Slides Number Three and Four

In our study of the Ecosystem at the HPJC retreat.

03 Our Tools-Facts Understood
Real facts are the foundation of real solutions. I am presenting here very basic well established biological facts about what the ecosystem requires for its survival. There is no point debating facts that are as well understood as those I will describe, because we can’t change them. Better to debate our own behaviors in response to the facts.

04 Our Tools-Opinions Under Discussion
It is extremely important that we discuss our opinions about these facts so that we can grow and benefit from the wisdom of the community.

“It’s only when we use (these tools) to act on our deepest beliefs to change unjust policies that exploit the powerless, only when we challenge entrenched power holders who fail to address the root causes of disparities, and only when we endeavor to change hearts, especially our own hearts, to impart dignity for all, that we are advancing peace and justice.” Cheryl Crozier, HPJC

“I really believe that people need to step back and examine these (economic and environmental) issues a little bit so we stop treating symptoms . . . and get to the root causes.” Helena Norberg-Hodge, ISEC

The trick is to find out good facts about the root causes. A movie (Ancient Futures) that is distributed by ISEC, provides one of the best studies of historical facts that I have seen.

I sat down to write “Bare Bones Ecology” when I realized to my horror that the biological facts about how the ecosystem functions are generally not available from our usual sources of information.

Optimum Population Trust

A quote here from the new OPT newsletter.

Lovelock Becomes Patron
Dr. James Lovelock, the scientist responsible for the Gaia theory, is the latest leading green thinker to become an OPT patron. Dr. Lovelock, who has warned that climate change will cause mass human mortality over the coming century, reducing the world population total to as little as half a billion, said that population growth and climate change were “two sides of the same coin” and called on environmentalists to “recognise the truth and speak out” on the link between rising human numbers and global warming. OPT is delighted to have his support.

James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia: A biography of our living earth
James Lovelock The Vanishing Face of Gaia, a final warning
And other publications.

But That’s What Science IS!

So he said: “If you leave out all the metaphor — it’s so left brain!”
And I said: “But that’s what science IS.”

This is slide number two from the presentation recently made to the Board of the Houston Peace and Justice Center.

Slide Number One was: The Ecosystem is a Living Thing

Slide Number Two:

I told them: “As a basic scientist, I have a pet peeve. Science and technology overlap, but they should not be lumped. Otherwise, we may come to hate science because of the bad news about technology. And we need scientific knowledge to grow good technologies that might get us out of this mess if we ever decide to use them for the purpose.”

But to be more specific, I should change the above slide to read “modern BASIC SCIENCE.” The goal of good modern basic science is to learn how the ecosystem functions, and to do that we need an unbiased method of communication. Technology is for humans, often with no regard to the ecosystem and what it needs to survive. That’s why I make the distinction between the two. At this point in human history, if we want to succeed as a species and in our communities, we need to understand the ecosystem as she is — not as we wish she were according to our human value systems.

Our chances of understanding the ecosystem are slim if we believe the ecosystem functions according to human metaphors. Therefore, If we really want to leave a flourishing culture to our grandchildren, it’s better to know the real facts about what the ecosystem requires for its good health.

What is a Fact? (the punchline)

Here is another “tweener” as I continue to “improve” the book. This comes under the category of “What is a Fact?” and is an answer to the common misconception that: “The facts keep changing.” Of course they do not — it is we who keep changing.

And we always think of the punchline the day after the discussion, as follows:

If the facts kept changing we could not have science and if we did not have science we could not have technology and if we did not have technology we could not have — well you know what all technology can do.

And then of course you need to read the rest of the book. I’ll let you know when it’s available.

What is a Fact?

And a new discussion ensued at the Sunday Morning Domino Game during which several people claimed there is no fact (as I define it) or the “facts” keep changing, as according to their definition of a fact. So I got all het up and rushed home to change this section of the book in production (Bare Bones Ecology part one Energy). And insert it between the normal Sunday and Thursday Posts. Probably I’ll pop in another tomorrow as this led also to the change of the following section of the book.

What is a Fact?

Probably there is no good definition of a “fact,” and yet no other word suits. I will therefore refer to “measurable facts” for realities that can be measured and do not change. Measurable facts are, for example, the temperature of pure water at sea level when it freezes. Good science is based in measurable facts. For this reason, good science is predictive. We can trust that it is true within the parameters of the measurement. Airplanes fly because the technology (engineering) of airplanes used the measurable facts, for example gravity and the way air flows across the wings, that relate to flight. If facts actually keep changing, as I have been told, then airplanes would fly sometimes and not other times. Oh, well, of course they do but the times when they don’t fly, it’s not because the measurable facts changed. Maybe some emotion changed in a pilot. Emotions are realities, but they are not measurable facts.

People can use words to mean anything they choose, and the corporate media are happy to do this. The result — the common belief that facts “change all the time” is very damaging to our ability to survive in an environment that then seems like it is changing all the time. The statement is so common, and the example given seems always to be that the “earth was flat and now it is round.” The fact is — no matter what word we choose to use — facts do not change. Amusing, isn’t it, that the example given perfectly defines this. The fact is the earth is more or less round, not flat, and it never did change because facts do not change. It is human perceptions that change, and human perceptions do not control the shape of the earth. Which is a fact. Similarly, the facts that maintain the life of the ecosystem are not “changing all the time,” nor will they change to suit human perceptions. That’s why real science is so important to us. It is the closest thing we have to understanding real facts about the things we can not control.

Measurable facts are a critical component of the scientific method — therefore of science. It is important, even in everyday life, to understand the difference between the disciplines that rely on measurable facts — science, technology, engineering — and disciplines that use the methods of inquiry and persuasion that are part of the liberal arts, such as philosophy, religion and art including literature. Any person who wants to contribute to our resolution of social and biological problems will naturally want to be reasonably fluent in the problem-solving tools both of the liberal arts and of science, because they are different tools to study different “windows on reality”.

It is even more important that we not confuse a measurable fact with an opinion, lest we fool ourselves into believing things that are not true. For example, the advertising world abounds with claims that various commodities have been “scientifically tested.” Mostly, these claims are hogwash. Advertising. On the other hand, if we limit ourselves to evaluating measurable data, as the scientist tries to do in his professional life, we would be denied the pleasure and wonder of Shakespeare, Van Gogh, much of our knowledge of history and religion, and almost everything that we watch on television.

Houston Peace and Justice Center

The HPJC is finishing its retreat and workshop at an unknown location in Texas and a more interesting and dedicated group of people you will seldom find. We discussed some few issues related to the confluence of factual science, technology, economy and community. For the next few posts (Sundays and Thursdays), I will put up the slides and a brief explanation of the slides that were used as a basis for the discussion. ISEC has a wonderful movie entitled Ancient Futures that describes the impact on a sustainable culture when it is overtaken by a culture that cherishes a growth ethic. I will put links to HPJC and to ISEC later today.

I feel the wind of a strange planet coming toward me;
The smiling faces that were turned my way are fading into black.

I want you to know one fact right off the bat. We are not facing an ordinary cyclic human political problem. What we are facing right now is the unbalancing of the ecosystem. And we have human problems. But resolving the human relations will not resolve the ecosystem problem, and we need the ecosystem because we live inside it.

It is easier to think of the ecosystem as a place where we live, but it would be closer to the truth to think of ourselves as little blood cells circulating within the ecosystem. Whatever we do affects it, and very much the other way around because it is bigger than we are.

And is it a strange planet really?
Or has it been the same old planet all time we thought we could remake it in our image so we never stopped to look at what it really is. It’s better to know who we are.


I got so excited about the discussion group (discussing the book we all wrote on this blog over the past couple/three months) that I almost forgot to upload my Wednesday post. So I’ll give you a nice sunset to show that God is in his heaven in Texas, but she may be a little bit irritated that College Station is killing off a whole bunch of the surviving post oaks on the other side of the house.

Probably Sunday will be a bit late also as there is no phone at the retreat, but by then I should be able to give a bit of a report on what we talked about.

How can we know so much and yet so little?

Can a cell imagine a brain? Probably not, because a cell’s “senses” relate to the fluid that surrounds it.

The brain, on the other hand, because it consists of millions of cells, that are organized just so, has the capacity for thought. Directed thought at that. Directed though clearly is impossible for individual cells because thinking requires many cells working together in an organized way to gather all the information necessary to make a thought. That is why we say that thinking is an emergent property that results when millions of the right kinds of cells come together in just the right way in just the right kind of body. It is an “emergent property” of multicellular organisms, and it’s a function that can’t be done by one cell alone. If you knew nothing about the brain and everything about individual cells, you could not predict thinking.

The unpredictable nature of emergent properties result from precisely organized complexity, and that is why they use the word emergent. It’s not a good word; sounds too complicated. But there you are. The emergent property of a car is that you can drive around in it, where you can not drive around in an engine. The emergent property of a kidney is urine. Not hard to appreciate when you already know what it does — but impossible to predict.

Emergent properties occur at every level of organization, from molecules to cells to multicellular organisms, and surely also the ecosystem.

One of the biggest unsolvable mysteries of life is to understand the emergent properties that characterize the ecosystem. The whole ecosystem surely must have emergent properties — and they will not be human properties, any more than the brain has exactly the same functions as a cell — but there is no way for any scientist to know precisely what properties of the ecosystem support our lives within it. I mean beyond giving us oxygen, climate and the basic requirements of life — there must be an organizing function that the ecosystem needs to stay alive and us in it. But we can’t think about it because we are just a tiny cell inside the complexity of the ecosystem “brain.” If we could understand what it is, and if we could devise a technology, we still couldn’t change it because it is bigger than we are. Cells can definitely mess up what your brain does, if they go wrong, but they can not make your brain better if they go right. It’s already doing what it is supposed to do to keep you alive.

If we persist in believing that we have the ability to understand all about life; if we demand that our technologies save us from our own atrocities, if we become so great a challenge to the ecosystem — to her life and to her unknown emergent properties — that her own life is in danger, then she will eliminate us. She will do this by the immutable processes of which she is composed — shortage of materials; shortage of energy; the disruption of cultures, so that children cry alone and learn to fear life and grow war; the great sweeping climatological changes that we can not predict, because climate — a self-sustaining climate on earth that supports and interacts with life — may very well be the emergent property of the ecosystem. But we don’t know. And the phenomena of collapsing networks that mathematicians are only beginning to understand.

“The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) distinguished between a problem ‘something met which bars my passage’ and ‘is before me in its entirety,’ and a mystery, ‘something in which I find myself caught up, and whose essence is not before me in its entirety.’ We have to remove a problem before we can proceed, but we are compelled to participate in a mystery…” (Karen Armstrong, The Case for God)

The ecosystem is a mystery in the same way that love and infinity and God are mysteries. Science and technology can answer almost any short-term factual problem, but the scientific method can not stand between us and the mystery in which we must participate as living parts of the ecosystem. The arts, religion, philosophy, history and sociology, are well suited to explore the ongoing, long-term mystery of life, but they do not do a good job of kicking rocks out of our path. Unless our well meaning humanists choose finally to listen to what science and technology can tell us about the rocks under our feet, rather than permitting politics and technology to use our science to serve short-term human ends, they may very well star-gaze us right into history. Or infinity.

Feel No Evil
By Lynn

That would be nice.
But we live in a world awash in human emotion.
Evil abounds.

My world view was not shattered by 9-1-1
Shocked Not shattered.
I already knew evil; that it is; what it is.
But I was torn apart a couple of years later, to learn
that we are Auschwitz.
And we enjoy it.

It’s good to know the truth.
To free one’s self from futile make-believe.
And paralyzing pretense.
But maybe not important

Either way, nobody cares about my emotions, and
Hardly anyone cares about yours.

Our impact on life — our opportunity to choose
Whether we add to the world’s pile of woes, or increase its
Quotient of joy.
Our power
Grows not from how we feel,
But from what we do.
Our power lies in our behaviors, for good or ill,
And it’s a fairytale that emotion ties us to behavior.
Evolution gave us emotion; God gave us power.

Love is an emotion.
Kindness is love transformed
into action.
Simple kindness can move the power of love
Into the world.

No matter how we feel.

Deep Doodoo

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The problem is that intentions which are based on faulty assumptions are doomed to failure.” Steve McCurry

FYI, below is a letter I sent to a fellow scientist.

1. If all scientists thought alike we would be in deep doodoo. They nearly do and we are.

2. If the scientists were paying attention to the whole living reality it wouldn’t be necessary for me and a couple of other people (most prominently and tirelessly, Jane Goodall) to spend all our time trying to draw their attention to the emergent properties of the entire living system within which we make our only home.

Actually, the reason I think you should read COLLAPSE has to do with the details of how these things do and have happened in the past, within the past 6000 years. Diamond does an excellent job of bringing all the data to bear on the holistic reality in multiple different cases of collapses that were caused by more growth than the resources of the ecosystem could support. So in hindsight we can see what caused the collapse, and it was different in every case (except of course for the foundational cause, which was excessive growth of economy and population). Whatever are his conclusions I already knew before I read the book, but the reason for reading is the lovely collection of facts that he presents — the details he uses to construct a world view that is in accord with the facts on the ground. Taken together, Diamond’s COLLAPSE and Barabasi’s LINKED should be read by every scientist who believes the details are more important than the whole picture — or believes we can understand the whole picture by adding up all the details.

The whole point of networks, such as the internet or the ecosystem, is that the details can change without loss of the emergent properties — up to a point. The emergent property of the ecosystem is all of life on this earth. And when we reach the point, the collapse is awesome, it is very quick and it’s not possible to go back — oops, shouldn’t have done that — and change it. And we can’t know what that point is by studying the details. And of course we can not avoid it by reducing global warming because global warming is only a symptom, not the cause of the unbalanced ecosystem; the only viable solution is to modify our growth ethic or at least our growth behavior, and the only good that I see coming from our obsession with global warming is that we might make the connection between global warming and over-use of resources. Unfortunately, the powers-that-be have decided to use global warming as an excuse to not deal with over-growth.

Nobody needs me to help treat the symptoms of an overtaxed ecosystem — war, genocide, starvation, disease and the other methods the ecosystem uses to try to save her own life in the face of cancerous growths in her body. The world abounds with people trying to make their reputations by claiming to do something that will help — something that will not, in fact, change the cancerous growth that threatens the ecosystem because the things most people choose to do simply add to the problem of overgrowth. Especially as we continue to let the corporations and the corporate media (even PBS and the NGOs that I have studied) rename every problem as a lack healthy growth and then throw more growth in as the supposed solution.

There is no such thing as healthy, sustainable growth in a living thing.

  • Congratulations all you who have helped to make this almost a book: Bare Bones Ecology – or rather Part one, Energy. This is the final entry on the blog, and the book is now in production. Probably I will find a way to post it on this blog so that you may print it out, hold it in your hands, read from front to back, and share with others who want to know more about the home we live in and to be able to understand more about how our behaviors affect her survival.

  • P.S.(LL I would add Chaos to the reading list)