Sunday, April 24, 2011

Exclusive: Plants and animals join forces with climate change deniers

A recent investigation reveals that the world's plants and animals have adopted a bold but risky strategy to save themselves from the ravages of global climate change. They have joined forces with the world's climate change deniers.

This reversal has curious origins and follows decades of diplomatic signals from the plant and animal kingdoms to the world's scientific community that climate change must be halted or there will be "serious consequences." The reversal of strategy began when domestic cats and dogs watched the Life After People series on The History Channel along with their putative owners. The cats and dogs then described scenes from the show to their wild counterparts. From there word swept through the animal kingdom and was overheard by many plants as well.

Life After People seemed like a utopian fantasy until some enterprising house plants realized that they might be able to set in motion events which would end the dangers that humans pose. The plants would make humans unwitting accomplices in their own extinction. It was a dangerous plan and one that would require considerable sacrifice among those in both the plant and animal kingdoms. When word of the plan spread far and wide, both kingdoms embraced it as the only path to survival for at least some species. Many realized they were doomed already; but if they could halt or even just reduce the extent of the Sixth Great Extinction, their actions would not be in vain.

Plants in elite greenhouses were recruited by dogs brought there by their putative owners. These greenhouses are ones that serve corporate clients in major cities, but especially the coal, oil, and natural gas industries. Once these plants arrived at various corporate headquarters, they began to send messages to the corporate executives using frequencies barely inside the audible range and at such a low volume as to be subliminal. The messages were broad-ranging and included the following:

  1. We plants love carbon dioxide.

  2. Warmer weather is fun. (This was used primarily on those in colder climates.)

  3. Climate change is natural.

  4. People will adapt.

Perhaps the most pernicious (and therefore effective) message on the list above was the last. But, representatives of the plant and animal kingdoms were at loggerheads over it for days as they deliberated in the coordinating council which eventually approved the plan. The animals argued that there should be no message concerning adaptation since bringing up this issue would only worry humans. The plants argued that most humans were stupid enough to believe they could overcome anything through their technology. Using the adaptation message would encourage humans to ignore even the most alarming evidence of climate change. The plants carried the day when they proposed to the animals that the plan focus on fossil fuel executives, thought to be the most gullible humans on Earth and some of the most powerful. The plants argued that these executives would hire many people to propagate the messages across the globe to other humans.

And, so like suicide bombers, knowing that many would be sacrificed in the mission to eliminate humans from the globe, the plants gradually populated major office buildings owned by the fossil fuel companies. They transmitted their messages from starting time in the morning until late at night to executives working long hours in their offices.

To the surprise and delight of both the plant and animal kingdoms, the plan worked exceedingly well. They began to see their messages in various forms everywhere in human society. The humans were so ingenious that they had disguised and enhanced the basic messages in ways not even conceived of by either the plants or the animals. The consensus that up to that point had been building to halt climate change--a consensus due in large part to the information both kingdoms had previously sent to scientists--was now being destroyed.

There was jubilation in the encampment of the coordinating council (though the sacrifices ahead tempered their celebration somewhat). Both kingdoms felt they had already accomplished their objective: the eventual extinction of human beings. The two kingdoms had demonstrated self-sacrifice and cooperation in ways that they were sure humans would never be capable of. They believed that humanity's fate was sealed.

But, will the discovery of and reporting on this diabolical plan now endanger its success? I asked a leading plant who wished not to be identified because he feared for his own safety. "Your reporting won't matter," he said. "All the climate change deniers we've been able to recruit in human society will drown out your story. And, they will, of course, argue that the whole report is nonsense because first of all, plants can't talk, and second of all, the plants told them that plants love carbon dioxide."

"But won't such statements seem a bit contradictory?" I inquired.

The plant just shook his flowering top. "You don't even understand human nature as well as we plants do."

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P.S. If you are a climate change denier, before you comment on this post, read my Comments Policy. You may decide it's not worth your time to comment here.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Do the world's contemplative religious traditions demonstrate a path to sustainability?

Within nearly all the great religions of history we find contemplative traditions which espouse the curious principle that foregoing excessive wealth and consumption (and therefore energy use) will actually make one happier. As a general rule these traditions advocate eating only what one needs to be healthy; exercising to maintain physical vigor (but not excessive strength); studying to attune oneself to the subtleties of nature and of the mind; and shielding oneself from the distractions of daily life. All this, they claim, will result in a fuller, more joyful existence.

How is this possible when, evolutionarily speaking, humans are relentless energy-gathering machines? If we didn't take in more energy than we expend, we couldn't have survived. In prehistoric societies finely balanced between enough and too little, it made sense to gather as much energy as one could and store it. The calories from gorging on a beast felled in the hunt were stored as fat. (Fat was good in those days!) As techniques for preserving food such as smoking and salting arose, these became ways to store calories outside the body. And, with the advent of agriculture, surplus grain became a very efficient way to store calories needed to make it through the winter.

We are beings attuned to a world of scarcity, or at least, periodic scarcity. Now comes industrial society with its industrialized agriculture that produces so much food that it can now support 7 billion people and perhaps as many domesticated animals. In fact, the amount of food is so great and predictably available that a human population genetically designed for scarcity has become obese by the hundreds of millions in wealthy countries. It is our natural instinct to gorge when extra food is around--in case there isn't any later on. But, at least in wealthy countries, there always is.

And yet, the contemplative religious traditions live on. Some people point to the best lived examples of those traditions as "the next step in human evolution." They might mean the Christian saints. Or the Sufis in Islam. Or the Zen monks in Buddhism. But clearly members of these contemplative orders are not "the next step" because such people have been with us for a very long time. In evolution-speak, they have been selected for. My question is, What purpose do they serve in society from an evolutionary point of view?

It seems as if they are almost a separate branch of the human evolutionary tree. Yet, given that many of these traditions foreswear family life, how can they be considered more "fit" than others outside such traditions? And, still they reappear with every generation, as if humankind carries some recessive gene for the contemplative life that shows up again and again.

Some will certainly argue that contemplative religious traditions are strictly cultural phenomena. But every cultural phenomenon is at its base a genetic and therefore evolutionary one. Non-adaptive behaviors disappear after a few generations. Behaviors exhibited by adherents to these traditions must somehow be adaptive.

And, that's why I ask if we have anything to learn from these traditions about a possible path to sustainability. Certainly, they have much to say about the current frazzled spiritual state of humankind, a state engendered at least in part by excessive energy consumption. Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think the great mass of people is going to adopt the disciplined life of the monk. But I see the monk's life as a sort of model of energy conservation. And, it's one that celebrates the result of self-restraint rather than lamenting it. Such a path finds that life is made more vibrant through restraint rather than excess.

This path, however, is not necessarily just associated with religious traditions. The materialist philosophers of ancient Greece known as Epicureans demonstrate a non-religious path to a life of self-restraint. Today, we wrongly identify the Epicureans with excess, when this view of life's aims actually comes from the Cyrenaics who were, to our way of thinking, pure hedonists. They believed that life should be devoted to pleasure derived from sensation. They did not deny that pleasure could come from mental activity. But such activity was secondary.

The Epicureans also believed that maximizing pleasure is the goal of life. But this goal should be pursued through self-restraint in mind and body. Excessive eating only leads to discomfort and disease later. Preoccupation with sexual gratification only leads to disappointment and frustration. Epicureanism--contrary to popular conceptions--was actually a sort of asceticism. But it was not based on devotion to a deity, but rather a frank evaluation of the human condition, particularly its material aspects without reference to religion per se.

Is there is a message in all this for those who will live in an energy-constrained world? Any such message does seem like it would be a hard sell. But, perhaps no selling will be necessary as energy constraints bear down on us and force us into simpler lives. Still, there are ways to live simply and badly, and there are ways to live simply and well. Some make fun of a sustainability movement that tells people that a simpler life is actually better in many ways. Perhaps that message merely reflects cultural traditions that have been with us since the beginning of history. Or perhaps it represents an evolutionary pathway that is ready to reassert itself when the right conditions arise.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Road to Fukushima: The Nuclear Industry's Wrong Turn

My latest column on Scitizen entitled "The Road to Fukushima: The Nuclear Industry's Wrong Turn" has now been posted. Here is the teaser:

Nuclear researchers knew long ago that reactor designs now in wide use had already been bested in safety by another design. Why did the industry turn its back on that design? Read more.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The coolest book I've ever read on energy

It may seem a bit over the top to say that a book entitled Into the Cool is the coolest book I've ever read on energy. But energy junkies should take note of its two compelling theses: First, the eventual heat death of the universe--a supposed consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics--has, to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, been greatly exaggerated. Second, life--in all its forms--is NOT an anomaly made improbable by the aforesaid Second Law, but rather a direct and likely inevitable consequence of it.

Both statements had me on the edge of my seat as I made my way through the book which is written more in the vein of a scientific detective novel than a dry look at the science behind those suppositions. Not much time is spent defending the first thesis until the very end of the book. And, so as not to ruin the plot, I'll let you discover the reasoning behind this view from authors Eric Schneider and Dorion Sagan yourself. But the bulk of the book is devoted to a little-known field called nonequilibrium thermodynamics, or NET for short. Because the idea that humans are NET creatures in open systems provides explanations for so much of our evolutionary history and our current behavior, readers will likely find themselves having "aha" moments every chapter as I did.

But what does it mean to be an NET creature? First, let's remember that, thermodynamically speaking, to be at equilibrium means that there is no movement of energy across the specified system. In other words, if you were at equilibrium, you'd be dead. But just as we are taught that nature abhors a vacuum, so too, it seems, it also abhors an energy gradient--which is lucky for us!

And, here is the first "aha" moment in the book. Life--humans included--is particularly adept at reducing energy gradients. And, the biggest energy gradient in our neck of the universe is the one involving the sun and outer space where temperatures step down from 5,800 degrees K to just 2.7 degrees K, that is 2.7 degrees above absolute zero. Of course, the Earth is part of a planetary system that is part of that energy gradient. And, researchers have verified that living systems are particularly adept and efficient at diverting the solar energy which falls on the Earth to their own purposes. The cycling of energy and materials through the biosphere may have seemed miraculous to the ancients. But to NET researchers this cycling is simply made possible by the configuration of the solar system.

A second "aha" moment comes when Schneider and Sagan explain why Darwinian evolution alone can explain neither the origin of life nor its diversity and complexity. For that we need to add an energy gradient which creates self-sustaining cycles on the inanimate, primordial Earth--chemical and energetic cycles which seem like precursors to life to the NET researcher's eye. Once life arises, the same gradient steers evolution toward those organisms that cycle energy and materials most efficiently over time. And, as it turns out, complex climax ecosystems are masters at this task. NET drives evolution toward higher complexity because that complexity is capable in the long run of reducing energy gradients more thoroughly than simpler living systems or inanimate ones.

Life is what NET calls a metastable system. It is stable so long as it is receiving the requisite energy and material inputs. It does have a range of acceptable inputs and so can adjust to changing seasons and circumstances.

And, the "aha" moments keep piling up from here. (Don't worry. There are so many of them I won't ruin the fun for those who decide to read the book.) Sexual reproduction, as it turns out, is a way to maintain continuity for any living gradient-reducing system over time, long after the first living members die due to the wear and tear of hanging around an energy gradient for an entire lifetime. Try not to think about that next time you make love to your significant other!

One of the reasons that living systems are better at dissipating energy than inanimate ones is that they persist far longer than, say, whirlpools or tornados. But even so, it behooves those systems not to move too fast. Of late humans have--since the discovery of fossil fuels--become more like a pioneer species than a mature member of an ecosystem. We have greatly increased our cycling of matter and energy through the use of the concentrated ancient sunlight that fossil fuels represent. But while pioneer species multiply quickly, they eventually find their numbers trimmed back considerably as ecological succession proceeds. The authors recommend that we quickly wean ourselves off depleting supplies of oil and other fossil fuels and use the more sustainable, but less concentrated gradient-reducing wind turbines and solar panels. The move would reflect the age-old successful strategy of long persistent living systems which forgo "short-term maximal expansion for stability and the consequent opportunity to expand in the future."

Echoing the ideas of historian Joseph Tainter, the authors remind us that "[w]hen the energy available for the formation of complex systems is taken away, these systems revert to a more primitive level of function." Human society is an example of a gradient-reducing system that requires continuous inputs of energy to maintain itself. Tainter suggests and NET research confirms that a diminution of that energy spells reversion to simpler and therefore less energy-intensive means of organizing daily business. The path can be gradual or it can be sudden, leading to a collapse of the population.

Schneider and Sagan suggest a reformulation of Descartes in thermodynamic terms to explain the existence of life in the universe. Instead of "I think, therefore I am," they propose "I am because I dissipate." This view implies that life may be far more widespread in the universe than is commonly believed. The elements necessary to life are found in comets and meteors, suggesting they are available elsewhere far beyond our solar system.

It may seem a little depressing to think that one's purpose in the universe is simply to provide efficient paths for energy to degrade. But then again, think about how much better you feel now knowing that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is really your friend and not your enemy as so many mistaken 19th century scientists tried to convince us long ago.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Taking a break -- no regular post

I'm taking a short break and expect to make a regular post again on Sunday, April 10.