Weekend #Earthism Reads…

The Sound Of Icebergs Melting: My Journey Into The Antarctic

It was the opposite of what we imagined. Rather than water dripping down through air, we were listening to air escaping up through water. We were so close to the ice that this ancient fizz was surprisingly loud. Though we humans never hear it above the surface, this is the sound the Antarctic makes every summer. And as the planet heats, the sound is getting louder.

The Baller: Can attitude help save the planet? A frightened climate reporter meets an ex-basketball player with a serious game plan

Attempting some sort of equanimity about, basically, horror, I’d been vacillating along a “hope or despair” continuum. But recently I’d decided that both ends of that scale were bankrupt. Hope wasn’t precisely rational, and despair was too cruel to the living—anyone who genuinely cared about a place or a child had to come up with something, anything, more useful than “Good vibes only” or “We’re screwed.”

So I was quietly seeking a better approach as I wrote story after story on efforts to curb climate emissions. And while working on a cover story earlier that year about how the built environment (cities, roads, offices, homes, infrastructure) was an enormous part of the problem, I’d called up Mazria, who was recognized as a thought leader on the topic.

One hour on the phone with him had jolted me.

After I hung up, I told a colleague, “I just spoke with a man who has a strategic plan to beat climate change. Not ‘fight the good fight,’ but win.”

The Ecological Vision That Will Save Us: To avoid the next pandemic, we need a reckoning with our place in nature

With faith, you can ask how life will be on the other side. Will you be changed personally? Will we be changed collectively? The knowledge we’re gaining now is making us different people. Pain demands relief, demands we don’t repeat what produced it. Will the pain of this pandemic point a new way forward? It hasn’t before, as every war attests. This time may be no different. But the pandemic has slipped a piece of knowledge into the body public that may not be easy to repress. It’s an insight scientists and poets have voiced for centuries. We’re not apart from nature, we are nature. The environment is not outside us, it is us. We either act in concert with the environment that gives us life, or the environment takes life away.

Read. Enjoy. Think.

 

Are Humans Special?

Nautilus, an interesting new online science magazine, uses an entire issue to dig in on this most profound question:

When we sat down to plan our first issue of Nautilus, we asked ourselves a simple question. What is the biggest statement that science has made about humans and our place in the universe in the past few hundred years? The answer suggested itself immediately: it seems we’ve been told that we just aren’t very important.

This was a bit of a surprise. We’re fans of science, you see. And some of our best friends are people. Where was this narrative of mediocrity coming from, and, more importantly, was it true? Our story seemed to kick off with Copernicus, who around 1514 understood that the heavens do not revolve around us. In fact, they more or less ignore us completely.

Over the next half millennium, things got worse. Genetics revealed that we are a script written in the same language as rats and slugs, and with mostly the same words. Social psychology shook our faith in our rationality. Zoology painted a picture of complex, human-like animals. And artificial intelligence nipped at the heels of some of our most cherished abilities.

But the story turned. We learned that cooperation, fashion, metaphor, and energy set us apart in surprising ways. While science has indeed undermined the most naïve versions of our self-importance, we began to understand that it has replaced them with others that are more complex and deeper.

Finally, the opposition between unique and not-unique imploded. For one thing, we found that the category of “human” is a moving target—especially for cyborgs—and that makes it hard to ask what makes humans unique. For another, the very biggest science there is—cosmology—is answering the question with a big fat question mark.

Screen Shot 2013-05-08 at 9.18.38 AM

The issue includes an interview with Frans De Waal, who talks about the blurry line between humans and apes:

Most people assume that humans are fundamentally different from the rest of the animal world. What do you think?

Many people believe that. But to biologists we are animals. It’s hard to believe we are fundamentally different because there is no part of the human brain that is not present in a monkey’s brain. Our brains are bigger and we certainly have a more powerful computer than any other animal, but the computer is not fundamentally different.

So there’s no fundamental divide between humans and chimpanzees?

No. If you were to ask what the big difference is, I would say it’s probably language. But like all capacities, once you break them down into pieces, you are going to find some of these parts in other species.

Why are so many people wedded to the idea that humans are special?

We’re raised with those ideas. It’s an old Christian idea that humans have souls and animals don’t. I sometimes think it’s because our religions arose in a desert environment in which there were no primates, so you have people who lived with camels, goats, snakes, and scorpions. Of course, you then conclude that we are totally different from the rest of the animal kingdom because we don’t have primates with whom to compare ourselves. When the first great apes arrived in Western Europe—to the zoos in London and Paris—people were absolutely flabbergasted. Queen Victoria even expressed her disgust at seeing these animals. Why would an ape be disgusting unless you feel a threat from it? You would never call a giraffe disgusting, but she was disgusted by chimpanzees and orangutans because people had no concept that there could be animals so similar to us in every possible way. We come from a religion that’s not used to that kind of comparison.

The deeper you look, the more you realize that we are all related on some level, and that the traditional hierarchy that places humans high atop the list of earthly species leads to terrible consequences for non-human animals.

What Is Humanity?

To have “humanity” or be “humane” is supposed to connote positive meanings: caring, compassion, wisdom. But given humanity’s propensity, on both a personal and global level, for cruelty, greed, and selfishness throughout history (latest evidence here), I always thought it was appropriate to switch the meaning.

Humanity hasn’t done the black rhino any favors.

So if someone did something kind or caring, I would say “Oh, how inhumane,” because the action ran counter to how the human species often behaves. And the usual parade of short-sightedness and self-interestedness I considered “humane.”

I know it is cynical, and it was sort of a wry joke, but it also felt right given the evidence. Still, it is also true that humans, for all their flaws, are in fact capable of extraordinary and inspiring acts of love and kindness. And in this Ted Talk, Chris Abani, despite the life he has led and the things he has experienced, makes a heroic effort to reclaim for “humanity” some positive connotations by recounting small acts of courage and compassion, tying them into the transcendent concept of “ubuntu.”

For now, I will stick with my reversed concept of humanity. But it is in the stories Abani recounts (along with his humor and resilience), and the possibility that they can be contagious, that I place my hopes for the future.

Moment Of Zen: The Scale Of The Universe

How significant, or insignificant, are you? Well, it depends on your perspective (and the amount of zoom).

If you need help with humility (and even if you don’t), this is a very interesting and thought-provoking interactive experience (click on image to start):

Screen Shot 2013-03-26 at 4.46.28 PM

A Glimpse Of Humanity

It will be another week or so before I get back to serious blogging, but couldn’t resist throwing this up. It came via my friend @Sam10K, and it’s a beautiful glimpse at the positive potential of humanity. If only Coca Cola could bottle that and get everyone drinking it.

Anyhow, it’s guaranteed to send you into the weekend with a smile.