May 2006
Rock, Paper, Scissors
Watching the politics of state, the environmental news and thinking about the weather, I'm not so sure we'll have a conveniently stable planet in the centuries to come.  Arctic ice is melting faster than ever expected.  Floods, droughts, and storms are picking up the pace.  More fisheries are collapsing.  Summer in Seattle has come and gone several times over the last couple months, snapping from wear a hat and thick clothes to t-shirt weather in the space of a day.  Simplifying Carl Sagan's 'Pale Blue Dot' to an extreme, life of this planet has two options: figure out how to protect the Earth from all the destructive things in outer space (asteroids, etc.) or figure out how to sustain life in outer space so protecting home base isn't critical.  There is also a third option... remove life.  In some ways, that is the easiest.  Nicely enclosed environment that is quite interconnected and not a whole lot of collective constructive effort need be organized - everybody can twiddle their own knobs and dials and throw stones.  It could be a wonderful experiment, and who knows how many species would survive a few ice ages (trying the Mars cycle) or a good global warming or two (trying the Venus cycle), but I would expect we could learn a lot.  Assuming Darwin's theory is applicable, mankind is the current end point of intelligent terrestrial life forms.  Following standard genetic tuning, we evolved into our basic shape over a few millions years alongside an earth and animals that could change and adapt in a similar timeframe.  Then, over the last ten thousand years, we invented an ever expanding language, learned how to manufacture tools and spread to occupy every continent and significant landmass on a basically permanent basis.  That's a blink of genetic and geologic time.  400 generations ago we a relatively small group of African bushmen who's understanding of the weather was as tuned as many animals and who's daily impact on the earth was insignificant.   Our impact didn't outrank our intelligence or genetic training.  The Arctic terns could fly their way from northern Alaska's tundra to the rocky crags at the tip of South America without threat of their breeding grounds becoming oil platforms.  (What would humans do if the bears suddenly occupied San Fran?  “We come in peace, but we just need to remove most of those small buildings and kinda make a racket over there next to that hospital.  English?  What's that?')  In 400 generations, we've decreased our sensitivity to the weather, haven't substantially changed our average intelligence (knowledge yes, intelligence not as much), increased our personal impact on earth thousand-fold if not more with technology and also multiplied that now more empowered population at least a million times.  That greatly increased impact is on a system so complex we humans only understand parts of it and those just barely.  In the last few hundred years we've adapted systems and culture and government to a land that we figure is the way our weatherman says it will be tomorrow for the next 100+ years.  Want to bet on that?  I don't think the terns would, especially if they 'knew' what was happening.

It seems that we are on the cusp of our rock, paper, scissors decision.  We could make use of our technology and currently easy access to energy to get us out into space (to continue either wantonly or carefully consuming what we find out there).  We could also just sit back and hang out until the interstellar lottery serves up a decent asteroid, then panic and leave our towels behind in the rush.  Or we could continue to recklessly twiddle and consume and throw rocks until we get rearranged by the next ice sheet or desert.

My brother Sam just taught me how to start a fire with a bowdrill.  I’m good to go.

Peter Newbury's Published Adventures