Finding Nemo

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Philosophy Part XX: Our Future. (Plus Bonus!: Nemo's Deep Thoughts!)

Click here for my earlier philosophy posts I-V, VI-X, and XI-XV

The Future of Humanity

The book ends on a note about the trend toward New Age and Eastern and indigenous religions.

"In other words, after 25 centuries of trying to move away from primitive ideas and a wholly scientific viewpoint, we have come full circle, back to the roots of our belief."

Be nice... it bites!
I love this quote.  Look, I don't romanticize the Native Americans or other indigenous races, as Hobbes said their lives were very difficult.  I like the fact that I can get fine wine, dark chocolate, and watch Jersey Shore reruns anytime I want.  But they had something we have since lost.  The respect for the earth as something that has intrinsic worth, and the knowledge that without it we cannot survive, is something that must be rediscovered before its too late.

The destruction of our remaining natural resources and the fact that humanity is spreading out-of-control like a virus is a grim combination.  We are nearing a crisis as great as an asteroid hitting the earth, and its unclear what will happen to us.  The direction of political discourse, which is focused solely on short-term economic concerns, seems to be so blind to the obvious that it is discouraging.  But before I throw in the towel, I want to throw out a curve ball.

You're naked!
There is something fascinating called Gaia TheoryGaia is the primordial Greek goddess of the Earth, known by many other names such as Mother Nature and Terra.  The theory is simple: the conditions for life on earth are regulated by the organisms on earth themselves.  All organisms on earth act in unison in an extremely complex inter-related series of processes in order to maintain balance.  (Today, the theory has evolved and recognizes that in fact its not just life, but also seemingly uninterested parties like the oceans that also maintain this balance.  Weird, huh?  Why would the oceans care about us?)

Since life began, the salinity of the oceans has been maintained below the 5% necessary for aquatic life to survive, despite the fact that constant erosion of salts in the landmasses should have raised this level.  During this same geologic timescale, the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere has been maintained at precisely 21% even though oxygen is extremely volatile and should have been dispersed through chemical reactions.  The very temperature of the earth seems to have been maintained in the habitable range, even though the sun's output has increased by 20-30% since life first appeared!  What can explain all this?

Yo, Gaia, um... looking a little green
Does this imply that the Earth is somehow aliveJames Lovelock, the co-founder of the theory, states that if the definition of life is a set of self-sustaining processes that works to ensure its continued existence, that in fact the Earth could indeed be considered alive!  This viewpoint has spawned a near-cult like following, culminating in the concept of Pandora from the movie Avatar.  On Pandora, the planet evolved into a mega-entity named Eywa formed by neural nets between the trees, capable of active subconscious control of all life on the planet.  Now clearly the Earth doesn't have this sort of magic going on, and militant atheists like Dawkins have pounced with joy on this theory's possible religious connotations (that the Earth is some kind of deity).

But for all their criticism, even they have to admit they cannot explain these patterns of self-regulation which are now established fact.  Whereas earth science before was splintered across many specialized areas, Gaia Theory has spawned new general disciplines that attempt synthesis, such as Earth system science and biogeochemistry.  Of course, the ramifications of Gaia Theory to anthropogenic climate change and the destruction of natural resources are by far the most important.  What will 'Gaia' do in the face of the current onslaught by its greatest creation?

Hollywood will love the Endtimes
I believe the human race will discover the answer before too long.  Take the example of a population of deer.  When a hunting ban is put in place, the deer population in rural areas can explode.  This is followed by a mass extinction as there are too many deer for the habitat to support.  This is a simple example of what may happen to us.  Modern farming systems and medicine have acted as the hunting ban, and our population is exploding everywhere.  We will almost certainly face a tragic crash in which billions of people may perish.

But in reality, what will happen to us is so complex that at the moment no one on the planet fully understands it.  Climate change is something that even the experts are having trouble forecasting.  There is no doubt it is happening, as I have seen with my own eyes in the Himalaya and elsewhere, but exactly how it will manifest in terms of weather patterns and rising sea levels is uncertain.  And the complex processes on which all life depends are so poorly understood at the moment that it is impossible to predict how all these other factors will respond.  (Take the scary nonlinear effect of melting permafrost.)

If that doesn't scare you, you don't have a very good imagination.  I believe that Gaia, in response to the huge forcing factor we are putting into the environment, will counter-respond in the only manner possible.  It will be forced to eliminate the driving force.  And that is us, folks.  The human race.

"Wait!  Don't open i-!.... aww damn."
But, like Pandora's box, when all the evils had been released upon the Earth, that last thing that emerged was Hope.  When viral infections used to decimate huge populations, vaccinations were invented and new ones are still being created today.  When Kennedy proclaimed we would go to the moon, many scoffed.  When the entire world seemed poised for nuclear Armageddon, somehow we were able to back away from the brink.  It seems when we have our backs against the wall, the Common Intellect of our race is able to come up with incredible solutions that before seemed hardly possible.

But I am not naive (at least on Tuesdays).  I realize that this time, it may be different.  We may indeed have a huge population crash before the New Solutions arrive.  It could be the greatest tragedy in the history of our species.  But when we are squeezed, cursing and kicking all the way, through this current crisis, the world will look very different.  Renewable energy will be forced to the fore.  Environmentalism will be a required fact of life, not some liberal ideal.

A special place
It could be the dawn of a New Age, where we will finally recognize that we must live in harmony with Gaia.  And for our descendants, that could be a wonderful place indeed. 

(Then again it could also be Mad Max.  Hopefully the New Solutions don't arrive too late...)

Deep Thoughts by Nemo Taylor

I suppose after having had some time to reflect, I would say that this not-so-"Short History" is one of the most important books I've ever read.  It was a window into the minds of giants that before now I'd only had a vague glimpse of, like some far-off mountain range.  After having the pleasure of my first brief trek through these peaks, the view is something that I will never forget.  It will pull me back, much like Nepal calls to me when I am home in California.  I need to read more, to see more.

Probably the biggest thing I found was that there were others like me.  There were others who rebelled from the rut that most of the masses of humanity find themselves blindly following, like a train of donkeys.  Often, going through the daily routine of life back home, job, gym, eat, sleep, surf, party, I find my deeper Self has vanished.  It is slumbering through an endless winter.  Everyone around me is the same, they have the same routines, worry about the same material successes.  There is no one to wake me up.  Only when I go traveling does that little child still inside come out of hiding, the one that used to ask with wonder and fear "Who am I?"  "Why am I really here?"  "Am I living a good life?"  "Does that girl have cooties?"

And it is of great comfort to read the words of a man like Descartes, who just like me, stared into a fire and wondered if everything outside his own mind was actually real.  To listen to Aristotle proclaim that true happiness is only found in the Virtuous life, all else dooms a man to something less than human.  Or to read Kant, when he described that overwhelming feeling of spine-tingling joy and fear when he contemplated the Sublime.  To hear the voice of Kierkegaard call me to action and remind me that life is short and precious and must be lived now!  Contrasted with the warning of Nietzsche that we are each capable of heroic action, but to sit at home on the couch is to waste the most precious gift you will ever be given.  To find that an old sage like Chu Hsi, who lived thousands of years ago, stared at the natural world just like I do today, and became lost in the power and order and wonder of it all.

Philosophy is similar to anything that is good and valuable.  Like learning guitar, it takes repetition and practice.  I've re-read this book more than any other in recent memory and still can't remember many of the details.  But I suppose it should be considered a vast music catalog: everyone can take what they like and leave the rest.  Like wine, all that matters is what you connect with, who cares what some idiot babbling all the right terminology says if it tastes bad to you?

There is only one wrong choice: and that is to ignore it all, turn on the television with eyes glazed and dull, and declare that you have found "happiness"--you will have become that fat slurping slob Nietzsche fears most.

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