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Please begin with an informative title:

For those who are just joining this discussion of the Earth system, we are using Dorion Sagan's book:Notes from the Holocene  {A Brief History of the Future}  I will add links to the first two installments beneath the fold. The ideas about the Earth system that Sagan puts forward are neither new nor widely accepted (yet?).  I like them because they fit in nicely with the world view I have been developing using modern complexity science as my basis.  I also like them because I am pessimistic about other, well meaning, approaches that are confined to the rules of the scientific narrative which has been totally framed to keep new ideas from entering the discussion.  Under their rules, anyone with scientific "credentials" is to be listened to no matter what their hidden agenda is.  We know what the result of that scenareo has been and it is time to move forward; which brings us to the topic of this installment, the role of us humans in all this.  Come with me below the break and we shall proceed.


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Let us begin by contemplating history for a moment.  Sagan says this:

What are the prospects for humanity?  How can unfeeling particles give rise to feeling beings? Who are we from the broad vantage point of deep time, in which not just primates but microbes preceeded us, and God knows what will descend from or replace us?   Is the biopshere imperiled?  Are we?  Can it, or us, be saved?  How?  What is the future of a biosphere that is more than four billion years old-approximately a thousand times older than the human species, and two million times older than the oldest cities?
 Oh those numbers!  As a scientist, I have learned to distrust the effect of numbers on people.  Let me digress for a moment to explain why.  We all learned history of some sort in school.  The odds are very great that the history we learned depended heavily on numbers of all sorts.  The odds are also very great that the effect of this was to teach us to nod reverently whenever an expert backs up their largely subjective argument with data.  It was Robert Maynard Hutchins who put the relationship between numbers and ideas into perspective for me:
Science is not the accumulation of facts or the accumulation of data.  A discipline does not become scientific merely because its professors have acquired a great deal of information.  Facts do not arrange themselves.  Facts do not solve problems.  I do not wish to be misunderstood.  We must get the facts.  We must get them all...But at the same time we must raise the question wheter...the accumulation and distribution of facts is likely to lead us through the mazes of a world whose complications have been produced by the facts we have discovered.
 He went on to explain that the big and necessary job is to create a meaningful structure into which those facts can be put so that progress will result from the enterprise.  Indeed that is our goal here.  Creative thought is wiped out by attempts to restrict it within a set of rules.  As I pointed out in the earlier diaries and discussions, we have to use old language to introduce new ideas and this is never easy.  It is especially difficult when the reader does not understand that the movement into a new realm of meaning will only take place if that reader is an active participant in the exchange.

Now that we have dealt with that issue we can look at Sagan's awesome numbers in the right spirit.  My own spiritual being has grappled with large numbers representing things about our past.  Anyone who has been to a place like the cliff dwellings near Santa Fe, New Mexico, has probably experienced what I did on some level.  The realizationthat one was in a sacred place comes to you.  It is not just because these places have been inhabited for thousands of years, because that is a reaction to the time quantity involved, but as Vine Deloria tells us in his book God is Red: A native View of Religion,

In a world which communications are nearly instantaneous and simultaneous experiences are possible, it must be spaces and places that distinguish us from one another, not time or history.

The world, therefore, is not a global village so much as a series of homeogeneous pockets of identity that must eventually come into conflict because they represent different historical arrangements of emotional energy.  What these concentrations of emotional energy will produce, how they will understand themselves, and what minimovements will emerge from them are among the unanswered questipons of our time... We can and must, therefore, create a new understanding of universal planetary history.

I see a convergence of ideas coming into existence.  The timeless wisdom of the people whose thoughts we dismissed as we crushed their culture have survived in some form because of their internal strength.  Now Western science is finding itself rediscovering what has been so long known in a new context.

In that spirit let us look further into the way Sagan brings us to this point.

The new views of space, time, and home suggest that our usual perspectives are just that, perspectives.  The way things are, the way we see them, depends on where we are and how we see.  And those things can change.
 So here we are, a very new factor in the Earth's system.  But a very different factor from our our narcissistic viewpoint.  Just how well do we understand our role?
If Narcissius had too much self-love for his face, and drowned because of it, we have too little respect for ours and may burn-a natural predictable consequence, rather than supernatural punishment-for our environmental sins.  It may even be too late for us to stop the global heating fostered by our rampant reproduction and industrialization of Earth's surface, as well as our collective ignorance-now institutionally encouraged- of the global system in which we are imbedded.
 Again we must be careful about words here.  As we will see, Sagan does not see us as merely imbedded in the system.  He sees us as intwined as an integral aspect of that system.  He sees our blindness as one of our most characteristic attributes:
These humans from earth raze forests, spread farmland, and turn liquid in the ground into gases in the atmosphere.  Like the oxidizing microbes before us, we are changing the world.  Like them, we are, simply because of location, among the organsisms threatened by our acticities.  Our addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, even if it does melt the polar icecaps, drown the beautiful polar bears, and erase what is left of human civilization, will be paltry planetary damage compared with previous global crises generated by asteroid and meteorite impacts, by extinction-linked bouts of subsea and and surface vulcanism, and by rampant growth of mutant bacteria.  It is amusing that as soon as we loose the biblical arrogance that persuades us that the entire Earth was made for us, we overcompensate with the opposite delusion that we are so dangerous, all life is imperiled by our actions.  Both of these egotistic views, allthough opposed, are highly unlikely.
 We here are into politics.  Our politics are very much intwined with the perceptions of the planet's health and our role in it.  So the resultant concern has deep political ramifications.  It behooves us to get the picture as cleary as possible before we charge off on another crusade.  The limits to what we are able to understand, let alone do, are formidable.  Yet those who have had us do nothing have used that very limit on our knowledge to prevent almost anything effective from being done.  Doing the right thing requires a great deal of humility as well as all the knowledge we can gather. Sagan gives us this warning:
We know that life can screw up the global environment.  Cyanobacteria screwed up way worse than we did when they added free oxygen to the atmosphere starting some two billion years ago.  Then again, a lot of death ensued before organisms evolved that considered their waste fresh air.  Although we neither respect nor notice them, the water-using Eqrth-changing cyanobacteria survived.  So far we have, too.  But unless we get our act together, or the observed  current global warming turns out to be caused by some natural phenomenon, such as our solar system swinging nearer one of the spiral arms of our Milky Way galaxy, we may not be so lucky.

A steamy planet may not support human beings in anything like our present numbers. Typically,  when an invasive organism reproduces in a living environment, it disrupts the physiology of the host, sickening it.  We all have had the experience of "chills"-fever alternating with feelings of sickly cold as our bodies work overtime to stabilize our temperature.  Thes same thing can happen on a planetary scale.  Sophisticated but unconscious, like our pumping heart, the bioshereic environment is autonomic-performing highly complex cycling and interspecies phyiological functions without our having to pay the least bit of attention.

 I've tried to be sensitive to the newness of this physiological view of the earth system because of the scientific community's conservativism.  Yet it is so valuable a way of looking at the situation it needs to be considered seriously.  Sagan also is aware of this as he forges ahead in his narrative:
For the moment the notion of a living earth seems like hokum to many scientists, because referring to Gaia as a living thing with awareness or intent violates the scientific norm of considereing only human beings to be endowed with genuine subjectivity,  The rest of the world is a mechanism to be manipulated and observed, and if possible, controlled by the scientific, technological mind.  A living Earth is also an affront to those inculcated in traditional Western religion [See reference to Deloria's book above], which reserves consciousness, awareness, and full purposefulness only for human beings.
 There is a conflict between the wold view we have as inheritors of Western thought and the world view we need to have to begin to operate in harmony with the things going on around us.  I do not see much in the current political hysteria about the environment that overcomes the denial of this reality.  We simply are digging deeper into our bag of technological tricks to find fixes.  Sagan's message, if anything, is a deeply rooted belief that more of human arrogance will not help.  Let us pause again now and discuss.  We will proceed after that discussion if people desire to pursue this matter further.

Here are links to the two previous diaries in this series:
My first Eco-diary:  The earth is Alive?
Eco-diary series #2: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to don mikulecky on Sun May 11, 2008 at 05:19 PM PDT.


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