Wednesday, October 23, 2013

World view

Which book has meant the most to you? No matter who you are, or whether or not you have actually read it, the correct answer is “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin (1859). Before the concept of darwinian evolution by means of natural selection western "civilization" could understand nothing about life on earth. In the words of Theodosius Dobhzanski:  “Nothing in biology makes sense, save in the light of evolution”. No other body of thought has had such an impact on our view of the world and our place in it, on life, of how the world works and of the processes that shape our lives. Without understanding evolutionary biology we cannot think about life on earth. Work on "the new synthesis" from 1930 and onwards combined Darwin's insight with genetics, and made it possible to understand a host of mechanisms that make all living things the way they are.

Copernicus relegated Earth to simply one of many planets; not the Center of the Universe but just another rock in orbit around a rather ordinary star. Darwin did the same with humans; not created in God's image after all, but shaped by the same processes as all other animals, and not fundamentally different from them. Humans are a part of nature, not put here by God to rule it. Darwinism revolutionized the world, even more than the Copernican revolution. For the first time, it was possible to understand life on earth. The movement of planets in the Cosmos had not the same impact on our daily lives as the understanding of how life is shaped by evolution. Before Darwin we could not even place humans relative to the rest of creation. The term "creation" itself, along with "creator" (in the context of life on earth) and "creature", became an unfortunate misnomer.

Ecology made it possible to understand the ebb and flow of population changes and expanded the use of "community" and "society" to other organisms and associations of different species in nature. In a food chain, the species at the bottom support the entire structure, and are paramount for the maintenance of the whole. Charles Darwin made a point to remind himself, repeatedly, not to describe species as “higher” or “lower”. The new science of ecology demoted humanity further from the position evolutionary biology and astronomy had reduced them to. If organisms are mutually inter-dependent like organs in the same body, or the different stages of embryology, which is more important?

When a new world view sweeps humanity it is usually the product of a scientific paradigm shift. Ecology will also force a reality-check on traditional liberalism. There can be no individual welfare, nor freedom, removed from the ecological matrix upon which the individual life form depends. How we treat our neighbor creatures determines how we treat the earth itself. Are we able to perceive the aggregate outcome from billions of isolated actions and choices in a globalized world? Are we as a species capable of curbing our technology and economy, or do they control us? Has our culture outgrown us? Or will we reach a stage, in time, where we manage to control our own species and choose a path towards a future where one would want to live?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

There will be no tomorrow...

For numerous species there is no tomorrow. They are gone; the more sorely missed the more recent their demise. For thousands and thousands more there will be no tomorrow. They are the living dead, past the point of no return, inexorably on the path to extinction even if people don't know it yet. It is conceivable that some species may still hang on in a bleak and impoverished world. Which category will we fall into? Unlike the other species, we have no one but ourselves to blame—unless we blame our predecessors and our contemporaries. One single species is to blame for all this. What does one do when a growth out of control threatens the viability and health of the whole?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

It's the people, stupid...

Thor is not one of those people who blame corporations for everything. It is PEOPLE who work in or for corporations, buy from corporations, allow corporations and money into politics, allow corporations to rape and kill the earth, allow governments to be weak, stupid, naive, corrupt or to get away with murder, vote for the politicians who maintain the status quo rather than fix the problems and lead the way to a better future, remain passive rather than throw the bastards out or make it impossible for the people in the corporations or in politics to act the way they do, PEOPLE who create more people that again become part of the problem, legitimize the status quo, continue to treat other species with disrespect and ignorance, etc. etc. etc. Corporations may not be people in the way a compromised Supreme Court of the United States has stated that they are, but they consist of people, sell to people, and they carry on with the complicity and collaboration of people. And governments are nothing but people either. Mostly naive and stupid people, or people with good intentions but few degrees of freedom—at least they perceive that they have few degrees of freedom. And they need people to vote for them if they are going to remain politicians. Which probably they shouldn't...

If you resent that people have no choice but to buy from corporations, that corporations have no loyalties other than to the shareholders and their own wallets and careers, that weak politicians pay too much heed to what the monied folks want, that corporations are wrecking the world in which we live while corrupting our politics and our monetary system and making the way people live their lives completely meaningless and ugly, there is only one thing for it: Get organized and do something about it. The difficulty is, of course, all those other people who are oblivious, greedy, pacified, and remain hooked up to the Matrix, and all those people who perceive that they have few degrees of freedom to act any different than they do. How to move humanity away from their all-destroying path... 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Discussions with an economist...

Nice blog posts by UCSD physicist, Tom Murphy, taking on the dogma of growth economics, on the blog "Do the Math":

Thor´s comments: 
As an ecologist I think we face ecological limits much sooner than we face physical limits. Some of those limits are evident every day. Yet of course we have spent so little effort trying to be efficient with anything other than labor and capital inputs that there is great room for improvement—if we would only focus on efficient use of the things that really matter. So we can still do a lot with technical fixes, if we only concentrate in the right arenas (something we have not done in the past). But of course it depends on what is really the limiting factor (water? land? soil? nutrients? recycling capacity? ecological resilience/robustness? absorption of GHGs? primary productivity? energy? low entropy?... clearly the entropy limit is a long way off yet...)

Two points:

1) I do not care only for what is important to Homo sapiens, but also to other species with which we "share" the planet--many of which are going extinct every day on account of the status quo in human society. There must be room for others as well. Furthermore, we have evolved in a world with other species around us, this is what we are used to and we have been evolutionarily adapted to it over millions of years and they are part of what we like and love about this planet (even if H. sapiens has only been around for a little over 100,000 years). That would have to be a mind-numbingly good virtual reality machine... Be that as it may, many of the good things in life already don't cost any money—unfortunately they are being destroyed by other people´s pursuit of money, experiences, family, etc. In the immortal words of Paul Simon, "one man's ceiling is another man's floor".

2) Even if the economy shifts into the non-material world and focus of the economy shifts to quality of life ("insubstantial" aspects such as art, virtual reality, decorative desserts, etc.) that do not require a lot of material inputs, there must be a limit to how much people will or can pay for the massive house of cards that is built on top of the real inputs in the economy (food, nutrients, etc.)...  If food production is the ultimate "real input" into the economy, how big a house of cards can we build on top of that before people are saturated with that immaterial part and will not be interested in paying more and/or the necessary part of the economy is not able to bear any increase in the weight of the "superstructure"? 

Cessation of growth seems inevitable also in the economic sense.

The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.
           —Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Not normal

Sooner or later in every talk, [David] Brower describes the creation of the world. He invites his listeners to consider the six days of Genesis as a figure of speech for what has in fact been four billion years. In this scale, a day equals something like six hundred and sixty-six million years, and thus "all day Monday until Tuesday noon, creation was busy getting the earth going." Life began Tuesday noon, and "the beautiful, organic wholeness of it" developed over the next four days. "At 4 P.M. Saturday, the big reptiles came on. Five hours later, when the redwoods appeared, there were no more big reptiles. At three minutes before midnight, man appeared. At one-fourth of a second before midnight, Christ arrived. At one-fourtieth of a second before midnight, the Industrial Revolution began. We are surrounded with people who think that what we have been doing for that one-fourtieth of a second can go on indefinitely. They are considered normal, but they are stark, raving mad."
(John McPhee, Encounters with the Archdruid, 1971)

"The Hetch-Hetchy Valley, California" by Albert Bierstadt, ca. 1874-1880.