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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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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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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Sustainable Timescales

Image by günter from Pixabay

The word “sustainable” is overused to the point of becoming almost meaningless in our culture. In principle, though, it’s an easy enough concept. Unsustainable things fail: unable to continue indefinitely. By this logic, sustainable implies the opposite of failure: success.

Note that “sustainable” does not mean some mythical equilibrium, which has never existed for life on this planet. The key condition is that major changes are gradual enough to allow ecological adaptation. When they aren’t, we get mass extinctions—even when it takes tens or hundreds of thousands of years for the precipitating changes to fully develop.

So, step one in assessing sustainability is to ask: what can continue without failing? But the question needs an associated timescale to be meaningful. This post explores timescales on which it makes sense to assess sustainable practices.

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A Religion of Life

Image by Karen .t from Pixabay

The following discussion about belief systems may seem out of place coming from a recovering astrophysicist, and perhaps I am as surprised as you are. But my path has taken me to an unexpected place, so that I now think we would be wise to make a radical course change at the deepest level of what we believe.

Why should we consider a major change?

  • Because we don’t know everything, and never can.
  • Because what we do know tells us we’re on the wrong track, initiating a sixth mass extinction—not just from CO2, but from modernity itself.
  • Because we now (collectively) believe in the wrong things, like human supremacy and economics (gross).
  • These beliefs are actively hurting the living creatures of the planet, including us.

Science has revealed so much about the origins and rules of the universe, and how life came to be so exquisitely diverse. Let’s tap into what this tells us. Let’s also acknowledge that mysteries will always remain. Rather than continue to be paralyzed in this urgent time by what we don’t yet know, let’s fill in the gaps with belief—or even faith—rooted in the science we already do know. Let’s move beyond the current stories we tell ourselves in modernity, and fashion new ones that move us in a better direction—to the enduring benefit of all life on Earth.

I’m not sure I know how to tell this story, so please bear with me and accept my apologies for a long-ish read. For those who saw last week’s post, this one contains familiar echoes, but represents a fresh approach intended for a more general audience.

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My God: It's Evolution!

I never thought it would happen to me, but I’ve had a divine revelation, of sorts. Have you heard the good news?

While being brought up in a Methodist church, and educated for 8 years in Catholic schools (where I went to mass five days a week for the first three years), I abandoned Christianity midway through high school—tentatively traversing an agnostic phase on my way to calling myself an atheist. Now I eat babies and make my clothing out of puppy skins. Just kidding: I am playing off childish myths about atheists, though I now recognize how completely ludicrous and backwards this perception is. Atheists actually eat puppies and use baby skin for clothing. Ah—I can’t stop kidding around.

I’ll skip over all the physics training, astrophysics exposure, outdoor experiences, etc. that contributed to my worldview. Suffice it to say that I found no shortage of phenomena in the world worthy of awe and appreciation. It was all the more amazing to reflect on the simple origins of everything and the emergence of astounding complexity—especially in the spectacle of life. To me, the idea that our biodiverse world rests on a relatively simple set of physical laws makes the outcome FAR more interesting and dazzling than does the comparatively unimaginative invocation of a sentient creator.

The revelation at hand did not arrive all at once. An initial grounding is partly contained in the reading journey I laid out some while back. Most importantly, the writings of Daniel Quinn (who lived for a time in a monastery aiming to be a hard-core Trappist monk) played a major role—recently reinforced by Alex Leff’s excellent podcast treatment of Ishmael. The revelation finally matured in the context of my post from last week on free will, and the illuminating responses it generated.

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Free Will: Good Riddance

This baby violet-green swallow faces the first big decision of her life: should I stay or should I go, now.

I never cared much for arguments about free will, one way or the other. I put free will into a similar category to other wastes of time in philosophy, like the Great Deceiver concept or the trolley problem. Angels on the head of a pin, anyone? It seemed like one of those unresolvable debates that has persisted for centuries: a tar baby that one would be foolish to punch.

If an opinion was demanded of me, I would say without particular conviction that I leaned toward a position that free will was an illusion, but that I was happy to behave as if I had free will, and then get on with life. My leaning toward illusory free will stemmed from a sense that our decision center is no more than a bolus of interconnected neurons, shaped by many influences in the physical universe.

After listening to a podcast featuring Robert Sapolsky based on his new book Determined (which I have not read yet), I found my position coming into focus. A large majority of people in our society—over 80%—believe in free will. Indeed, it is often pointed out that our criminal justice system is predicated on the concept. Some folks (called compatibilists) adopt a squishy compromise position that attempts to assess how “internal” a decision is (good luck with that). Few members of modernity reject free will completely, but that’s where Sapolsky landed, and I found his arguments to be persuasive.

A recent article by Richard Heinberg explored the interaction between belief in free will and our response to the meta-crisis: can we save the world if we don’t have free will as a motivating engine? Although I am somewhat reluctant to weigh in on the pernicious free will topic, what the hell. I find myself compelled to do so.

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A Story of Mice (and Men)

Picture a natural prairie, boasting an explosive diversity of grasses and flowers. Every year, at different times of the year, the grasses and flowers produce seeds. Some of these seeds, naturally, propagate their respective species so that the grasses and flowers will survive into the next year and the next.

But the plants are generous, generating more seeds than are necessary. Being the only form of life on the prairie capable of harvesting solar energy and turning it into food, they know they have sole responsibility for supporting their entire community. And why would they want to share their wealth? Well, they rely on insects for pollination, fungi for trading nutrients, worms for turning the soil, birds for spreading seeds far and wide, mice for planting their seeds and providing rich fertilizer, and on and on. Open-ended generosity pays back via other gifts in a spirit of reciprocity.

The mice in the prairie have done well for countless generations. While they are capable of explosive reproduction, they can’t expand willy nilly because food resources are limited: if they overgraze, fewer plants will survive into the following year. Meanwhile, hawks, owls, foxes and snakes are always looking for a snack. And so the prairie has settled on a roughly stable mouse population that works in concert with the rest of the ecological community. The population of mice (and of their predators) is not rock-solid: it fluctuates from year to year, but seldom strays very far before self-correcting. When mice are few, their predators diminish, seed abundance goes up, and the stage is set for a resurgence.

Then one day a foraging mouse notices a new hole at the base of an abandoned silo on the edge of the prairie that’s been dormant and irrelevant for all these years. Out of this hole some grains of wheat have spilled out. Tasty! Excited by her find, she brings her friends and they all have a feast. Within weeks, the mice are growing in number and exploiting this seemingly endless resource. All troubles would appear to be over.

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Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

No, the title does not refer to fast felines. I’m talking about the humans of modernity, who I characterized as “rule breakers” in the last post. The context was in considering an encounter between a speeding vehicle and a deer, concluding that the deer did nothing wrong by wandering onto a road, and does not deserve a death penalty. The road is in the wrong, by being there. The car is “wrong” by being—contextually speaking—an impossibly fast instrument of death. And, of course, the humans did something wrong by operating so far out of line with what the rest of the community of life is prepared to handle by the rules of evolution and of living on this planet.

Sometimes, an old-timer will say something like: If man was made to fly [or swim, etc.], God would have made him with wings [or gills, etc.]. Aha, the modern human will say: but God gave us big brains so we can engineer wings [scuba equipment, etc.]—never asking whether it will do net good or net harm to the community of life. This is what I mean by cheating.

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Desperate Odds?

Image by Kathrynne from Pixabay

In Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, one of the dialogs I especially enjoyed was in Chapter 11 when the pupil expressed his anxiety around pre-civilization life. The mental image he shared was of a man running along a ridge in deepening twilight, hungry and following tracks on the hunt, while tooth and claw pursued not far behind. The man is “forever one step behind his prey and one step ahead of his enemies.” Ishmael, role-playing a hunter-gatherer, laughed off the concerns as being wildly off the mark.

I find similar expressions of fear from people when I challenge the viability of modernity. For many, losing modernity is a frightening prospect tantamount to certain death—either by starvation or violence by man or beast. The projection is that modernity is the only thing standing between us and a life of misery and anxiety. But since it’s not even a choice whether to continue modernity (unsustainable things fail), we may as well start to think about life without that particular security blanket.

How frightened should we be? Was pre-civilization life a miserable, desperate struggle, or did things seem to be pretty well in hand? I can offer some quantitative arguments suggesting that life could not have been that knife-edge, white-knuckle anxious.

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