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.

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