Life changes the planet. It always has. We humans are life. We’re changing the planet.
How you choose to think about it has a lot to do with what you choose to do about it.
The Medea Hypothesis
In his book, The Medea Hypothesis, Peter Ward summarizes a few decades of ecology research and adds a few of his ideas of his own. Ward argues that the idea that life seeks to create equilibrium with the environment, the Gaia Hypothesis, is false. He paints a compelling picture of how life doesn’t create harmony with the planet at all. Life appears to be in perpetual conflict with the abiotic environment. It tries to occupy as much space as it can. It competes with itself to occupy as much space as it can. The argument is compelling if you look at how humans really aren’t seeking equilibrium right now.
There’s something about the way the young earth was that enabled Life in the first place. There was a lot of heat. And that heat in the planet had to go somewhere. There was a lot of hydrogen sulfide. All of that chemical energy had to go somewhere. A key feature of life is the creation of portable and useable chemical energy using gradients. The other key activity is recruiting chemicals to do useful things and preserve information. The opportunity to use that free energy existed in small pockets of porous rock. It stands to reason that there were all sorts of interesting gradients in that rock – between what was coming up out of the earth and the early oceans. There was a lot of time and energy for a lot of interesting chemistry to happen. Large molecules could have been created. Maybe even very primitive ribosomes.
I regard the ribosome itself as information that creates new information. To be clearer, rRNA is itself information. It just seems to me that chemical gradients through semi-porous membranes had to come before self-replicating information tactics came about. In part – I can’t imagine self-replicating information machines coming about without the energy from chemical gradients to power it.
It just seems like Life is a useful way for creating more disorder in the long run, through an intermediate step of trying to create some order. Sort of like how organized crime is more effective at destroying the social fabric than disorganized crime. It takes a lot more effort to get it organized, but once it’s locked and loaded, it can really drive a disproportionate result.
On young Earth, all life was powered by Hydrogen Sulfide. Then life made use of sunlight and it started creating oxygen as a waste product. And that changed the planet quite a bit. There are these repeated episodes in Earth’s history where the Hydrogen Sulfide life, the OG of life if you would, would come back. This kind of tug of war, between oxygen and sulfur, pulsing over millions of years, wasn’t pleasant for either branch of life.
In his book, When Life Nearly Died, Michael Benton describes a planet that belches a massive amount of volcanism and plunges large parts of the planet back to a Hydrogen Sulfide state. It nearly took us all out.
It isn’t like the Planet itself, the abiotic factors, are fantastic partners for life. It may have accidentally kickstarted the process of self-replicating information because it had to. Life, in turn, has done all sorts of things to the planet – sequestering massive amounts of calcium carbonate and sending it right back under the surface, oxygenating its atmosphere, and recently, pouring hydrogenated nitrogen over vast tracts of land, and all the hard rock mining we’re doing to its crust. Life and the planet really aren’t partners.
And it’s kind of neat how Life invented ways to speciate itself. Information is divided into species, and that information branches as it learns from the environment and itself. It’s a strange way to survive on the planet, and the information sure does seem like it turns over an awful lot, doesn’t it?
Why Economic Growth
Survival on the planet is damn hard because the planet really doesn’t care that we’re here. The Toba eruption wasn’t a friendly partner for humanity. It knocked us right back. Humanity nearly went extinct. There were fewer than 10,000 of us at the narrowest point of the bottleneck.
The ones that made it through that super narrow evolutionary bottleneck, the survivors, had characteristics that enabled them to survive. Maybe the males that got through had different levels of testosterone. Maybe they survivors could travel further. Invent more. They were probably better at inventing new information to survive. We are what we are because they made it through.
So we’ve invented more information that helps us survive on the planet. This is the key point in Eric Beinhocker’s book The Origin of Wealth. We invent because life is damn hard.
We changed the planet when we started using fire as a tool, sharpening rocks, attaching rocks to wood, herding, cutting down trees, domesticating and getting domesticated by plants, irrigating, mining, smelting and on and on. We’re modifying the planet as we grow, from 10,000 individuals to 7.9 billion individuals.
It’s what we do.
We’re part of a consistent, uninterrupted, chain of change that goes back to the beginning.
Life has never been in equilibrium with the planet, the sun, the moon and the Universe. Humans are Life. So it follows that neither are we in equilibrium.
Why The Threat
Digging up and burning carbon has materially benefited billions of humans. We’ve attained better standards of living in more places because we bootstrapped on carbon. Britain was first. The West second. Asia third. Then everybody else. First mover advantage. Too many people continue to go without electricity, water, and physical security.
Carbon has a cost. When combined with oxygen, it creates a compound that absorbs microwave radiation. The same phenomenon that heats your burrito heats the atmosphere. That extra heat amplifies the disequilibrium we humans really started to cause hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Complexity, and the better human conditions that complexity enables, requires highly organized societies. Large swings in abiotic forces are generally associated with rapid declines in complexity. One of my favourite folk stories was that the Egyptian elite justified their position on the basis of guaranteeing that the Gods would flood the Nile. I don’t know whether the elite really believed their demonstrations caused the Gods would flood the Nile, but, nevertheless, the Planet doesn’t care. It’ll flood the Nile whenever the abiotic factors and Life combine to create a flood. One century, the floods became erratic. People starved. Many died. People rightly re-examined the utility of an elite. And then that elite was no more. Egypt is still a country today. Just without its original language, religion, or art. Ancient Egyptians wouldn’t have recognized the Egypt of 800 C.E.. It was effectively transformed into something very different. I wonder how they would have felt about that.
The threat is that the planet may not allow us to continue organizing the way we are and enabling additional complexity, little though maintaining the status quo. Another way of thinking about it is that we’re so interconnected now that the entire world lives along the Nile. And if we push the planet further, if we keep adding more heat energy to it, things are going to start to go very erratic.
It’s generally a good idea to go Long on global civilization. If you Short it, there won’t be anything to buy with the money you’ll gain. It always just seemed like shorting civilization is a short sighted bet.
Why The Fear
I can’t think of a single century in human existence that has been easy. Every single century just seems to be a raging dumpster fire. All the way back even before homo sapiens sapiens. Even poor Lucy died by falling out of a tree. It’s always been a struggle.
The 21st Century has been better for a lot of people, but it hasn’t been great for everyone. In aggregate, there’s less war, genocide, disease and starvation than in the 20th Century. Yet, those things are still happening somewhere. Things are getting better in many places. Things are getting worse in others. They aren’t getting better at the same rate in all places.
Consider the statement: As good as things are today, they can always get worse.
And contrast it to the statement: As good as things are today, they can always get better.
Each statement rings more true than the other for different people. There’s variance there. And some people just fear that if we make any change to society, it’s inevitable that it’s going to be for the worse.
And yet, that really isn’t true because most humans are materially better off because of some of the changes.
People with high skepticism of the risk of positive will often argue against any change. The status quo appears to be safer under conditions of high uncertainty. However, Life continues to transform the planet. Given public reaction to recessions, there’s good reason to believe that people are not going to accept a lower degree of complexity and quality of life voluntarily.
Why The Optimism
Scarcity is a concept I respect immensely. There just isn’t ever enough. Not enough power. Not enough money. Not enough food. Not enough water. Not enough minerals. There’s always an argument that there just isn’t enough for everybody. And on this point, I am aligned with Life. There has just never been enough because we have been hard wired since the beginning to get more.
The Enlightenment took a look time to diffuse through the population. Looking at the situation with COVID, I might even be able to argue that the lessons of The Enlightenment haven’t diffused all the way through the general population. The longer I live, the more astonished I am at the staying power of beliefs, including the ones I’ve repeated in this very post!
When I was a child, reading about fundamental forces and spacecraft, I became very upset at all the things that I never had the chance to invent or discover. It’s a strange belief – that there isn’t much left to be discovered or invented. Then I grew up and acquired an appreciation for just how much is possible and left to discover. In looking at tree of knowledge today, of all the things that we know, and all of the things that are likely to become knowable in the future, and I think there’s still so much left. For instance, I continue to be very disturbed about our state of knowledge about how gravity works and how consciousness emerges. I think there’s a lot more to be discover.
We have a much greater range of thought that could give us a chance to manage the transformation in a way that is positive for most Life on the Planet. We have so much more technology now, and a lot more knowledge of how to coordinate perspectives in such a way that we could affect mass action. If enough of us agreed. And there are quite a few very good ideas that you might know and the word just has diffused out enough just yet.
If I squint, I can see part of a way over. There’s a way that more people could be happier if some of the techniques that are used to shape the demand curve are applied for that purpose. People are very creative. It makes me wonder what would be possible for much more media was driven by mechanisms other than private advertising. I can see ways of making transportation networks less energy intensive and safer. The price of solar and wind are very rapidly. Automation continues to advance, making it cheaper and cleaner to transform matter. The food chain can change. Maybe the population peaks at 10-12 billion with most people achieving the security they need, and then enters a long decline?
And then there are a few things that, even when I squint, I can’t quite see a way through. I don’t know where we find all of the electricity to provide absolutely every last human with a couple thousand watts. I continue to be mystified and amazed that we use controlled detonation and continuous flows of matter to create rotary motion in order to make the magnets spin. We’re not so good at converting wave motion into rotary motion. There are good reasons for that. We leave a lot of energy out there. The global food supply won’t be able to handle so much atmospheric and oceanic instability.
At this juncture, there are reasons for optimism. Humanity can imagine ways through the transformation into the next thing. There is reason to believe that the future will be emotionally and materially better than today.
We’re changing the planet because we’re Life.
We can choose to grow better.