Bringing life to our world

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This is chapter 4 of Ben's portion of SolSeed: The Book of Life.


A scientific creation myth

Billions of years ago, a world coalesced out of tiny bits of dust and pieces of floating rock. Not long after the larger rocks stopped crashing into it, melting and re-melting its surface, life arose on the newly solid surface--perhaps under newly formed oceans, perhaps in tide pools--the details aren't important. What matters is that tiny submicroscopic primitive cells began building a vast world-spanning system of feedback loops and cycles. These early organisms eventually began to transform their hostile environment even as it drove them to adapt and evolve their capabilities. Thus life began to create the conditions for more life. James Lovelock refers to this system of planetary feedback between life and its environment, each constantly reshaping the other, as Gaia. In the context of the Destiny, we refer to this unified "body of all life on Earth" as SolSeed, an entity which will one day reproduce and seed the Galaxy with life.

After billions of years, small groups of cells began working together even more closely and formed creatures one could see with the naked eye. Eyes did not yet exist, but they arose not long thereafter, along with a slew of other innovations such as circulatory, digestive, and nervous systems, bones and muscles, fins and tails, not to mention photosynthesis, roots, leaves, and seeds. Hundreds of millions of years later, Homo sapiens appeared among the countless millions of endlessly diverse species.

The lessons we take from this story, a creation myth buttressed by decades of accumulated evidence, vary depending on how we see ourselves. At one extreme are those who presume that because of our great intelligence, humans are the pinnacle of evolution and destined to dominate the other species, destroying any that inconvenience us and re-engineering others to serve our will. At the other extreme are those who equate the value of a human life with that of a bacterium.

SolSeed stands somewhere in between. We believe that humanity has several very special contributions to make in the cause of advancing life, but that we should see ourselves as partners with the rest of nature rather than absolute rulers. The SolSeed Destiny is envisioned as a joint venture of humans and other species for the benefit of all.

Two ways of living

As Paul Krafel describes in his film "The Upward Spiral," within life there are two solutions to the problem of entropy. The first solution we call the "get mine" solution. In "get mine" a living organism takes in whatever it needs and spews out its waste without regard for the effects on other organisms. There is nothing inherently wrong with "get mine." In fact, Krafel makes the point that this solution to the problem of entropy is "ancient and venerable" and will always be a characteristic of life.

While we appreciate the necessity of "get mine," it is the second solution to the problem of entropy by which we are most inspired. The second, "grow ours," solution is where life creates the conditions for ever more complex forms of life. We believe that humans should move away from the first solution, away from acting like ours is the only species that matters, and toward the second solution, acting for the benefit of all life in a kind of large-scale, conscious symbiosis.

Given where we are right now, it's easy to doubt that we can ever spread this attitude to significant numbers of people, or even that we can become more benevolent dictators. But the SolSeed movement tends to be in the mindset of celebrating life and positive possibilities rather than fearing death and destruction. There really are lots of scenarios of the future that are very unattractive, and it is easy to use fear of a dystopian/apocalyptic future to motivate people. The problem with fear as a motivator is that it's pretty unsustainable (and we love sustainability, because without it we will never reach the Destiny). When the worst fails to occur, the fear-based motivation becomes "crying wolf" and lures a community into complacency. Also, fear is a rather ugly motivator that doesn't bring out the most creative, generative, best parts of us. People defensively react to fear, whereas hope can make us proactive and is far more likely to drive positive change.

In the spirit of celebrating life and living from abundance, we prefer to be motivated by the image of a thriving Gaia (or SolSeed) flowering out into space. This way of thinking also avoids the sorts of spreadsheet arguments about the "morally correct" items to be spending our resources on. Gaia flowering out into space is not about "doing the right thing." Gaia flowering into space is about the exuberant, unstoppable enthusiasm for life to materialize greater and greater possibilities.

People are animals too

What does it mean to reconnect with nature? There are many aspects to this goal, but the most obvious one begins from the realization that there is no intrinsic separation between our species and the rest of the web of life. Taxonomically, we are just another species of mammal, sharing all the traits that define the other mammals, even if we also have some exceptional traits such as complex language and the ability to make many kinds of tools.

It is common to rebel against statements like the above, relegating the behaviors we hold in common with other species to the level of "base animal instincts," and denigrating our bodies for their many frailties. In this view, our unique intelligence is the only thing that really contributes to making us "human rather than animal," as if the two concepts were totally separate. At the extreme, this attitude manifests as a desire to "move out" of our fragile, mortal flesh and become creatures of metal and plastic or disembodied intelligences living in a computer-generated virtual world. Some even refer to the process of building and inhabiting such new forms as "the next step in evolution."

But in reality, our nature as human beings is a combination of body and mind, instinct and learned behavior alike, and all the supposed boundaries between the "higher" and "lower" aspects of our being are imaginary. After all, language, culture, and technology did not appear out of thin air; they arose out of nature, in the form of evolutionary pressures that drove our ancestors to form ever more complex social structures in order to survive, and to develop the brain capacity to keep track of them.

Learning to accept and celebrate our whole beings is also a way of affirming our kinship with many other species that gain energy by consuming food, move using muscles, have skeletons built around a central spine, protect themselves from the elements with hair or fur, bear live young and feed them with milk, and form social groupings because they are stronger together than apart. At the same time, we can recognize and celebrate the many differences among the survival strategies of our closest evolutionary kin, and see that they are no more or less wonderful than those of beings from more distant branchings of the tree of life. In diversity lies life's greatest strength, and we are stronger when working together with the rest of the biosphere than when we place ourselves apart and above it all, aloof in our illusory self-sufficiency.

Avoiding the other extreme

Every living thing is valuable, but as mentioned above, SolSeed doesn't seek to place equal value on the life of every organism. Even though we don't see humans as intrinsically, qualitatively "above" the rest of life on Earth, we do accept that humans can and should place a higher value on human lives than the lives of other creatures.

One reason for this is simply pragmatic: as Richard Dawkins has observed, genes seek to perpetuate themselves, meaning that any "altruistic" being will focus mostly on helping those with genomes similar to its own--its close relatives and, to a lesser extent, other members of its species. Another biology-focused reason is that unlike many species, whose offspring are numerous because so many of them are expected to die young, human couples have always had relatively few children and placed a high value on trying to keep all of them alive. This becomes even more true in the modern era, where birthrates in much of the world are dropping toward two per couple or even lower.

Finally, we return to the unique traits that make humans such powerful sources of innovation and possibility. Though we may well find that none of these traits is qualitatively unique--we already know that there are other animals that communicate, cooperate in complex ways, even make and use tools--still, there is no question that the exceptional intelligence and creativity of human beings has created amazing and unprecedented new forms of diversity: cultural, technological, artistic, and ideological diversity, just to name a few. We can't help but value ourselves highly for this capability, even as the pace of development of new ideas and capabilities threatens to accelerate beyond all control. In some ways it's a beautiful problem to have: the world is in danger of plunging into a deadly chaos caused by too much creativity. We must not fall into the trap of valuing this creativity above all else, and claiming that slowing the rate of progress is always wrong, even if it's necessary to prevent global catastrophe. But to have all that possibility available is undoubtedly a wonderful thing.

An end to progress?

Conservatives in America, who ironically are far more obsessed with economic progress than their progressive political opponents, often criticize proposals to protect the environment on the grounds that "they will damage the economy." Recently, environmentalists have come up with a counterargument about how innovative green technologies will lead to millions of "green-collar jobs" and make the economy stronger, preserving the continual economic growth that conservative economists believe to be so indispensable.

But neither of these arguments takes into account the onrushing consequences of our failure to establish a sustainable civilization. Our current economy only works in the presence of a cheap energy source and a reasonably stable climate, yet our fossil-fuel-based energy systems are threatening both of these. We have probably already passed "peak oil," the point beyond which new oil discoveries become less and less frequent and the oil in the ground becomes increasingly difficult to extract. Likewise, global warming is already well underway and causing massive disruptions--stronger hurricanes, bigger wildfires, more frequent major droughts and floods, etc--that take vast amounts of effort and money to recover from.

Al Gore's answer to all this is that we must "solve the climate crisis" by transitioning to clean, renewable energy sources, which will also eliminate the problem of limited fossil-fuel supplies. But it's starting to look as though that can't happen fast enough to return us to the stable, temperate climate we're used to. This situation has given rise to the Transition movement, which seeks to prepare us for global-warming adaptation and "energy descent" by scaling back the scope of human endeavor. Transition advocates the reverse of current economic orthodoxy: shrinking and localizing economies so each community is less dependent on world-girdling supply lines, which may be cut due to increasingly common weather-related disasters. They also propose replacing some oil-powered machinery, not with futuristic electric devices driven by solar energy, but with a return to manual labor, requiring a "re-skilling" in techniques that most Americans would associate with Third-World or medieval life.

Naturally, this kind of plan bodes ill for the SolSeed Destiny. How would there be any room for space exploration and colonization efforts in a scaled-back world whose remaining large-scale resources are dedicated to coping with a permanent climate crisis?

Crossing the gap

The Transition movement's realism about our current situation is admirable, but in fact, their projection of a static "permaculture" future isn't nearly so realistic. The ideal of progress is simply too powerful to die so easily. Even if energy descent is our immediate future, the myriad ongoing research and development efforts aimed at scaling up green technologies, in support of a more prosperous and dynamic model of sustainable civilization, won't simply stop. After a "gap" of a few scale-back-and-hunker-down decades, a new era of cheap energy may well arise, built on firmer foundations and with far fewer destructive side effects.

And the extra time for our engineers to think through the consequences of the new technologies, with the storms raging outside as constant reminder of the need for caution, will help ensure that we don't simply lay the groundwork for more unexpected catastrophes. For example, if it turns out that huge arrays of wind turbines lead to dangerous large-scale shifts in air currents, it would be nice to discover this before we convert a substantial fraction of the world's electricity supply to wind power. Likewise, if we choose to attempt some form of "geoengineering" to return the global climate to the era of stability we're accustomed to, essentially a terraforming project in miniature performed on Terra itself, we will need a very long and intense study period beforehand to avoid creating problems worse than the ones we're trying to solve.

Some would argue that we've used up so much of our natural resource base that any prosperous future is already impossible, but there are two major objections to this. One is that the resources we use don't just vanish; all the highly refined materials built into throwaway products are still around, requiring only a single new industry, landfill mining, to bring them back into circulation. The other is that once we find a sufficiently clean and low-cost means of launching spacecraft and sending them out into the solar system, vast new supplies of mineral wealth will become available, as well as potentially new clean energy sources to help bring us out of the "gap" and back toward the kind of future we're striving for.

What can I do?

This chapter has been long on philosophy and short on practical planning, partly because the concrete personal steps we all need to take to build sustainability and reconnect with nature are already well known. Thanks largely to the success of the movie An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's claim that "We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization" is gradually becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. A large and growing fraction of the population knows the mantra of reduce-reuse-recycle, the value of organic food and eating less meat, the importance of switching to more efficient lighting and appliances, the reasons for walking or biking or taking buses, trains, or carpools instead of driving alone, and so on. And it almost goes without saying that the best way to reconnect with nature is to spend time hiking in the wilderness. Of course, most people don't actually do all of this yet, but peer pressure, local government programs, and even some corporate "go green" ad campaigns are encouraging positive changes in habits. The U.S. federal government is lagging behind this trend; even former-Vice-President Gore must have realized by now that the top-down approach to change would never have worked. But if current trends continue, the conservative economic-growth-at-all-costs orthodoxy that dominates Washington, D.C., may soon find the broader national and international discourse shifting out from under them.

Eco-villages like the one SolSeed wants to build can help point the way. Like technology enthusiasts who buy innovative new gadgets before all the bugs have been worked out, we can serve as "early adopters" of more sustainable and resilient ways of living, demonstrating the advantages to the broader population, and working through the inevitable difficulties so they don't have to. Patience is the key; we're trying to reinvent the world here, and it takes awhile for such innovations to become the new established, tried-and-true methods, even in the era of hyper-accelerated "Internet time." Issues like global warming may seem too urgent to allow for anything but the utmost haste, but we'll do better in the long run if we "act upstream," starting small rather than trying to change everything at once.

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