Puzzle Pieces

“Wheels within wheels in a spiral array
a pattern so grand and complex,
time after time we lose sight of the way
our causes can’t see their effects.”
Natural Science, Rush

 

The delicate dance of molecular docking describes how ‘things’ arise from the ‘atoms and void.’ The very precise folding of proteins, for example, forms very exacting spaces on which its interactions with its environment will take place. An enzyme fits the protein’s molecular dock perfectly, like a hand in a glove. Everywhere we care to look we find interdependent molecular forms behaving as puzzle pieces shaped by the endless tinkering of evolutionary time. Scaling the interlocking shapes, we arrive at ecology’s explanation of a keystone species as a dramatic example of how living puzzle pieces work together to maintain the tapestry of a thriving ecosystem. The behavior of these keystone species shapes the dynamic homeostasis of their part of the biosphere. Or scaling the interlocking shapes in another direction we arrive at conceptual models where ideas and observations are made to fit with one another harmoniously. When they do we say things make sense.

Deep in the night world of the Chauvet caves, a night world much larger than our day world, we painted the spirit animal that came abundantly from the earth’s dark womb. Our ancestors relied on those animals for making the lives they shared together with family and tribe possible. There in the vast dark, embraced by massive rock, the shamans recorded the basic affinity of the hunter and the hunted. Indigenous wisdom recognized the spirit of an animal and paid it reverence. While a village may kill a dozen buffalo they would also perform a rite of thanksgiving for the archetypal buffalo, the buffalo spirit. They recognized individual animals as representatives of what we would call the species. They maintained a balance with the earth by honoring the species, promising to respect and protect it. To hunt an animal to extinction would be to remove its puzzle piece forever from the dynamic tapestry of life, diminishing the richness of the earth instead of enriching it.

Contrast this with our age when the extinction rate is estimated to be a thousand times that of pre-industrialized earth.

Life saving medicines work because, as far as we can tell, they alter these molecular interactions just so, just the way they need to be to bring health back to the organism. I wish I knew a molecule that could cure us. I don’t but I do suspect I know which molecule gave us our disease.

Information at the molecular level, though it is what our senses deal with directly, is far too overwhelmingly detailed for conscious awareness to deal with. Imagine what would be involved simply moving your finger if you had to arrange each molecular change involved. So instead our conscious minds look for patterns and gestalts.

It is, however, worth spending a moment to spell out what is happening at the sensory interface: I hold your hand, the molecules in my fingers meet the molecules in your fingers; pressure and temperature are communicated through thermal gradients as part of an endless cascade of tactile information our skin provides to our nervous systems. More subtle communications go on as well. In the touch we might find warmth, friendship, care, or perhaps anger forcing foreign control over our grip, or perhaps it is no more than a purely political handshake, expressing little more than expected social behavior. These, and any number of other possible contexts, will each involve both emotional and cognitive components and will participate in the ongoing chore of making sense of our experience, making meaning.

All of this is born from an interplay of cause and effect in a grand, if complex pattern. Everywhere actions and reactions: if we put particular molecules in the atmosphere, effects follow. They will play a part in the ongoing pattern making of weather and climate. It really is that simple. That one of the molecules belching out of our tailpipes and smokestacks all across the industrialized world is CO2 and causing global warming is just one of those things. We need oil to live the way we choose to live. Period. Full stop. As long as we choose to continue to live this way we will add to the atmospheric concentration and the parts per million (PPM) will continue to rise into the nightmare territory. We need to be prepared for this.

This molecule, and others in its family polluting our rivers and oceans, lands and forests, is just that – a molecule. Nothing more, nothing less. It is easy to get foggy vision and lose sight of that it seems to me as I survey the range of cultural responses to this most well understood, civilization threatening science. We discuss its politics, philosophy, religious implications, sociological and psychological ramifications, and in a truly impressive display of intellectual ingenuity look into every nook and cranny of our “climate crisis” imaginable. Well, except the one, you know, we don’t talk about.

We could stop putting the molecule in the air. We could change how we live.

On the way to the nightmare PPM numbers out here in the real world we may or may not soon encounter tipping points powerful enough to alter our trajectory. From my study of ecology and the data concerning current energy use and ecosystem damage, I have no doubt a very nasty discontinuity will hit society hard if we proceed with business as usual long enough. The interesting question is how malleable might our existing institutions become in service of the needs of a changed time? Might, to use a fairly topical example, a global financial collapse that lead to a world wide depression, even if accompanied by world war, act as a brake on the rate of excess CO2 production in the long run?

Oil is a molecule, a family of them actually but the point stands. A petrochemical can do things molecules shaped in other forms (and with other energetic bonds) simply will never be able to do. We managed to use this supremely condensed energy source to fuel this great party, to use Richard Heinberg’s dated but percipient metaphor for the many engineering marvels of the fossil fuel age, but the bill has come due. Among its many line items is one I fear most, the one that just might heal us of our hubris, a hubris I would argue we came by honestly.

In the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, human beings’ ingenuity has bent nature to our will. Our ability to understand the molecular world has given us our science and it has given us our engineering and these delivered the cornucopia of goods by which we have wrestled a decently human existence from the bloody hands of hostile nature. In our story, all of life is competition and we are the ultimate competitor.

To a degree no one can yet know with any certainty, the fabulous wonders of our machine age and our impressive industrial achievements were less a product of our clever ingenuity than the fact that we had learned to avail ourselves of this, the most special, energy dense substance in all the earth, the Devil’s blood, the petrochemical – oil.

Images of feeding sugar to bacteria come to mind. I wonder if there were Petri Dish popularity contests to determine who was greatest among the sugar ‘producers’?

The complexity of the human nervous system might share the same cellular fundamentals with the occupants of said Petri Dish but the emergent properties expressed among ourselves as values, financial arrangements, languages, arts and all the rest just might be enough to avoid their fate. Overshoot and collapse are very seriously bad ju ju. To avoid or ameliorate such calamities of cause and effect is exactly what all people of goodwill should be most adamant about. If the LtG model is even only partly right, and the accelerated deterioration of social and environmental systems we see in our headlines indicates it could well be, this is no time for holding back from a radical analysis. What are our options, as a species, for living within the limits of what the environment can supply and assimilate, given the built up infrastructure and institutions we have inherited?

The current inability to even talk about the age of limits is unlikely to last long if tipping points, social and environmental, are triggered. Our refusal to acknowledge that the world of global energy has fundamentally changed, as we begin to view peak oil in our rear view mirrors, condemns us to responding foolishly by failing to understand our true situation. I rather doubt in the halls of power the brokers in realpolitik fail to account for the end of cheap and easy oil. We know they do. It is only the mass media which won’t touch it, only the public which is being left in the dark.

Our minds respond to the brain’s elegant molecular communications in kind, finding a meaningful connection between our awareness and our experience in the frisson we feel when cognitive puzzle pieces fit together just right. A model can weave a bushel load of seemingly disconnected ideas and observations together with a transparency of insight. How is this for one?

Add some understanding of the oil molecule – cracking gasoline, polymer chemistry and such – to understanding how CO2 works in the atmosphere and mix well with a simple comprehension of a resource supply curve. Heat over funny money shenanigans papering over the derivative market black hole by folks jacked up on an injection of externality to maximize corporate pathology. Serve hot with a religious war, cook through a few elections and voila! We just might find ourselves waking up in the age of limits, ready to start speaking about the unspeakable.

Molecules Contemplating Molecules

“If in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling when being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.”
Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, italics in the original

“April was the seventh month in a row that broke global temperature records, NASA figures show. Last month smashed the previous record for April by the largest margin ever, the data show. That makes it three months in a row that the monthly record was broken by the largest margin ever.”
April breaks global temperature record, BBC News

 

Physics, chemistry and biology have found we live in a molecular world of cause and effect. Whatever gods might exist, if they are to exist, would be no less subject to the molecular universe than we are. This, as it has been said, is one of the charms of the Lovecraftian gods and the polytheistic pantheons in general, who while unimaginably powerful, remain very much members of this universe and as such are never beyond the pale of restrictions and struggles entirely. The Tibetan Wheel of Life captures this idea graphically by showing that all possible states of existence share a common hub and rim, a common inside and outside.

Our time is uniquely characterized by its abundance of scientific understanding. We have caught a glimpse of ourselves in the mirrors of our sciences but, frightened by the emptiness in the view, we have recoiled in horror. Some are desperately trying to resurrect atavistic stories from the Sunday school and nurseries of our intellectual childhood. Others have reacted to the emptiness by becoming angry atheists, losing the valuable perceptions only open to those who can look on nature with reverence and respect. They completely fail to appreciate that the role of the gods – whatever else they might be – is to embody important aspects of human consciousness by which we communicate our gestalt intuitions and ideals; they and their stories give us a means of sharing our deepest hopes and fears with one another.

I’d like to suggest the programs of the anachronistic fundamentalist and the angry atheist are both non-starters for people sincerely interested in responding well to the ongoing ecological crisis. I think we are being called on to engage in and explore a third option that doesn’t throw out the sacred but also no longer believes naïvely our all-too-human stories are more than that, our stories. We can learn to take the emptiness our science has revealed as a tonic. Out here, in the molecular world far larger than any story, the planet is heating up and everywhere ecosystems are failing. Hello? Is anybody in there? Now would be a good time to wake up…

The third option uses devotion to penetrate the hearts of the archetypal realm divinities to arrive at the mystery of the nervous system and awareness itself. We are fortunate to have a precious human life and – here is where ecology enlightens us – all that makes it possible is precious to us as well. The strange world of the neurosciences provokes awe within us before the tunnels, winds and seeds; the nadi, prana and bindu of the mammalian nervous system that allows me to be aware of you… Through direct experience we participate in this world as sacred.

In my mind this is what it means to bring Buddhism to the West. It is not meant to be just another religion in the great melting pot. It would be better understood as the harbinger of emptiness, a clearing house for a culture in decline, and a creator of yogis and yoginis. We are all intellectually aware that we live in a molecular universe. For the rest of this post we are going to try and suss out the barest hints at what that might really mean, by looking at it through the eyes of a contemplative.

Contemplating the molecular nature of existence is one of the more direct doorways into non-dual awareness. A range of altered states are available along this dimension which the contemplative can use to learn things directly about conscious experience within an energetic universe. At one end of this spectrum are those states that are aware of the fuzzy nature of our body boundaries, where our extremities are continually participating in an exchange of substances with the environment; a bubbling off of molecules of ‘us’ not unlike what occurs at the surface of evaporating water. This bubbling off is balanced in the bubbling forth of the rebuilding of ‘us’ out of the substances we have absorbed from the environment,  like a fountain of overflowing jewels often found in thangkas. A Buddhist finds a process ontology, not a substance ontology; this flowing is ‘us’.

Next along this spectrum of states are all those in which the molecular exchange penetrates our boundaries through activation of our sensory apparatus. The organic molecules of our being react to the molecules and atomic particles of our environment and the interaction provides what we experience in our various sensory modalities. We become aware of this patch of red or that scent of cinnamon through a cascade of biochemical pathways initiated by particles oscillating at a particular frequency within the visible spectrum in the case of color or shaped in a very particular way to mesh with the olfactory sense and convey information in the case of spices. In the quite mind of contemplation it is not hard to sense these meetings of inner and outer worlds as ongoing, direct energetic exchanges from which our identity is born. Life lives us.

Next stop on our quick survey of altered states involved in assimilating our conceptual understanding of the molecular universe through direct experience are all those involved with the classic practice of gently placing one’s attention on the breath. Breathing is perhaps the most immediate form of ongoing molecular exchange with our environment we can consciously experience. With every breath there is an exchange of carbon dioxide gas, which is poisonous for us, with oxygen which we use to fuel the metabolism of our carbon-based life forms. All thanks of course to the coevolutionary relationship all animals have with the plant kingdom, elegantly complementing our needs by fueling themselves with carbon dioxide and giving up oxygen in exchange. It is as if when we exhale the green environment around us inhales, and visa versa.

During a contemplative session at first these factoids about the molecular universe provide a type of conceptual scaffolding that aids our concentrated focus on the immediate sensations of our body breathing. As the conceptual, language-geared mind grows quite, direct awareness of this exchange grows; it is what we are and feels like a homecoming. Remember that third family of emotions that lead out of poverty mentality and into contentment? One way to use this contemplative learning experience is to educate and nurture just such typically ignored and atrophied aspects of our psychological lives. All these exercises are involved in training the mind to be at home in the molecular universe and recognize, eventually, the joyful play of sacred world.

Which brings us to the last step on this spectrum of states available to the contemplative who takes up the subject of the molecular world. Down in between the sub-atomic particles we have discovered there is a disconcertingly large amount of empty space. In the final exchanges between man and his environment we tune in not to the reality of our shared molecular nature but with the shared empty space between our particles and the shared empty space between the stars in the cosmos at large. (Here the dark kiss of infinity reaches with tentacled tunnels through the night side of Eden as a deathless inorganic being, like a jeweled skull held by Our Lady of the Stars, suffers the hard rain of the stellar kisses, ravishing the lover’s heart. Or not.)

So how does a contemplative go about preparing themselves for participation in these episodes of learning directly from the source? The yogi puts on the hat of the scholar and studies the ways of the elements. Traditionally these are referred to as earth, water, air, fire and space. Each are assigned an indispensable role in maintaining the environment in which consciousness can appear and love can be known: firmness, moisture, a medium of communication, the warmth of emotion and a distance in which to be.

It was easy to dismiss these elemental classification schemes as overly simplistic remnants of our superstitious childhood as our advancements of quantum mechanics and chemistry uncovered the ordered complexity of the periodic table. Carl Jung was the first to recognize the alchemist’s schemes were aiming at a transformation of the alchemist by pursuing their chemistries of turning lead into gold, that there was more going on here in that dense, dream-like symbolism than first meets the eye. In the same way these elemental summary classifications are not as primitive as they seem if they are used to break habitual, reductionist interpretations of our experience. I think there is an important clue here for those of us looking for ways to work with the modern mind. We should exert ourselves to our utmost in our studies, by applying whatever natural curiosity our genius lends us, to understand what we can about what our species has learned about how our molecular universe actually works. The alchemists had a saying that the last page of one book opens the first page of another; we should trust that, trust our own minds. The traditional teachings talked about course and subtle elements. The molecular world is the world of the subtle elements for us moderns, our doorway. These, and studies like them, become grist for the mill of our contemplative awareness.

Some examples; from the point of view of the germ cell life does not die, it just passes from one bodily form to another; or consider carefully the intimacy of the germ cell’s chromosomal binding in the DNA as it is found in every other of your body’s trillions of cells and one might perceive the act of sexual union extended throughout time and space, not unlike trillions of Tantric deities enthroned in their embrace within each nuclei. With an understanding of molecular epigenetics the mind can come to appreciate the histones extending their sinewy receptors from the DNA coils into the surrounding molecular soup as the expression of life’s great library of biochemical recipes skillfully adapting moment by moment by remaining coupled with its ever changing environment. We are all equally members of life’s unbroken stream, all of this and more is our inheritance, but it takes a contemplative mind to recognize the lineage.

In meditation we review what we know by applying it to deepen our direct perception of existence in all its vastness, exactly as it is this instant, all across the cosmos. In meditation we soak ourselves in wonder.

The Rack and the Wreck

“My only earthly wish is to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe to their promised bounds. Nature will be bound into service, hounded in her wanderings, and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets.”
Popularly attributed to Francis Bacon

 

All this month courageous people are putting their bodies on the line to bear witness to the madness of continued social domination by the fossil fuel industries. It is hard to even imagine a world ordered around an alternative to the recycling of petroleum-dollars; most any change at all would also involve changes to the international reserve currency it creates and the geopolitics it dictates.

We burn oil in our factories, on our farms, and in our houses; we burn it as we move down roads, fly across the sky and cross the oceans; it lubricates our machines and is a vital ingredient in the production of plastic and many of the other materials we take for granted today ranging from pharmaceuticals to clothing. The bottom line is that modern cities and global trade cannot be run without it. The more you are able to bring an engineer’s appreciation to the vast human accomplishments that have been enabled due to the unique physical and chemical characteristics of fossil fuels, characteristics shared by no other known substance in the universe, the more thoroughly you will understand how very radical it is to propose we leave the remaining coal and oil in the ground and not burn it to buy ourselves another few years of business as usual.

Those brave people participating in civil disobedience have no clearer vision detailing how we are going to extract ourselves from this mess than do you or I. What then motivates them to take this old David and Goliath stone of popular protest against the earth’s largest corporations?

I am sure there are as many nuanced reasons for placing one’s own person and security at risk in these protests as there are people willing to do so. However, it is also safe to say something is uniting this movement all across the world. That something is the realization that business as usual simply cannot continue. Economics and ecology are on a collision course. Faith in the legitimacy of our institutions may not survive the train wreck.

I wish I could know how many of those willing to take the radical step across the line from law abiding citizen to civil protestor also share this radical analysis. What they are asking for actually entails no less than a complete reorientation of mankind’s activities from a focus on growing material industrial production to… something else.

It has been over forty years now since the LtG study clearly stated the world probleque. As the decades passed more and more evidence was gathered, bolstering the case for an ecological day of reckoning but the response has been characterized more by talk than by meaningful actions taken to stop the industrial Juggernaut. Talk, talk, talk; how much more time do we have for talk and studies? The point is to stop.

Here’s the good news. You and I don’t need to wait for society to catch up to our ideals, nor must we wait for an awakening to our real peril to be shared by our neighbors and friends before we take action in our own lives. Our times desperately need lifestyles that witness to the viability of alternatives to consumerism and corporate oligarchy. Today you can choose to take seriously the teachings about right livelihood and seek out ways your life can stand for the healing of the earth.  Your life can stand as a witness to the power of love and kindness against the dog-eat-dog competition of cancerous capitalism. Maybe you can’t change your outer circumstances just now but you can check out with your intention and start planning for tomorrow. Your life can stand for the creativity and productivity of individuals and families over and against the image of man as mouth. That is the hero of consumerism; man-the-mouth, only able to consume what is created and produced by others. Your hands and feet also have eyes, use them and just see what they teach you. Plant a garden, study biology and ecology, learn to mix your mind with earth’s sacred places in your meditation, join protests, write books, make art – DO something.

Then you will discover what power is.

It is not found in some home in the sky woven from abstractions and anthropomorphic projections. It is found right here in the buzzing, bumping, bubbling world of molecules where every action has a reaction and every reaction is a cause of the next action. For better and for worse, we are all engaged inescapably in karma mechanics this side of the abyss.

All of us born in the overdeveloped world have a misleading sense of entitlement. One of the hardest ideas for the ego to grasp is that the universe seems wholly indifferent to your personal hopes and dreams, fears and sufferings. We come to consciousness surrounded by nurturance and caring; necessities in species with long childhoods such as ourselves. It takes a maturing of that consciousness to recognize its impersonal roots. This is made all that much harder in cultures as transfixed with human stories and raised as isolated from the nonhuman environment as we are.

Western cultures include in their history of ideas this notion that we need to be at war with nature. The image of placing nature on the torture’s rack came to mind for Francis Bacon for a couple of reasons we can immediately understand. One was no loftier than simple revenge: ‘nature has condemned us to suffer death, disease and embarrassing sexual indignities but by god we can make her suffer too!’ (Those who see in this cognitive swamp the driving forces behind the war of the sexes and male chauvinism are not mistaken. Nor are those who see here the source of the demon flowers of our nuclear weapons.)

The other reason the torturer’s rack came to mind as an image of the scientific method is a bit more elaborate. In a properly designed experiment ‘nature’ is placed in an artificial environment in which we can exercise control over the variables affecting the circumstance being studied. Experimentation, while holding everything else the same, then ‘stretches’ one variable ‘unnaturally’ to research what affect it has. Just as the rack used a wheel, a type of lever, to multiply the effect of the force applied, so a well designed scientific experiment can uncover the workings of nature far out of proportion to the minute details it is able to manipulate.

Consider for example the DNA research of Francis and Crick. X-ray analysis of the molecular structure of our germ cells is a rather esoteric detail that matters most to biological specialists. Yet the cumulative effect of this line of research has remade the very image and understanding of what it means to be a human being, a member of what we can now refer to scientifically, not religiously, as the family of man.

We may have arrived at this knowledge by way of racks instead of revelation but it is not without its own type of blessing. The science parts ways with religion in one crucial aspect; these heretics over in the other valley, with their different gods and languages, skin colors and foods are just as much your brothers and sisters as any other member of Homo sapiens who has ever lived. The science defuses the priestcraft-politician deception that the declared enemy du jour is less than human. The infidels are not in fact sub-human vermin, or to put it in modern parlance; the lives cut to pieces by our cluster bombs are no less precious to those in poor countries than they are to those of us finding ourselves in rich countries.

When all we had as a species to guide us were the stories we made up, it was possible to hold the brotherhood of man as the highest value even while dehumanizing the enemy, without suffering the cognitive dissonance that arises from trying to believe two contradictory assertions at the same time. Now days, while our societies still go through the motions of demonizing our enemies, it no longer carries the kind of absolute justification that was so easily at hand in previous centuries. We cannot undo what we know.

Those bodies being thrown on the gears of the industrial machine protesting its ecological havoc are engaged with an enemy we all recognize is no other than ourselves. It is our lifestyle choices that have perpetrated this madness these forty plus years, even as enormously powerful social institutions have pursued their vested interests by shutting down the viable alternatives.

There is one more allusion the torturer’s rack brings to mind, one I don’t subscribe to but recognize its popular appeal and one Francis Bacon most likely believed. The use of torture is normally justified by the pious (religious or political) as a means to force human beings to tell the truth. I personally believe any information obtained this way is highly suspect and that the real role of torture is to terrorize populations at home but we are looking at the rack as a metaphor of the scientific method, not the actual efficacy of torture. Assuming then that Mr. Bacon believed truth could be found by such means, what are we looking at?

The rack is a mechanical instrument applied to an organic subject. Using the rack involves action; moving the levers and wheels, tightening the straps and all the rest. The subject is ‘nature’ and only through engaging in these ‘unnatural’ activities could the truth be found.

What previous images of the search for truth did this image of nature on the rack displace? In the Hellenistic history of the West the pursuit of truth was what a gathering of philosophers in an Academy could find by reasoning among themselves in careful dialog. There was no need to engage in experiments since the senses could be so easily mislead. Reason alone could detect the eternal truths. This image slowly gave way as the centuries rolled into the Middle Ages to the truth being found by Popes and Bishops and the cloistered at prayer. Revelation would provide that final leap to ultimate meaning reason alone could not accomplish. Again there was no need to engage in experiments to understand what is really going on since that would be confusing the source of meaning with creation instead of the creator. Already knowing everything important about life, the universe and everything due to revelation, there was little need to engage oneself with the lowly labor of the mechanical artificers.

That God died and left the human being.

We should have seen it coming; it was the implied message of Christianity’s dying man-God. Can you see how the rack was a child of the cross?

Left to our own devices we became painfully aware of the frail nature of our mental tools and recognized a frightening propensity for self-deception. It is as if in our endarkenment we resolved to set aside our childhood toys and learn what we could about this world and this life. We became interested in knowing not just what we think is going on, wrapping our hard earned wisdom in yet another imaginative story of our own invention, but turned towards knowing what we can about what is – whether or not it conforms to our preconceptions.

We dared to place ourselves on the rack and ask what we really are. What we found looking through one end of our scientific instrument was evolution playing out within infinite space. What we found looking through the other end: the Epicurean atoms and void, the Eastern appearance-emptiness; we discovered the molecular world, inseparable from ourselves.

Push Me, Pull Me

yin-yang2When people recognize that business as usual is making false promises about the future there is a tendency to lose perspective, as if the end of an existing social system and the end of the world were more or less the same. It’s good to remind ourselves that in a universe of interdependence, every ending is also a beginning and that’s as true for the ending of a civilization as it is for the ending of a pregnancy. In the process of winnowing the astronomically unlikely futures from those most probable, we are well served by lessons about how life actually works. We see through the fog of false promises by insisting on evidence.

We are examining ecological models to find clues to the forces shaping our times. Among the babies being born right now there will be some fortunate enough to live to see the coming of the next century. What will the world of our children be like? What inheritance are we preparing for them?

The year 2100 has gathered around itself a cluster of troubling numbers. Standard scenarios expect there to be a population of 10 billion people living in a climate changed world 2 – 6 degrees warmer, or worse. These numbers imply others, equally bleak if we ask how all these people are going to be fed, clothed, housed and where all the waste they will generate is going to be put. Add the fact that they are unlikely to be able to continue using the astronomical amounts of oil we depend on to fuel doing all this and it promises to be a difficult time, without doubt. Some degree of that difficulty could be alleviated by skillful activities undertaken now but that means talking about it.

In my experience if a conversation pushes people to realistically consider these things, it is not long before someone throws their hands up and says something along the lines of, ‘well we are all going to die by then anyway’ – which I think really means ‘it is all so dismal, let’s not talk about it.’ It’s as if our imaginations have been entranced by a mashup of the weird and all we see when we peek into tomorrow is a zombie Apocalypse in a Mad Max world.

This is not very useful.

Here is where the ecological models we have been studying can act as cognitive dental floss. Turning our contemplative attention to their meaning, we train in the revaluation of values true sustainability entails. What we need to learn we are learning from models of food webs, predator-prey relationships, overshoot and collapse dynamics, atmospheric response to pollution forcing, and peak resource use and waste production in the LtG scenarios. This scientifically valid foraging into ecological reality provides us with an opportunity to participate with our understanding in the great, ongoing flows of life.

The imagination that thinks Mad Max represents the most probable future, whether we want it to be or not, is poverty stricken. It fails to account for the biological resiliency that characterizes the ecosphere. Ecosystems can flip between collapse and complexity, often times surprisingly rapidly. What the ecological models provide us with are tools for thinking about what makes for healthy, thriving ecosystems, as well as what can harm them beyond repair. With this understanding human beings have opened up a path of partnering with our environment. We can heal the damage done; even as we shrink our ecological footprints so fulfilling our needs no longer causes irreparable damage to our one and only home. As the collapsing financial and industrial process continues in the coming decades, the harmful effects of those processes on ecosystems will diminish. In this gap opportunities for conservation and restoration will continue to provide a meaningful alternative to blind and reckless consumerism. We are talking about real world opportunities to do real world work that makes a real world difference. Psychotic dystopias like Mad Max simply fail to account for how man’s will for meaning acts as a limiting factor on our social madness.

When we study how the biological and ecological systems we are emerged in actually work, we come to trust that limiting factors will come into play to counteract any extreme imbalances. Note that this is not the same as saying nature will continue to provide an environment conducive to our species thriving. What we learn from this Gaian wisdom is that both growth and limits to growth are required for the healthy functioning of all living things, at whatever scale we wish to investigate. 

At the cellular scale cancer is the exemplar. Cells want to multiply endlessly; it is what cells ‘like’ to do. Healthy tissue is only possible because there is an active suppression of this biochemical pathway that leads to cellular reproduction by another biochemical pathway that acts as a limit to its growth. Biochemical homeostasis in general is maintained using the same types of paired regulators. Another elegant example is the fine tuning of neurotransmitters in the brain’s synaptic clefts. As the number of molecules produced increases, the target sites become saturated which in turn changes the configuration of that productive apparatus, shutting down further production. Consciousness riding a nervous system is, in some mysterious way, related to just this dynamic.

Or consider a population of herbivores. Their numbers depend on the plant growth their environment provides. The plants act as a bottom-up control. But then, as Lawrence Slobodkin once asked, “why is the world green?” If the herbivores want to reproduce as much as possible and there are still plenty of leafy green foodstuffs at hand, what else is acting to produce the population that we actually encounter? Predators, parasites, and pathogens are acting as top-down controls on population numbers. Here, on the scale of ecosystems, we again we find pairs of regulators at work; growth and limits to growth.

Another word for limit is regulation, and in living things everything is regulated.

This is what life is all about: stoking the fires and then cooling down, expanding differentiations followed by gathering integrations. You are able to read this right now because the level of oxygen in your blood, neurotransmitters in your brain, and thousands of other substances are all actively being shepherded into fairly narrow bands of goldilocks densities. Perhaps stranger yet is programmed cell death, cellular suicide, which seems to turn everything we know about life upside down until we learn to truly appreciate the necessity of limits to growth.  It’s a very odd world we uncover when we stick to the evidence.

One last point about this push-me, pull-me world. Last week’s post mentioned there are levers within system science models; places where small changes can have large effects. Many times this is because it only takes a small force to change the behavior of one of these regulatory mechanisms; a difference that makes a difference. It is something worth considering when surveying the severely restricted landscape of our time’s realistic options.