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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Ed Hummel: thoughts on the state we're in and what is to come

by Ed Hummel, google group thread, August 12, 2107

This thread has got me thinking again about some things that have to do with humanity's place in the Universe and our perceptions of that place.  For the past 10,000 years, humans have embarked on a vast enterprise of trying to make our lives much more comfortable and secure by using as many resources from our surroundings in as many ingenious ways as we can think of.  Over this time, the gradual evolution of our global civilization has led the vast majority of us to come to believe that a comfortable civilization is the normal condition for humans that somehow sets us apart from the rest of life forms on this planet.  We have developed cultures and religions that help to solidify this perception and make it into an assumed truth.  But in reality, it's become the ultimate delusion!  The following summary is based on all the latest understanding of where we came from, along with some of the conclusions that I have come up with based on all the latest science. 

Modern humans have been around for approximately 200,000 years since our branch differentiated from the general hominid line in eastern and southern Africa, and for the next 190,000 years we basically lived as any other animal did.  Every day was an adventure with death lurking behind every tree and bush and rocky outcrop.  We also lived through approximately two whole Milankovitch cycles with all the climate variability that occurred during that time.  Our ancestors had no illusions about their place in the scheme of things, and their ways of thought were passed down through the ages in various forms that became manifest in the cultures of so-called indigenous peoples that have survived to the present day.  Our ancestors understood that life was fleeting and a process that could end at any time and for a variety of reasons.  They accepted death as just another part of life which was in turn an integral part of the whole Earth system.  They understood that there was a fundamental relationship among all the various parts of the Earth and that they couldn't deal with just one part without dealing with the whole thing.  There was a profound wisdom in the way our ancestors viewed the world and how it worked, as well as their place within the whole thing.

But 10,000 years ago, some groups of humans in a few parts of the world discovered that they could domesticate certain animal and plant species by partially controlling how they behaved and get some additional benefits from this partial control.  One of the benefits of this control was acquiring the ability to stay put in one relatively comfortable place since the food supply could now be kept within easy reach.  Village life soon evolved and the whole enterprise of civilization took off and became firmly established by 6,000 years ago in a few areas of the globe that were especially favorable for such things, such as the Middle East, China and India, and later on in Central and South America, as well as parts of Africa and Europe.  However, as civilization became more pervasive and led to the alteration of more and more land and sea environments, some humans could see that there were dangers ahead, especially as more people started to accept a civilized life as the ideal that should be attained by all humans, even if by violent methods.  The authors of Genesis seemed to sound the alarm more than once with their stories about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden once they had eaten a fruit from the tree of knowledge, and about the great punishing flood that saw Noah and his family as the sole survivors to try again and do things right.  The ancient Greek playwrights, the authors of the Baghavad Gita in India, and the writings and sayings of Lao-Tse, the Buddha and Jesus were all filled with warnings about the excesses and flawed pathways of civilization and the way humans were behaving.  But the overall charge into the future where humans would come to control everything seemed to trump all warnings to beware of where we were going with our increasing delusions of power over Nature and our incessant drive to become the Rulers of the Universe.

One of the major flaws of civilization, in my view, has been the idea that humans should make our lives as easy and comfortable as possible by taking advantage of all the resources we can extract from any place we can find them for as long as they last and then move on with "substitutes" once they are gone.  I have to admit that all animal species have a tendency to do the same thing, since their main aim in life is to survive long enough to pass on their genes to their descendants and do everything they can to make sure that happens.  And so, a herd of elephants will eat and destroy all the edible vegetation in a certain area and then move on to another area and do the same thing over and over again to make sure they have enough food to keep their huge bodies healthy enough and long enough to produce a new generation and raise that new generation to adulthood.  But there are enough natural constraints on their activities as part of the whole ecological system of which they are a part to make sure that their numbers don't overrun the various areas within their range before certain areas have a chance to regenerate before the next onslaught.  Meanwhile, various other species take advantage of the transition periods within those areas and do their thing before the elephant returns for another round a few years or even decades later.  The same thing happens over and over again at various scales of time and place all over the globe, with all the millions of species taking part in a continuous dance of life forms interacting with each other and with other features such as the rocks and oceans, etc.  But the key to allowing this to happen is that all the species have constraints that keep their numbers and activities reasonable.  Death for individuals and sometimes for whole populations becomes necessary to allow this relatively balanced dance to continue indefinitely.  However, the problem with civilization, the way humans generally tend to view it, is that there are no constraints on human activities; we take what we need and also what we want because we're humans and we can.  And one of the major results of civilization has been the removal, at least temporarily, of as many constraints as we can possibly manage so that nothing interferes with our quest for Universal domination.  This includes the removal of all predators that might prey on us or our domestic animals, the eradication of all diseases that could sicken and kill us, and the removal or modification of all ecosystems that interfere with our desires for comfort and an easy life, as well as anything that could shorten our lives from the exceptionally long period that we have come to assume is normal for humans.  In fact, we strive to find ways to make it even longer and possibly even eternal, if such a thing were physically possible.  Our hubris knows no limits!

But the reality is that "shit happens,, whether we want to admit and accept it or not.  The Universe doesn't care about human sensibilities and desires.  We're just one more life form that just so happens to have an extraordinary ability for manipulation and reflection, not to mention self-delusion.  As far as we can tell, the physical Universe just keeps on truckin' and doing its occasionally violent things because of the way energy is transferred and transformed around the whole thing.  Any time one of these inevitable violent things occurs near human activities, we pay a price, sometimes a very dear price, and there is nothing we can do about it in the long run.  We think we can learn more about certain phenomena to be able to predict them and ultimately control them, but it's definitely a fool's errand, if there ever was one!  It turns out that blocking the effects of some small-scale hazard to save a few lives over the course of many centuries has allowed the human population to explode to a point where nothing we do is going to make any difference in the long run to save civilization and possibly even our species and a lot of our companion species, too.  It's been said that the present human population has become a cancer afflicting the Earth since a cancer is an uncontrolled growth that keeps using up all available resources until the whole system collapses and, in the case of a body, it dies.  I think such a description of humanity living in an unconstrained "civilized" society is about as perfect a description as can be conjured up.  When any force in the Universe grows to such a point where it overwhelms everything around it, catastrophe inevitably occurs, at least for the structure involved, while the rest of the systems in the Universe just continue on as before until some overwhelming force grows again and destroys or "remodels" another system for as long as the Universe exists.  If we think we can interfere with this ultimate game that the Universe plays with itself, we are really living in a fantasy land.

Of course there is the possibility that a species with our level of intelligence might be able to heed the warnings of its prophets and doomers before it's too late to let Nature take its course and "correct the unstable situation" (in other words, kill us off).  After all, we do have the capacity for constructing amazing things in the arts and sciences, all of which makes being human quite rewarding.  But the arts and sciences, which by the way don't need civilization to flourish (!), aren't the only things that keep humans occupied, and for most of us in this present world are not even on our radar.  The overriding drives for food and sex predominate for us, just as they do with all animals, and in fact for all eukaryotic organisms (everything not a bacterium or other prokaryote).  And being social animals, the drive for power over others also predominates, especially among the elite few who manage to make it to positions of leadership at all scales of social order.  I have the feeling, if we were somehow able to override these base instincts for food, sex, and power and concentrate on the wonders available to us through the arts and sciences, we might be able to have a more fulfilling existence with much less impact on the whole Earth system and therefore a much better chance not to "fuck things up beyond all recognition" (FUBAR).  Of course, that still doesn't mean that an asteroid, comet, gamma ray burst, or other such occasional cosmic force couldn't do a FUBAR on us anyway.  But at least we would accept that as part of being alive and acknowledging that death comes to all in some way or another, usually when we least expect it.  Otherwise, it should come as no surprise that our grand enterprise of an ever-expanding civilization with an exponentially growing population extracting more and more resources from a finite planet should lead to the looming "clusterfuck" that we see lurking in the coming years.  The prophets and doomers have been trying to warn us for the last 10,000 years, and yet we still find ourselves on this precipice on the verge of falling off as the cracks in the ledge we're on get larger and longer.  The current generation of such prophets are really trying hard to alert humanity to what's to come in the near future now that we've most likely finally passed the point of no return (probably some time over the last 200 years, though that's probably still up for debate until well past the event if there's anyone left to debate it).  I see Bill McKibben, Joe Romm, Jim Hansen, Eric Rignold, Jason Box, Al Gore, and all the others as trying as hard as they can to wake up the masses to the physical realities that we face now and in the near future.  But I also have the feeling that they know deep inside that it's probably a losing battle and all they can do is go down swinging until that reality floods over us and leads to the largest mass casualty event that humans have ever faced in our relatively short time on this little world.  I also see our little group as being something that helps all of us cope with what we're certain is going to be a very tragic affair.  Being social creatures, having such a group to fall back on is good for our mental well-being, no matter how dark things get.

As you all know, I've gotten to know Alder Fuller quite well over the last few years, and he's helped me understand things from a systems and complexity perspective much better than I have before.  But despite his conviction that it's already way too late to stop the abrupt climate change that's already started because of the way complex systems operate, he still manages to remain positive and even optimistic in the face of the near certain disasters that wait us.  He feels that humans made it through the trials and tribulations of a volatile climate during the Pleistocene (though our numbers were small and there was plenty of room to roam around in search of "greener pastures").  So, he's convinced that some of us will probably survive what's coming and those survivors will hopefully learn from our past mistakes.  His favorite saying is that the coming changes are "not a catastrophe, but an adventure."  I tend to be a lot more pessimistic than he and probably most of you are since I'm convinced that our collective human nature won't allow the vast majority of us to actually learn from our mistakes unless most of any survivors tend to be the outliers among us that I've referred to in the past and which include all of us in this group. 

I don't know if you remember a hypothesis which I came up with a few years ago based on the complexity idea that the Second Law of Thermodynamics can be thought of strictly as the tendency for all energy gradients to dissipate by the most efficient means possible.  I also tied it in with Fermi's Paradox which said if there are millions of intelligent life forms out there, where are they?  According to complexity theory, the emergence of life is an inevitable consequence of Nature's search for the most efficient ways to dissipate energy gradients since the more complex a system is the more efficiently it uses and transforms energy from an ordered state to a disordered state (the growth of entropy in classical physics).  As far as we can tell, the most complex systems in the Universe are living systems that use an astounding array of complex chemical and physical processes to function while using enormous amounts of energy per unit of activity.  And of all living systems, those organisms with large brains and high intelligence seem to be the most complex of all and so the most efficient at processing energy and dissipating gradients.  Therefore, it's probably true that intelligent life is common in the Universe since Nature strives for more complexity in order to more efficiently dissipate the innumerable energy gradients that have been scattered around the Universe since the great expansion of the Big Bang.  However, one of the corollaries of high intelligence is the ability to manipulate the home planet to the extreme the way humans have done over the last 10,000 years, and such manipulation inevitably leads to the destruction of the planetary systems and the ultimate dissipation of energy gradients with high efficiency.  Therefore, to answer Fermi's question, whenever an intelligent species reaches a certain level of intelligence that allows it to manipulate and exploit its home world's resources to the extreme (that's where we are right now), that species destroys itself and most if not all of its home world to provide the ultimate in gradient dissipation for that particular corner of the Universe.  I guess that's the ultimate in doomer porn!! 

Personally, I feel that if people are receptive for one reason or another, we can tell them about what we see coming based on all the latest research.  If they're not receptive, why even bother wasting our time.  The life we have left is too precious to waste on beating our heads against a brick wall.  The best thing we can do is love and respect all those we care about including family and friends and resign ourselves to the fact the chances for avoiding disaster have become vanishingly small, to use a mathematical term which implies approaching zero.  There are still a lot of amazing things we can do and experience, and we should while they're still available to us and they don't conflict with what we're trying to do. 

There was a very poignant scene in "Saving Private Ryan" toward the end of the film where the small American Ranger patrol has hooked up with the remnants of a paratroop unit in an abandoned French village in Normandy that controls a very important bridge needed by both the Americans and the Germans.  The American group knows that they are way understrength and the chances of holding off a much larger and more powerful unit of the German army located nearby are "vanishingly small" unless they are quickly re-enforced, which is also not very likely.  But they know they must protect that bridge from German use or else destroy it before the main American force can make it to that spot, and so they prepare their defenses as well as they can with whatever is available to them.  Once they've finished their preparations, they can only wait for the inevitable German attack.  But in the meantime, they all relax and try to make the best of the short time they have with stories and jokes and general good feelings about what they've done and the lives they'd left back at home.  I found that to be one of the most powerful scenes in a very powerful movie about all the extremes that humans are capable of, both the good and the bad.

I guess one can say that I've become a stoic and a fatalist in my old age.  I still take full enjoyment from all the wonders I see around me, but I also am under no illusions about what is likely to happen, and I've become very accepting of whatever our fate may be.  That's not to say that I've given up, it's just that as a soldier in an impossible battle situation I've come to understand the phrase, "Que sera, sera!"

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