The ambiguous dreams of the techno-optimists

“Here’s one of my scenarios.  Let’s say there comes a time when human consciousness is readily uploadable into digital form, virtualized and so on, and pretty soon we have a box of a trillion souls.  There are a trillion souls in the box, all virtualized.  In the box, there will be molecular computing going on — maybe derived from biology, maybe not.  But the  box will be doing all kinds of elaborate stuff.  And there’s a rock sitting next to the box.  Inside a rock, there is always all kinds of elaborate stuff going on, all kinds of subatomic particles doing all kinds of things.  What’s the difference between the rock and box of a trillion souls? The answer is that the details of what’s happening in the box were derived from the long history of human civilization, including whatever people watched on YouTube the day before.  Whereas the rock has its long geological history but not that particular history of our civilization.

Realizing that there isn’t a genuine distinction between human intelligence and mere computation leads you to imagine that future — the endpoint of our civilization as a box of a trillion souls, each of them endlessly playing a video game, forever.  What is the ‘purpose’ of that?”

  — Stephan Wolfram, in Possible Minds, 25 Ways of Looking at AI, edited by John Brockton.

What is the purpose indeed.

Let’s just say that I hope we don’t have to wait until we’ve uploaded ourselves into some kind of general artificial intelligence to ask what the point of all this is. What is the purpose of all of our civilizational striving, our technological competitions, our race towards AI? Is it technological enabled ‘immortality’? Do we really want to put our souls in a box? But is this not the telos that our civilization seems to have chosen – this strange sterile vision of a purified, virtualized selves somehow made incorruptible through information technology? Our powers of symbolizing, of turning life into symbols, are turned upon ourselves. Do we not already treat each other – with our social media and big data – as symbols to be manipulated for profit?

As Jeff Bezos is quoted as saying in defense of his Blue Origin space project in the New York Times: “‘We will run out of energy,” Mr. Bezos said. “This is just arithmetic. It’s going to happen.’ At that point, to remain on Earth would require rationing and declining opportunities. But the rest of the solar system offers virtually limitless resources. ‘Do we want stasis and rationing or do we want dynamism and growth?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘This is an easy choice. We know what we want. We just have to get busy.’”

In other words, if we refuse to renounce the cult of growth and figure out how to live within the limits set by this planet in these humble, imperfect, contingent biological bodies, then ipso facto we must escape both bodies and planet in a technological rapture, more or less as described by Bezos and Wolfram.

Perhaps it’s just me but I don’t find these visions appealing. Nor am I convinced that such goals will bring the best ROI, if we must speak in such terms. Why are we allowing ourselves to be led towards goals (AI, space colonialism) that are, at best, questionable and by leaders who seem rather stunted in their understanding of the possibilities and purpose of Life on Earth?

The Reality of Climate Change

Problems have solutions; dilemmas have consequences!  The reality of climate change can’t be avoided but the consequences for humans and other life forms can be made worse by our decisions.  There is a difference between solving problems and living with consequences.  Solving problems means we can try to fix what is wrong.  Living with consequences means we must face the reality of our situation.  The reality of climate change is already impacting the hydrologic cycle—increased precipitation, evapotranspiration, runoff, and river flow— but we can make our situation worse.

Continue reading “The Reality of Climate Change”

Our mandate

The Mapuche struggle is an ecological struggle, it is a struggle for life and its continuity… We are people of the Earth, whose main mandate is to protect everything that makes existence possible, based on a spirituality connected with the natural elements. (Belén Curamil Canio of the Mapuche in Chile)

Are we perhaps the only life-form in this corner of the universe that sees things this way? Sensing ourselves to be unequivocally responsible for protecting everything that makes existence possible? Or does every variety of life feel the same way?

As individuals and as a species we tend to trust that things existed before us and will continue to exist after us. But absent the human individual or species from the picture and there is from a certain perspective no existence. We sense that we make it all possible just by being here. 

We receive the gift of coming alive from those of our kind who raise us and with gratitude we pass it on to those we have a hand in raising.  But the gift ripples horizontally too, beyond our kind. We receive life from the living Earth every day, and we in turn must daily birth and nurture the living Earth. The forests, rivers and all the things that swim, fly, creep and crawl need us as much as we need them.

So there it is, we must honour our mandate and do the right thing. Take humbly from life and give generously to life, in every breath and with every beat of our hearts. No need to ask why or from whom this mandate, or to what end. It is what it is. It is what is right.

[Image courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize]

Cigarette Butt pollution

There are many substances that get deposited on streets and little of this pollution is removed from stormwater before being dumped into rivers.  Street Department personnel spread salt and sand on icy roads in winter.  People throw trash and cigarette butts out their car window or it blows out of the bed of trucks.  Vehicles leak oil and other lubricants, tires shed hydrocarbons, and exhaust pipes emit gases and fluids.  There are many substances that unintentionally and intentionally get washed down the drains and into storm sewers that feed downstream drinking water.  All of these substances accumulate on roads along with natural debris such as sticks, leaves, and dirt.

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Four Earthly Ways of Being

I was at dinner with four women a few weeks ago to discuss  protecting a nearby place of significance – what we would call a wahi pana.  It is a ravishingly beautiful spot: a hanging valley overlooking the ocean, with groves of ancient native trees, flowers, ferns, orange trees, ginger, and bamboo.  Most of the time there is a stream running through it, which, in this semi-arid district with its porous volcanic soils, is a wonder in itself.  Naturally, this spot so blessed by nature was inhabited and beloved by the kanaka maoli  – the native Hawaiians – for long centuries, until contact with the West decimated their population and nearly destroyed their culture.  More recently, in the last few decades, it has been a religious retreat site.  The Tibetan Buddhist philanthropists who currently own the land have other priorities on the mainland U.S. and so were talking of putting the property on the market.  It was feared that the land could fall into the hands of owners who would treat it in the usual American way and plop down a trophy house so as to command  the most sweeping view of the coastline.  This would be a gut-wrenching desecration of the tangible and  intangible qualities of the little valley. Continue reading “Four Earthly Ways of Being”

Life on Earth Day

Earth Day is a opportunity to think big, as big as a planet, to let our thoughts unfurl into the still lovely expanses of this earth.  It is a chance to remember our kinship, all our relations, to this extended family of ours, Life on Earth.  It is an opportunity to remember that the most essential thing about us is that we are alive, as animals among animals, connected to plants, winds and rain.  And to contemplate what an astonishing blessing and mystery it is to be alive on a living planet. Continue reading “Life on Earth Day”

Earth Day

April 22 is Earth Day and next year marks its 50th anniversary.  It seems a good time to pause and think about what we have accomplished and where we go from here.  How has Earth Day changed since it’s conception and have we reached any of its original goals?

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Birds, toddlers and the phoney laws of profit

Fine-mesh netting to stop birds nesting in trees and hedgerows has recently become a thing in the UK. Apparently it’s been going on for a few years in the leafy margins where town merges into countryside. But it seems to have particularly taken off this spring, and photos have been pinging around social media.

Why would anyone stop birds nesting? Well, if you’re a property developer with a planning application pending, you need to make sure any trees and hedgerows you might later want to uproot aren’t home to feathery families. If they are, it’ll be illegal to displace them and that’s going to cost you time and money. So there you go. A sound business rationale for something quite appalling.

This wouldn’t be the foulest trick in the annals of human mistreatment of other creatures, but it seems to have struck a chord with many people. One of those ‘what have we come to?’ moments signalling unease in the collective psyche. Something which draws back the veil on the price that nature pays for society’s glorification of profit.  Something which reveals how we distance ourselves not only from the rest of nature but also from our own true nature.

Tangentially related in my mind was a news story from London a few weeks ago. A housing estate south of the river featured a notionally communal play area divided by a hedge and wall. On one side, a spacious garden and grounds accessible only to tenants of the estate’s privately owned flats. On the other a narrow strip of playground serving the handful of social housing flats. The development project had been required to include a proportion of social housing units, and communal play provision for small children had been part of the original specification. But now the ‘private’ and ‘social’ children, who wanted to play together, were segregated. So there was a bit of an outcry.

The estate management company embarrassed itself for a few days in the media, defending the indefensible with proprietor’s logic packaged in pathetic PR guff. After all, they asserted, only the private tenants paid the service fees which maintained their children’s VIP play facilities. Yeah but no but. Instinctively we all know that toddlers are exempt from social hierarchy. And in this case, the walls came down. But as it is for toddlers so it should be for the rest of us. Human hierarchies are a social construct, abominable and completely artificial, but like detachment from nature they serve the profit principle well,  so we’re stuck with them. Until people suddenly see right through them.

These two stories are linked for me in that they help delineate what it is we’re up against and show me where to direct my energies. I can’t ‘fight’ climate chaos but I will go out of my way to defy the maladaptive hallucinations (to borrow Richard Reese‘s phrase) that have created and are still driving it. And I can do so in the faith that deep down all of us are on the same side. We’re not supreme over nature, we’re not supreme over each other, and we won’t be blinded by the phoney laws of profit. So there.

Taiwan and the Taming of Trash

Taiwan is a small country on a large-ish island, much blessed by nature, but struggling with the impact of a dense human population and rapid economic growth. Returning, for the first time in  more than twenty years, to a country that I had lived in, off and on, for about a year, was most interesting.  When I was last in Taiwan it was in the throes of its “Asian tiger” phase, and now has become, at least according to the taxi driver that picked my daughter and I up at the airport,  much less dynamic.  In the best tradition of the Taiwan citizenry, our driver was not at all shy about criticizing his government vigorously and with considerable sophistication.

Taiwan, also called the Republic of China (ROC) as opposed to mainland China, which is the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is always under more or less explicit threat of invasion or bombing by the PRC.  Taiwan’s leaders must  walk a thin line between asserting Taiwan’s right to exist as  a country, which assertion is backed, more or less discretely, by the US,  and provoking Beijing with too unequivocal and evident an existence.   Alongside the global geo-politics are the more local politics that  derive from waves of migration into Taiwan, with the indigenous  Austronesian people of Taiwan  having been displaced by successive sub-cultures of Han Chinese, as well as brief colonial occupations by the Dutch in the 17th  century and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Taiwan is fascinating agriculturally as it has admirably fertile, well-watered alluvial plains on its western coast, which are intensively farmed in small plots (by American standards) usually of only an acre or two – much rice, some taro, vegetables, and fruit orchards.  The excellence of Taiwanese plant breeding is a long-acknowledged fact in tropical agriculture circles.

Taiwan is a place that I found simultaneously delightful, disturbing and dystopian twenty years ago, and still find so, but for mostly different reasons this time around.   One thing that is not so different and, unfortunately, much worse is the air quality in Taiwan. There are many explanations for Taiwan’s terrible air quality, such as major petrochemical processing facilities with footprints in the thousands of acres,  large coal-burning electrical plants, trash incineration plants, the high tail-pipe emissions from the vast herds of scooters,  second-hand pollution from the factories in mainland China, and the fine dust blown up out of the river-beds in dry, windy weather.

On the plus side, I was astounded by their success in addressing solid waste – trash, basically – and in the cleanliness of the rivers and streams.  I have one unforgettably dystopian memory of Taiwan in the 1990’s, a scene glimpsed from the window of a bus –   a man wandering through a vast, burning wasteland of trash in the outskirts of Taipei as the sun struggled to rise through the smoke .  I also remember black, sulfurous waterways fouled with plastic trash, and the lovely white sand beaches of southern Taiwan littered by giant, surreal blocks of white styrofoam.  None of that now, at least that I could see on this quick week-long trip.  Quite an amazing feat, to change the everyday practices of everyday people so drastically, to effect social change so broadly, from big businesses to ordinary folks out in the country.   This has been done through sustained policy efforts  and clever design solutions over the last few decades that continue to evolve, energized by the demands of a politically active populace that demanded government action. Not only that but Taiwan  has developed an outstanding network of buses, metros, trains, and bullet trains.  Which is not to say that Taiwan has become an un-mitigated paradise – far from it –  but there is much to learn from their successes.

Last but not least, for all our taxi drivers critical comments about the stagnant economy, the incompetent government, and the worsening air pollution, there was in him and generally in the people of Taiwan a gentle pride in their country, a sense of collective responsibility for being kind to each other and of representing their country well that my daughter and I felt wistfully envious of and wished, of all things, that we could bring back to the US.