Can humans make a positive contribution toward a richer ecology?

I’m not asking whether the present human presence on planet earth is good or bad for the ecosystem.  The answer to that is screaming at us from every clearcut and every Superfund site on the planet, from the smog over Beijing and Mexico City, and from the stifled holocaust of the Sixth Extinction.

There’s no question that humans are a blight on the planet, but does it have to be that way?  Is it “us or them”, or can we coexist with a flourishing biosphere?  Or, better still, is it possible that humans could become benevolent stewards of a planet more abundantly diverse and more richly productive than the abundantly diverse and richly abundant planet that humans were born into some hundreds of thousands of years ago?

Michael Rosenzweig is a sage in ecologist’s clothing, who has made the subject of coexistence the focus of his research for the last two decades.  Within the context of urban landscapes, we can create parks and preserves, ecotourist sites, even backyards that assure a friendly environment for birds and fish and an interdependent network of species.

Charles C. Mann has written about the cultures and ecology of the American continent before the arrival of Europeans.  The Americas were at least as populous as Europe before Columbus, and its cultures were richer, more diverse, and more ancient than Eurasia.

Among the indigenous cultures of the Americas, there were some who practiced a lifestyle that may have looked at first blush like primitive hunter-gatherering; but in fact, there was so much more to hunt and gather because of their management of the semi-wild environment.  They burned forests to create grasslands for the bison, which ranged all the way to the Atlantic coast, and which they harvested with due restraint.  They planted forests rich with American Chestnut and fruit trees, not monocultured orchards, but sustainable forests with a symbiotic mix of tree species.  (Later the American Chestnut has been driven near extinction by a blight imported from Europe.)   There is even a theory that the vast richness of the Amazon habitat exists only because of indigenous tribes that periodically burn and plant small sections, then return them to the wild.  This style of land management supports many more people per square mile than pure hunter-gatherer methods, and is far less labor intensive than agriculture.

Rebecca Bliege Bird is an anthropologist who has documented the relationship between indigenous Australians and animal populations of the Australian desert that once (indirectly) depended on them.  The Martu are a desert people whose presence over many centuries became a keystone in the balance of the fragile ecosystem, regulating predator populations and keeping out invasive species.

Charles Eisenstein is a visionary philosopher, workshop leader, and author of four books describing the present human situation, how we got here, and how we can see our way clear to a more beautiful world.  (Hint: It’s nobody’s fault.)  It was Eisenstein who introduced me to the idea that humans have a purpose in the Grand Plan, that  domination and killing off the ecosystems that preceded us cannot last much longer, and that we are acquiring the knowledge and skills we will need to manage a world of abundance, diversity, and natural beauty, which will support humanity far more comfortably and far more gloriously than our extractive technologies now permit.


Conclusion: I suspect that any activity by a top predator can support a rich ecosystem underneath, given only that the activity is sustained (and therefore sustainable) over a long enough time for other species to evolve in response.  In the case of present humans, that leaves us out.  But for future humans, it suggests that we need not become wise about the rich and subtle interplay of ecological forces in order to “manage” it consciously, but only that we act with the restraint and consistency that will soon (within decades) be forced upon us in any case.  The world’s ecology will beat a path to our cities.


A way to organize human activity that is beyond our imagination

The Maya used several different media of exchange and in trading of food commodities the barter system was typically used for large orders. Cacao beans were used for everyday exchange in postclassic times. For more expensive purchases gold, jade and copper were used as a means of exchange.[2] However, these media of exchange are not “money” in the modern sense.  In different sites and cities, these media of exchange were valued differently.[3]  Wikipedia

To our modern entrepreneurial brains, this sounds like an irresistible opportunity for arbitrage.  Why is it that no one at the time make hay from the price disparities?

It is said that when Columbus’s first ships appeared off the coast of what is now Haiti, native islanders could not see them.  They had no experience of great ships with sails, and at a deeper level no basis for believing they were possible.  There were no categories in their heads for such things, so their minds’ gateways would not allow the perceptions to penetrate.

Image result for mayan marketplace

At this same time,  a few hundred miles away, the Mayans had marketplaces where goods were exchanged without money, without fixed prices, not driven by a motive to get the better of one’s trading partner, or to accumulate wealth and power.  The system had lasted hundreds—perhaps thousands—of years.  It included barter and a qualitative sense of value.  Though the Mayans had discovered zero as a placeholder and had a complete, modern number system for calculation and computing, their mathematics was reserved for land management and astronomy.  There was no money to count, and it did not occur to them to quantify the value of resources or manufactured goods.

To this day, we cannot see that there are alternatives to a money system for organizing our productive activity because we have no categories or foundational concepts with which to get purchase upon it, so to speak.  We understand capitalism and private ownership all too well.  We understand socialism as collective ownership and a redistribution of wealth.  But we cannot conceive a society without ownership, without accounting for who owns what, without a precise system of valuation.  A culture in which there is abundant opportunity to take advantage of one’s neighbor, but no one does it.  It does not compute.

Let’s be practical

 Je plaide simplement pour le maintien d’un niveau minimal d’hypocrisie, sans lequel aucune vie dans la société humaine n’est possible.
— Jean Houellebecq

I’m just pleading for the maintenance of a minimal level of hypocrisy, without which no life in human society is possible.
— from a contrarian article translated for this month’s Harpers

innocent_hypocrisy_by_madartia_dcl427i-pre                                        Innocent Hypocrisy, by Madartia




What single change in governance structure would produce most benefit?

Public control over the Fed would end profiteering on war, healthcare, education, and most other markets, would quickly eliminate the nation debt (since we would no longer be paying principal and interest on private bank notes created from thin air and passed off as our “legal tender”), and the embedded 30 to 40% interest in the cost of goods and services, which eats away at our productive capacity, would also disappear. It would also make most taxes irrelevant because unnecessary.
Robert Bows

Image result for banking war

Bows’s premise is that the Federal Reserve is managing the money supply and manipulating the American economy for private gain, not for public good.  Though the fact is hardly ever explained in the mainstream press, the Federal Reserve, which is empowered to create dollars with the flip of a computer switch, is a consortium of the nation’s largest banks, not an agency of the US Government.

If Bows is correct, then the influence of private investment banks in distorting the world’s economic system is deep and broad.  If central banks were subject to democratic control, not only would a great leech be removed from  the economy, promoting an easy and widespread prosperity, but the financial motive for war would be removed.

Free love

Love, the strongest and deepest element in all life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy; love, the defier of all laws, of all conventions; love, the freest, the most powerful moulder of human destiny; how can such an all-compelling force be synonymous with that poor little State and Church-begotten weed, marriage?

Free love? As if love is anything but free! Man has bought brains, but all the millions in the world have failed to buy love. Man has subdued bodies, but all the power on earth has been unable to subdue love. Man has conquered whole nations, but all his armies could not conquer love. Man has chained and fettered the spirit, but he has been utterly helpless before love. High on a throne, with all the splendor and pomp his gold can command, man is yet poor and desolate, if love passes him by. And if it stays, the poorest hovel is radiant with warmth, with life and color. Thus love has the magic power to make of a beggar a king. Yes, love is free; it can dwell in no other atmosphere. 

Emma Goldman

Making sound into light

Energy tends to spread out.  That’s the essence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the law of entropy.

Temperature is the amount of energy per particle.  If you have a lot of particles with a little energy each, that’s a low temperature.  That same energy concentrated in just a few particles produces a high temperature.

Suppose you had a red-hot poker.  You could dunk it in a pot of water, and the pot might only be 1 degree hotter than room temperature.  All the energy is there, but it’s spread through the large pot.  There’s no way to extract and concentrate the energy in the water so you can make a red-hot poker.

So it’s a one-way street.  Left to its own devices, energy spreads out, but if you want to take spread out energy and concentrate it, it would take a lot of work, and could only be done with very low efficiency.

Sound is low energy, light is high energy.  A single particle of light, called a photon, has energy about a billion times greater than a single particle of sound, called a phonon.  So it’s easy to turn light energy into sound energy, but impossible to turn sound energy into light energy.

But now that I’ve convinced you it’s impossible, I’ll tell you that it happens, and the discovery of sonoluminescence (1934) was a huge surprise to physicists.  How can the energy of a billion phonons be extracted and funneled into a single photon?  And why doesn’t this violate the Second Law?

I don’t know the answer, so I can’t explain it.  I know it has something to do with the fact that the sound waves are coherent, like a laser, all pointed in the same direction and acting together they can do things they would never be able to do if they were random sound waves going every which way.

When I was an undergraduate, I learned quantum physics from Julian Schwinger.  (Today is his 101st birthday, and that provides me an excuse for writing this column.)  Schwinger was a true scholar, not just a phenomenal mathematician and profound scientific thinker, a cultured and thoughtful person who made far-flung connections in his conversation and his scholarship. His career was jump-started when he did a PhD dissertation under J Robert Oppenheimer at age 21.  He left his mark on 20th Century physics as much as any of the great names who are better known (e.g., Einstein, Schrodinger, Feynman, with whom he shared the 1965 Nobel prize).

Late in his life, Schwinger came up with an esoteric explanation for sonoluminescence, by analogy with Hawking’s account of evaporating black holes.

Around this time was the front-page news of cold fusion in a Utah elecrochemistry lab. It was a flash in the pan.  Cold fusion was soon dismissed as an experimental error.

Correcting this error has required decades; cold fusion is real.

What Schwinger realized was that cold fusion was the same story as sonoluminescence. Both phenomena occur when dispersed energy somehow manages to focus itself and accumulate so that within a low-temperature environment, a few very hot particles can appear.

Twenty-five years have passed since Schwinger theorized about cold fusion. We still don’t know if he was right.

‘Labour without joy is base.’

When men are rightly occupied, their amusement grows out of their work, as the colour-petals out of a fruitful flower;—when they are faithfully helpful and compassionate, all their emotions become steady, deep, perpetual, and vivifying to the soul as the natural pulse to the body. But now, having no true business, we pour our whole masculine energy into the false business of money-making; and having no true emotion, we must have false emotions dressed up for us to play with, not innocently, as children with dolls, but guiltily and darkly.

John Ruskin was an idealist, political philosopher and aesthete.  He noticed beauty, and described it in too many words.

Today is the 200th anniversary of John Ruskin’s birth