out there: plants and bacteria and fungi, and we’re just one of 10 million species: it’s a very diverse Earth.

So, I think “we” really should be all of us in the more-than-human world.

So, the first modification is:

Here we ALL are, alive.

So, let’s talk about alive. Are all of us alive? Are we all accounted for? And what I’m getting at here is that extinction rates are up by about 1000 times over their background rates—the baseline. And at this stage, humans and our domesticated species, our domesticated animals are 96% of all mammal mass on this planet, leaving only 4% in the form of wild mammals. Meanwhile, the mammal mass on this planet—wild mammal mass—we’ve reduced by 80%. Most of it in the last 100 years. And, that’s really not okay. That’s kind-of devastating. And I think one thing that gives me a lot of worry is: if we’ve done 80% in such a short amount of time—knocked down 80% of mammals—the last 20% is going to be a snap. We’ve got this. We’re really good at this. We’re even better than before. So, that’s very disturbing and worrisome.

Our critters are gasping for breath. If they could talk they would be saying “I can’t breathe.” Our knee is on their throat. And one thing I’d like to point out is that: we can’t just dismiss this as “Oh, okay because humans are fine.” Because we’re not fine if the ecosystem’s not fine. Think of the ecosystem as something like our body. It’s got a lot of organs that do different things—different species play different roles in this ecosystem that’s been co-evolved to work together as a system. And, so organ failure can be bad for us. And so, if elements of our ecosystem—especially wide swaths of our ecosystem—are having trouble, then that’s bad for our health as well. And you know the saying: If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything. So if we haven’t got ecosystem health we really don’t have anything. Because it’s all founded—it’s all based on an ecosystem. We don’t exist separate from that. So it’s very important that we pay attention to this.

So are we alive? Yes, we’re alive, but we’re desperately ill at the moment.

We tend to focus on symptoms, and treat them as separate things. Climate change is one of those symptoms, and it’s one that we’ve started to pay a lot of attention to—because, finally, here’s one that we see that can directly affect us, and our organ is having trouble with this particular symptom. There are a lot of symptoms: deforestation, habitat loss, fisheries decline, pollution, agricultural runoff and dead zones. And the list is just enormous of symptoms that tell us that we’ve got trouble. And it’s all really from the same root cause. So, we’d like to understand the fundamental disease and not just treat symptoms. Because if somebody has a fever, you don’t just give them cold water—put them in an ice bath—to chill the fever. That’s not going to treat the actual underlying disease. And so we need to watch out because we are ill as an entire system.

So, Here we all are, BARELY alive, at this moment.

Let’s talk about this moment. I think a lot of us perceive ourselves as at the apex of civilization. But it’s a very unusual moment. I think of it kind-of like the crescendo of a glorious fireworks show. It’s dazzling. It’s impressive. It’s kind-of fun to watch. But it’s temporary. And so to get at that kind of timescale and what this moment means:

The universe is 13.8 billion years old. Humans have been around on this planet in some form for 2.5 to 3 million years. That’s 1/5000 the age of the universe. So we’re newcomers—we’re the new kids on the block. It’s hard to comprehend 2.5 to 3 million years, so I’m going to compare that to a timescale that we do have intuition for and direct experience with: that’s a 75 year human lifetime. So on that timescale, all of our history: agriculture, civilization doesn’t go back longer than 10,000 years. That’s just 15 weeks out of the 75 year lifetime. So it’s like a recent hobby: it’s something we just picked up. We’re not even very good at it yet. We don’t know what we’re doing. Meanwhile, science has only been around for the last 4 days of this life: that’s 400 years to us. And in the last day, we’ve ramped up our energy and resource usage by leaps and bounds, and in the last 12 hours alone of this 75 year life we’ve done the majority of our fossil fuel burning and ecosystem damage.

So I hope you realize that this can’t continue. This thing that were doing: it might be exciting, and you might thing we’re at the apex. But it’s faltering and wavering right now. We’re starting to see the cracks becoming visible. So a lot of people I think sense this, and are concerned. And that makes sense. I’ve been very concerned about this.

Okay, so, here we all are, barely alive, at this MOST PECULIAR moment, in this place.

So let’s talk about this place. And by this place, we mean Earth. It’s always been Earth. That’s our context. We were evolved on this planet as a part of an ecosystem. And I want to give you some perspective on just how special this place is, especially in the context of space.

So, if we were to shrink the sun to a grain of sand: 1 mm across—something that we can visualize—the solar system is about the size of a bedroom. And the sun has 99.85% of the mass in this bedroom-sized solar system all in this one sand grain. Jupiter claims almost all the rest of that, and is about the diameter of a human hair: barely visible. Earth is like a bacterium. We can’t even see it. So, this dusty […] bedroom-sized solar system—has less dust in it—fewer planets in it—less dust than your laptop screen does even after you’ve wiped it clean. It’s really empty. It’s really sparse. Meanwhile we’ve only traveled 1/3 of a millimeter from our little bacterium Earth, and that’s to the moon and that was 50 years ago. Since then, we’ve just been really on the skin, barely skimming the surface of this bacterium-sized Earth. The next star is another sand grain 30 km away, and this unimaginable emptiness describes one of the denser regions of the universe: a swarm of billions of stars called a galaxy!

And meanwhile this environment is very hostile to life. There’s no air. There’s no water. No food. So I hope you’re not hungry. And besides lacking those basic requirements of life—which are by the way on Earth—it’s a radiation hazard. Once you get outside of the protective magnetosphere of Earth, the radiation is up by about 100 times larger. Which means that if you’re going to go to the Moon or Mars, sign yourself up for cancer. ‘Cause you’re going to get it in short order—in a matter of a year or a few. So in order to be protected you’d have to live in caves. And think about how disappointing that would be to be sitting there wearing your space suit but you’re basically a caveman. Where did I go wrong? This is not what I imagined.

One way to drive home the difficulty of resources in space is the International Space Station—which is one of these things that just basically skims across the earth’s surface—has to import its oxygen by rocket launch at a cost of about $100M per rocket launch. It’s that hard to take care of the most basic need of human life, which is air: you can’t live without it for over a minute or two. We’re really tied to the earth and the earth’s resources: very strongly tied.

Because Earth is our haven, and it’s our heaven. It’s our blue heaven.

So here we all are, barely alive, at this most peculiar moment, in this SPECTACULAR LIFE-GIVING place, together.

But I’d say we’re not really together. We’ve isolated ourselves as humans from the rest of the community of life. We’ve declared ourselves above everyone else: the pinnacle of evolution. The master species. We think Earth was made for us and we’re made to rule the earth: that it’s our destiny somehow to have this glorious dominant presence on the planet. And it’s kind-of immature. We’re like adolescents who think they’re invincible and are oblivious to the harm that they might cause to themselves and to others in their environment.

The problem with this is that by not paying attention to the rest of the system, the organs… we could die of organ failure. And if we remain in this isolated mode where we think were somehow separate and we don’t play by the same rules—we’re not part of the system—and we let the system down and deprive it of the resources it needs, it’s not going to go well for us.

So, Here we all are, barely alive, at this most peculiar moment, in this spectacular life-giving place, NO LONGER together.

So as members of the “cult of human supremacy,” which is another name for modern civilization… and that might seem extreme but think about it. How do the people you know think of humans and think of ourselves? Is it as superior species—as the pinnacle? If so, that brings problems. There are consequences to that kind of attitude—to the point where… having that attitude, we can’t really be trusted with almost anything.

So imagine that we pursue human equity and we see some people down below others and we want to raise the standards for those people who are below. That means that we’re going to claim more for us; more resources for humans; less for life. It’s as if we deserve this, you don’t. And that approach just won’t work. I mean it’s not working well even in this lopsided arrangement, let alone trying to ramp up how much we give to the human population.

Also, let’s say that we could implement perfect democracy: textbook democracy, perfect information flow, perfect representation & participation, no corruption. If the votes come from human supremacists—these cult members of our civilization—it’s going to be for the short-term benefit of humans to the exclusion of the rest of the ecosystem, which is really just bad for all of us. It promotes this organ failure.

How about renewable energy? So, if we were to be successful at replacing our fossil fuel habit with solar, wind—and there are real technical hurdles to this by the way; it’s not a guarantee—I mean there are things that fossil fuels do that we just can’t get out of the renewables. But let’s just say that—sweep those under the rug for a second—what if we could? My question is: what splendid things are we going to do with all that energy?

And one way to answer that is to look at what splendid things have we done with the energy that we have had that we’re using today? Well, we’re expanding the human enterprise, knocking down forests, we’re depleting the oceans, we’re ruining habitat, we’re eliminating species, we’re losing biodiversity, we’re losing soils, we’re losing life, we’re losing the vitality of the world. And so by prioritizing a transition on the energy front to renewable energy, we’re basically saying: the most important thing is that we keep civilization fully powered so we can go full speed ahead. Whatever the consequences.

So I think intent matters. What do we intend to do? Why should we be trusted with this great energy surplus? What are we going to do with it that’s so great. And I’m not—you know—color me skeptical that we’re going to do good things with it: restore ecosystems and prioritize the non-human world. So as long as all of these things are in the hands of human supremacists I’m afraid that I’m not going to like the decisions that are made and the consequences.

So, if we don’t learn to exercise restraint and sit on our hands: refrain from doing things just ’cause we can: that spells failure. We have to adopt a stance of humility and in my mind the choice is humility or failure.

So I think we should abandon our fantasies for some glorious destiny that we imagine for ourselves. That’s a mythology that’s not working; it can’t work; it never could have worked. It was always misguided. And if that’s the dream: if that’s the human dream, it’s not an appropriate dream. We need a new dream. That one’s just kind of a little bit rotten, in the end.

So the only destiny we have is: civilization is destined to fail. It’s not built on a foundation of biophysical ecological sustainability. It doesn’t even consider those things. It’s built on hubris, not on humility.

So the good news in all this… A lot of people are bummed out when I say civilization is going to fail. It’s depressing. They don’t want to hear it. And I get it. I mean, I was there too. I spent decades kind-of in that mode.

But the reason it’s not as bad as you think: it’s actually kind-of simple. That we are not civilization. Humans are not civilization. Civilization is just our recent hobby. It’s still new. We haven’t done it forever. It’s not part of who we are. It’s not baked in. It’s not our DNA. Civilization is not humanity. We don’t need civilization to have meaningful and fulfilling lives. [The reader my substitute “modernity” for “civilization” if desired.]

So, where do we go from here? I don’t have answers there; I don’t really know. But I sense that it starts with a new appreciation. I think we need to break the spell. We need to dissolve our love affair with civilization because it turns out it’s kind-of an abusive relationship and that civilization is a jerk. So we’re better off without it. We should recognize that the system we’re in already robs lives of meaning and has been [doing so] for ages. It robs Earth of species. It robs Earth of lives. It’s kind-of a marauding menace. And it’s never really been any other way. It just took a long time for it to get to this scale where it’s global and it’s apparent that it doesn’t work.

Meanwhile we’ve forgotten a lot of old [e.g., Indigenous] wisdoms that I think are really fascinating and time-tested. They work. They’re really worth studying. I’m interested in learning a lot more. And also, we haven’t created new wisdoms that will certainly happen. So one thing to recognize is that: just because we have lived in a hunter-gatherer mode for many many years, and it worked, and now we’re in this civilization mode and it won’t work doesn’t mean that we have to go back to hunter-gatherer. In fact, we can’t go back. We can never go back.

So, the future doesn’t have to look like the distant past—and it can’t. We get to invent new paths; new ways to live on this planet. Founded on a principle and a philosophy that respects all life. We need to accept roles as humble participants in this great dance—not some masters or overlords. So, we need to set aside our tin-pot overlord sham, and take this next great step. I’m honestly excited to see where this might go. What happens next? What is our great next adventure?

Okay, so I hope this was helpful. As a parting sentiment, I’m going to share this statement, this blessing of sorts: May we learn to live within Earth’s bounds to the enduring benefit of all life.

Okay, bye.

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