Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Deal

When I take in everything I see, hear and read, I basically have only two choices: I can take Shawn Mullins' sage advice and believe that "everything's going to be all right," or I can actually start believing that Armageddon is knocking at the door.

Believing that the end is near isn't hard to do. Nearly everything I read leads me to believe that the tension between overpopulation and our food and energy needs (with a healthy dollop of human greed sprinkled in) is causing a slow but massive killing of the species. Climate change, check. Disappearing bees, check. Topsoil destruction, check. Dying oceans, check. The fact that every large species of animal on earth is in a state of decline, except for (and because of) us, check.

All of this growing evidence reinforces the following thesis: Human beings are the most intelligent species on Earth, but we're also the most self-destructive. At some point in our evolution, we became "apart from nature." (I would argue that it was the moment when we became truly aware of our mortality and began to live knowing that we're going to die.) And ever since, we've sealed our fate by trying to overcome nature. I've often thought that the very story of Adam and Eve is really just a literary reflection, passed down through oral and then written traditions, of this reality. And I'm sure that's not an original conclusion. Biting the apple was saying, "Now that we know too much about what's going to happen, watch as we screw it all up."

But then there's a different idea that creeps up now and again. For me, this starts with a line I heard from a "dog historian." He said that at some point in our joint evolution, dogs basically struck a deal with humans. They realized that to survive, they would have to be domesticated, so the deal was this: "You take care of us, we'll take care of you." Plenty of other animal species have bigger brains than canines. But what do dogs have that even orangutans don't? The ability to recognize when a human being is trying to help them. And it's this perceptive ability (and their willingness to return the favor) that has put them in such a prized position. Dogs can't go back to being like their wilder ancestors. The deal is done.

The spirit of this sentiment is echoed by Michael Specter in his book, Denialism. With apologies to the aforementioned dogs, it's the idea that, "Hey, the cat's out of the bag." Specter would argue, for example, that to assume that genetic modification of foods is bad for health is to deny the fact that everything we eat, every single day, has been genetically modified. Reductive? Yes. But the broader point is that humans struck a deal with "nature" a long time ago, just like dogs. The mere fact that the word "nature" exists proves it. We are capable of altering the world around us. That's what we've been doing all along. And the only way to survive is to keep doing it. There's no such thing as "going back to nature." The deal is done. And any notion to the contrary is sentimental at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.

To add more perspective, Bill Bryson (among others) has pointed out that more than 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. Measure this against the broader perspective of the history of Earth, the universe, etc., and to assume that there is some kind of perfect harmony that we should strive to get back to becomes kind of absurd.

So for me, trying to figure out whether to be fatalistic or not is no easy task. I can believe that we need to "get back" to something, or I can believe that there truly is something called human nature, that it is unalterable, and that the solutions to our problems are simply always going to rest on another dimension of world-altering and nature-tinkering.

The former idea is more attractive to me because it seems to hold the moral argument. And I will continue to live a relatively low-impact lifestyle (for an American) and support the people and causes who make this argument. I will recycle. I will buy an electric car. Some day, I'll get around to composting. But if I were asked to predict how we will actually address global warming, for example, I would put my money on the idea that rather than actually changing our lifestyles and reducing our greenhouse gas output, we're going to pump sulfur into the air, send giant reflectors into space or create a machine (someone already has) that can remove CO2 from the atmosphere. We will alter genes. We will explore synthetic biology. We will create entirely new forms of life in my lifetime.

And then one day, one of those new life forms will realize how vulnerable we all are and try to kill us ... or strike a deal to guarantee our mutual survival. (Note to self: new movie idea!)

Friday, March 25, 2011

How to Dismantle a Vicious Circle

A few weeks ago, I had the luxury of experiencing uninterrupted reading time. In two days, I devoured a novel-length interview with Bono conducted over a few years in the "Atomic Bomb"-era by French journalist Michka Assayas. I could write multiple posts about what was said in that book, as well as in the Hitchcock biography I read after that, but the line that comes to mind today is this: Bono said he's never understood writer's block. "Just start with how you feel right now."

How do I feel right now? Like I miss doing this. I used to write BBS more often. I used to take pride in how many posts I could create in a month. I used to look at my viewership stats (never a big following, but loyal). I used to love thinking of ideas and then putting the effort into writing them in some semi-thoughtful (yet still mercifully brief) kind of way. Now I get to it maybe once a month. Why?

It seems to be the Vicious Circle of Practicality. The writing that I enjoy the most ("compressed essays," not "blogs") pays absolutely nothing and is, I've heard, the least popular genre in the bookstore, after poetry. A minute spent BBSing is a minute not spent billing. So what? Well, "billing" financed the trip to Mexico that allowed me to sit on the beach with a gin and tonic and have the uninterrupted reading time in the first place.

I need to bill, so I can take a vacation, so I can relax, so I can read, so I can clear my head, so I can think of new ideas, so I can bill more, so I can take a vacation ...

I'm not sure about this model anymore. I'm going back to fundamentals. I've always maintained that writing is thinking. The two are inseparable. You can't be a good writer without being a good thinker. When I stop writing, I stop thinking. Writing helps me think. Thinking helps me write. This is a virtuous, not vicious, circle.

And hey, if I ever start to think that "compressays" don't pay the bills, I can remember that they do at least help me avoid the psychiatry bill.