The lessons of island time

Every year I make a point to roam the planet and get back down to earth; to strip away the ornamentation of modern life, if only for a moment, and reflect on what it means to be human. Last year, I ventured through northern Europe for eight weeks, and then upon my return to the United States, backpacked for two weeks through Nevada’s Ruby Mountain Wilderness with my best friend, David Munson. This year, David and I spent two weeks mid-June living on a small island in the Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, several miles off the coast of Belize. It was, to say the least, a transformative experience.

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On the island I read a book called Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, which features a dialogue between a man and his teacher, Ishmael, a telepathic gorilla. Ishmael walks the unnamed narrator Socratically through two different stories being enacted by humankind: one – the “Taker” worldview wherein humanity understands itself to own the world and takes it to be our self-evident destiny to absolutely control the human condition and ultimately transcend our animality to be more the gods of old than part of creation – a mythology of progress, as John Gray, puts it. Ishmael leads our narrator to an understanding of Taker mythology that shows it to be invariably destructive of the planet, essentially set in motion over the last 10,000 years of the agricultural revolution beginning with the conflicts between the Semitic and Caucasian peoples in Mesopotamia – the former, pastoralists in lifestyle; the latter, agricultural revolutionaries – in which the Taker Caucasians cannot stand to settle into a modus vivendi with the pastoralist Semites and, rather than peacefully coexist, expand “Taker Culture” by sword and fire, utterly intolerant of any way of life other than their own, and ultimately seeking to remove human beings from the laws of ecology by which nature (the gods) govern “who lives and who dies” on our humble planet.

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The pastoralist Semites represent, not the first, but continuances of the way humankind lived for three million years prior to the agricultural revolution – herders and hunter-gathers – who still survive today in the ever-waning number of indigenous tribes that still exist despite the march of “progress” that has been underway for the past 10,000 years. Rather than believing the Earth to belong to human beings, these “Leavers” understand humanity to be one animal among many, not destined to rule the Earth, but to coexist as part of its great ecology and to carry forward the emergence of sentience with grace and respect for the immutable laws that govern the existence and balance of life. Where Takers, according to Ishmael, lead destructive, discontent, criminal lives, the Leavers knew harmony with the Earth (even despite the harshness of nature, which Takers aim to escape altogether), a deep-rooted sense of purpose and contentment, and lived within the laws of nature – law-abiding Terran citizens.

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Ultimately, it seems to me, the turn-point on which the Taker-Leaver dualism hinges is the idea of purpose. For the Takers, humankind’s purpose is to progress; but “progress is [just] movement for movement’s sake” according to Hayek’s nihilistic dictum, and leaves us restless, insatiable, and discontent in our existence. Only in Taker Society do depression, obesity, addiction, bipolar, ADD, ADHD, mania, insomnia, and suicide really exist – and they are a reflection of the pointlessness of our eternal pursuit of “progress” as we envision it; never content, never sleeping, always seeking to transcend, yet nevertheless unable to ever be more than human – for in plucking ourselves from the forces of natural selection, we will never be able to evolve.

The Leavers, on the other hand, Ishmael says, understand humanity’s original place within nature, as stewards of a Franciscan bent, and do not struggle with nihilism, or the psychological ailments of modernity. They are “down to earth” and so they are happy, locked in step with the rhythms and melodies of the planet; a synchronicity long since forgotten by the Takers. To be part of something greater than ourselves; to have an unambiguous place on Earth; a true sense of home and authentic living in the ancient wisdom of “what works for people” passed down over millions of years.

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It is easy to lament the rapacious destruction of the Leavers that do today remain, to call for our peaceful co-existence, to live and let live, so that their ancient knowledge and ways of living will not be snuffed out for good, and to resent Taker Society for being what it is, accustomed to its ways over ten millennia; to be saddened by the trajectory of the human-nature relationship that dominates the planet; to wish to leave all the taking behind and return to simpler living; to re-immerse ourselves in the laws of ecology (for we cannot fall forever!) sooner than later, and avert our crashing down into the canyon below toward which our flightless jet has been plummeting since its inception (forgotten that we are falling, for falling gives a sensation of flight until one hits ground); to pity the Takers; to judge and to hate them; to blame them and to obsess over the fantasy of abandoning Taker mythology for a return to hunting and gathering and herding. How naïve! How childish! One does not judge, or blame, or pity, or hate a sheep for being a sheep, for they are but sheep, born into being sheep, living and dying as sheep and knowing no other way, convinced they are happy and righteous in their wool; unawares that they are fleecing themselves, even still.

The sheep will never abandon the herd, for the herd is all they’ve ever known, and the herd is an echo-chamber beating the drum of progress, sure to the deepest level that any other way of life would be nasty, poor, brutish, and short – and so the fruitless dream of convincing the Takers to again become Leavers is, to be sure, a bucket that will not labor to hold water – there is no hope there; only frustration.

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And so, if we labor for hope that we can stem the socioecological crisis of the Anthropocene, we must embrace a new story that inspires a new sense of purpose in the nihilism of Taker Society and reinvigorates living rather than simply being alive; a sense of home and place and meaning in human life as it exists today, for we cannot turn back the clock, forget what we have been up to for 10,000 years and return to the Leaver way of life. Indeed, we are far too many for that to be at all feasible in the first place, and no one would buy it.

Even life on the island was hardly removed from the luxuries of modernity. Indeed, we would forage and fish, but we were never far from agricultural produce brought by gas powered boat, a diesel generator that electrified the open-air kitchen in the “main building,” our Scuba gear, the Internet modem (even if spotty, unreliable, and generally inaccessible), our cell phones, cooking and harvesting tools, the litter washed up and strewn about the island, our mattresses, and solar powered lamps, toothbrushes, sunscreen, bug spray, and head torches were constant reminders that we were never far, never even close to truly removed, from Taker Culture and the luxuries of modernity. Nor, do I think, would we really have wanted to be. We merely sought to go out on a limb, not leap from the tree entirely; for at the end of our stay we hopped on airplanes and whooshed ourselves back to “civilization.”

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But the lessons of the island – of our little limb – we will retain, for its flavor was sweet and its memory powerful – wood labor that one cannot and would not forget; a resonant verse in the new song I will now forever sing; the poetry to onward recite to our Taker kin:

Back down to earth, to embrace the great clod,

To remember and love,

to lay in the grass, and tend to the sod.

For removed we may be, but never too far,

from the ground and the soil that reminds who we are.

Of Takers and Leavers, we humans of terra,

All are of one, as we forge our new era.

For as numbers grow and the planet may groan,

Our task is to labor and spread love for our home.

 

Our ways and our whims are all subject to change,

And our labor of love is to retake the reigns.

Together as people, all one in the same,

Our fate is in common in living’s great game.

Never removed,

in heart or in whole,

In being together we relight our souls;

By ushering in the sentience of beings,

To be first of the teachers is the song we must sing.

 

As time marches on and our place remembered,

Our purpose in life is the being of members

in the tribe of the planet and contentment of living,

As stewards and poets and artisans tending

To the movement of souls through the cosmic abyss,

The meaning we seek is in love and in bliss.

In oneness and many, the plural abounds,

For what works for people is diverse in its sounds,

And melodies change in verse and in rhythm,

We are never too far to bring together the schism.

 

Between humans and cultures and planet and creatures,

All people are set to be leaders and teachers,

But not by our rule, by fire and fist,

For if hubris proceeds we’ll be lost in the mist,

Groping and grabbing at whatever is solid,

But never content,

sordid and squalid.

 

From gorilla to human, to palm leaf and crab,

We can all reinvent the habits we have,

For the better of all and for all in the light,

It is merely the dawn of what life has in sight.

For the cosmos and Earth expresses through us

the sentience, galactic, of which we entrust

the powers of reason, foresight, and love,

the oceans below us and the stars up above.

Our task is each other,

To teach, serve, and write,

Takers and leavers and creatures, alike.

– J. M. Kincaid, 2017

“Re-coupling science and policy” — an elaboration

Hello fellow humans! I hope you are well. My friend, colleague, and co-author Dr. Alexander Lee, and I wrote a short opinion piece, “Re-coupling science and policy” for the Daily Camera–a local Boulder newspaper–earlier this week.

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This short piece is concurrent with the argument in another of our recent articles, “Two problems of climate change: Can we lose the planet but save ourselves?” published in the journal Ethics, Policy, & EnvironmentThere, we argue that the variety of values-based claims central to the climate ethics discussion, from concern with the burdens of harmful climate impacts to the priority of rectifying the wrongdoing of climate change, are given disproportionate emphasis; most emphasis–we think problematically–is put on the harms-dimension of the climate problem, while we believe the latter is closer to the true heart of the immorality and unethical nature of anthropogenic climate change.

In this new short opinion piece, Alex and I consider the recent turns of events concerning The March for Science, Scott Pruitt’s mass-firing of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, and the general trend of unreasonable decision-making, silencing of scientists, and dismantling of values-discourse altogether in the age of Trump.

Science, as it were, is being de-coupled from the policymaking process. Why the decoupling? Because science, and our reliance on science in making decisions of public import, ultimately reflects the progressive values central to the age of reason, i.e. the value we place on collaboration, fostering open discourse among even and especially those who disagree, the importance of evidence, the approach of objectivity, the testability of hypotheses and reproducibility of methods, and the centrality of cooperation to social, political, and ethical progress; values which, I think rather clearly, the Trump Administration does not share. And thus its leaders have taken significant steps to decouple science from the policymaking and public decision-making process. Yet another sign that the age of reason is dead. 

Decoupling science from the policymaking process is yet another move in the Trump Administration’s course to remove representatives of reason from the public discourse; the scheme to silence reasonable public discourse outright. As Alex and I argue, “silencing scientists silences values” — and the open consideration of values is indispensable to the march of progress. As progress in ethics and social order is non-linear, and certainly not guaranteed or immune to regress, we must be tireless in its defense. And to be sure, where science and values discourse alike are squelched by the Trump Administration, it’s not just the age of reasons that’s under siege — it is the very possibility of progress in society.

Let’s get it together, humans.

Our new hydroverlords

The image below is one of four precipitation models published by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) that together forecast extreme global drought less than 50 years from now as a consequence of climate change. What follows illustrates predicted global precipitation levels in 2060-2069 assuming a moderate greenhouse gas emissions scenario as defined by the International Panel on Climate Change. Moderate.

Climate prediction map 2060-2069

Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2060-2069

Take a moment to let all the purple, red, and yellow sink in. These are Dust Bowl conditions and worse. Take another moment.

It is difficult to emphasize enough the gravity of this predicted drought. We should all keep the above image in mind when we consider the value of water. Water is fundamental to the existence of life as we know it. Not just human beings. All life on Earth. For obvious utilitarian and deontological reasons, by the land ethic and the difference principle, by the precautionary and proactionary principles, and by our natural moral sense, water is of the highest non-arbitrary value and it is our responsibility as constituents of the human world and of the Earth itself—if we even entertain such a distinction—to do everything in our power to prevent and prepare for this possibility.

Pause to consider what it would mean for governance, for geopolitics, for the world if we fail to curb climate change beyond this moderate GHG emissions path and simultaneously 1) fail to implement and enforce the universal human right to water as recognized by 122 countries of the UN in 2010, and/or 2) consent to the privatization of water resources by multi-national corporations. I, for one, would not welcome our new hydroverlords.

What’s worse, the map shown above is only the third of four models. The fourth model extends from 2090-2099. Brace yourself for the purple: Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2090-2099

Water resource management, conservation, and preservation will likely fall into their own compartmentalized regime complexes—as discussed by Keohane and Victor—fragmented from other initiatives focused on mitigating and adapting to the various impacts of climate change. According to Keohane and Victor, there’s reason to be optimistic about the capacities of this regime structure. But simply adapting to new conditions of water scarcity equates to treating the symptom rather than the disease. While adaptation is absolutely necessary, we must simultaneously confront climate change at its source: human greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) and the several positive feedback cycles that global warming entails.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations alone are currently around 397 parts per million (ppm), which essentially guarantees an increase in average global temperatures of ~4 degrees Fahrenheit (~2 degrees Celsius). What’s more, unless we reduce GHG emissions by ~80%, we can expect the increase in average global temperature to be even more dramatic.

Confronting climate change means one of two things (and maybe both, but probably not—the former would render the latter largely unnecessary and the latter would likely preclude the former). We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions through 1) an immediate significant reduction in energy consumption or 2) a techno-scientific revolution in renewable energy, energy storage, energy transmission, transportation, agriculture, infrastructure, manufacturing, and architecture.

Coupling either approach with reforestation and afforestation projects would be a good idea too, especially considering the Brazilian government’s recent report that deforestation in the Amazon has actually gotten worse since May of 2012.

In all likelihood, the future holds an increase in energy consumption, not a decrease, so we must—at some level—prepare ourselves to rely on faith in Julian Simon’s infinite resource of the human mind to spark the large-scale techno-scientific advances that the climatic consequences of our industrial behavior demand. We must have faith in progress, despite the paradox therein. A daunting task, to be sure, but we have little choice as we have collectively agreed, both implicitly and explicitly, that the Good Life is an energy intensive one. The climate challenge is upon us. If we are to progress, we must progress toward sustainability—and hopefully to a future with more water than NCAR has predicted. Let’s get it together, humans.

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Wilson’s time machine

Re-reading Biophilia, one of E. O. Wilson’s many seminal eco-philosophical works, I was pleasantly reminded of an important quadripartite distinction laid out in chapter three, “The Time Machine.”

The time machine, Wilson tells us, is biological spatio-temporal thought experiment. Imagine we have the ability to accelerate and decelerate the passage of time without restriction, as well as to magnify and minimize the Earth from a bird’s eye view to any extreme. We could observe every detail of biological phenomena ranging from nearly instantaneous microscopic biochemical reactions to the vast evolutionary manifolds of deep time. Along the spatio-temporal continuum, Wilson makes an ascending, yet non-hierarchical, four-way distinction: biochemical time, organismic time, ecological time, and evolutionary time—each referring to different perspectives about life on Earth.

Start the thought experiment by almost freezing time at the microscopic level: biochemical time allows us to imagine and comprehend biochemical reactions occurring inside living cells that no naked eye could ever see—e.g., an electrical impulse travelling along a neuron or an enzyme catalyzing protein division. These reactions, even if somehow made visible to a normal human perspective, would be utterly indiscernible, for they begin and end in the span of a thousandth of a second. In biochemical time, we organisms appear completely motionless—so next we speed the passage of time slightly and zoom out.

Organismic time is the time and space that we and other macroscopic bio-phenomena experience. The crucial activities of organismic time take place in seconds and minutes—sentences are spoken and comprehended, gestures and decisions are made, breaths are taken, and paths are walked. Obviously, organismic time is the perspective with which people are most familiar, so without a second thought it becomes the default spatio-temporal point of view from which we assess the relative importance of biological phenomena. But it’s not so clear that organismic time, in any normative sense, is the best or only perspective worth taking on the natural world. Our species is, after all, just one of innumerable ecological constituents.

So fast-forward the passage of time and zoom-out from the spacio-temporal scale of organisms to that of the ecosystem. Days pass as quickly as seconds did from the organismic perspective and become indistinguishable from night, their respective brightness blending to yield a dim, constant glow. The seasonal cycles of ecosystem growth and retreat now take on the speed previously reserved in organismic time for daily animal cycles of sleep and activity as regulated by the Sun. We time travelers now stand witnesses to ecological time. Spanning years and centuries, we experience the rise and proliferation of rich forests from barren sandy environs—the transformation of shallow creeks into wide rivers teeming with fish and other life—the maturation of simplistic ponds into thriving communities of birds, water dwellers, and lush vegetation. Thus we behold the profound interconnectivity of ecosystems by which biochemical and organismic space and time are subsumed.

Accelerate time’s passage again and zoom-out once more: years pass by the thousands as we look down from high above the continents—the apropos thresholds for distinguishing evolutionary time. Organisms dissolve into populations and communities, and, as the millennia proceed, the concept of “individuals” holds little meaning beyond that of their momentary roles as progenitors. Families and races blur as adaptation, mutation, and natural selection generate altogether new phylogenetic lines. From the perspective of evolutionary time, the Earth resembles Lovelock’s grand homeostatic organism with ecosystems as its internal organs, individual creatures as its cellular matrix, and biochemical reactions as equivalent to how we view particles of quantum physics from the organismic vantage.

The thought experiment is supposed to remind us that there are biological spatio-temporal perspectives other than our own organismic one worth considering—even worth keeping permanently in mind when assessing multi-generational ethics that correspond to ecological time more so than to organismic time, for example. What’s important in a normative sense from the ecological or evolutionary perspective may not be so obvious from that of organismic time: depending on the problem (e.g., climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, etc.) organismic time may be insufficient and inappropriate for its redress.

Depending on the spatio-temporal viewpoint one takes, moral priorities change. And this works in both directions. Ecological time and evolutionary time leave little room for anthropocentricism: not only are human beings situated in contexts too large for dogmatic humanism to make much sense, the importance of individuals (and therefore individualism—a corollary of neoliberal economics) is curtailed such that any subsequent ethic would entail ecosystems or the Earth itself as the appropriate unit of moral consideration

On the other hand, biochemical time re-substantiates humanism by stationing the organism as a unit of utmost importance—each organism acting as an ecosystem of biochemical reactions all its own, in a way. While ecological and evolutionary time are inconsistent with overly individualistic anthropocentricism, the perspective of biochemical time guards against eco-authoritarian anti-humanism.

Simultaneously, Wilson’s time machine reassures us of our humanitarian identities—the overwhelming sense of pride and privilege inspired simply by being human—while we are also humbly reminded that human beings are not the grand culmination—the glorious ultimate purpose—of all the cosmos.