The ultimate goal of my courses each year is to have students come up with their own personalized vision of "Eutopia" -- the good place -- based on references and ideas they accumulate during the semester. It can be to some degree a flight of fancy (what eutopian scheme isn't?) but it must also be grounded in science so as to lend at least enough plausibility to the effort to make each student's contribution have at least heuristic value to others. That is to say, it should stimulate further questioning along lines that might one day be useful.
As the professor of the classes, and as co-director of Solar CITIES, I have my own vision of eutopia, of course (a world of solar cities "connecting community catalysts integrating technologies for industrial ecology solutions"!), and a plan to get there.
The plan, you may or may not be surprised to learn, doesn't just involve recommendations for the rapid integration of technologies based on solar energy in its various manifestations (active solar thermal and photovoltaic transformations of light and heat, passive solar architecture and thermal masses to harness the benefits of absorbtion, convection and radiance, the energy of wind and falling water and stored solar energy in the chemical bonds of food wastes, human and other animal wastes and agricultural residuals). These industrial ecology solutions are key to our vision of a clean, just and sustainble society. But it also involves harnessing AND BEING HARNESSED BY the natural ecology of our living planet.
And it involves an understanding (or belief) that human beings are not the apogee of creation, the be all end all purpose of a teleological narrative in the universe. It is predicated on the assumption that we human beings are, ourselves, a transitional species, built to serve higher purposes and play our role in the establishment and functioning of evolving ecologies whose sole purpose is to live, to be fruitful, to multiply.
I'm no existentialist. And I'm no aetheist. I don't believe the universe is devoid of meaning. I just don't think we are the sole keepers of wisdom and enlightenment, and I don't believe that the satisfaction of our needs and desires is our purpose or the reason for our seemingly contradictory, often counterintuitive and sometimes suicidal behaviors.
I believe that as much as we think we serve ourselves and purposes that are quite obviously human constructs, and as much as we serve our "selfish genes" and behave in accordance with ancient encodings operating statistically over evolutionary time periods honed by natural selection, we are also behaving as the "extended phenotypes" of other beings, the sum total of whose pushings and pullings of our humors and tuggings on our heart strings and passions and bendings of our faculties for reason and logic lead to us following a much larger and more complex set of teleological puppet strings.
Recognizing this and getting into coherence with the patterns these puppet strings form and trying to understand the various and often competing imperatives of the ecology of minds operating on us is my first priority for charting out a path to some kind of satisfactory eutopia.
My path to a eutopia rests first on philisophical undergirdings gleaned from the philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard and his thin tome "Post Modern Fables"
A blogger named Glowing Fish sums up the work very nicely here:
"A Postmodern Fable" is an essay by French post-modernist Jean-Francois Lyotard, where he tells a story detailing the evolution of life on the Planet Earth from the first begininnings of The Sun through the development of life and civilization, to the final exit of human life, or something resembling human life, from the earth at the time of the sun's final death.
Lyotard claims that it is post-modernistic rather than a traditional eschatological fable, because it does not promise an ultimate end, but rather just talks about a continuing process of openness, where material constructs and language both allow opportunities for novelty and further development. In fact, Lyotard, making a somewhat unusual political endorsements, says that the form of government known as a liberal democracy allows uncertainty to be built into human society, thus maximizing the space needed for future scientific progress and social progress.
In the end...Lyotards fable does have humanity surviving in a possibly altered form."
Another good analysis of Lyotard's Fable is here.
One of the key take away quotes from Lyotard's "fable" are here:
"The narrative of the end of the Earth is not in itself fictional, it's really rather realistic.
What the final words of this story cause us to ponder is not that the Earth will disappear with the Sun, but that something ought to escape the conflagration of the system and its ashes. And it's also that the fable hesitates to name the thing that ought to survive: it is the Human and his/her Brain, or the Brain and it's Human?
... You can see the immense work yard the Earth will be for millenia prior to the Sun's death. Humanity, whatever might still be calling itself Humanity at that time, is meticulously preparing spaceships for the exodous... Over thousands of centuries, it draws up embarkation operations.
You can see the antlike busyness with some realism because some of the means are already realizable at the time the fable is told. There remain, there only remain, a few billion solar years to realize the other means. And in particular, to make it so that what are today called human beings are capable of realizing them. There remains much to be done, human beings must change a lot to get there. The fable says that they can get there (eventuality), that they are urged on to do it (need), that doing it is in their interest (obligation). But the fable cannot say what human beings will have become then." p. 84
The question I've pondered since reading Lyotard as a graduate student at UCLA is "what is it that is urging us on, creating this need, despite our existential crisis and our crises of faith? What could possibly have an "interest" in getting us off the earth, moving outward at sufficient velocity, prior to the sun's terminal and deadly expansion and demise, given that we can retreat into our own navel gazing suicidal bliss, our turn inward reinforced by drugs and virtual worlds and entertainments that make getting off our asses to go to outside our own apartments difficult, much less constructing rockets and life support systems and biospheres capable of continuing the co-evolutionary process?
Returning to Lyotard's Post Modern Fable we recall that this notion of a motivating teleology greater than that which human minds have invented, actually needs no supernatural or extraterrestrial intelligence to operate, "It merely continues the discourse of Galileo, Darwin and Freud: man is not the center of the world, he is not the first (but the last) among creatures, he is not the master of discourse." (p. 101)
If not us then, and not (directly) God, who then would be the master of the discourse that can guarantee the survival of life in the the post solar era? What creature or creatures besides Homo sapiens would have the "authority" to write the narrative that would enable us to shepherd life's journey to the stars?
The new age extension of the Gaia hypothesis has a certain intuitive strength -- the idea of a conscious planet -- mother Earth -- seeking to reproduce itself. It taps into the residue many ancient belief systems, with deist and animist strands reinforcing it. But it always struck me as too "group selectionist" and as such lacked a mechanism I could reconcile with my more hard core training in the way natural selection operates.
To find a non-spiritual authority capable of guiding our behavior I decided that I have to go with my gut.
I decided that the "white elephant in the room" that we have all been ignoring, with the most explanatory power for how and why human beings behave the way we do, could very well be...
... our very own microbiome.
It's sheer diversity and potential for interconnectedness may yield fruitful insights into not only why we often do what we do, but into what we should do if we want to survive and create a mutually satisfactory "eutopia" that is sustainable not just for the next few hundred thousands of years, but unto the nth generation, when even our planet is no more.
In Wired Magazine on September 27, 2011 Carl Zimmer created one of the most powerful fantasy metaphors for explaining a newly revealed truth about our relationship with nature that I have ever read. I came across it at a Swiss airport news-stand on the way to the Green Phoenix Rising conference at Schweibenalpe and used it's implications effectively for my presentation there. I repeat it over and over again as I travel around the world, and I think it is worth reproducing here in its entirety:
YOUR OWN PERSONAL ECOSYSTEM
We got our first glimpse of these tiny tenants — now known collectively as the microbiome — in the late 17th century, when a Dutch lens grinder named Anton van Leeuwenhoek noticed a layer of white scum between his teeth. He mixed some of the gunk with pure rainwater and then placed it under one of his handmade microscopes. “I found, to my great surprise,” he wrote, “that it contained many small animalcules, the motions of which were very pleasing to behold.”
With the advent of fast DNA sequencing, today’s microbiologists can delve deep into this weird inner universe, and they’re just as amazed as Van Leeuwenhoek was. It’s not just the sheer quantity of microbial cells (100 trillion or so for one person alone) but also their diversity: Each of us is home to thousands of species of microbes, and no two people have quite the same mix.
We’re just beginning to learn the effects our microbiome has on us, but it’s clear that they can be profound. Certain species help digest food and synthesize vitamins; others guide the immune system. Medical researchers have linked obesity, heart disease, and anxiety to properties of the microbiome. In many cases, it’s not the individual species that seem to matter but the richness of the ecosystem. Just as the health of a forest depends upon diversity, our own health appears to benefit from the presence of a wide range of uninvited guests, many of which coevolved with us.
See below for a guided tour of your own personal ecosystem. From the top of your head to the depth of your gut, there’s a jungle in — and on — you."
My first scientific research involved a year in the jungles of Indonesia on a Michael C. Rockefeller Fellowship to the primary Rainforests of Borneo, working with Professor Mark Leighton at the Harvard University field site of Gunung Palung Nature Reserve in West Kalimantan. There I learned first-hand to appreciate the incredible benefits of biodiversity -- in undisturbed "climax" forest the weather was almost always cool and comfortable, the mosquitoes and leeches and biting flies rarely troublesome, the smells a bouquet of floral essences and the sounds a delightful and often melodious cacophany of songbirds, Argus Pheasants, monkeys and gibbons (which the occasional grunting thunder of a male orangutan declaring his territorial imperative .. "Unnngggguh! Unnnnnguh!"). At times I truly felt I was in some paradise, a veritable garden of Eden.
Visits to the swamp forests, to disturbed secondary forest areas, to agricultural plots and to the Melayu and Dayak villages, on the other hand, carried all the discomfort one associates with hair-raising (and bloody awful) adventures. And by bloody awful I mean it literally, with the sangre-sucking parasitism of the insects and leeches leaving our camouflage army fatigues (worn to keep the animals we were tracking from noticing us) covered in our own red body fluids, making us look like we had been in the middle of a war, our fingers swollen by toxins that made it impossible to hold our binoculars. Where the forest had been disturbed it felt like the world was running a fever every day, and heavy rains brought not solace but flooding, as if the body of the jungle had a terrible runny nose.
We saw the health of the rainforest at its best (in its core) and at its worst (at the margins), and it was hard not to conclude that the most important thing we can do to make a better world is to increase species richness. This is the concept behind Phyllis McGinley's religious poem In Praise of Diversity, (a phrase we actually learned to revere in E.O. Wilson's Evolutionary Biology classes at Harvard in the early 80's, presaging ideas he talks about in his book Biophilia about our relationship with "The Diversity of Life")
With that understanding (or belief) dawning on the human race, what do we do when we, as a species, discover, like Horton when he hears his first Who, that there is another rain forest like environment, not just "elsewhere" (coral reefs turn out to be similar to jungles in the ocean environment) but ON US AND IN US?
How do we assimilate the information coming in about the complexity and power of the MICROBIOME?
Before I describe the impact this information is having on my scientific and religious beliefs, let's take a look at the diagrams that accompanied the article in Wired Magazine:
One of the conclusions these diagrams suggest is that our diet affects our microbiome and that the microbiome changes throughout our lives depending on both our diet and our external environment and the way we think and feel. The studies are beginning to vindicate the wisdom of ingesting "Pro-biotics" and avoiding "Anti-biotics". That makes sense.
But for me there is more and it goes much deeper.
Considering the microbiome makes me think on far more esoteric lines. For one thing it recalls to me the "biological" theory George Lucas came up with to explain the mechanism behind "The Force" in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" -- The Midi-Chlorians that are present at such a high concentration in Anakin Skywalker, forcing Quin Gon Jinn and Obi Wan Kenobi to declare "the Force is strong with this One".
Conjuring up Lynn Margulis and Carl Sagan's theory of Endosymbiosis as the foundational science for the Star Wars fiction, Lucas explained (in an interview reproduced at http://www.theforce.net/) , "Midi-chlorians are a loose depiction of mitochondria, which are necessary components for cells to divide. They probably had something--which will come out someday--to do with the beginnings of life and how one cell decided to become two cells with a little help from this other little creature who came in, without whom life couldn't exist. And it's really a way of saying we have hundreds of little creatures who live on us, and without them, we all would die. There wouldn't be any life. They are necessary for us; we are necessary for them. Using them in the metaphor, saying society is the same way, says we all must get along with each other."
The idea that we are, if not universally connected, at least, terrestrially connected makes some sense when you begin to look at eukaryotic cells as mere collections and rearrangements of prokaryotic cells. I go a little further with my fantasy and now think of my body as a massive colony of prokaryotes, some clustered together within the membranes that make up my own human tissue cells, others living on my surface integument and just beneath, others freely moving about in my guts and vascular and lymph systems and everywhere in between.
If all life forms turn out to be assemblages of microbes then the divisions between the 6 Kingdoms of Earthly life forms illustrated above (Archaea, Animalia, Fungi, Protista, Plantae and Bacteria) don't seem to matter as much. One could say that we truly are "one".
When I start thinking of the microbiome and its diversity as not just a metaphor but the fundamental reality we are capable of comprehending, the real "Matrix" in which we live and operate, I imagine that I have "taken the red pill" (that allows us to perceive reality in the movie "The Matrix"...
...or that I am wearing the special glasses from the John Carpenter movie "They Live" that enables us to see aliens among us.
And by paying careful attention, we should be able to figure out what it is THEY who live within us and without us, many of whom are, in a certain sense, immortal, might "want" us to do.
Except when it comes to our microbiome microflora and fauna these aliens ARE US. They aren't space invaders or body snatchers or mind warping machine intelligences. To me they could be conceived as nothing less than the biological equivalent of the God Particle (the real God Particle is said to be the Higgs Boson, but that is another level of abstraction; I prefer to stay with things a little more readily observable for the layers of the onion that I feel comfortable trying to peel back).
There is an awful lot of speculation about "What God Wants" (I thoroughly enjoyed reading Neal David Walsh's books by the way, and met him briefly when he came to premier his autobiographical movie in Essen Germany).
But before we can begin to speculate what an omniscient, omnipotent super being that allegedly created us and loves us wants us to do on a daily and yearly basis, I think we need to sidestep the unfathomable for a moment and first get some consensus about what the laws of physics, chemistry and biology imply about what we are supposed to be doing here in our little corner of the observable universe. And before we get into the difficulties of figuring out what the laws of quantum mechanics and entanglement and causality and fractal mathematics and statistical mechanics imply about our purpose on earth, I think it is better to start with something we can at least observe and experiment with here on our home planet and with technology that exists and is proven and available.
Bonnie Bassler "How Bacteria Talk". At the best you are ten percent human. "I think of you as 90 to 95% bacterial".
(This post is unfinished. More to come!)