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Home Ruminations

Common Sense

Here below are some of my thoughts about being at home on the earth under the sun. Similar pages present my thoughts on regulating our societies, communities of human beings, dealing with other countries, and more general common sense issues. (While these seem like just simple common sense to me, some of them may be startling to some readers.)

Which Came First: Chicken or Egg?

Cartoon of cats plotting more boxes by encouraging Amazon

The same situation can look very different depending on where you're looking from (your Point Of View). One sometimes hears A chicken is just an egg's way of making another egg, which comes simply from looking at the situation from the POV of the genetic material.

Analogously, when talking about people, one might say A human is just a gene's way of making another gene. Viewed that way, the spotlight moves from people to DNA.

Choosing which POV to emphasize is a matter of personal preference; no particular view is obviously any more right than any other. But even viewing the situation this novel way just temporarily can be quite enlightening.

Environmental Harmony Doesn't Guarantee Success  (Unfortunately)

As we increasingly live in harmony with nature, our society will grow and prosper. Or to say the same thing another way, the societies that do the best at restoring the ecological balance will come out ahead in the 21st century.

 ? Right ?

Many -me included- fervently wish this were really true, that living in harmony with our environment and succeeding as a culture always went together. But unfortunately the truth is most likely the opposite. Daniel Chirot, in his book How Societies Change, describes what usually happened in the past:

Perhaps some were happier than others, had an easier time with their environment, faced few predatory human migrants, and learned to control their birthrate so that they did not overcrowd their land. They stagnated while societies stimulated by greater pressures adapted, changed, and eventually spread because of their technological and social advances. Eventually, the happier few who existed in balance with their environment were overrun by the anxious many who had developed stronger cultures in order to cope with the challenges presented by their environment.

In the long run, inexorably nature will rip apart societies that overexploit it. But in the long run, we're all dead. And in the meantime harmonious societies may be out-competed by larger and more aggressive and less balanced neighbors. Darn!

Efficiency Not Paramount

In her book The End of the Long Summer, Dianne Dumanowski writes

The logic of long-term survival is not an efficient one.

In other words what's most efficient and what contributes the most to survival aren't the same thing. The two foremost recent concerns are:

Survival of at least some regions is more likely if all the regions aren't so connected to and dependent on each other that failure of one will drag down the others. And survival is more likely if each region can call on its own local stocks of emergency supplies. Perhaps we should encourage diversity and self-sufficiency, rather than giving priority to comparative advantage and its ilk.

The topic of efficiency vs. survivability is getting more environmental attention recently. Use the terms resilience ecosystem to search for blogs and articles and essays and books.

People Aren't Focused on the Sun Anymore

For centuries people spread out fairly uniformly over the landscape. They made their living by harvesting the sun's energy (mostly by farming). And the sunshine was spread out, so people spread out too. Marvin Harris expressed this a third of a century ago in his book Cannibals and Kings: Before the fuel revolution, plants and animals were the main source of energy for social life. Scattered about the earth on millions of farms and villages, plants and animals collected the energy of the sun and converted it into forms appropriate for human use and consumption.

An example illustrating the same thing is road maps of New York State. A road map of New York State in the 1800s shows the roads forming an even mesh that doesn't make anyplace more important than anyplace else. People did concentrate to some extent back then, but usually around natural features (a river mouth, an excellent harbor, a mountain pass). Even so, the overriding impression was of people spread out pretty much uniformly everywhere. Nowadays the road map is different, with smaller roads joining bigger roads joining even bigger roads, like river tributaries streaming into the cities. Now, for the first time in history, more people live in cities than in the countryside. The location of cities doesn't have much to do with natural features any more. Rather where cities are is now largely an accident of history; if there was a city there in 1900 there may still be one there.

Now the economic activity of a metropolitan area grows faster than its population. As the cities grow bigger and bigger they become better and better too. Scientists call it superlinear scaling. In Boston you can see so many people you can scarecly find a place to sit down. Not too far away you can drive an Interstate through rural New Hampshire or Vermont and not see a single sign of human habitation for tens of minutes at a stretch.

It's certainly different  ...but not clearly better. Just what are the plusses and minuses anyway?

Control of Energy is the Key

To help understand why societies and civilizations rise and fall, look at their energy budget. (In fact, Joseph Tainter hypothesizes energy is the only significant factor in the development trajectory of most civilizations.) A clear description of how control of energy equates to control of quality of life for entire societies is provided by Marvin Harris in his book Cannibals and Kings:

[W]here water could be controlled, plants and animals could be controlled. Further, since plants and animals were the main sources of energy, control over water was control over energy. In this sense the despotisms of hydraulic society were energy despotisms—but only in a very indirect and primitive way.

The fuel revolution has opened up the possibility for a more direct form of energy despotism. Energy is now being collected and distributed under the supervision of a small number of bureaus and corporations. It comes from a relatively small number of mines and wells. Hundreds of millions of people can technically be shut off from these mines and wells, starved, frozen, plunged into darkness, rendered immobile by the turn of a few values and the flick of a few switches.

Homo Sapiens Just Another Animal

It's almost reflexive in some circles to demonstrate one's progressiveness by agreeing with the Darwinian view that man is just another biological organism. But many don't recognize and come to terms with the deeper implications of that statement.

  1. If man is truly just another biological organism with no special properties, there's no mind-body dualism: no soul, no afterlife, no levels of consciousness. There's no end of the world due to divine intervention. Spirituality's demoted to a meta-phenomenon without intrinsic meaning.
  2. Many of man's strongest motivations -ones that that drive our behavior- are biological ones that made most sense in a much simpler way of life. They evolved several thousand years ago; nowadays we probably call them instincts. Eating and sex are obvious. A little less obvious are things like the life-stage of falling in love, or the urge to raise children.
  3. Man's dominion over the earth is not because of any spiritual grant, rather simply a recognition that man is much better than any other organism at controlling the environment. Man needs to take care of the earth in such a way that it will support him indefinitely.

(Thinking of man as just another animal does not shed much light on art, science, or civilization in general though. It does not explain why The Choral Symphony was composed, nor why we like listening to it so much. It does not explain why the lure of discovering something new motivates so many scientists, nor why society has poured resources into particle accelerators.)

An intelligence from another planet trying to understand the earth might view Homo Sapiens as just another pathogen or disease and report the world has people. Former UK environmental minister Michael Meacher said If we carry on with activities that destroy the environment, then we are the virus. The view that Homo Sapiens is a virus may make us uncomfortable, but it's what being just another animal can imply.

Even though we're less special than some wish to think, we are in a unique position among species, and no one knows what will happen next.

None of these things has ever happened before.

Truly accepting that homo sapiens is just another animal is well on the way to the deep ecology idea that humans have no greater right to existence than any other form of life.

Homo Sapiens Won't Always Be Here

Humanity so dominates nature right now it's easy to think that people will always be here. In fact, some folks really do think people are ordained to be a permanent part of this world, that (to repurpose a phrase:-) life goes on. But other folks think people are just a part of nature and will eventually go away like everything else (the dinosaurs for example). This was crisply expressed by Joshua Lederberg -winner of a Nobel Prize in 1958 for his work in bacterial genetics- in his 1989 speech titled Viruses and Humankind: Intracellular Symbiosis and Evolutionary Competition:

Many people find it difficult to accommodate to the reality that Nature is far from benign; at least it has no special sentiment for the welfare of the human versus other species.

(A guess is that the folks who just assume people will always be here are the same folks that slow-walk any response to climate change/global warming.)

The astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake proposed what's come to be known as the Drake Equation as a way to think more systematically about how many civilizations we might communicate with within our galaxy. His equation has also been (mis)used as a framework arguing for the somewhat related idea that intelligent life on planets like Earth is common. The two ideas fit together nicely; if the development of intelligent life is common, then it's easy to also believe that people are a permanent part of the Earth.

The opposite conclusion, that intelligent life on planets like Earth is highly improbable, and we're here simply because of a whole streak of lucky breaks, was presented forcefully by the book Rare Earth in 2000, and has subsequently been developed further. Starting from this POV that we could easily not be here at all, we have a more sober approach to things we suspect are going wrong.

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