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" 'Your dream is a good one,' said Ender. 'It's the dream of every living creature. The desire that is the very root of life itself: To grow until all the space you can see is part of you, under your control. It's the desire for greatness. There are two ways, though, to fulfill it. One way is to kill anything that is not yourself, to swallow it up or destroy it, until nothing is left to oppose you. But that way is evil. . . .'

" 'I see,' [the alien] said. 'The tribe is whatever we believe it is. . . . We [and other tribes] become one tribe because we say we're one tribe. . . .'

"Ender marveled at his mind, this small [alien]. How few humans were able to grasp this idea, or let it extend beyond the narrow confines of their tribe, their family, their nation. . . .

" 'You humans grow by making us part of you . . . Then we are one tribe, and our greatness is your greatness, and yours is ours.' "

- Orson Scott Card, Speaker for the Dead

". . . and sometimes in the afternoons, first listening to a proposal to genetically engineer kelp to produce bulbs filled with ready-to-burn carbohydrates, then talking for an hour with the UNEP officer in town to plan a tidal energy capture system . . . and then speeking to people in an engineering consortium of government/university/industry groups about cheap efficient photovoltaics, he would come out of it . . . dizzy at the touch of the technological sublime, feeling that a good array of plans existed already--that if they could enact this array, it would go a long way toward averting catastrophe. Perhaps they were already in the process of doing so. It was actually hard to tell; so much was happening at any one time that any description of the situation had some truth in it, from 'desperate crisis, extinction event totally ignored' to 'minor problems robustly dealt with.' It was therefore necessary to forge on in ignorance of the whole situation."

- Kim Stanley Robinson, Fifty Degrees Below (which depicts a much more believable version of the Day After Tomorrow abrupt-climate-change scenario)

These quotes show that growing and managing global consciousness is quite a Herculean task if we want to do it right. Humanity is so big that just comprehending what it means to be "all one tribe" takes a lot of effort, almost a shift to an alien mindset. Some science fiction authors use the phrase "growing up as a species" to describe this immensely difficult transition. But now, with catastrophic climate change looming mere decades in the future, as well as potentially massive risks to civilization due to habitat destruction, widespread genetic engineering of crops, and many other issues, we have run out of time. We have to grow up now, or face a population crash that will make nuclear terrorism look like a statistic about deaths caused by vending machines.
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    "Believe it or not, nuclear reactors have existed since long before man, and a fossil natural nuclear reactor was recently discovered in Gabon, in Africa. . . . Thus life probably began under conditions of radioactivity far more intense than those which trouble the minds of certain present-day environmentalists. . . . The present dangers are real but tend to be exaggerated. These rays are part of the natural environment and always have been."

    "Towards the end of 1975 the United States National Academy of Sciences issued a report by . . . those expert in the effects of nuclear explosions and all things subsequent to them. The report suggested that if half of all the nuclear weapons in the world's arsenals, about 10,000 megatons, were used in nuclear war the effects on most of the human and man-made ecosystems of the world would be small at first and would become negligible within thirty years. Both aggressor and victim nations would of course suffer catastrophic local devastation, but areas remote from the battle and, especially important in the biosphere, marine and coastal ecosystems would be minimally disturbed.
    "To date, there seems to be only one serious scientific criticism of the report, namely, of the claim that the major global effect would be the partial destruction of the ozone layer by oxides of nitrogen generated in the heat of the nuclear explosions. We now suspect that this claim is false . . . There was, of course, at the time of the report a strange and disproportionate concern in America about stratospheric ozone. It might in the end prove to be prescient, but then as now it was a speculation based on very tenuous evidence."

    "So strongly expressed, however, has been public concern over the dangers of genetic manipulation involving DNA itself, that it was good to have no less an authority than John Postgate* confirm that . . . there must be many taboos written into the genetic coding, the universal language shared by every living cell. There must also be an intricate security system to ensure that exotic outlaw species do not evolve into rampantly criminal syndicates. Vast numbers of viable genetic combinations must have been tried out, through countless generations of micro-organisms, during the history of life.
    "Perhaps our continuing orderly existence over so long a period can be attributed to yet another Gaian regulatory process, which makes sure that cheats can never become dominant."

Yes, believe it or not, all of these quotes are from Gaia: A new look at life on Earth by James Lovelock, first published in 1979. In his preface to the 2000 edition he admits that he made some mistakes, but doesn't mention any of the above passages, although the theory of nuclear winter established in the early 1980s is a compelling reason to believe that full-scale nuclear war would be a global catastrophe for all land-dwelling multicellular organisms.

The preface also chides environmentalists for "attacking all science-based large companies of the First World especially where there was a link, however tenuous, with a threat to humanity," since "Our much too vociferous advocates, the consumer lobbies, and we the consumers are equally responsible for the gaseous greenhouse and the extinction of wildlife. The multinational companies would not exist if we had not demanded their products and at a price that forces them to produce without enough care for the consequences."

* The linked article is problematic in that it doesn't properly address the danger of genetically modifying plants and animals, which have much larger genomes and reproduce far more slowly than bacteria, and so experience a far lower rate of natural genetic mutations with major phenotypic effects.
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Another way to use biotech to save the environment: this time, they're using carbon monoxide as a feedstock for bacterial ethanol production. Cheaper and less land-intensive than corn, and turns an industrial pollutant into a resource? Pretty awesome, if you ask me. The only question in my mind is whether ethanol-powered cars will produce more or less carbon monoxide than the standard gasoline-powered ones.

The newest Big Bad Wolf for the environmental movement: the Farm Bill. Apparently, the good old days of paying farmers to produce less are gone. Now they're being hounded to make as much corn, soy, and wheat as possible for cheap, so we can dump the surplus on foreign markets as well as indirectly subsidizing the processed-food industry.

And another positive item: The first Earthlike world outside the solar system? It's orbiting a tiny star and is at least 1.5 times the size of Earth, but it has great potential. At only 20.5 light-years distant, it also wouldn't be a bad target for our first attempt at interstellar travel.
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One common accusation leveled against environmentalists is that we are too ready to believe the worst, and take bad news about Earth's climate and biosphere without question while denying that good news could be anything but conservative propaganda. Like most stereotypes, this one has a core of truth to it. For instance, consider your reaction to the following news items:

The much-discussed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report does not corroborate the predictions of disaster made in Al Gore's Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. I haven't read it myself, but I'm trusting John Tierney of the New York Times with the following details: "While Mr. Gore’s movie shows coastlines flooded by a 20-foot rise in sea level, the report’s projections for the rise this century range from 7 inches to 23 inches." Still enough to flood some low-lying coastal plains, yes, but it's safe to say that most major cities are built more than two feet above the high-tide line. And because Greenland is not melting as fast as we thought, the world's ocean currents are "'very unlikely' to undergo 'a large abrupt transition during the 21st century,' according to the new report." And even if they did, Dr. Richard Seager of Columbia University says it probably wouldn't matter much.

Meanwhile, the NY Times also recently picked up on a year-and-a-half-old claim by a prominent if atypical environmentalist, Stewart Brand. Brand has been proposing four "heresies" that he thinks will soon become the new accepted truths in the green movement. First, according to Brand, population growth figures are dropping everywhere, not just in industrialized nations; second, he believes that the cause is not a standard "demographic transition" out of poverty, but the much more widespread population shift into the cities. "In every single region in the world, including the U.S., small towns and rural areas are emptying out. The trees and wildlife are returning." By itself, this statement seems wildly improbable, since all those new city-dwellers still demand the same amount of farmland to feed them, even if fewer people are doing the farming. But Brand's answer to that is genetic engineering: "GM crops are more efficient, giving higher yield on less land with less use of pesticides and herbicides. That's why the Amish, the most technology-suspicious group in America (and the best farmers), have enthusiastically adopted GM crops."

Finally, two more notes on global warming. The first is Brand's fourth heresy: he says that nuclear power, a well-established technology for large-scale centralized electricity generation, stands a far better chance of becoming the near-term solution to CO2 emissions than renewable energy does. Brand, who oddly enough hasn't heard the good news about the gulf stream shutdown hypothesis, is worried that we could take "Kyoto accords, radical conservation in energy transmission and use, wind energy, solar energy, passive solar, hydroelectric energy, biomass, the whole gamut. . . . add them all up and [find that] it's still only a fraction of enough." His opinion is that dealing with radioactive waste will be far easier than coping with severe climate change.

Now, if you're a typical environmental type, you probably thought: "Sure, the Greenland glaciers speeded up and then slowed down, but they could accelerate again at any time. This Richard Seager guy could be another of those industry-funded consensus-buckers who will make up anything. World population really isn't that predictable, and all those burgeoning megacities could collapse soon when their ecological footprints get too big. Genetic engineering is too dangerous--we'll be seeing some of the first truly disastrous effects any time now. Likewise, worries about nuclear waste may be easy to dismiss when it's still sitting next to the power plant under heavy guard, but what about all the things that could go wrong while you're trucking it across country to centralized storage locations? And on a more positive note, what about those charts where adding up several "wedges" worth of non-heretical solutions could actually be more than enough? (Although what is 'enough', exactly?)"

And some of those objections are probably valid, but consider this: in this era of massive and accelerating change, we can't really afford to quickly discount any new information that might alter our picture of the world.
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Link to part 1

E. O. Wilson, author of Biodiversity, recently put out a new book ambitiously titled The Future of Life.  In Chapter 2, he states that far from being a "special-interest lobby" whose proponents are always "exaggerat[ing] their case . . . [e]nvironmentalism is something more central and vastly more important. . . . [Earth's] soil, water, and atmosphere . . . have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to their present condition by the activity of the biosphere, a stupendously complex layer of living creatures whose activities are locked together in precise but tenuous global cycles of energy and transformed organic matter.  The biosphere creates our special world anew every day, every minute, and holds it in a unique, shimmmering physical disequilibrium.  On that disequilibrium the human species is in total thrall. . . . When we destroy ecosystems and extinguish species, we . . . threaten our own existence. . . .

"[Humans] exist as one organic miracle linked to others.  The natural environment we treat with such unnecessary ignorance and recklessness . . . remains our one and only home.  To its special conditions we are intimately adapted in every one of the bodily fibers and biochemical transactions that gives us life."

In Chapter 5, Wilson gives us a similar warning from ecological economists: "To supplant natural ecosystems entirely, even mostly, [with technological substitutes] is an economic and even physical impossibility. . . . [A] much greater dependence on artificial means--in other words, environmental prostheses--puts at risk not just the biosphere but also humanity itself.

"Most environmental scientists believe that the shift has already been taken too far. . . . Ancient and vulnerable, [Mother Nature] will not tolerate the undisciplined appetite of her gargantuan infant much longer."

And yet, Wilson's projection in Chapter 3 of a future after biosphere collapse is nowhere near as bleak as that of T. C. Boyle in his novel, A Friend of the Earth. 
Read more )

A metaphor

Oct. 29th, 2005 10:46 am
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Humanity is crammed onto the Titanic, which is barrelling toward an iceberg. The iceberg is still far enough away that only a few sharp-eyed people can see it in the dark. Some of those people are banging on the control-room door, yelling at the captain to change course. So far, he's turned the wheel a few degrees to port, but we don't know if he did that because of the iceberg or because he was planning to anyway. It's not enough, of course, though he may not realize that. Maybe he thinks a glancing blow to the iceberg would be no problem, given all the engineering that went into making the ship "unsinkable."

Even if he does turn the wheel hard over, the massive inertia of the Titanic is such that it may not be able to change course fast enough. So some other sharp-eyed people are making the rounds of all the passengers and crew, trying to get them all to move to the port side of the ship and heel it over some to help it turn faster. Many of the people they talk to complain that this could capsize the ship and kill us all anyway. They may be right, but it's definitely the lesser of the two dangers--even though there aren't enough lifeboats, by a factor of millions.

What does the iceberg represent? Well, here's the list of possibilities I've come up with so far:
  1. Depletion of clean water supplies.

  2. Massive crop failures due to global warming, topsoil depletion, a defect in a genetically-engineered crop species, or an unexpected side effect of the extinction of a wild species.

  3. Deadly global pandemics resulting from global warming and populations displaced by rising sea levels.

  4. Collapse of electricity grids due to accelerating rises in oil prices. This would make it very difficult to produce fertilizer, or to provide fuel for most vehicles, including farm equipment.

  5. The catastrophic failure of a misguided attempt at solving global environmental problems using a quick, cheap technical fix, such as J. Craig Venter's plan to make genetically-engineered carbon-dioxide-eating microbes.

  6. Total economic collapse and/or global thermonuclear war resulting from any of the above.

March 2015

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