March 31, 2008

Stop With The Sustainability!

In his article, "Screw 'Sustainability' - And I Am Here To Tell You Why", Howard Bloom makes the case that sustainability is the wrong term to use when discussing our future. He argues that the Earth is the mother of catastrophe. She has:
"nurtured brilliant innovations like cells and DNA but she has also given us 142 mass extinctions, 80 glaciations in the last two million years, a planet that may have once been a frozen iceball, and a klatch of global warmings in which the temperature has soared by 18 degrees in ten years or less."

And this argument is very true. Mother Nature has lifted the haven of sea creatures--ocean bottoms--to the mountain tops and sunken the pleasant habitat of land creatures to the bottom of swamps. Throughout history nature has presented challenges to all of her inhabitants and dared them to survive. More properly, she challenges to thrive.

When you really examine the forces involved, evolution is about breaking the rules of nature--defying gravity to stand on two legs, distorting time when a bear suspends metabolism for months, and saying no to gravity when a bird has the audacity to fly. Every niche of life is following a path of the same audacity. To survive in a world that presents challenges. Mother Nature uses this need to survive no matter the difficulties to feel out new paths of growth and radical new possibilities. Birds have been heavily rewarded for their insubordination. There are four times as many species of birds as their are of us land-lubbing mammals. Every species represents a victory over nature, an ability to conquer a set of conditions.

This is the reason 'sustainability' could be riddled with problems. By its very definition it implies the continuation of the status quo. The lowest periods in recorded history have come when societies try to maintain the status quo. Think of the fall of European civilization from 476AD to 1100AD. That 600 year span is known as the dark ages for a reason. The urge to return to an older, simpler time and self-denial of innovation to rather embrace the ideas of the past catapulted European society into self-imposed ignorance and self-inflicted poverty.

The Islamic Empire suffered the same fate starting in 1556. Islam started to focus on the limitations of its society rather than the possibilities. Every new technology was banned, new ideas were shunned, and the culture withdrew into fantasies of a past mistakenly viewed as a paradise. This type of thinking was responsible for the impoverishment of North-Africa and of the Middle East. The very cradle of civilization, which had borne out some of the most important and innovative cultures in history, was plunged into darkness and they continue to feel how that slowdown has effected their development.

Our true challenge is not to maintain our current status, but to outrun nature by inventing radically new ways to deal with change. In the future we will have to be able to raise food in drought, raise a great bounty of fruits, vegetable, and grains in flood or in a new ice age. If we want to make nature proud and be remembered in the history books its time to ride the whirlwind. We must tame the forces that twist tornadoes and hurricanes, we must milk energy from the massive pressures of tectonic plates, we must turn our sewage into fuel, we must take the waste of industrial agriculturists and turn it into a power source, we must see pollution and cosmic rays as a source of something new and wonderful.

Nature commands this of us! The mandate has been set, all that refuse to adapt and innovate will be doomed to a fall. So surely that statement is just bullshit, right? Nature doesn't really give us any hint of what she demands of us.

But the face is she has. If her laws didn't guide us there would be thousands of biochemical systems competing for dominance, a thousand different families of life. But there is only one family, one clan of DNA, the clan of biomass.

The Ultimate Survivors Disdain Sustainability, Where Would We Be If They Didn't?

Bacteria became our foremothers 3.85 billion years ago. Based on DNA, we are all related to the bacteria that live in our gut, crawl on our skin and make our shit stink. All of us, the bees that produce honey, to the corals with their brilliant displays are part of a huge biomass clan, the children of DNA. Our cells are of the same type that combine to make our bodies, their brains operate with the same neurochemicals that keep us worrying, dreaming, and thinking. Our clan has been given an order, and single grand ambition that drives every member of our DNA family.

Reproduce! To recruit every atom on this planet into the DNA system. And to do it frantically enough that the DNA family makes it through the next mass extinction, no matter what dirty punches Mother Nature throws at us. This is where traditional thinking that we are a plundering a fragile Earth, the proponents of a planet with limited resources, the old sustainability folks get it wrong. We are using less than a quadrillionth of the resources of this planet.

There is 1.097 sextillion cubic meters of rock, magma, and iron beneath our feet. That's a one-with-21-zeroes-after-it stock of raw materials we haven't learned to use yet. At some point in our future we will be able to turn stockpile into fuel, food, or energy. We have yet to recruit it into the DNA family.

But that is the imperative of biomass, to take inanimate molecules and absorb them into the system of life. Bacteria have already started to do this. Lithoautotrophs are eating rock two miles beneath our feet and three miles beneath the sea floor. Turning granite into food, raw stone into biomass, recruiting new atoms into the imperialistic project of DNA.

Extremophiles are bacteria who feast on sulfur, live in water hotter than the water boiling in your cooking pot, and bacteria that live in clouds two miles above our head. New Scientist magazine speculates that they may work to change the weather to create the sort of sauna in the sky that they like best. These bacteria are fullfilling their end of the natural challenge, they are adapting and changing the rules. They are changing something old into something new.

Bacteria recraft the water around hot volcanic shafts in the sea and converted them into Club Meds for exotic eco-systems of chemical processing life forms. And they've invented ways to live in the radioactive materials at the bottom of mine shafts and in the radioactive cooling pools of nuclear power plants.

Bacteria are definitely outpacing us at research and development. They have opened new frontiers to the public project of biomass. They are teaching us that the resources on this planet are almost endless.

Our emphasis must switch, we must commit to innovation. The history of this planet offers us too much knowledge to ignore our current challenge. Our own history, which is unique in that we pass it down from generation to generation, is riddled with civilizations who shun change and fall. Those that do survive on the status quo must do so in small scattered villages, a conglomeration of population requires great innovation.

We need to think of solutions and ways to harness the great powers that the sun and our atmosphere create. We must reanalyze our stability as a people. We must realize the challenges we will face in the future, realize that 60% of of the humans on the planet live in coastal areas. Areas that no matter how many Kyoto Treaties we sign will be plunged into the ocean.

We have to have a trick up our sleeve for every curve that nature throws us..because tossing us curves and challenging our creativity is what Mother Nature is about.

This is not an easy challenge. But you and I have to become the ultimate players of Mother Nature's game. And you and I have to be the ultimate educators in the skills of riding nature's challenges, her catastrophic waves of change.

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