Wednesday, October 26, 2016

People, Who Live in a Glass Houses

In the previous entry, “In a Glass Dome,” we considered the problem of accepting the simpler scientific explanation for something when that acceptance requires a change in world view. Perhaps global warming as a result of human activity is such an explanation. It may not seem as momentous as accepting that the earth moves around the sun, but it is akin to it.

God by Terry GilliamPhoto: Cinema 5/EMI Films (BBC America)
Those who believe that the natural world was created for us by a benevolent God (well, once we disobeyed, he became a bit less benevolent, but it was still our world) those believers, may have a hard time accepting that we can screw the place up and disrupt the divine order of things. For such believers, making that claim overestimates our power; besides, because divine intervention to destroy or restore the world is always possible, thinking that we can control what happens is an act of pride. However, if we see ourselves as just part of the natural world, not its overlord but the cleverest of its animals, we realize that we can die out, perhaps the victims of our own cleverness because nothing guarantees that our species will survive to the end of the world with trumpets and angels and all. So in order to accept global warming as a serious problem, we need first to accept that we are not the special creatures of an all powerful being who will do what is best for us.

The opposite of the humility-based argument is the hubris-based argument, expressed by those confident that humans’ godlike ingenuity can increase the capacity of the world regardless of what happens. They point to how the Green Revolution, resulting from an array of agricultural innovations that replaced traditional farming methods, radically increased the world-wide crop yield. The increase in food after World War II was almost miraculous, and some places where starvation was endemic were eventually able to produce surpluses. Those who feel that the potential for innovation is unlimited are not intimidated by the warming of the earth. 

Of course the Catch-22 of that position is that since we have not been innovative enough to to reduce the rate at which the earth is warming as a result of our other innovations, why do we think we can solve the problems resulting from global warming when we could not deal with its causes? Even the Green Revolution, with its heavy reliance on chemicals, fossil fuel, mono-culture, and massive irrigation, is itself becoming a problem as the cheap food it has been able to yield has wiped out more resilient, low-impact, local agricultural practices. Now the climate disruptions created by global warming--the shifts in seasonal patterns, droughts and floods, and violent weather events—are putting stress on industrial agricultural practices that helped produce the warming. It is a gamble to go on in an unsustainable manner depending on some unspecified, future breakthrough to save us, to think of the earth as an infinitely open system.

In 1966, the economist Kenneth Boulding argued we should treat earth as a closed system and understand that we need to be as careful of what we are doing as we would be on a spaceship. Buckminister Fuller warned in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1968) that fossil fuel is a finite resource developed over millions of years, a resource we should treat as temporary, something we should use to develop renewable sources of energy. NASA’s Big Blue Marble composite photograph taken by Apollo 17 in 1975 shows the globe of earth as a whole surrounded by the blackness of space. Though we can travel over the continuous surface of the earth and never reach an edge, this image shows that sharp border between the earth and the blackness surrounding it: our earth is a small finite spot in a huge hostile universe. 

In 1988 when James Hanson of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies testified before the US Congress about global warming, some Americans began to take notice. People of my generation grew up with the fear of a nuclear apocalypse and were used to the idea that people could make the earth unlivable. However, the Mutually Assured Destruction approach to world peace (appropriate acronym, MAD) involved devices whose sole purpose was to destroy, so all we needed to do was not turn them on. But global warming is different because it is a byproduct of living well, the dark side of progress. In order to stop the destruction we must do more than not turn things on; we must turn things off, and to do that we must change the way we live at a fundamental level.

Just as Galileo’s observations and analysis cemented Copernicus’s heliocentric explanation in place, the subsequent work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has forced us to accept that our actions are affecting the earth’s viability for humans. Global warming reminds us that in deciding what to do, we must not ask only “Can we do it?” but we must also ask “Should we do it?” The first is a scientific question; the second uses scientifically derived information, but it is an ethical question. We must rediscover that the universe does not revolve around us humans, that the earth was not made for us, but that we have evolved and thrived in the earth’s environment, and if that environment changes too much, our species will die out.

Once again accepting scientific results disrupts comforting religious and humanistic world views. To extend the survival of our species, we must accept the possibility of its death.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

In a Glass Dome

So let us begin with a classic case of simplifying.
Ptolemy’s planets from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1st Edition, 1771). Wikipedia

In this diagram of Ptolemy’s universe (developed ca. 150), planets revolve in epicycles around invisible points revolving around a stable earth. This explanation squared with the ancient belief that our earth was the center of the universe. 

Based on Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Wikipedia
Move the sun to the center as Copernicus did in 1543, and the need for epicycles disappears. Natural philosophers had found Ptolemy’s explanation satisfactory for about 1200 years and resisted Copernicus’s. Beginning in 1609, however, Galileo began making observations with telescopes, producing a series of phenomena that made the geocentric model of the universe harder and harder to defend. However, even Copernicus, for whom the starry dome of the night sky overhead became the “immobile sphere of fixed stars,” did not get it all right.
The accuracy of the sun-centered explanation of the motion of the planets seems obvious to us now, since it is a so much simpler explanation. We often refer to Occam’s razor to explain the scientific preference for the simplest explanation, but William of Occam (1287-1347) was not the first one to formulate this idea; ironically, a much earlier statement of it, “We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible,” was made by Ptolemy. However, another formulation of Occam’s razor is more precise in its application of simplicity: “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected” (Wikipedia). 
The Ptolemaic model required many assumptions, some of which reached far beyond astronomy and were entangled with religious belief so that in the 16th Century, disassembling the world view based on the geocentric universe was hardly a simple act because the heliocentric view of the planets required a whole new view of the world.Religion functioned then as science does now: a universally accepted schema for explaining the world. For us, science predicts the future, tells us what to eat, heals us, speaks the obscure language of mathematics, explicates the stars and planets to us, and understands the mysteries of the invisible quanta, just as medieval Christianity did. If some discovery falsified crucial assumptions of the scientific process—the discovery that, for example, the earth is actually a computer simulation and the code has just been changed so that some conclusions already proven are no longer true—if such a proposition were itself proven, would we all embrace it immediately because it was a simple explanation for why some outcomes defied science? For the 16th Century, heliocentrism was not a simple solution.

Galileo’s proofs of the Copernican universe met with serious push-back, and he died while still in official disgrace, but later, when he was reburied in a place of greater honor, the middle finger of his right hand was removed from his body. Currently on display in a glass dome, it is suitably mounted in a vertical position, perhaps as a warning to those of us too invested in our assumptions to see the simple truth of our situation.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Natural Language Processing

I am writing this during allergy season, which many people associate with the appearance of goldenrod. However, goldenrod is not a problem for allergy suffers, because its flashy flowers mean it depends on attracting insects to spread its heavy pollen. If you are searching for a culprit, look among those plants who do not care whether anyone notices them, those with, say, green flowers, like ragweed, which blooms at the same time as goldenrod. Its nondescript flowers sticking straight up in the air depend on wind pollination, so they fill the air with their pollen that we then breathe in. How we understand the world influences how we see it.
Monarch Butterfly on Golden Rod
I have thought that perhaps I can help people find that richer relationship with the natural world through the power of metaphor, which charges the world with the electricity of imagination and enables us to see and feel the excitement inherent in the world that surrounds and includes us. Just look at the names of those two late summer plants: “golden rod” for the tall beautiful plant that entices insects to itself as part of its sexual reproduction and “rag weed” for the unattractive, low down plant that promiscuously spreads its pollen to unwelcome passages. The contrast in their natures is captured in the imagery of the popular name—riches and rags.
I call what I want to do “nature writing” rather than “environmental writing”, because environmental writing seems more journalistic and news/event driven and shifts focus as the news of the day shifts focus. Nature writing, in my lexicon, strives to be reflective and universal; I want my writing to be powered by our engagement with the nature where “lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” However, I am beginning to think that I can no longer write about nature without some environmental undertones or overtones. To deal with a real place is to deal with its ecology, and as McKibbon pointed out in 1989 (and is even more obvious today) there is no ecology that is unaffected by human decision making.
But even my dependence on explicit metaphor may be suspect. As George Lackoff and Mark Johnson pointed out in Metaphors We Live By, first published in 1987, even our everyday language is shot through with metaphor, and we use interconnected networks of metaphor to define and clarify our expression. For example, an idea is like a plant: it grows and spreads and can be nurtured and can die. Metaphors drawn from concrete experience of nature weave their way into our thinking, and those ideas then echo in our descriptions of nature, so that the ancient forest becomes majestic and inspiring like a grand idea. That relationship suggests that language is a good way into nature because language and nature interact in our experience, just as our abandoned fields of disturbed earth create an environment for ragweed, and ragweed creates an environment for us. And now I will go blow my nose.