(Nov 25th - Feb 27th 2014)
CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE NATURE OF REALITY
‘Reality, in the pure conception of the understanding,
is that which corresponds to a sensation in general; that, consequently,
the conception of which indicates a being (in time).’
Immanuel Kant (1781)
Over the last half of Earth’s 4.6 billion year existence there have been five major ice ages and as the Earth moved out of each of those, global temperatures rose 4 to 7 degrees (Celsius) over periods of around 5,000 years. By comparison modern day ‘global warming’ has seen the temperature rise by one degree (Celsius) since the Iindustrial Revolution, with an accelerated increase in the 1980’s that is predicted to yield a further 4 degree (Celsius) rise by the end of the century.
There have been many times in the past when external events have had a profound effect on the biosphere of the Earth. ‘The Great Dying’, 248 million years ago was the biggest extinction event of all time with only 4% of life forms surviving - to be halved again by a series of extinctions around the 200 million year mark; from which time dinosaurs and flowering plants evolved only to be decimated in the second biggest extinction 65 million years ago.
Just prior to ‘The Great Dying’, fossil fuels were trapped in the Earth’s crust as the glaciations of the Karoo Ice Age (360-260 mya) buried the dense global coverage of plant and algal matter. It is thought that the Karoo ice age was brought about by the photosynthetic consumption of carbon dioxide to levels below 280 ppm; and with no animals to consume oxygen its atmospheric level was around 35%. By comparison, current day carbon dioxide levels have increased from 320 ppm in the 1960’s to around 400 ppm today, with oxygen levels around 21% (excepting over major cities where it can be as low as 12%).
The modern world would not have developed without fossil fuels as an energy source, and their use was not considered an issue until the mid 1900’s; but since the 1980’s the red light of global warming has started glowing ever brighter. Only to be ignored by commerce and short term governments who push on for economic growth and material gains – globally consuming more than 80 million barrels of oil a day and keeping the price of oil below that of bottled water.
The factors that culminate in climatic conditions at any point on the Earth’s surface are hugely complex, and any dramatic change in these factors is sure to have a costly effect on food chains, infrastructures and territorial ownerships - and yet we seem helpless and blind in our support of the commercial interests who exacerbate the change while dictating government policy.
Perhaps we need to reflect on our individual perceptions of reality since that is our contribution to the collective reality and in turn determines the future of mankind.
A starting point is to realise that our reality is determined by our inherited disposition combined with the knowledge we glean from life’s experience; and unless we have the insight of a yogic guru, the reality of our own world is subtly and sometimes obviously, at variance with the reality of every other living thing! We all have different beverage preferences, our own understandings of death, our own views on refugees and our own political leanings – to the right or to the left?
‘Beyond the horizon of the place we lived when we were young
In a world of magnets and miracles
Our thoughts strayed constantly and without boundary
The ringing of the division bell had begun’
In the politics of human endeavour there are two main streams of reality – the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ - the coining of which originated from the French Revolution (1789) when nobles sat on the right of the President and commoners on the left. The philosophical foundations of ‘left’ and ‘right’ are obvious from their origins. Those on the ‘right’ champion social hierarchies and free enterprise, while those on the ‘left’ seek mutual cooperation and social equality.
The ‘right’ equates happiness with material values and pursues dominion through the power of material mastery; while the ‘left’ relates happiness to harmonious social interaction and pursues command through the communication of knowledge and the organization of social structures. Throughout human evolution the ‘left’ has ruled when cooperation is a survival necessity while in more stable, prosperous times, power slides to the ‘right’ as we kick back and direct attention towards our own interests. Each has its moment, with political favour oscillating back and forth between the two.
In the 1760's, prior to the French Revolution, industry had gathered steam in England which spread to Europe, the United States and Japan.
‘This transition included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, improved efficiency of water power the increasing use of steam power and the development of machine tools.’…‘Economic historians are in agreement that the onset of the Industrial Revolution is the most important event in the history of humanity since the domestication of animals and plants.’
Major demographic shifts occurred as a result of the employment demands and opportunities associated with industrial centres. Close knit communities fragmented into city conglomerates where ‘survival’ related more to income disparities than to matters of life and death. The philosophical belief of the time was that prosperity resulted from freedom and the right to work. Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith is regarded as having laid the groundwork for the economic theory that accompanied the Industrial Revolution (The Wealth of Nations, 1776).
Since the Industrial Revolution the positive influence of the right has been the creation of items of practical use which benefit mankind by freeing up space for creative endeavours, providing paid employment for workers and returning a profit to entrepreneurs. Economic growth has been the catch cry and within the mini mansions of modernised suburban dwellings, the financially successful ‘left’ have subtly moved ‘right’ in their lifestyles.
‘Luxuries quickly were transformed into necessities. At first, the luxuries were cheap cotton clothes, fresh meat, and white bread; then sewing machines, bicycles, sporting goods, and musical instruments; then automobiles, washing machines, clothes dryers, and refrigerators; then telephones, radios, televisions, air conditioners, and freezers; and most recently, TiVos, digital cameras, DVD players, and cell phones.’
Over this period the captains of industry have funnelled money into their dynasties and consolidated their influence on governments. An Oxfam working Paper for the 2014 World Economic Forum highlights the current global inequalities:
‘The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world...In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.’
The ruling elite are no longer the kings of lineages historically won through physical contests between neighbouring clans. They are individuals whose being is absorbed by the wish to be powerful, and although their actions may sometimes seem self serving, they justify themselves by believing that their management of global affairs is for the good of all - a justification which points to a reality lacking in empathetic depth and understanding.
‘Looking beyond the embers of bridges glowing behind us
To a glimpse of how green it was on the other side
Steps taken forwards but sleepwalking back again
Dragged by the force of some inner tide’
Our perceptions of reality come from our sense organs which are traditionally sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste, although there are a number of other less well-known perceptions such as body temperature, pain, balance and internal receivers related to electrical and magnetic fields. Prescience would also seem to be a sense available to some. In actuality our sensory organs do not directly provide us with reality regardless of how clear the signal - as any good hypnotist will demonstrate. The sensory organs are but tentacles for understanding coalesced into reality via the grey matter of our brains.
Much of what we experience is influenced by historical factors and learned responses – a snake has much beauty but we associate it with danger so we don’t like snakes. If we analyse a person’s face we note certain character traits which are recorded in language phrases such as ‘stick out your chin’, ‘keep your ear to the ground’. A person with a strong chin will be forthright; a person with a wide nose will be practical, while a pointy nose indicates pride, big earlobes a sociable nature, small earlobes a fast metabolism, etc, etc.
Over our life’s journey historical responses and correlations of form and action can be offset by favourable experiences such that a pet snake is loved and a person who at first sight appeared unattractive ends up being quite special.
Since procreation via sexual conjugation is necessary in animals (apart from a few exceptions such as stick insects who haven’t had sex for a million years), evolution has built in a tricky little chemical process where the seat of reason and behavioural control, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex behind the left eye, shuts down during orgasm.
How accurately and efficiently we cognate our observances indicates our intelligence quotient (IQ) - but intelligence is more than information processing. A recent and more comprehensive view of the brain includes amongst other things: fluid body movement; musical appreciation; ability for social integration; perceptions of spatial awareness; and the aptitude for understanding realities beyond the mundane.
Laboratory experiments using the ocean-atmospheric conditions of primitive Earth exposed to lightening like electrical discharges have produced many of the amino acids essential to living proteins. But despite the conjecture generated by these experiments, no self-maintaining, reproducing cells representative of ‘life’ have been produced by experiment.
Life is magical in its ability to replicate and perpetuate itself through metabolic processes and over time evolve into something related but quite different - with modern man being the result of 3.8 billion years of evolution. A bacterial cell can replicate itself in half an hour, the human skeleton replaces itself every 10 years, the liver in 5 months, and the skin in 28 days.
Biologist Lynn Margulis, in her book ‘What is Life?’, makes a point which echoes the sentiments of the great theoretical physicist and ‘father’ of quantum mechanics Erwin Schrödinger - that life resembles a ‘fractal’ – i.e. a design repeated at any scale where:
‘The fractals of life are cells, arrangements of cells, many-celled organisms, communities of organisms, and ecosystems of communities. Repeated millions of times over thousands of millions of years, the processes of life have led to the wonderful, three dimensional patterns seen in organisms, hives, cities, and planetary life as a whole.’
Lynn Margulis’s revelation was that our own nucleated cells descended from amalgams of several different strains of bacteria. Energy producing mitochondria were incorporated into oxygen respiring purple bacteria, photosynthetic chloroplasts of the plant kingdom acquired their ability by engulfing blue-green bacteria. Similar processes continue amongst today’s bacteria as highlighted by the evolution of ‘superbugs’ such as penicillin resistant Golden Staph and pneumonia producing Streptococcus pneumoniae.
The human body contains millions of diverse bacteria which have adapted to all the different parts of the body. Hundreds of species inhabit our gastrointestinal tract and influence our digestion, our health, our moods and even the way we think. Collectively these bacteria are called the microbiota and the sum of the genetic material in these bacteria is called the microbiome.
‘The microbiota is similar to an organ in that it performs functions essential for our survival. And just as with the heart or the lungs, when an environmental agent alters the function of the microbiota, the result can be disease.’
‘If we consider ourselves to be a composite of microbial and human species, our genetic landscape a summation of the genes embedded in our human genome and microbiome, and our metabolic features a coalescence of human and microbial traits, the self-portrait that emerges is one of a ‘human supraorganism’.
Given a favourable environment bacteria do not die with age but instead divide, one half inheriting any damaged constituents and eventually ceasing to replicate, while the other half lives on and could foreseeably have originated from around the time that ‘life’ started.
Life has never commenced anew but has been passed on from one living thing to another. Our body and its control centre the brain have evolved from the starting point of unicellular organisms and even though the timeframe belittles the human life, it’s some consolation to remember Stephen Hawking’s slant on time:
‘So maybe what we call imaginary time is really more basic, and what we call real (time) is just an idea that we invent to help us describe what we think the universe is like.’
Hawkins, Stephen, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Press 1988, London, UK (P. 158)
If we track back through our genetic origins perhaps logic would have it that somewhere in our makeup there is a bridge that connects to the origins of life!