Think cosmic

“If mankind destroys this planet, it will at least be just. We’ll be getting what we deserve. What’s more natural than reaping what you sew?”

This statement, spoken by a close friend during a discussion we had about how sad and disappointing I find the global response to climate change so far, both surprised and shocked me. Not because of any inherent fallacy – what could be more logical or natural than a species going the way of almost all other species, into extinction? – or because of its unjustness. I often feel conflicted about justice, because justice is as seldom pleasant as it is fair. It was because of its resignation toward what I would consider the greatest disappointment in the history of this planet. Not only is climate change threatening humans as individuals or even as a species, but also a huge percentage of other life forms on this planet. Our species’ cumulative impact in our planet’s ecosystem could not only eliminate us forever, it could effectively eliminate all chances for intelligent life ever to return to this planet. In the cosmic scheme of things, where our only certainty that intelligent life exists anywhere in the universe is statistical, that’s pretty sad. I can’t imagine anything that’s more worth worrying about in the entire world. But if things play out well, this crisis could be what’s needed to save mankind and help us as a species and our planet as an ecosystem to transition to a higher level of complexity – one that, for better or for worse, probably hasn’t been seen in our neighborhood of the galaxy yet. I hope for the second outcome.

We probably aren’t unique, but we’re pretty unlikely

It’s not like anybody was around to see it, but we know a little bit about how our corner of the universe developed. Chaos coalesced into pockets of order. Galaxies formed. Our solar system formed. Planets developed. One of them was ours.

This all happened in an incredibly long period of time, and the stretches of time after that could be considered brief in comparison, but they’re unimaginably long nonetheless.

The solar system would have been in pretty stable equilibrium, full of lifeless planets, but due to a series of coincidences, self-replicating life developed on our planet. That’s not too surprising, since our planet is in our solar system’s habitable zone and is put together from friendly chemicals. What happened next is a bit more interesting, though.

From that life, entire ecosystems developed with complex interdependencies. Probably also not that surprising, given the amount of time thrown into the mix and the materials that were at hand, but it is pretty cool. Single celled organisms increased in complexity, swallowing other cells and dividing labor up among several different organisms. Then cells got together and started working together as parts of individual organisms.

Let’s think about that. Without a brain, a bunch of cells started dividing up labor between each other and working to help each other. They became organisms.

Alright. Weird. I’m definitely not arguing for anything like intelligent design here, but just think about that – from nonliving materials, life formed, increased in complexity, and spontaneously began to cooperate, at least sometimes.

Eventually most of our planet was colonized by life. There were a few catastrophic extinction events, but life kept on coming back. As far as we know, though, no life that was intelligent like we’re intelligent developed. And that doesn’t surprise me. Why should it? Intelligence requires big brains that are hard to feed, so evolution doesn’t select to make things intelligent. It selects to make them survive, and even if you already have life on a planet, I’d be willing to bet that intelligent life capable of doing things like organizing into civilizations doesn’t happen very often. Before the dinosaurs, there were huge, complex ecosystems. The dinosaurs themselves were around way longer than we were and dominated the world like mammals do today. And afterwards, it still took about 70 million years for animals to develop the intelligence that our more immediate ancestors had. I’m not sure if this means that there were no civilizations – after all that time, every trace of them could be gone. But I see no reason to think that there was.

Nonetheless, we’re moving along the chain of complexity now. We have nonliving materials organizing, reproducing. Then things move to the next tier – they start working together as parts of the same organism. And oftentimes afterwards, several different organisms start working together, which is another tier of complexity. And then you get civilizations.

The other thing to note here is that I don’t think that this level of complexity always would develop under similar circumstances. Sure, it did here, but ther are other stable equilibria that our planet could have stayed at. It just happened to come to pass that we evolved here, and that now we’re sending spaceships into orbit and all that stuff. It could just as well have not happened.

And if we wipe out most of our ecosystem now, who’s to say that it would happen again? Who’s to say that our planet wouldn’t return to a lower level of complexity – say, that of organisms working together occasionally, like flocks of birds do or schools of fish – and stay there? Wouldn’t that be sad, since what we’ve built up here took billions of years to work?

We are not the highest tier of complexity

In the beginning, humans were social animals. They worked together. And as they spread throughout the planet, they did so in social groups. We are dependent upon each other for our survival, and always have been.

That’s why we started forming not only primitive social groups, but also more complex societies. Kingdoms. Empires. Democracies. Republics. Alliances. The whole works. I would argue that this is another tier of complexity.

I think we can move beyond that, though. I think that we can start operating more like individual parts of a global organism. We already do so, but it’s a global organism that consumes more resources than the planet can produce for it. It’s also a global organism that attacks different parts of itself – militarily, culturally, economically. If humanity were an animal, it would be an animal with an autoimmune disease. If we were cells, we wouldn’t be sharing our resources properly with each other, and we surely wouldn’t be doing it effectively. This can change, though, if we as a planet see ourselves as one giant community.

Nations distribute wealth internally. They have welfare systems. They shuffle resources back and forth in ways that wouldn’t happen without outside intervention. Just as a cell can absorb things through its membrane that wouldn’t pass through by osmosis, and just as it can select what comes in and out and how it’s utilized internally, we do the same thing on national and sometimes and supernational levels. Why aren’t we doing it as a species?

Humans can live sustainably

One thing that I often hear when I discuss the future of humans as a species is that it’s in our nature to overuse our resources. It’s true that we overuse our resources now, and that some civilizations have done so in the past too, but the fact that we’re reaching beyond the borders of our ecosystem’s ability to sustain us is not only due to the fact that we’re running out of space. We’re operating on a type of economy – capitalism – that sets up the rules of the game in such a way that it’s most profitable to try to make a quick buck.

I do not, however, believe that this is in our nature. It’s the nature of the game we’re playing at the moment, as a planet. But it’s not an integral part of human nature. Many societies around the world and on every continent except for Antarctica have lived sustainably for generations at a time. Our expansionist, capitalist economies are contagious, because they tend to swallow up other economies that operate with different rules, but the fact remains that people have often acted differently. They’ve done so everywhere you look. Sustainable economies have existed throughout humanity’s history – not exclusively, surely, I’m not trying to argue that every ancient society was sustainable. But some were. And ours can be too.

Why were some ancient societies sustainable? Some people would argue that it was because they respected nature in a way that we don’t today. That’s certainly true in some instances, but I would argue that necessity helped a whole lot and probably augmented or substitued ideologies where they weren’t that strong. People had limited resources and they made do with them.

Today the only real difference is the scale of things. As a planet, we have limited resources. By our current system, it is often unprofitable to give things away or to consume less. We all know that we have to produce less carbon dioxide, but we’re playing a game where the rules dictate that we don’t stop anyway.

Here’s a simplified summary. If we don’t stop producing so much carbon dioxide, we’ll all die. But if I stop producing as much carbon dioxide, I’ll have less fun and I’ll die anyway, because everybody else will keep on producing carbon dioxide until we all die. So I’ll keep it up, as long as everybody else does. Nobody wants to make the first move and sacrifice their well-being for nothing, especially when they’ll be the only ones doing so.

If we were to distribute wealth based upon the long-term impacts of our actions on the planet as a whole, we might be able to change our economic system so that behavior which leads to the well-being of humanity as a species is rewarded, rather than punished as it currently is.

And if we manage to do that, we could possible reach another tier of complexity. Let’s call it being a truly united global society. And if we make it to other planets, it could be an interplanety society. If we colonize other stars, we would be interstellar, with contact to even more ecosystems and perhaps even other intelligent species.

Or we could use the resources on this planet up, so that we’ll never have the opportunity to do that.

Changing the rules requires a referee

Playing by our current rules, nobody will play differently, and I honestly don’t think that our societies will begin to unite and be ready for sacrifices until the crisis is a bit more intense. It will come, and we will be challenged, and we will prevail or disappear. The current system punishes sustainable behavior and no society is altruistic enough to act differently. Even if they were, they would quickly become have-beens, as isolated incidents in a larger system geared toward unsustainability.

But what if there were a referree? In the second World War, people did incredible things that they wouldn’t have thought possible before. During the Cold War, that happened too. It was the threat of a kind of external intervention – normally a military threat – that caused incredible, game-changing behavior.

Could climate change be that external referree? In Cuba, they did incredible things when the support of the Soviet Union was gone. We will soon also be in a position where cheap oil isn’t as readily available and where climate change causes great economic difficulties. Could that be the challenge we need?

I think so. How we will respond is another story, and I’m not sure about that. But one thing is clear for me – we won’t be staying the way we are now. It’s up or down the ladder of complexity, and I hope we move up.


My name’s Daniel Lee. I’m an enthusiast for open source and sharing. I grew up in the United States and did my doctorate in Germany. I've founded a company for planning solar power. I've worked on analog space suit interfaces, drones and a bunch of other things in my free time. I'm also involved in standards work for meteorological data. I worked for a while German Weather Service on improving forecasts for weather and renewable power production. I later led the team for data ingest there before I started my current job, engineering software and data formats at EUMETSAT.

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