Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Out of Joint

Do we need nature?

A Weary Question Someone Once Asked Me



We are out of joint with our world.  Needing nature is not an issue; we are part of nature.  The problem is how we are to fit into our tiny world.  Our civilisation is a new thing under this sun and we have not yet learned to run it in a limited world; we need more new things under the sun.  If we cannot adapt our economy to stability instead of growth, we either must expand beyond the planet or die. 

We cannot abandon our nature, but we must adapt it.  As long as humanity sticks to moral values that once we could afford, we will be unable to progress beyond social parasitism that threatens to destroy us.  If we are to stay on the planet for the next few millennia, we must model ourselves on ecologies that have remained stable for millions of years, even though based on self-interest.  Otherwise we had better master the technology and sociology that will equip us to expand off the planet.

Do We Need Nature?


We have been out of joint with our world for the entire brief dawn of humanity.  This won't last.  We have broken all sorts of evolutionary records in the last fifty thousand years or so, and we shall break at least one other in more like fifty years.  Which one, I cannot say, but if it is the wrong one, that record will go unrecorded except by possible future palaeontologists -- and not human palaeontologists. 

For millennia prophets have trumpeted doom in this key, and been derided by realists when the sky did not instantly come tumbling down.  Both prophets and realists were blind to the differences between global and personal time-scales, forgetting that the whimper that ends the world may draw out over many human generations: the twinkling of an eye certainly, but the eye of a planet, not a human eye. 

Out of joint.  That is the problem, not our greed, our cruelty, our stupidity; nature produces many cruel and greedy species and we have rivals in stupidity just as thoughtlessly frantic and mindlessly destructive.  Our special problem is that our world has limited scope for exploitation, while we, like rats, have no limit to our capacity for consumption, but lack the capacity to appreciate the consequences of our consumption. Rats accept such consequences with uncomprehending philosophy. Uncomprehending recrimination is more like our style.

We are ill-adapted in several dimensions at once; we live too fast, too small, too large, too chaotically…  And in the face of evidence or logic we deny that once consumed or destroyed, our cake cannot be uneaten, nor our seedcorn replenished.  A human heritage takes time to build, an infrastructure takes generations, and a biological heritage takes ages upon ages, beyond the entire prehistory of modern humans. 

Nor is the problem the agony of the biologist who sees beauty after ineffable beauty disappear into dead-end slums and unproductive deserts, where a ten-gram sunbird is the only bird in sight, and then because it is on its way to the pot.  Such effects now are legion in countries where within living memory there were over a thousand species of birds, many of which should in fact have supported food production indefinitely.   

No, distasteful though it might seem to people of delicate taste and perception, species and entire ecological systems have come and gone for billions of years, and they have a billion or so to go, as far as we can tell.  The problem is not whether we can alter such facts, but whether we can pilot the human heritage into and through challenges beyond any that a species has faced, or been equipped to face, in the past. 

Our human heritage…  How affected, how pretentious…  What is so special about our human heritage?  What is it about our nature that entitles us so much as even to speak of it in terms of our human heritage?

Well, it is what we are.  To let it go is treason against ourselves and against all that it makes any sense for us to care about.  It is reasonable and proper to foster our future as something precious.  Through some hundreds of thousands of years of short, nasty and brutish lives, through suffering, selfishness, vandalism and shame, humanity has inched upward, slipped back; we have fought nature, terrifying, ruthless and inexhaustible, in environments beautiful, exploitable, and very, very exhaustible. In particular we have faced humans, superstitious, selfish, thoughtless, and self-righteously genocidal. 

For tens of thousands of years of smug brutishness we took what we could for gain, and destroyed what we could for fun; forget the noble savage, the nature-wise hunter-gatherer -- in what single case has that nobility or wisdom survived overpopulation with nowhere to evict competitors, with no agronomist to heal the scars of slash-and-burn? 

And yet on average mankind has risen, not year by year at first, but age by age.  Through disaster and disgrace, by grinding toil and rare leap of intellect, we somehow improved our situation to create something truly new under the sun.  Human civilisation, in particular technological civilisation and universal suffrage, are new, new, new.  Unbelievably, we now have greater power to steer our fate, than any species in the last four and a half billion years on this planet. 

Humanity has vitality and power, but we will need more than that to survive the parasitism that our social structure breeds: the whinging liberalism of the privileged, the destructive resentment of the poor, the smug greed of fat cats, the rapacity of the professional criminal, the self-indulgent cruelty of idealists.   Faced with decisions that dwarf the dilemmas of crossroads in times past, we make do with the excuses and recriminations of politicians that exploit social parasitism.  Our strengths are infrastructure and intellect.  Our threats are inertia and expedient justification of half-baked principles. 

And a good job too!  Alternatives to what our leaders try to enforce are immoral or impossible. 

Actually, in this sense "immoral or impossible" simply means "unpalatable to the audible public and therefore to the politicians".  The outcomes of sound alternatives would not be nearly as unpalatable as the inevitable failure of self-serving or half-baked ideologically posed political or religious schemes or parasitic traditions, but such consequences are comfortably down the road; in day-to-day politics our leaders can safely deride them as illogical, obscene or naïve.  Or, if they come to pass inconveniently early, can be presented as lies, misunderstandings of actual successes, and above all, as someone else's fault.

Well, anyone can yap slogans from the sidelines, and nearly all of humanity does nothing better; but if that is how things are, then what is the recipe for continuing our struggle out of the slough? 

Judge for yourself from the parable of the yucca moth; it is one parable among many similar in nature.  Each female yucca moth gathers pollen from one yucca plant, enough pollen to make a lump generously sufficient to pollinate a flower on a distant plant. On that pollinated flower it lays just a few eggs.   The caterpillars feed on the seeds, but leave perhaps half those seeds uneaten, enough seeds to produce new yucca plants.  Without the assistance of the yucca moths, yucca plants hardly ever set any seed at all. 

This arrangement has developed and endured through ages beyond anything that most people can comprehend — millions of years longer than the history of humanity.  It has survived even though the moths feed on nothing else and nothing else pollinates those species of yucca.  Destroy either, and you guarantee the extinction of both. 

Nature teems with related examples.  Pyralid moth larvae eat perhaps half the seeds in thistle heads, but also eat rivals or other insects that would destroy the rest of the seed.  Thistles do very well where those moths, those apparent parasites of the thistles, are common.  And Lewis Thomas's haunting essay: "The medusa and the snail" describes even more intimate mutual exploitation. And our own body cells are stunning examples of endosymbiotic self interest. 

Such controlled self-interest, greed if you like, is the key to human survival.  The alternative is death, death alike for the future generations of the destructively greedy, and for those who fail to stop the destruction that greedy men cause and commonly try to justify. In the past humanity lived destructively like pigs in clover, not like caterpillars in yucca fruit, and conservation has been driven largely by the gamekeepers of powerful dogs-in-the-manger or by unworldly tree-huggers.  Within living memory opposition to unsustainable whaling has been cursed as woollen-headed interference with the profitability of whaling companies, although the commercial extinction of species after species was common knowledge.  That sort of thing was simple-minded, self-defeating greed, destruction of seed corn. 

Within the body, uncontrolled self-interest manifests itself as cancer.  There is another parable, if you like. 

Schooling is too impotent and does too little to form human nature into what we need for our future.  Love and husbandry foster smug stasis; progress demands need and greed.  Hate combines the drive and the smugness into something monstrous, the malice of modern versions of Macaulay's  puritans, who cursed bear-baiting for hatred of the pleasure rather than hatred of the cruelty.  In the past such hate took the form of racial or religious persecution, but nowadays we have added the hatred of science, hatred of wealth creation, in fact, hatred of anything like progress by other people or other parties.  As Russell observed, the infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to the moralists.  The good conscience of these modern moralists requires nothing better than sabotage and murder according to their dogma.

Simple pleasures, however unoriginal. 

So how are we to emulate our yucca moths, let alone apply their lesson to a larger world than theirs, a larger world than most humans recognise, who cannot  respond rationally even to threats of cometary impact or of pandemics?  The problem is not a meaningless "do we need nature?"; we are part of nature.  The problem is how we are to fit into a world, a "nature" that will be worth living in and possible to grow out of.  If we don't, we die, and before nature has another go at intelligent life, humanity will be as remotely forgotten as the fossilised amphibians in our coal seams. 

First, that weary paradox: to fit into nature demands costly research and technology without obvious benefit.  True of course, but compared to our other problems the challenge and cost are trivial.  Certainly, useful answers cost lives, careers, tragedy, and delay, but such investment could largely be financed out of the world's tobacco consumption alone.  Next, we need design and implementation.  That is a lot harder, cruelly hard; it demands the disciplines of engineering, of application of what science has taught us.   

History, especially recent history, is punctuated with technocratic and political disasters.  One thing all the failures had in common was the absolute faith of the perpetrators in their rightness, harebrained though some of the schemes were.  Few lasted for even one generation.  Self-interest has made free enterprise the most robust of economic systems. 

The trouble is, to survive indefinitely, humanity needs something new, something beyond free enterprise based on greed — and that need is terrifying in the light of the history of economics.  Free enterprise relies on growth.  The merest slackening of growth, let alone reversal, causes national, even world-wide, disasters.  No one has learned how to run a modern country, never mind a planet, even on a steady-state economy, let alone a shrinking economy. In fact, most economists, let alone most businessmen, regard the concept as incomprehensible, even meaningless. Humans are not yucca moths.  We cannot  even maintain a steady growth curve, and to judge from our history, it would be wildly optimistic to predict nothing worse than a global Calcutta in a century or two. 

If we do nothing new, we will die, very messily, fairly quickly, and unmourned, with no one to mourn us and certainly with no one that has reason to mourn us.  If we are to do the yucca-moth trick, we will need to learn new morals, new economics, new sociology, and a lot of technology, and do it all in a few decades at most, rather than centuries.  If we were to succeed, the success not only would be an evolutionary record, but a record for humanity: a stable population, a sustainable economy and ecology…  The very idea sounds like a mockery, and yet, nothing less would work! 

Mind you, there are many ways of achieving such a world; we could cut down our population to a billion or two and live on nature's bounty in a world of free oceans and teeming rainforests.  Or we could fill ocean and land with our husbandry, with videos for zoos and virtual reality for game parks.  Who could ask for anything more?  Then again we could reject wasteful photosynthesis in favour of industrial thermodynamics and chemistry, with a video of a cornfield to satisfy the archaeologists, with house mites for domestic pets, and a bedbug to still the yearnings of anyone who in the twenty-first century probably would have kept a Rottweiler.  

The alternative is to look outward if we prove that we cannot change human nature, and have no choice but to expand.  With proper technology we could conquer Venus and the minor rocks of the solar system within a couple of millennia.  If we were to do it properly we even could leave room for real game parks to accommodate a Rottweiler or two. 


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