Of Stardust and Life

We are stardust. Billion year old carbon. We are golden.

-Joni Mitchell

We are beings of the Universe. Composed of elements forged in the massive furnaces of a billion stars. For uncounted aeons we drifted through the black void of space until finding a home on Earth.

And what if we are all there is? What if in all the havoc and energy of the Cosmos, amongst galaxies that number like grains of sand on a beach, we are alone? All the life there is to be found?

What then is our responsibility, our humble obligation, to the stars that gave us birth? Do we not take to our ancient homes, explore and populate the Universe, and bring life to where none exists?

The Universe awaits. Humanity stumbles along pursuing the small and the insignificant. And the Universe awaits.

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The Election in Perspective

The Pale Blue Dot

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience.There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Carl Sagan, October 13, 1994, Cornell University
Photo courtesy Voyager 1, 1990, 3.7 billion miles from Earth.

Why We’re Not Hypocrites (as I plug in my laptop).

Hypocrisy! they cry

With eyes alight and fingers fast

Pointed at the man in green.

He stands athwart

Cries ‘Damn your comforts

They’re harmful to the bees’!

But he is no saint

His deeds fall faint

Once he leaves the scene.

At home at test

He’s like the rest

With honey in his tea!

A Free the Commons! first. A poem, about a powerful and ugly and unfair word – hypocrisy. As Samuel Johnson said:

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice…

I think about this word from time to time. I’ve leveled it before, and been on the receiving end of it. I’ve joked with it and been serious with its use. But the more I consider it, and study and understand it, the more unseemly the word has become to me. I do not use this word anymore.

Words carry weight – there is meaning and power in their symbolism. We use hypocrisy as an ad hominem, to tear down a speaker and avoid confronting the argument at hand. And why not? Who amongst us can live up to our beliefs? After all, don’t we at Free the Commons! drive our cars, heat our homes, plug in our laptops? Do we practice what we preach even as we write about coal and mercury and other environmental ills?

But to believe one way and behave another isn’t hypocrisy; it’s human. Living in an imperfect world neither keeps us from living nor prevents us from dreaming. If the “is” of life is not yet the “ought” we argue for, we have committed no sin. If I may paraphrase for a moment – I can’t access my source – a philosopher named Mark Sagoff once found that his students, though opposed to the potential development of a ski area in nearby wilderness, would choose to ski there if the ski area were indeed built. As I recall, Sagoff concluded that there was no contradiction here: essentially, the students were behaving in the roles assigned to them. At first, they were citizen environmentalists, saying no to a ski slope development. They then became consumers and, with no role left to play in the development question, they behaved as consumers often do.

And this is the situation we find ourselves in every day. We live our lives within the confines of our worlds. Our power comes from coal and natural gas. We fuel our cars with oil. We live in homes built of wood or brick. But these facts of life do not preclude us from believing in, supporting, and fighting for solar power, new car technologies, protections for our forests and air quality. We do what we can with our limited means to make our daily choices better choices; for most of us that is the best we can do. For this we are not hypocrites, and we won’t allow others to label us as such just so they can ignore our arguments.

Are We Part of Nature?

Some questions are not open for the asking. Some questions are so loaded with political, ethical, and philosophical symbolism that to merely – meekly even – broach the subject may leave one branded a heretic. Like many important questions that deserve deep exploration but have been prematurely declared closed by politically violent factions (global warming anyone?), the question of how we, as a species, fit into the natural environment is seldom discussed in polite company.

But I have been thinking about this question, and I am finding that I have questions of my own about what exactly our role is in the natural system.

Before I explain my thoughts, let me be clear about what I don’t mean. Clearly, humans interact with the natural world. We take sustenance from nature, from the water and the soil and the air. We depend upon the bio-chemical processes of nature for life – photosynthesis for example. With our every breath and step, every endeavour, we impact the natural world. We are all stardust and will decompose and return to the earth. I understand that we receive life-sustaining benefits from nature, and that we impact nature. But these facts do not mean that we are a part of nature.

Nature is a system, and every part of the natural system evolved through the eons to fill a specific niche and play a specific role. Every piece, every little cog in nature, is part of this system, is an interdependent, interacting part of the whole.

What role do we fill in this system?

Let me pose this thought: the North American ecosystem, if we can think of it as a single system for simplicity of argument, developed without us, without people. We arrived into this system, as far as we presently know, only about 15,000 years ago, an eyeblink in evolutionary time. What need does this system have of us?

The wolf plays a role in nature: one would think that as a top-line predator in an ecosystem, the disappearance of the wolf, which does nothing but eat, would not harm this system. But as we learned in Yellowstone, when the top-line predator was removed, the other species, its prey species, began to flourish. And in their flourishing they affected the ecosystem in harmful ways, such as over-grazing important vegetation like Aspen and willow. Returning the wolf to Yellowstone restored ecological balance. The wolf is part of this system.

So my question is in what way are humans part of the system? Would nature fall out of balance if we were suddenly absent? Would the biotic community miss our presence? What is our participation in this system? Maybe there is a specific virus or bacteria that evolved in symbiosis with the human species, but do we know for certain that, like the wolf and other parts of the natural community, we play any necessary role whatsoever?

If I may reveal my sci-fi nerd side for a moment, imagine the question posed in this manner: If the Earth had evolved absent humans, and tomorrow a space-faring species arrived and made Earth its home, would they be part of nature? If we answer no, then how is it we consider ourselves part of nature? What is the difference?

I am not asking this question to reach a conclusion of Man’s dominion over the Earth. The dominion argument I neither believe nor accept. Rather, the question fills me with humility; for if we are not part of nature, what justification do we have for our harmful actions?