Bare Bones Biology 028. Emergent Properties

My web site is not a hotbed of activity, but there’s one page that gets hundreds of hits a year, and it’s essentially the same bit that is on pages 32-34 in the Bare Bones Ecology Energy Handbook. The subject is levels of organization, and I continue to be astonished as the numbers of hits rise. I mean it’s a long way from viral, but I’m very happy that we must be teaching this critically important concept in our schools. The concept that every thing in the universe is made of organized collections of smaller things. And more importantly for our lives, every thing in the living ecosystem is made up or organized groups of smaller things.

Cells are made of organized molecules, atoms, macromolecules and organelles, and it’s the organization of these things that allow a cell to be alive.

Tissues are made of coordinated, organized groups of cells.

Organs are made of interacting tissues that are cooperating to perform some important life function within our bodies. Our hearts are a good example.

Higher organisms such as ourselves are made of elegant, coordinately functioning organs, tissues, and cells.

And the most incredible life of all is the ecosystem that is made of coordinately functioning organisms and the environment they generate together.

To the human mind, even the scientific mind, or perhaps especially the scientific mind, it seems miraculous just to know that kind of coordinated complexity exists. There is no chance that we can really understand it all, and of course that’s why technology is dangerous. We can’t do good technology with something we don’t really understand. But that’s a different subject.

What I want to say today is that a topic of even higher importance is discussed on pages 38 and 39 of the Energy Handbook. That is emergent properties.

Emergent properties are new characteristics of things that are the result of the complexity of their organization. So for a couple of man-made examples, the emergent property of a car, when you organize all its parts in just the right way, you can drive around in it. The emergent properties of corporations, we’re just beginning to appreciate that, as they begin to function independently of human values. The amazing emergent property of the cell, which is made of things that are not alive, is life. A cell is alive because of the complexity and the highly organized interactions among its atoms, molecules, and organelles. The emergent property of the heart is its ability to function as an essential part of the whole circulatory system. The emergent property of our brains is thinking.

We don’t know, really, what emergent properties we are messing with when we challenge the welfare of the whole ecosystem.

What we do know is that the entire ecosystem, and all the life forms of which it is composed, we all stay alive by eating organic energy. Organic energy is the energy that is found in organic molecules. Organic molecules are things like lipids, carbohydrates, nucleic acids, proteins, and they are found only in living organisms. Or things that once were living organisms, like coal, oil, gas. The energy to make organic molecules comes from the sun, but the organic molecule is what we need for food. Not the sunlight. And the organic molecule comes only from green plants. That’s it, that’s all there is to run the whole ecosystem.

You will not hear any emergent corporation letting that kind of information out on the airwaves. But then we really don’t want an emergent corporation to lead us into battle against the whole ecosystem, do we? We run on organic energy, the ecosystem runs on organic energy, the corposystem runs on organic energy.

Who do you think will win that head-butting argument?

Bare Bones Biology, on , and
KEOS radio, 89.1, Bryan, Texas

Politics and Human Values

Lester Brown is the person I always refer to when I want reliable statistics about the earth’s productivity. He has been collecting the data for I think about 40 years, and he does not issue biased propaganda.

Politics are very important. I have voted. But they are not important for the reasons we are debating. This is why I do not waste my puny little energies engaging in that debate. Politics is important if it is willing to deal with the ecological crisis we have entered. The politics COULD determine whether we face the reality and fix it — or whether we continue to play the game in the same way that caused the crisis in the first place, trying to control the mother nature that gives us life. We can not, and neither can our corposystem or our technologies. Politics could accomplish what needs to be accomplished, and that is to guide our behaviors so that we can give the ecosystem what it needs to survive. We can control ourselves; we can not control the basic laws of nature. The sooner both parties face up to this, the more likely it is that we might be able to save a reasonable lifestyle for our grandkids. When I see that happen I will be the first to jump back on the political bandwagon. If I only hear hate talk, or “warriors” talking, then — take my course in The Ecosystem and Human Values. I have better things to do than waste my energies on politics that are going in circles.

We have some very hard decisions to make, we know what they are (If you don’t, it’s not complicated to learn – bottom line is the whole earth productivity is now maxed out and decreasing. Like it or not, we will have to find other solutions than making more stuff,) But we are choosing to continue doing more and more of what caused our situation in the first place, which is growth. Growth was OK when there were resources to cover, but growth for its own sake is not a good problem solving technique. In fact, it’s a definition of crazy.

For the statistics to back up what I say, check out Lester Brown’s web site and his new book.

There is Nothing Wrong with Suffering

If you believe in the law of cause and effect, then you must know that suffering is not the enemy. Just as death is necessary to maintain life, so suffering is necessary for us to learn how to live properly in the real world. We would never learn to take our hands off the hot stove if it didn’t hurt. We will never learn to live until we stop trying to defeat death and suffering.

If there were no suffering, we would long ago have defeated life by doing whatever we damn well please, and if there were no death, the biomass of the earth would by now have reached way far beyond the moon. The earth would have perished long ago. The tragedy is that we do know about the law of cause and effect, and we know how life survives on earth (physically) using both the law of cause and effect and death itself to maintain the balance that is necessary for all living things to stay alive. And we are destroying ourselves anyhow.

Living productively cannot be defined as growth; growth destroys balance,* and a productive culture, society, agriculture or economy must maintain a healthy balance (or it fails to be productive). Living productively is giving the real world what it requires to be alive, and the primary requirement for all kinds of life is balance. Think what happens if your body does not stay in physiological balance. You suffer. Or you die. That is the message of the law of cause and effect. I think it’s wonderful that the Buddha and his followers figured this out long ago.

But I don’t see how suffering can be a good reason for raising a shield of any kind – not a shield of disengaging from empathic interactions to reduce our own suffering, nor a shield of misinterpreting the message of the religions into one of power over nature, nor a shield of fake happiness induced by drugs, sex, violence (winning), technology or television propaganda – to shield ourselves from the basic laws of The Creation. Without suffering, we would destroy the whole living earth; with it we destroy ourselves (individually and collectively) unless we decide to stop the suffering by growing a productive (balanced) civilization. Human suffering is exactly what it should be; we know the rules; the choice is in our own hands.


*If you want to see the process in action watch the movie Ancient Futures.

Bare Bones Biology Transcript 027. Personal Freedom.

When I began my quest for a way to help the ecosystem and the people in it, I said I wanted to find an action that I could support that is not causing harm to the ecosystem. I wanted to find something where I could actually work to benefit us all, and I wanted someone else to lead the charge.

The first result of my quest was that my mailbox filled up with the bodies of dead trees. Green plants, you will remember, are the source of ALL the organic energy to run the entire ecosystem, including the paper and envelopes used by enormous rich NGO’s to try to get their hands on a share my social security benefits. They do this mostly with pictures of big-eyed babies who are suffering from something, and they use this method because some research has shown that we respond with instinctive compassion to pictures of big-eyed babies. I know I do. But. Mind over emotions, I do not respond unless the requests also make logical sense, so most of these went directly from my mailbox into the trash. Because we don’t recycle white paper in Bryan. What a waste. And similarly with my email.

But finally I picked three or four or so and sent them a couple of dollars. They were not happy with my contribution and so they asked for more. And more and more and more until I gave up. And the last thing they want is what I really had to give, which is a contribution of effort; they don’t even answer that kind of letters, so pretty soon my trash was nearly flowing over with these dead trees, and I gave up that approach to helping human kind and the ecosystem.

They caught on to this and began to phone.

(sound of ringer)

“Hello, I’m MG. I’m calling on behalf of Senator ______.”

“I don’t take political phone calls at home.”

MG sounded astonished. But how could that be? First, I am (or was) on the no-call list, and second it’s fairly insulting that she thinks I can’t think without her help. It’s the win/lose con game. Only this is on my personal time in my personal home.

And that’s why, if you want to give me a call, nobody answers the telephone except that perky little lady on the answering machine.

Maybe they don’t need me, I thought. Maybe it’s just my ego. Maybe I should just stay home and potter around in the back yard and enjoy myself. Maybe listen to a little recreational television. So I turned on the TV.

Some sweet young thing who obviously knows nothing at all of what she’s talking about told me that what we need, to solve our problems, is growth – and we would have everything we want except it’s China’s fault that we don’t.

They aren’t even trying to be logical. I couldn’t believe it

So I turned off the TV and talked to the people. They have problems. Everybody has problems. But I don’t see a lot of problem-solving going on, and, I keep repeating, I want to do something worthwhile. Making more problems is not worthwhile. Solving them, would be. If I must choose between making problems worse, or pottering around in my back yard, I think I’d rather potter. Still. Mostly what I hear around me is excuses to not try to solve problems.

For Example:
“It’s (someone else’s) fault.”
“Whose fault is it?”
“We’d like to know what is fair” (so we don’t have to think about how to solve it, which is hard and never fair.)
“Aint it awful (anything)”
“They are wrong and we are right.”
“I don’t believe you.” (The answer to this is “why not” and you might have a good conversation.)
“Everyone has a right to her own opinion.” (so I don’t have to think about yours).
“The facts keep changing” (bullhockey, it is the words that change. Words are not facts.)
“What would you do?” (This is supposed to be a trap question to shut you up. I didn’t know this. It worked. So have an answer ready for discussion.)
“On the other hand.” (we can think about the reasons something happened rather than address the solution)
“I know exactly what you mean.” (you do ????????? I barely can believe that.)
“I can’t understand biology.”
“I already understand biology.” (easy to believe, hard to do, given that the media and the school system give a false story. That is, they lie or make up pretty fairy tales to sell stuff.)
“Opinion is equally divided” – right – scientists on one side, oil companies on the other.
Or we would rather talk about something irrelevant. Perfect example the recent murder trial claim that the killer is a “fine young man.” Uh! So? The question is whether or not he murdered the girl.
Or, a really silly one, “Let’s wait and see.” The longer we wait the fewer the options.

Of course the solution to ALL of the above, which are conversations I have had, is to define your goal and talk about that during your problem-solving time. My goal is to not make the ecosystem worse for me having been here. What that means in practice is that the ecosystem maintains its own balance — that’s what ecosystems do. My job is to not upset the balance.

And again, I do not like to be manipulated, and these kinds of word games do more than just waste our time.

And one more thing we should all consider. These kinds of word games do more than waste our time. They are also used, and intentionally used, to distract our attention away from the real issues that caused the problems in the first place, and keep us busy doing something that does not solve the problem that the corposystem does not want us to solve. Because it’s a machine — the corposystem — a humongous computer with its goals programmed into it — and its goals are growth and profits today. It does not care about ecosystem balance, or about tomorrow, because we failed to program those values into it.

Meantime, I’m afraid that leaves just you and me to solve those pesky problems. Let’s get together and talk about it.

Denial is a powerful thing. I believe that our human (instinctive) makeup requires that we make logical sense of the world. That logical structure plus our experiences, are the building blocks of our world view. When the building blocks don’t fit, it drives us nuts [not crazy, just desperate to make life make sense when we are unable (poor little thing) to acknowledge reality without trashing our own world view]. The whole laboriously constructed world view — leaving us helpless to deal with the world. The most shocking thing about the Anita Hill affair to a person who (by experience) recognized the obvious validity of her claims was the comment by the (democratic) senator who said the only possible, conceivable explanations for her behavior were two — that she (Anita) was either crazy or evil. What, no other possibilities were conceivable? I can think of a bunch of them, and to have a senator who only could imagine two?

You might think in any situation the obvious thing would be to adjust one’s mind to the reality, but it is in fact not. It’s the world’s most humongous culture shock. Almost nobody can adjust their worldview quickly, and probably never when it is under attack. There is really only one resolution that solves problems, and that is for people on any two-sided issue to talk with each other in good faith, but Americans no longer do that.

Thanks for sending this out. Anita Hill’s courage was one of the learning points of my life, as I was trying to deal with executives who were either blind or pretending to be, or they had straight-jacket world views (poor little things, it is very painful to have a world view that is not aligned with reality). Unfortunately it was not only dangerous for Anita Hill then, it is the TEA party now. More unfortunately, trying to fight against a worldview that has been backed into a corner — doesn’t work. It only makes them frantic. And you trying to explain your logic to them also doesn’t work because that’s the whole point — your logic is not logical in their context in exactly the same way that their logic is not logical in your context. The only thing you both agree about is that winning is essential and it is a battle, not a problem waiting to be solved or a shared solution waiting to be found. If we can’t do something about our yes/no, win/lose, two-pointed worldviews in this country I expect that we will lose the country.

Read Three Cups of Tea

Our Earth is Wounded.
Her oceans and lakes are sick
Her rivers are like running sores
The air is filled with subtle poisons,
And the oily smoke of countless hellish fires
Blackens the sun.
Men and women, scattered from homeland, family, friends
Wander desolate and uncertain, scorched by a toxic sun.
In this desert of frightened, blind uncertainty,
Some take refuge in the pursuit of power.
Some become manipulators of illusion and deceit
If wisdom and harmony still dwell in this world
As other than a dream lost in an unopened book
They are hidden in our heartbeat
And it is from our hearts that we cry out
We cry out and our voices are the single voice of this wounded earth
Our cries are a great wind across the earth.
From the Warrior song of King Gassar

Continue reading

It’s Ours, Like it or Not

I woke up at the ranch this morning. Actually I didn’t wake up, I was pummeled up by Bitsy’s tail thwacking the bed with the force of a jackhammer. Crawled out, stumbled over the cat, opened up the door wide, turned on the radio, and started sweeping the aerial (which is a longish bit or wire) to see if some location might give me KEOS, 89.1. Gave up and dropped it, and in came my voice, loud and clear, expounding about problem solving.

Good advice if you have a problem, but it suddenly struck me that the people I am trying to talk to might not exactly know that we do have a problem. We all do. The same problem. So, please, as you read the transcript of this day’s Bare Bones Biology, realize that I have been here since quite a long time before the Green Revolution, and I am a career biologist, and I do know that we all still have the same problem that The Green Revolution handed over to the corposystem to solve for us, and we aren’t solving it any better than they did. Worse, because the longer we put it off the fewer options remain.

The problem is basically that the corposystem is sucking the ecosystem dry, trying to convince you that we do not have a problem. We do. You and me and even Rush Limbaugh. He is making it worse – I guess just for fun. And we can’t stop him, so let’s you and me not do that. Let’s fess up and face up and don’t give the grandkids what our grandparents gave to us – make it better. How? I say start with learning about the REAL energy problem. That all the energy for food for all the people and machines comes (or came in the case of fossil fuels) from green plants. And technology can’t make food – and even if it could that would make global warming worse. Then let’s get together and deal with this growth problem, because not dealing won’t make it go away, and it’s our problem. For all of us. Not only biologists. So I finished thinking about that and posted the latest transcript at

Meantime, Bitsy ate her (transformed) green plants and ran out to let me know the raccoon is still living under the hood of the abandoned car. It reminds me of the Bryan Deputy, called repeatedly by one neighbor to complain about the other neighbor’s barking dogs. The deputy, who was no slouch when it came to problem solving – or dogs – found a raccoon living between the two houses. Once the neighbors stopped butting heads and realized they had a common problem — poof!

You don’t have to call the Sheriff. Anyone can do it.

Bare Bones Biology 026 transcript

We live in a culture that tends to paint everything right or wrong. You know that. But you might not have thought how this can be used as an excuse to avoid the effort of problem solving. Last time we talked about the winner/loser model that actually makes more new problems while attempting to submerge the old ones under a pile of aggression. This head-butting method can have any number of players, It generates a ton of energy but most of the energy goes up in flames without actually solving any problems. I have posted a diagram of the headbutting method on my blog, but I’m sure you could make one just as good or better.

This brings to my mind the time I actually was headbutted by a sheep named Big Ben, who I thought was my friend. Actually, I think he was my friend, only we had different ideas about what friendship is. It hurt me, quite a bit, but I excused him because I know that sheep don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what they’re doing. I guess they can’t. But we can. If we really want to solve our problems.

Today I want to talk about an opposite method of avoiding problems, and I’ll put that diagram also on the web site. It’s opposite in the sense that the arrows are all pointed outward, so nobody butts heads, but also no problem-solving energy is generated. That’s what I call the California model, or the “I’m OK, You’re OK” model.

The problem is that some things are not OK. They’re not OK if the perpetrator is a nefarious evil black-hearted incorrigible criminal; and they are also not OK if the perpetrator is a sweet little old grey-haired lady wearing hiking boots that are patched up with duct tape. We will not resolve this kind of issue by not talking about it or by pretending everything is fine if the perp meant well, or if he couldn’t help himself, or if he had psychological problems. If it’s not OK, it’s not OK, and the reason is that individual human people are not the center of the universe. We are a social species, and we have an equal or greater obligation to the whole of our human and nonhuman community as we have to ourselves. There could be no better statement of this fact than my father’s mantra, which he repeated until it was burned into our brains: “My freedom ends where your freedom begins.”

That’s why we have a rule of law. The rule of law is not meant to provide everyone their personal freedom to do whatever he or she thinks is OK. The rule of law is more important than that. And it’s purpose is to provide us with our basic needs for a reasonable quality of life. To provide all of us with what we need, not to provide all of us with everything we want.

I think many of our NGO’s have forgotten, in the blaze of heat they generate, butting heads over individual rights, that the rule of law is primarily meant to provide safe and healthy communities for all the people. Not to become enraged over this or that individual act, while ignoring that the ecosystem is burning up whole communities.

So what is the solution to the I’m OK you’re OK model for not solving problems?
Discuss the issues. If you’re too afraid of other people in your own community to discuss the issues that affect the whole community, then our rule of law is already failing, isn’t it, and really the only way to get it back is to discuss the issues ANYWAY, even if you are afraid of the other people.

Now – you know I do not mean to fight over the issues. I do not mean to stand over your own opinions with sword in hand and challenge all comers. How silly is that? Those are not the only two choices. There are a zillion possible solutions to every complex problem, and it takes time and effort to find one that will work.

I mean, talk real issues and talk nice.

Anyone can do that.

The Truth is Not Mine

It belongs to all of the creation.