Sharp Edged Truth by the Fringe 3/13/13

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Sharp Edged Truth

Whenever we discover some new, sharp edged truth, perhaps even naming it a “law” of something, after a time, the hard edges begin to fray.  When we’ve lived with it for awhile, our original law loses its power, either because we come to understand it applies only to a spectrum of cases and by no means all cases, or because our understanding out-paces it and it is revealed to be the result of a series of misunderstandings and mis-assumptions, and the truth is too complex to be captured by our calculations, and we must be satisfied with a certain degree of doubt.  Gravity is a case; Newton’s clever calculations thrilled us for a few hundred years, and they are still useful in special cases, but gravity today is fully as mysterious as it was before Isaac’s apple.  What goes up, it turns out, does not always come down.

Most of us were born in the afterglow of the industrial revolution.  The steam engine locomotive is our metaphor for how law should work, and the economy, and medicine.  This follows that, the piston goes back and forth, the valves move in their runners at the appointed time, steam comes out, the wheels turn, and the train of the social world chugs down the tracks, getting ever closer to, we imagine, our destiny with evolution.

Science as we know it is marvelous; science is where common sense is often revealed as nonsense.  But science, when used to create certainty instead of functioning on the power of doubt, becomes its own social explanation.

Even the most forward thinking, most up to date science fan, the one with earth at night from space as a screen saver, and pictures of the collider at CERN on the wall, still basically thinks of society and law as a locomotive, with linear relationships, where every part is knowable, and which can be maintained on track to our final destination.

But, experience simply doesn’t bear that out.

Instead, what experience, that is, history, reveals is that society obeys less the laws of linear, Newtonian science, than the insights of the complex sciences.  Society is not a “thing”, it is not buildings nor law books, society is action and interaction; a stream or bank of clouds is a much better metaphor for society than a steam engine.  Just as all matter is essentially stored energy, social structure is essentially habitual social interaction.  Churches exist because we believe together.

Clearly, it is time for us to abandon the idea of society as controllable in the way that locomotives are, and start using more appropriate descriptive metaphors and more complex social strategies.

Why has it become so urgent for us to update our view of society and vision of the future?  It is simple: we are running out of world.  Not only are our numbers becoming far too high for the planet to carry, but changing climate is reducing the amount of land suitable for growing food.  We’ve stripped the oceans, some fear to the point where it would take generations to recover.  It may not be enough if we stopped over fishing now; stopped dumping plastics in the sea today; stopped right now churning out acid in the form of carbon dioxide which is making the seas unlivable for many small creatures, the basis of larger animals up the food chain, to us.

We can’t realistically do those things.  Literally millions would die in just weeks if we suddenly ceased the activities we rely on, which are depleting the earth.

Once we examine the data and come to the conclusion that we can’t keep going as we are, the common sense conclusion is to draw on our resources to create a humane, sustainable planet with equitable distribution for every person.  Science, though, is rough on “common sense”.

There is a maximum carrying capacity for the planet.  That maximum capacity fluctuates according to a number of variables, one being the rate at which we use resources per person, others are weather and solar storms and events over which we have little or no control.  It also fluctuates with population.

We have long ago passed the population where most people can live as Americans live, driving cars, eating meat, heating and cooling homes with petroleum and so on.

As a society, and a global species, we should have honest, unpleasant discussions about what standard of living people will have, and how that is to be decided.  It might be possible we wish to prevent some people from reproducing, or declare an age past which medical care will no longer be offered beyond pain relief.  It might be a part of the discussion to consider war, epidemics, droughts and global climate change as ways of controlling population, and asking ourselves which means of common population reduction we want to allow, and which to prevent.  Do we all want to be vegans?  Do we want to give up half our electricity so more people can have power?  Do we want to halve the population, instead?

Currently, the wealthy live long and well, and the poor die young.  Maybe that’s the system we prefer.  It might not be the most humane or fair system, though it is a system which would reach an equilibrium for a time.  It’s the system we have; is it the system we want?

Neither the left nor the right have spoken honestly about the impacts of people on the system, or about the limits population must find, or about who will have, and who will not.  It’s a discussion we need to have, and we need to include all the factors which impact our future, and the likely complex responses the system will have to changes in those factors.

Want a slightly different and more scholarly approach?  Read this:

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