Month: April 2013

What is life? AGW and Humans

The first stage, DENIAL, involves people simply not believing that the earth is warming, or secondarily that humans are the cause (quick note: nothing worse than a know-all: climate scientists and Greens need to be aware that they are as vulnerable as the next person to crowing and this is not a subject appropriate for crowing. Let all ego go. Some of us were in the right place at the right time to recognise. It does not give us a right to smug. Smug stinks. Remember that. However…) Despite seeing a 50 year record of global atmospheric CO2 rising every year since 1957, and global air temperatures of the last dozen years in a row being the warmest in a millennium, they dismiss these trends as natural variability. These people see no reason to disturb the status quo. Most people rightfully started at this stage, until presented with convincing evidence. That convincing scientific evidence recently summarized in the 4th IPCC report has, according to opinion polls, dramatically reduced the number of people in Stage 1.
  Many people jump directly from DENIAL to Stage 4, but for others, the next Stage 2, is ANGER, and is manifested by wild comments like “I refuse to live in a tree house in the dark and eat nuts and berries.” People are incensed at the thought of substantially altering their lifestyle. Local newspapers have letters to the editor from people angry to the point of irrational statements hinting darkly about the potential end of modern civilization.
  Stage 3 is BARGAINING. When they reach this stage many people (such as self-righteous radio talk show hosts) who used to be very public deniers of global warming begin making statements that warming ‘won’t be all that bad, it might make a place like (insert your locality) more comfortable’. It is true that variables, like building heating requirements, can cause some decrease in energy demand. Unfortunately, this is offset and overwhelmed by negative and intensely damaging events like later Springs, less predictable weather patterns (impacting on farming capabilities, since farmers depend on seasons), more intense droughts and floods, and so on. At this stage people are still not willing to change lifestyle, or explore energy solutions that are less carbon intensive. They seem willing to ride out this grand global experiment and cope with whatever happens.
  Many people have now moved to Stage 4, DEPRESSION. They consider the acceleration of annual greenhouse gas emissions, the unprecedented speed of warming, and the necessity for international cooperation for a solution, and see the task ahead to be impossible. On my tougher days I confess to sinking back to Stage 4 myself.
  The final stage ACCEPTANCE, are people that acknowledge the scientific facts calmly, and are now exploring solutions to drive down greenhouse gas emissions dramatically, and find non-carbon intensive energy sources. Two factors are important in moving the public from DEPRESSION to this ACCEPTANCE stage.
  First are viable alternatives to show that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is possible without the end of modern civilization. It is very heartening to see wind turbines, LED lighting, thin film solar and hybrid cars on the market right now, not some vague future hope. Second is visionary national leadership, a “Marshall Plan” level of national focus and commitment, so everyone is contributing, and the lifestyle changes needed are broadly shared, in fact becoming a new norm. Progress on that front has not been good so far. An obvious flaw in this analogy is that many people are simply ignoring the global warming issue, a detachment they cannot achieve when they are facing Cancer, for instance.


Update on thesis outline: twelve steps…

 Entirely subconsciously, I started using the work ‘steps’ to describe the stages of the argument and then found that I had expanded them to twelve. Oh, well. Coincidence, I’m afraid.


First step: the prevailing paradigm within which we, humanity, currently operate (the paradigm of the ‘global North’) is dualistic and heirarchical. That is, we think of humanity as separate in quality (having souls, consciousness or other non-material attributes) and this allows us to justify a sense of superiority so that we prioritise human interests over those of the rest of the ecology. This has led to our current ecological crisis.


Second step: the prevailing paradigm has come about as a result of idiosyncracies in the development of human history/culture. In other words, it was not inevitable that the paradigm of the global North became dominant. It just did.


Third step: what we know now about evolutionary science indicates that the two central elements of the paradigm – dualism and heirarchical justification for prioritisation of human interests – are, neither of them, justifiable (sub-step: ironically, it is the development of dualism and hierarchical assumptions that has allowed us to develop scientific thinking – see Descartes, etc, yet this thinking has led us back to the realisation that a mechanistic view of the universe is inadequate).


Fourth step: therefore in order to better reflect our understanding through how we act, and so that we might stop damaging and destroying the ecological context within which we’ve developed and upon which we depend for survival, we need an alternative way of understanding the relationship between our species and the ecological context. We need to uproot the illusion that the world was made for humans.


Fifth step: one way that offers this alternative perspective is to consider how idiosyncratic our historical development has been: we need not have come to this relationship with the world as a species. It was not inevitable. It just happened. The myths, explanations and ideologies we’ve used to justify our exploitation of the planet developed on the basis of our idiosyncratic history too, so do not offer stable grounds for a more integrated response.


Sixth step: looking at our development from an evolutionary/ scientific perspective offers a better explanation for how we have developed and therefore needs to be central to any further response we make. Things simply are the way they are as a result of all that has happened. In this sense, we are no more ‘responsible agents’ than a rock is responsible for its current condition, or even than a plant is. Everything that has happened to take us to this point is perfectly natural and yet was never inevitable. We can ‘wake up’ to that and then see what level of agency we have in this context.


Seventh step: Part of our understanding of ourselves in the context of evolutionary science means accepting that everything, including humans, obeys natural laws as a matter of fact. Evolution has come about by chance developments that have nevertheless obeyed natural laws. Humans have come about in the context of evolution and chance or idiosyncratic opportunities have allowed particular developments to succeed and others not to, but all successful evolutionary developments obey natural laws. One natural law is the second law of thermodynamics that states that things fall apart, that all matter cycles and energy flows dissipate towards a state of entropy. The evolution of life is sometimes said to violate this law but it accords to it perfectly, if understood from the point of view of being a) temporary and b) the development of a complex process that dissipates more energy than would be the case if there was no life (I NEED EVIDENCE TO SHOW THAT THIS STATEMENT IS PLAUSIBLE).


Eighth step: And yet there is a spectrum of response between ourselves, the plant and the rock that can be seen to operate according to the complexity of the available reactions. All processes respond to conditions, exchanging energy and information: it’s just a matter of degree to what extent and how complex this response system is. Consciousness gives us a level of ability to respond that involves an additional potential to influence the feedback processes through observation. We can see that we see and that can change how we respond. Observation or awareness of what we are doing is, in itself, a response.


Ninth step: Observation or awareness of this kind is closely comparable to the Zen practice of mindfulness, or meditation (here I describe parallels with the Soto Zen tradition). The potential for an individual to change the trajectory of his or her individual response to the current ecological crisis lies entirely in their ability to practice observing their own reactions. The very act of observation opens up the possibility of creating biofeedback processes that elicit different sets of responses. (substep: one aspect of this observation may accord further with our scientific knowledge if we can see that life is a dynamic dissipation of energy and that it has evolved at one edge towards complexity and diversity so that more niches have been filled and more energy captured in the process – I’m not sure I can justify this statement). So we can get better at responding to the ecological context by realising how embedded we are and that then may cause us to shift our responses from short-term, immediate gratification to broader consideration of the impact of our activity on all our relationships and contexts. We may see ourselves as embedded within systems, rather than as separate entities. However, there is no formula that says we ought all to do the same thing, or that reponses must be based on principle. This is the anti-meme, or anti-patterned, element to the response that is elicited by this practice.


Tenth step: A major criticism of this approach is that individual activity will not create enough of a shift to change the trajectory of the human-nature relationship. Community and political action is also necessary. But to be consistent with what has been said so far, any community or political activity will have a very different character from ideologically-based activity, being based, instead, on the notion of voluntary elicitation, non-prescriptiveness, and context-based response. The main thrust of any support for communities must be to find ways that communities can see themselves, individually and species-wide, within an ecological context. This may involve considering our activities as reflective of the activities of, not our ‘primate’ selves but of the interrelationship that we embody between virii, bacteria (both ancestral, like mitochondria, and concurrent, like gut-bacteria) and so may have implications for disease control, diet, and so on. It may involve considering the soil not as rock but as microbial ecosystem and systems in general as far more integral to our self-understanding than our current fragmented tendencies allow. It may involve developing technology that biomimics, or considering entire human manufacturing and processing systems as cyclical (cradle to cradle) along the lines proposed by William McDonough.


Eleventh step: Part of the practice of developing this kind of attitude may include becoming aware of the parallels between a evolutionary science-based understanding of our response to the ecological crisis, and the Zen practice of Zazen, Chan, or meditation. The act of watching oneself in the dynamic context of consciousness and ecology brings to light an awareness of the patterns that come into existence in thought and dissipate, the emotions that are triggered by similar patterns of activity. Some of these patterns can be rigidly repetitive and those tend to engender a sense of inescapable fatalism. In Buddhist terms, these rigid patterns are represented by the term, ‘karma’, and the idea of repeating the same reaction to similar sets of stimuli is well known in the behavioural sciences as potentially pathological behaviour (think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for instance). On the other hand, being able to reflect on the repetition of patterns of response itself develops the potential for a loosening of the inevitability of that repetition. Instead of being caught in an endless loop, the possibility emerges to situate the response in a broader context, so that new possibilities are explored and new patterns are created. This mirrors the very process of evolution itself where patterns are frequently subtly altered by the context and respond accordingly. ‘Evolution does not repeat itself, but it rhymes’, as Mark Twain might have said.


Twelfth step: It may also be useful to become aware of the parallels between our understanding of how patterns and relationships work in nature, and the human impact caused by rigid adherence to patterns. As outlined above, all activity, including all human activity, is natural, by definition. Even the most ‘permanent’ form will, at some point, yield to the second law. Yet rigid repetition of patterns occurs both in various contexts in the cosmos (very repetitive patterns and long-lived elements that cannot be broken down into their constituents might be examples here), and in the human situation. Human examples of the creation of rigid patterns include the development of plastics that cannot then be broken down for millenia, or the creation of radioactive waste. Seeing these in the context of understanding Zen teachings can help us to understand why an increasing awareness, a waking up to the impact of the creation of these more permanent, or rigid, forms is adding to the weight of what we must respond to. Seeing ourselves and our impact as impermanent and then working towards that impermanence may provide a more useful model than our current drive to make our mark on the world.

Expecting progress? Let it go!

When you have a really successful yoga practice or meditation, you can find the rest of the day begin to edge you into frustration. You can begin to feel as though you deserve the fruits of your labour, as though you have a right to ease and tranquility for the rest of the day. That’s not how it happens, though, and setting up a clear pattern of entitlement is just another way of being attached to results.  Results mean nothing. This work is all about letting each experience arise, just as it is, and letting it go, just as it is. The fantasies that there is a connection between what I have done and what I am entitled to expect is the delusion of conditioning and draws us back to karmic cause and effect. The lesson is in letting go even of a successful practice (or a successful encounter, a pleasant exchange) so there is space for the next relationship to come to awareness, paid due attention, and then released in its turn. The only progress that matters is the progress into what is happening, just as it is happening, releasing at each expectation, each fear, each attachment that can only bring suffering. (A better description of this process can be found at But you knew that. Image

I am a heretic

I’m re-writing the entire thesis. Hence the delay in posting. When I have a version of Ch One that’s roughly comprehensible, I’ll upload it. During the course of copying and pasting sections from a vast number of other documents (that’s how I’m writing my thesis, like a mad and messy version of painting by numbers but less creatively satisfying) I came across the following (was a footnote, will now appear as text):

Those who call into question the wisdom of policies and practices which demand a re-balancing of human with non-human interests are sometimes called ‘human-hating’ (on the other hand, those who call for such a re-balancing are just as often themselves called ‘anti-human’. See, for instance, Patrick Moore’s website). Robin Attfield finds it incomprehensible that we could view the complex cognitive capacities as anything but ‘higher’ processes, which are intrinsically more valuable than ‘lower’ processes like photosynthesis;  J. Baird Callicott recanted his own outspoken position on a rethinking of prioritising human over other interests for land use or animal husbandry in his Palinode. To venture to question that human capacities are indeed at the apex of the evolutionary (Christmas?) tree is seen as little less than heresy.

Heresy. What a wonderful world. I am a heretic and I didn’t even realise it. Well, it may explain the John, crying in the wilderness, feel about all this. Alright, I know, that’s just plain arrogant. But at least grant me that there’s a sense in which a heretic is never going to be deeply popular or even in tune with the current groove (let alone wealthy or employable – which reminds me of a joke my son told me the other day: X is a philosopher and a poet, which is just a polite way of saying ‘long term unemployed’ …)