Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Silent Running Fallacy

One of the privileges a wry providence has granted to the arts is that even their missteps have more to teach than the best productions of more sensible men. I was reminded of that a few days ago when a discussion among Druid friends turned to the 1972 SF movie classic Silent Running.

I have no idea how many of my readers remember that film, so I’ll summarize it here. Bruce Dern plays Freeman Lowell, a geeky ecologist on Valley Forge, one of a fleet of orbiting space freighters with domes containing the last wild plants and animals from a future Earth where only human beings and their technologies remain. His fellow crew members simply want to get through their one-year tours and get back to a world where there is no more poverty or disease and it is always 70° F. everywhere, but the forest is Lowell’s obsession and his life.

Then the order comes to jettison the domes, destroy them with nuclear charges, and return the freighters to commercial service. Lowell rebels, kills the other three crew members on his ship, and flees into the outer solar system with only the ship’s robot drones for company. When Valley Forge’s sister ship Berkshire locates him again months later, Lowell rigs lights in the last remaining dome to keep the forest viable, jettisons it on a course into interstellar space, and uses the last of the nuclear charges to blow up himself and his ship.

It’s a powerful and profoundly moving film, and a favorite of mine for many years. Still, even the first time I watched it – I was ten years old at the time, dropping most of a week’s allowance on a tall root beer and tickets to the Saturday matinee at the local movie house in suburban Federal Way, WA – two of the movie’s core plot elements gave me trouble. The first issue was a vague sense of doubt about the premise that there could be a world full of healthy, happy humans with no biosphere to support them. The second was more specific: when Lowell sent the dome into deep space, I wondered, where did the electricity for its lights come from?

It took me more than a decade to realize that these two points both pointed to the same common but disastrous misunderstanding which – with apologies to an excellent movie – I’ve named the Silent Running fallacy. Like most of the garbled thinking that has doomed our civilization and threatens the survival of our species just now, it’s a simple error with profound consequences, and it’s thus best approached indirectly.

Start with some details of the movie’s premise, then. How much energy would it take to maintain the Earth’s entire surface at a steady temperature of 70° Fahrenheit? The Earth’s atmosphere does a relatively efficient job of distributing heat from the sun around the planet via the intricate heat engine we call weather, but even so, the temperature on a hot day in the Sahara can differ from the temperature on the same day at the South Pole by more than 200°F. Balancing that out would be ferociously expensive in energy terms.

How much energy would it take to keep a planet full of people free from poverty? Our current industrial civilization hasn’t even come close; average out today’s income per capita over the population of the Earth and you get a Third World existence – and of course there’s the hard question of just how long we can maintain today’s profligate energy expenditure of 450 exajoules (that’s 450,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules, for the prefix-challenged) per year.

The short answer to both of those questions, in other words, is “more than we’ve got.” That’s generally the answer when the question comes up about the costs of replacing any significant process in the biosphere by human means. When a working group headed by Robert Costanza tried a few years ago to work out the economic value of the free services provided to humanity by the Earth’s biosphere, for example, the mid-range estimate they came up with was around three times the total value of all human economic activity. For every dollar of economic value you get, in other words, 25 cents was produced by human beings and the other 75 cents was produced by nature.

The reality of our dependence on living nature goes well beyond this, however. Consider the oxygen in the air we breathe. It doesn’t just happen; it’s put there, moment by moment, by complex ecological cycles centering on photosynthesis in green plants. If those cycles go away, so does the oxygen, and so do we. The Earth’s supply of fresh water, similarly, is renewed by intricate biogeochemical cycles in which a wide range of living things play a part. The experiment of producing food by treating soil as an abiotic sponge into which petrochemicals are dumped is proving to be a long-term failure; here again, only natural cycles in which countless living things participate put food on our table and keep us all from starvation.

It’s in this context that we can define the Silent Running fallacy; it’s the mistaken belief that human industrial civilization can survive apart from nature. It’s this fallacy that leads countless well-intentioned people to argue that nature is an amenity, and should be preserved because, basically, it’s cute. That sort of argument invites the response, just as stereotyped and more appealing to our culture’s governing narratives, that hard-headed practicality takes precedence over emotional appeals and nature can therefore be ravaged with impunity.

Yet nature is not an amenity, and the “practicality” that leads current political and business leaders to ignore the disastrous consequences of their own actions doesn’t deserve the name. If anything, industrial civilization is the amenity, and it’s not particularly cute, either. Nature can survive without industrial humanity, but industrial humanity cannot survive without nature – no matter how hard we pretend otherwise, or how enthusiastically we stuff our brains with science fiction fantasies of electronic reincarnation and the good life in deep space.

What makes this irony mordant is that nature is also a great deal more resilient than industrial humanity. A recent book on global warming, Six Degrees by Mark Lynas, argues that a global temperature rise of 11°F or so would cause global catastrophe. It’s a common claim these days, but Lynas apparently failed – as so many prophets of apocalyptic change have failed – to check his claims against the evidence of history.

A little more than 14,000 years ago, according to recent research on Greenland ice core samples, global average temperature jolted up 22°F in some fifty years. A couple of thousand years later, it lurched back down a similar amount, only to pop back up again 1200 years later. Climate shifts like these are apparently fairly common in Earth’s long history.

Does this mean that we have nothing to fear from global warming? Quite the contrary. We – meaning here human beings living in industrial societies – face dire consequences even from so modest a temperature shift as Lynas’ six-degrees-Celsius rise. In such a future, widespread crop failures caused by unpredictable shifts in rain belts, and the drowning of half the world’s largest cities due to the breakup of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps, are likely events. Even without the other causes driving modern industrial society down the long ragged slope of catabolic collapse, a century or more of regular famines and rising sea levels would likely do the trick; added to the rest of the predicament of industrial society, they promise a harsh future with far less room for our species than we have come to expect.

In such a future, on the other hand, the living Earth will be fine. Temperature changes as large or larger than the one we are facing have happened countless times in the last 500 million years or so, and the planet we live on has flourished at much higher temperatures than our mismanagement can produce even in the most extreme scenario. From the perspective of deep time, it has to be remembered, the crises of the present are barely a blip on the planet’s radar. They will pass, and so, in due time, will we.

We have all grown up, in other words, thinking of nature as an adorable, helpless bunny that some of us want to protect and others, motivated by the will to power that is the unmentionable driving force behind so much of contemporary culture, want to stomp into a bloody pulp just to show that they can. Both sides are mistaken, for what they have misidentified as a bunny is one paw of a sleeping grizzly bear who, if roused, is quite capable of tearing both sides limb from limb and feasting on their carcasses. The bear, it must be remembered, is bigger than we are, and stronger; it is also better adapted to survival in the world outside the fragile shell of our industrial society. We forget this at our desperate peril.

The stunningly beautiful final image of Silent Running shows the last of Earth’s wild plants and animals, cradled in a dome of glass and steel, lit by artificial lights and tended by a robot drone, as it moves through deep space toward the stars. Brilliant cinematography though it is, it also makes a perfect image of the fallacy I’ve been outlining here. Long before the industrial civilization needed to build the dome, power the lights, and manufacture the robot can get around to stripping the Earth of its green fabric of life, that civilization will have been overwhelmed by the consequences of its own ecological mismanagement: as predicted in the Seventies,and as beginning to manifest around us right now.

Swap out nature for technology and vice versa in that final scene, in fact, and it becomes a good image of the best hope for what will be left of our industrial civilization in the future we’re making for ourselves right now. In that image, a frail and vulnerable scrap of modern society, surrounded and supported by the strong arms of nature, moves forward through the starry void along with the rest of the living Earth. How that process might be set in motion will be central to the next few posts on this blog.


RDatta said...

I guess technology has to be seen as an adjuvant to nature, rather than as a substitute for it.

Seaweed Shark said...

"overwhelmed by the consequences of ecological mismanagement" --

Forgive my burdening this log with another quote, but upon reading your remarks I was reminded of John Ruskin, addressing the same theme to the leaders of Britain in 1871:

"Your power over the rain and river-waters of the earth is infinite. You can bring rain where you will, by planting wisely and tending carefully;--drought, where you will, by ravage of woods and neglect of the soil. You might have the rivers of England as pure as the crystal of the rock--beautiful in falls, in lakes, in living pools;--so full of fish that you might take them out with your hands instead of nets. Or you may do always as you have done now, turn every river of England into a common sewer, so that you cannot so much as baptize an English baby but with filth, unless you hold its face out in the rain; and even that falls dirty.

[...]Earth--meant to be nourishing for you, and blossoming. You have learned, about it, that there is no such thing as a flower; and as far as your scientific hands and scientific brains--inventive of explosive and deathful; instead of blossoming and life-giving dust, can contrive, you have turned the Mother-Earth, Demeter, into the Avenger-Earth, Tisiphone — with the voice of your brother's blood crying out of it, in one wild harmony round all its murderous sphere." (from Fors Clavigera, Letter V)

hapibeli said...

Another inciteful conversation John. Thank you. Watching ; Peak Moment: Calm Before the Storm and reading your essay might do wonders for the eco-deaf and hard of eco-hearing. I'm sure that it will take some very hard knocks for the current paradigm to be removed. Those who do have their ears to the earth, may help lead those who ditch our old beliefs sooner than later. Unfortunately, there may be little help for anyone who clings to the powerful drug of technoreality. As they will still be "basically chasing their own shadows".

Bill Pulliam said...

Like all fiction, Silent Running was a product of its time (it was one of the pivotal movies during my formative years, too). It is steeped in that whole stewardship-we-must-take-care-of-our-poor-helpless-planet "vibe" of mainline 70s environmental consciousness raising. I think this whole notion of us having to take care of the biosphere the way we would take care of our livestock must have its roots in the Eden mythology, where we are given dominion over nature. Why, exactly, a nomadic desert tribe would imagine they have dominion over nature rather than vice-versa is rather a mystery to me, but that is the creation myth that permeates all of western and middle eastern civilization. It is also easy to forget, from our distance of four decades, the profound psychological impact of the photographs brought home by the Apollo astronauts of the Earth viewed from space. "Earthrise" and "The Blue Marble" showed our planet looking much smaller and more fragile than we had ever before truly believed it could be, and became THE icons of environmentalism.

Why modern secular environmentalists continue to embrace this dominion mythology is less a mystery: "alternative" movements can only get so far from the macroculture in which they are embedded and from which they were spawned. Even mainstream american Neopaganism tends to buy into this: "The Earth is our Mother, We must take care of Her." The hubris implicit in this belief, suggesting that we are somehow an entity comparable in magnitude to the biosphere itself, we the strapping grown child, she the elderly mother with her walker and hearing aid, is almost never noticed even by people who profess to worship the Earth and nature as manifest deity. Kinda makes ya wanna suggest that these folks look a little closer at actual pagan mythologies and take note of the fact that it is deities that squash mortals, not the other way round!

Of course, for saying what you have said here, a significant number of voices will now label you a misanthrope. To many, the very suggestion that humans are not without question the most powerful force on the planet is tantamount to both heresy and treason.

Danby said...

This essay fits in with the discussion last week about the scientific cult of Sterility. The world envisaged in Silent Running is the culmination of the so-called watchmaker God hypothesis of the 19th century.

The Watchmaker God theory postulated a Creator who built an amazingly intricate mechanism we call the Universe, wound it up, and has had nothing to do with it since. This was a sincere attempt to find a "middle way" between theism and atheism, and was of course laughed down by both sides as a mere evasion of all the hard questions. Yet for a great many people (including Albert Einstein) it neatly avoided the logical and scientific fallacy of a self-creating universe, while also exempting the person who held to the theory from any religious debate or duty.

For the Watchmaker God's universe to work, the rules might be very intricate, but the must be finite and knowable. If the laws of the Universe are finite and knowable, then eventually mankind will discover them and will be able to manipulate the circumstances to create the conditions he wants to achieve. And of course what he wants to achieve are comfort and wealth. Once we all have those things, we win, "history is over", and we'll all be happy.

If there is no God, as atheism postulates, then while the ruleset is finite, it's not necessarily knowable. If there is a God who is prone to intervene, then the ruleset becomes infinite. If that God is Himself the ground of reality, as some thinkers in Judaism and Christianity propose, then the ruleset becomes as infinite and unknowable (in essence if not in attributes) as the Deity Himself.

I remember discussing with a friend many years ago the horror stories of H. P. Lovecraft. He pointed out that the alienness of Lovecraftian monsters is based on their organic qualities. They are writhing, tentacled, slimy, muscular animals. They may resemble shellfish, or insects, or mammals, but they are all very organic. This is what we find scary. Not cold, dark sterility, but something approaching Nature in her rawest form.

PS- A Catholic would say that Man was made to tend the Garden.

Hopeful Cyclist said...

I think for once you underestimate the damage that the human race has done and can still do to our biosphere, specifically the destruction of biodiversity. We are already by any reasonable measure in the sixth great extinction of the history of life on earth. The number of species and habitats we have already and continue to wipe out will take tens or even hundreds of millions of years to be replaced by evolution. Planet earth will not live for ever - it is already middle aged,and if the solar radiation continues to increase steadily as it has done over the billions of years since life began on earth, perhaps Gaia's ability to adapt to climate shocks will be overwhelmed, and the planet become too hot to support multicellular life forms.
If we fail as a species (and it seems all too likely) I guess Earth has time for one or maybe two more attempts at intelligent life. We need to show more wisdom on the way down from industrialisation than we showed on the way up.

Eric in Santa Clara, California said...

John, I agree that "the Earth abides" and will suffer fools like us as it has borne other insults (rapid climate change, meteor impacts, volcanic episodes, etc.). In this great game, "Nature always bats last."

But for all its fierce ursine claws (nice image!) and relentlessness, natural ecosystems will not come through unscathed. They will adjust, as they always do, to some new equilibrium.

However, a North American biosphere where Norway rats, kudzu, cockroaches, pampas grass, starlings, bighead carp, and zebra mussels are the dominant species will be a more poorer biosphere.

Best regards, Eric in Santa Clara, CA

Nathan said...

Great essay John, I'm reminded of another underrated 70s sci-fi film: Dark Star, where planets are mindlessly destroyed to make room for human colonization in other star systems.
Mankind will never achieve this level of destructive power, but it won’t be without trying.

John Michael Greer said...

Rdatta, I'd take it a bit further. Technology is not separate from nature; it's natural for humans to make tools, just as bees make honey and beavers make dams. A species of beavers that cut down every edible tree to make its dams wouldn't be unnatural -- just extinct. Thus the problem with our technology isn't that it's "unnatural," but rather that it's ecologically stupid.

Shark, a fine quote!

Hapibeli, it's unfortunately true that you can't do much to improve the hearing of someone who doesn't want to listen.

Bill, exactly -- and that fantasy of human omnipotence is exactly the delusion we most need to shake off if we're to make meaningful plans for the future. If that's heresy and treason, so be it.

Dan, do you recall the passage in C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength where Filostrato talks about how much cleaner and more sensible everything would be without life? "In us," he says, "organic life has produced Mind. It has done its work. After that we want no more of it." Those ideas weren't original; Lewis borrowed them from the predecessors of today's so-called transhumanists.

But it's not actually a cult of sterility, really, it's a cult of death. Death breaks down, analyzes, reduces to first principles, as does science. Life builds up, synthesizes, blossoms into the unpredictable and unruly: everything you're not supposed to do in the laboratory. I'm more than half convinced that a central reason research scientists tend to despise engineers is that the latter put things back together.

Cyclist, no, we're not in the sixth great extinction of life on earth, for the simple reason that there have been many more than six -- well over twenty last time I read up on extinction paleontology, and the number was expected to grow substantially. Nor is the present example particularly fast or severe by prehistoric standards.

Now of course we should do all we can to prevent it from getting any worse, since even a small extinction event can pack a backlash more than sufficient to put our own survival at risk. Still, exaggerating our power to harm the Earth feeds the myth of human omnipotence that helps drive the crisis we're in.

Eric, natural ecosystems are never stable over the long term; they're always in flux. A North American ecosystem populated by the handful of intrusive generalist species you've named would immediately see an explosive burst of speciation, with hundreds of new species evolving to fit open niches.

Even so, I don't see it coming to that, or anything like that. Nature adapts; watch the way crop-eating insects are becoming immune to pesticides, or the way that solitary bees are expanding into pollination niches left open by the recent wave of honeybee dieoff, and the biological future takes on a new and richer shape.

Nathan, yes, I remember Dark Star as well! There were some very good SF films in the days before Star Wars made cheap space opera all the rage.

Bill Pulliam said...

eric wrote:

"However, a North American biosphere where Norway rats, kudzu, cockroaches, pampas grass, starlings, bighead carp, and zebra mussels are the dominant species will be a more poorer biosphere."

Well, but that really can't happen. All those species you list are exploding because they are dependent on the sorts of habitats and disturbances that humans create in ecosystems. You won't make an ecosystem out of those sorts of plants and animals that is capable of sustaining itself without massive human activity, nor is an ecosystem made of those species capable of the stability and complexity of ecosystem function necessary to support human societies. Ergo it is a self-limiting process. Long before we lose everything but the norway rats and kudzu, we would have lost the people.

I'm not saying the aliens will go away; they'll stick around, and many will doubtless remain abundant. But the thought that they will eventually take over and displace everything is just another apocalyptic scenario that assumes people can just keep plugging along wreaking continuous havoc while the biosphere falls apart (and without worrying about where the energy to run the bulldozers is coming from...)

Megan said...

There is a class of species - I do not know what they're called, but I suspect someone here will know - that follow a particular pattern. They expand to fill an ecosystem, changing it in fundamental ways as they go, then reach critical mass and die off; once they've gone, the changes they've made to the place allow a variety of other species to flourish there.

I'm told locusts are an example - they eat all the vegetation in a place, then die and litter the ground with their corpses, leaving you with cleared and fertilized soil that will support rich new growth next year. Scotch broom on the West Coast is allegedly another one; it grows everywhere in poor soil and, being a legume, fixes nitrogen, preparing the way for it to be crowded out by other species.

Considering how humans operate, I wonder if we aren't one of those species? That would put 'die-off' in a very, very different light. I'm just woolgathering here ...

Cherenkov said...

I find it a bit irksome to imply that engineers are somehow merely putting "things back together."

Engineers do no such thing. They simplify. They take natural principles and, because they are only human, simplify a process down to its absolute most humanly dumb fashion that is possible. They do not look at the knock-on effects as that simply does not concern them. Engineers may be oblivious, but they are not blameless. We need to quit thinking in the terms of engineering, the techno-fix and get back to nature's lab where we work with the longest, most complex, on-going recursive experiment on the planet, namely our environment.

If we bow our heads in humility and beg nature's forgiveness, we may have a chance of becoming part of the great experiment instead of a perceived administrator.

Anthony said...

"But it's not actually a cult of sterility, really, it's a cult of death. Death breaks down, analyzes, reduces to first principles, as does science. Life builds up, synthesizes, blossoms into the unpredictable and unruly: everything you're not supposed to do in the laboratory."

I still disagree with this characterization of death. Death turns the wheel. It is a necessary part of the life death cycle. It provides the raw materials for new growth, new synthesis and new beginnings. Without a proper cycle of death you get "dead zones" (which in my opinion should be called "sterile zones") in the ocean where there is no oxygen to allow life to continue.

Science (at least the type we are speaking of) denies the existence of life as a force and attempt to reduce living organisms to complex clock work machines. Once fully understood we can be rid of the messy process of organic life and replace it with an orderly and sterile laboratory life that will function as we wish it to. In fact we can even be rid of these poorly functioning bodies and place ourselves in the clean, smoothly functioning and ultimately sterile machines and live forever (thus simultaneously riding ourselves of both "life" and "death"). That is Transhumanism.


Jim said...

Taking to the extreme the idea that humans can live apart from nature, folks like Kurzweil propose that we can and should and will download our minds into computers and leave our bodies behind. What is scary is that this is an acceptable idea in our culture.

RJ said...

Ah yes. I believe I saw Silent Running with my first girlfriend at age 13 in Shelton, WA. Or was it Bellevue? No matter. The film affected me as well, and was indeed representative of an awakening by a large segment of the population to the reality of the megamachine.

I would take issue with Costanza's 75% figure though, all economic activity must be 100% provided by nature and his reasoning typifies our dissociation. We are nature. We are fouling our nest and will pay the price as have many species and cultures before us. Remember, Soylent Green came out the very next year (1973), set in 2022 New York.

Thank you Mr. Greer for providing a forum, I'm hoping we may yet adapt.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, nicely put.

Megan, that's a fascinating point. I don't know the specific term for the sort of species you're describing, but I certainly know the phenomenon -- and human beings have acted along those lines tolerably often.

Cherenkov, clearly you know different engineers than I do. Some of the best people we've got in the appropriate technology field come out of an engineering background, and their work doesn't fit the description you've given. A good engineer is an artist, and though their skills aren't the only ones we need -- not by a long shot -- we do need them if much of anything is to be salvaged from the present mess.

Anthony, death turns the wheel, but only if it's paired with life. The problem with contemporary science is that it's pried one part of the wheel loose from its place and is using it without the other half that balances it.

Jim (and Anthony), I'm all too familiar with Kurzweil and his fellow transhumanists, and you'll find no disagreement here. Their idea of the human future is pretty much my idea of damnation: little bubbles of heartless, bodiless and spiritless intellect, locked away in clanking, lifeless mechanical containers and scattered across an infinite void.

RJ, Costanza's figure was simply an attempt to correct the widespread notion that nature doesn't matter because it has no economic value. The indignation with which his paper was received, to my mind, shows that he's worth hearing. But Soylent Green -- there's another classic from the same period. Someone could put together a very harrowing film festival...

Óskar said...

Somehow I had been waiting for you to touch on this particular subject. Your bunny/bear analogy is brilliant and drives the point home very neatly.

I feel the need to delurk and thank you for this one because it's precisely this issue that often plagues me when I try to define my own views and values in the context of the various discussions of environment, technology, etc. I find myself unwilling to side wholly with either the so-called Greens who want to protect or those others who want to exploit in the name of progress. Typically I end up on the "green" side because the other view is too repulsive or foolish to me.

Ultimately nature doesn't need us to protect it, the best we can do is participate in it.

FARfetched said...

It's the exchange over death vs. sterility that fascinates me this week… and JMG, thanks for mentioning That Hideous Strength because that's the first thing that came to mind for me when the exchange began.

But perhaps one of the terms is invalid to begin with. Reasonable people (not to mention the unreasonable) can differ over what "death" really is. In a spiritual context, perhaps it's the point where the soul permanently leaves the body: assuming it resides in the body in the first place! But physically, a plant or animal "dies," and immediately other life takes over — bacteria, worms, flies, and the occasional scavenger — and eventually, the materials making up the deceased become part of other living things.

On a physical, macro scale, does death really exist? Or is it simply a transformation, from feeding to being food to feeding again? But we can't say what's being eaten food is "dead" — a parasite's host is both eating and being eaten… perhaps we need a Zen master to weigh in?

Peter said...

To continue the riff on sci-fi films-two excellent, and unfortunately hard to find works, of a little later vintage: the Australian film "The Quiet Earth", and the Argentine "Man Facing South-East", which Hollywood ripped off without crediting to make "K-Pax", a much poorer film.

While the future we're preparing for may not allow for such high tech mediums of myth-making, these thoughts and comments this week do remind us that the arts can also be a vehicle for cultural preservation, which is why the best Sci-Fi has always captured my imagination-"Psycho-history, qu'est-ce que c'est", to conflate Byrne and Asimov....

Heteromeles said...

Another neat essay, to which I have a couple of comments.

First, Megan's concept of organisms that live fast, die young, and leave lots of poorly-tended offspring has a name. Such species are termed "r-strategists" vs. "k-strategists" that have few offspring and invest a lot in them. The r vs. K terminology comes from the logistic equation (the mathematical expression of that s-shaped growth curve that ends at a stable upper point). R is the inherent rate of growth, K is the carrying capacity. An r-adapted species (in theory) is adapted to circumstances where it is advantageous to have lots of offspring (because most of them die), whereas a K-adapted species is adapted to a situation where the only way to make sure your kids have kids is to invest a lot in them.

That's the theory, and if you're already screaming that it isn't that simple, you're right. Still, it's sort of right, and many weedy species are r-strategists. Many other weedy species are not, but have been freed to act in an "r-like" manner because, in their new, weedy habitats, they don't have all those diseases and predators that used to kill them in their homelands (whereas the natives do have all those diseases, etc--this is the predation release hypothesis). You can also figure out how humans fit into the r/K continuum, and how technology, culture, etc. mess with our survivorship rates. There's a good article in NY Times magazine this week on that topic.

I'd also strongly suggest to Michael that he consider how a long, slow technological decline affects birth rates and child survivorship rates. Right now, we in the industrial world have fewer kids, primarily because it takes so long to become economically stable enough to support the having kids (again NY Times has a great article). In an simple agrarian economy, many kids means more workers on the family farm, and if there's a high mortality rate (perhaps due to endemic diseases), you have to have a lot of kids, just to make sure at least one of your kids survives to reproduce. It's possible that, in the future, women will have to have lots of kids, but populations will be stable, because of a high infant death rate. What that does to valuable social conventions like equality of the sexes is something that we might want to consider.

Another important comment I'd like to throw in is that you can't decouple global warming from atmospheric and oceanic chemical changes. Peter Ward's been having a lot of fun describing how the composition of the atmosphere has changed over geologic history, and there is a coupling between temperature, the amount of oxygen and CO2 in the oceans (O2 down, CO2 up, and Black Sea style anoxia), and, ultimately, mass extinctions due to radical swings in the composition of the Earth's atmosphere (when the anoxic deep ocean waters start burping hydrogen sulfide). Out of Thin Air and Under a Green Sky, are books that you might want to read. Silent Running is a good springboard for an essay, but that other dome project, Biosphere II, showed that the atmospheric composition of such domes is harder to control than the light and temperature levels.

John Michael Greer said...

Oskar, thank you for the perfect word: participation. Ultimately, what we have to learn is that nature is not a resource we can exploit, but a community to which we belong.

Farfetched, well, I'm not a Zen master, but for me life and death are two sides of a balance: synthesis and analysis, building up and breaking down. All philosophy aside, if you've ever been there when someone died, you know the difference -- a life is over, a death has arrived. My problem with contemporary science is simply that it's lost track of the balance, and pursues the breaking down without the building up.

Peter, thanks for the suggestions! The arts are among the most potent tools we've got right now, which is one of the reasons it's tragic that so many contemporary artists have basically turned into manufacturers of recherche collectibles for the rich.

Heteromeles, the difference between R-selected and K-selected organisms is actually a central concept in How Civilizations Fall, the essay that more or less prefigured this blog. As I read it, though, Megan is talking less about that broad differentiation than a set of more specific adaptations by which some organisms have taken on a catalytic role in certain types of ecosystem change.

As for the rest, of course the relation between birth and death rates are crucial, but it's just as crucial to avoid the sort of simplistic models used these days to impose political redefinitions onto demographics (as done, for example, in the NY Times). The factors shaping birth rates are much more complex than the "demographic transition" model allows for. Similarly, changes in sea chemistry are likely enough, but I'm less than convinced by current theories that credit hydrogen sulfide emissions with mass extinction events -- and deep ocean anoxia, among other things, serves as a very effective way to pump carbon out of the atmosphere and stash it in sediments.

Heteromeles said...

Michael: Good point, and I think you are right about Megan's question. Unfortunately the answer is still mostly likely predation release, rather than the inherent catalytic properties of the invasive organism. I don't think there's a specific suite of things that make species catalysts. An example: goats are introduced to an island by sailors (so that they'll have meat when they come back that way in a year). The goats eat all the plants on the island down to nubbins, causing extinction of all the edible species. The goats then die of starvation, leaving behind an impoverished flora. In this case, one problem is that the goats had no predators or other things controlling their population. They were released from predation. This is an imperfect example, but it serves.

We will have to agree to disagree about the NY Times article (it wasn't about demographic transitions at all, but about the complexities of how societies deal with low growth rates) and about deep sea anoxia and ocean acidification.

Mauricio Babilonia said...

This idea that mankind and nature are somehow separate is the thing I find most mystifying in our culture. I agree with rj that we are (a subset of) nature itself, and find the whole thing with referring to "the Environment" as a distinct entity to be cognitive dissonance at its finest. Wendell Berry, writing about agriculture, is a frequent visitor to this theme:

My experience over the last 25 years has been that not many people speak, or can think, from the point of view of the land. As soon as the conversation shifts from issues actually affecting the land, to 'the environment,' then you're done for. People think of it as something different from themselves, and of course it isn't.

(From an interview with the Smithsonian)

Or, more succinctly:

The "environmental crisis" is a misnomer, since it is (of course) a crisis of ourselves, not of the environment.

micheal said...

John Michael,

sounds good

For now I am, as many folks are, still stuck in the paradigm that the survival of the few will rely in part on the implementation of "trailing edge technologies" - stepping down, I call it - on our trek towards Olduvai. Ham radio might prove to be a valuable tool for awhile in the coming great unwinding.

I would attempt to add a small note to your well-crafted articulation on the subject that there is a tremendous opportunity for those without the means or the will to participate at the interactive level of ham radio to at least avail themselves of the ability to listen, that is, to purchase and cache a shortwave receiver. Indeed, I suspect that there will be for a period of time at some point a large body of invisible ears out there, eager for any news.


janen said...

I have read and re-read this scientifically literate yet poetic statement, which is understandable to nearly everyone with a high school diploma. Having sent the url out far and wide, I only just thought about thanking John Michael Greer for it.

Thank you!

Jane Nielson co-author of The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery

Alice Y. said...

Brilliant. I'd not heard of the movie before, but it doesn't matter. The last two paragraphs of your post here powerfully describe an inversion of view during a de-industrial transition. It's a useful summary of the new understanding that is growing in me. I am thankful for the words and images you provide, because I find myself frequently employing them. The work you are doing with this blog seems to help me to communicate more effectively with others about what I mean and why I do what I do, when they ask. Or at least - assists me to describe my understanding in a way that satisfies me, since the reaction from others who do not share this kind of view is not always a positive one, as you know. Blessings!