Internet Comment: Letter to Lisa-ann Gershwin
Climate Change
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20131129                Science (Climate Change)

posted 29 Nov 2013 at
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Dr. Gershwin,

I found your name in an internet article by Karla Cripps of CNN, November 7, 2013 titled "Jellyfish taking over oceans, experts warn" at . This article basically summarized your views; how successfully I can't judge. It ended with the following quote attributing it further to you:. "Sadly, I am one of a growing chorus of people who believe that, yes, it is too late to turn things around," says Gershwin. "So many species are in such low numbers, and habitats are so badly damaged, that restoring them to their original splendor is simply no longer possible. I believe that our only option now is to decide how much we value what we currently have, and to decide what we are willing to do to maintain it -- or at least slow down its disappearance. But honestly, can you really see all 7 billion of us agreeing on that?"
So, why try to even maintain it? Whatever "it" is. We as humans change things. Climate change? We worry about a slight change in world's atmosphere comparable to ones that often occurred in the not so distant past while ignoring the nearly complete alteration of the biosphere and local, fresh-water hydrosphere.* Your quote seems to recognize the impossibility of "restoring" the garden of Eden, your original "splendor". Such a concept of "restoration", the conservation concept, is new but expresses the same lament for a golden past as many laments of previous ages (e.g. Homer harkening to the ancients; Confucius and Sun Tzu doing the same). We humans change things. That's what we do. We create new worlds of splendor, replacing the old. Splendor of televisions, hospitals, automobiles, fire departments, and nuclear armies.

However, besides increasing splendor, I, as many others, suspect we may also be headed for a precipitous cliff of reduced numbers of people. I think much good could come of this, but I also recognize the possibility that we can avoid such technological calamity and sustain human populations far in excess of numbers now or even in excess of the predicted "leveling" at 10 to 12 billion or so. I have estimated the earth's human carrying capacities at more than 100 billion, not even counting algal aquaculture in the tropical oceans. Of course not many polar bear cubs would be around. By technological calamity I mean losing forever tool-making ability and, perhaps more importantly, its associated desire for betterment of the immediate condition.

But maybe, just maybe we can get through this demographic transition to stable or decreasing human populations with some of "nature" still intact. For the longer term, perhaps this technological, material outlook can even survive after our species goes extinct as we transfer "life" from hydrocarbons to iron and silicon (steel moved by computers) which can survive the harsh radiation of space and allow the "spirit of man" (evolved) to escape our earthly bounds and spread the word of God throughout the cosmos, unimpeded by naught but light. Perhaps we can move beyond "life", beyond the limitations of carbon, using the energy of the earth (uranium, thorium, and potassium) to break granite into its elemental constituents from which we can reconstruct anything, food, energy, and life itself perhaps. Can you say it's not to be?

Or perhaps it is our very values we hold in highest esteem that are the cause of our bane, the very values that drive the technological progress fancifully projected above, i.e. the values of love, compassion, democracy, equality, human rights, community, and even human life itself. These ideals burst forth from their classical origins during the Enlightenment and were quickly harnessed to the emerging sciences and arts; a merger that produced the mercantile, colonialist, capitalist, property-based system of values ….. all done for the "betterment" of the human condition, including the elimination of suffering, at home first, if not abroad. To paraphrase,

"If some people get very rich, so much the better; their wealth, investment, and drive grows the economy and increases the size of the pie, so all gain; rising tide and all that. Do not belittle the rich for making it possible," so I have heard. Every nation on earth has per capita economic growth as a stated national objective; tyrants, kings, theocracies, and democracies all. We all want to be richer. We are all greedy. But why does the pie need to grow at all? (at least not after food and shelter are assured). Emergence of these Enlightenment ideas coincided with explosion of human populations and all the attendant benefits as well as the maladies. Coincidence or cause?

Who knows. We don't know; you don't know; I don't know.

Many tell me our current course is moral because it leads away from suffering, disease, and death, as attested by the remarkable life styles we have here in America. I have much sympathy. They often also point out that quality of life as well as life expectancy is increasing all over the world as both populations and economies expand. Yes, they admit, there is more suffering than ever, but also more joy. Further, they point with near reverence to those almost immortal future conditions as we go to the stars promised by medical science, physics, chemistry, and, the most powerful of all, genetics.

Many others tell me our current course is immoral and we are the agent of environmental destruction, human suffering, and perhaps our own demise. I have great sympathy here too. But it seems most offer only technological solutions, like "less" by fiat to control human greed and other depravity; fiat enforced by technology of organization and control. Such enforcement is often disguised and labeled as "education", which I call, not necessarily pejoratively, "brain washing". I hear many calls for brain washing along the lines of "We need a whole new outlook, a new consciousness" as the Dali Lama and others are wont to intone. I agree a spiritual rather than material focus could lead to greater satisfaction in life if not "quality of life", but not many seem to agree. Where do we want to go and why? And how do we get there. A whole new human consciousness? Come on people, we are not likely to change that drastically.

We, as always, are at a cross-roads of our own making. We open up everything, I emphasize EVERY thing, to scientific inquiry and physical manipulation for human betterment …. except the one thing that might actually make for such betterment, humans themselves. Even here, though, our motives and desires are open to scrutiny, but not manipulation, right? … Right, tell that to Madison Avenue or wherever the purveyors of unwanted wants now live. But not physical manipulation, right? … Right. Tell that to the prison wardens.

Where do we want to go? Chihuahuas and Great Danes were "bred" in about 150 years or about 50 generations. At the same rate we could "breed" much smaller people, say, an average of 5 rather than 50 kilograms in about 1500 years at 30 years per generation, less if we encourage younger rather than older childbearing. With smaller people we could feed ten times more people with the same food, support ten times more lives (God given souls to some), or "sustain" 7 billion of us on one tenth the resources and land. So many more and larger parks we could enjoy. Alas, unless we change our insatiable desire for material betterment, such desires will remain always unmet, always demanding "progress" to save more lives, reduce more suffering, or increase one's riches. Can you see where "compassion" leads?

We in the USA now consume 100 to 200 times the energy it takes to keep our bodies alive. This living energy level is not exceeded by any other species. Some parts of the world, India for example, use only about 5 times the living energy, and that is because most Indians are very "poor", but perhaps only compared to us, not to wolves, mountain goats, elephants, or whales. Smaller people, more people, more love, more misery? Where do we want to go? Options before us are great and we can't have them all. Which brings me back to your quote;

(I) "believe that our only option now is to decide how much we value what we currently have, and to decide what we are willing to do to maintain it"

To which I fully agree, but would add "or change it" as we always have. I don't think we have valued "what we have", our current conditions very much at any time. We seek to change the present to make it better for the future. Many suggest this is our deepest sin, another hypothesis for which I have much sympathy.

We are now in control of so many things; things I don't think we really want to be in control of; but we are. We can "decide" not to decide, i.e. just continue to "let things ride", "let freedom and human ingenuity reign as they always have", but that "non-decision" is a decision in itself, given our current scientific abilities. Shall we continue to weaken our gene pool by keeping "disadvantaged" (like me by the way) alive and well? Or do we thus increase genetic diversity and therefore adaptability. Do you know. I don't, but I have opinions.

Preserve parks of "saved" species, sure, but let's really be aware of the energy stolen from the gods when we embark on materialist humanitarian quests. I don't know how to change that quest, and I suspect it may be so deeply embedded within us it is futile and "unnatural" to fight it. We can go back to the sea if we want, like the dolphins and whales, maybe they "decided" to do just that 30 million years ago or so. So can we.

My favorite, and the one I lobby for, is going back to the trees on our way back to the sea, back to the garden of Eden where we accepted death and suffering as part of living while munching on grain we gather as we gossip our hearts out. I don't think we will choose to go that way, but we might be forced. Any chance of that? Not that I can see. So it's off to the uncharted stars.

What is our course, what do we want to do? Tell me teacher.

* I am just an old geologist and recognize we have not even scratched the geosphere yet; the next wash of the sea will turn our mightiest pyramids to frozen ripples of some forgotten beach as it marches over the land. But even the massive hydrosphere we have started to significantly change, especially locally, as our fresh-water rivers and lakes along which we gather. The atmosphere, sure, it too, but the diluting effects of the atmosphere are more rapid than the hydrosphere. And the biosphere -- there is not a square centimeter on earth that has not be significantly altered.