World Systems (excerpt)

The Jolly Pilgrim, Part 7, musings 32

This excerpt deals with the fact that our historical context, and our brains’ internal hardwiring, leads us to think about the world in a certain way. Climate change is used as an example.


Every night on my way up the east coast I was pouring out my heart into the weather-beaten and black gaffer-tape-reinforced notebook I carried. Since visiting India, I’d stopped writing poetry.

By this point I was on a mission. The notion I’d absorbed during my travels was that there’s an approach to thinking about the world – a modern approach – which is ready to be synthesised by someone with the interest, time and head space. So that’s what I’d do. 


Thinking About Oneself from the Outside

Whilst hitchhiking

Imagine a party. Now imagine that somewhere in that party, on a tray, is a glass of champagne full of bubbles. Now imagine sticking (bubble-sized) brains in those bubbles and asking them what they thought about their world. They’d probably come up with lots of bubble-related issues to talk about, such as who was the biggest bubble and which bubble sparkled the brightest. If they started talking to each other, no doubt it wouldn’t take long for bubble politics to emerge.

From the point of view of bubbles in a champagne glass, which bubbles are the biggest and brightest are matters of note. But the really interesting thing is the party swirling around them. In my view, at this point in history humans are at the point of perceiving the glass and the party, while still thinking stubbornly like bubbles.

For example, the east coast of Australia is an environmentally aware region in an environmentally aware nation. When I hitchhiked along it the issue on everyone’s lips, just as in Sydney, was climate change.

Here are two narratives for thinking about that issue.


Narrative One

For more than a century, people have relied on fossil fuels for their energy needs. Burning such fuels releases carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas (i.e. it traps heat by forming a blanket around the Earth). As carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for many years, concentrations of it are building up and global temperatures are rising.

As a result humanity is sitting on a ticking time bomb and has a short period of time in which to avert a major catastrophe. This is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, problem facing the human race. Our failure to tackle it decisively could soon send the planet into a tail-spin of epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and killer heat waves beyond anything we have ever experienced.



Narrative Two

Humans are a species of hominid thrown up by Earth’s biosphere. The evolutionary processes which gave rise to them caused their line to develop hands, tool use, large brains and sophisticated culture. Twelve thousand years ago those characteristics allowed humans to start producing food via the technique of agriculture.

That, in turn, set in motion a chain of events which caused human technology to improve inexorably until, at the end of the eighteenth century, they’d started to build machines powered using the fossilised organic matter in the Earth’s crust.

That, in turn, helped drive an enormous increase in humanity’s command of the physical sciences such that, by the late twentieth century, humans realised that the waste gases their industry and transportation systems released affected the constitution of their planet’s atmosphere which, in turn, had side effects.

That realisation came as a shock. Humans had not previously understood to where the forces of history were driving them, or the effects their actions had on the Earth’s meteorological rhythms. Theories were soon postulated, computer models cobbled together and everyone began arguing about what to do.


Historical Context, Internal Hardwiring and World Views

I believe that the second narrative is a much more complete way of thinking about what’s happening (with greenhouse gases and climate change) than the first one.

The view from the inside

I also believe that the reason climate change is thought of as the overarching threat of the twenty-first century (rather than the inevitable consequence of being a civilisation-building tool-using species on a planet with fossil fuels) is the same reason champagne bubbles who one day realise that they’re floating in a glass in the middle of a party might initially panic – because they’re subroutines in a system which they’re only just beginning to comprehend.

A century and a half before this book was written, humans began to grasp that life forms evolve across generations and that, over time, species subdivide into new species. At the time, Herbert Spencer coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ to describe this newly grasped process.

But ‘fittest’ is a subjective idea. The ancestor of the tapeworm was an animal that ran around and had legs, but it evolved into an egg-laying parasite which could only exist in the guts of other species. The reason we think about a phenomenon like evolution by natural selection in terms of an idea like ‘survival of the fittest’ is because we’re thinking about it from the inside.

Earth’s biological systems throw up sets of differently designed beings in every generation of every species. Those beings are born into a dynamic environment, so what survives (i.e. constitutes ‘fittest’) is ceaselessly changing. In addition, any animal born into an ecosystem alters it – resulting in a permanent feedback mechanism which helps keep the flavour of Earth’s biosphere in flux.

There’s a modern twist. Human activity is intensifying that feedback loop. In addition to affecting other species on the planet, civilisation changes so fast that it constantly introduces new variables affecting who has children. That, in turn, affects the direction civilisation will take.

We’re not currently in a position to design equations to model how particular new technologies and cultural trends alter human breeding patterns. But in a world where human action changes the environment, the environment changes who breeds and people inherit the traits of their parents, evolution will be never-ending.

Such processes led to every mental and physical attribute of the animal reading these words. For example, you were taught to use tools (knifes, forks, loo paper) by your parents (or whoever brought you up). They were taught by their parents, and so on. But if you follow that line back to the first thing ever to use a tool, it wasn’t human. It was one of your non-human hominid ancestors.

And yet because the appendages at the ends of that ancestor’s forearms were so well suited to basic tool use; and because being able to use basic tools made them slightly more likely to breed, a two-and-a-half-million-year feedback process of greater manual dexterity was set in motion which led to the shape of the hands holding this book right now (which are, as you can see, brilliantly evolved for advanced tool use).

It’s more straightforward to think of oneself as a member of a static species that evolved, rather than the momentary expression of a constantly churning biosphere. But thinking about oneself as that momentary expression – a single revolution in the circle of life – is not only more complete, it’s more fun.

Until recently humans had little information regarding what they were and how they came to be here. The frameworks we’d built up for thinking about the world were limited in a direct reflection of that limited knowledge. But now we can assess our situation stripped of the assumptions implicit in human discourse since prehistory, everything starts to look even more beautiful.


Sometime later …

Back inside the Bottle

By November 2006 I was already emailing out the diary in the knowledge that it would only fully make sense once bound together with these musings. But scribbling away in my tent was never going to nail the job. Going to the Andes had been Susie’s idea. In the end that self-imposed isolation was to constitute an acceleration, rather than the culmination, of the path I was on. However, before going to Quito I first returned to Sydney and, before that, I went diving.


An excerpt from the travel and philosophy book, The Jolly Pilgrim.


It was run as an extract by The Ecologist magazine. See that version here.

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