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problems are Life

January 13, 2011

I’ve been trying to think of myself as the Earth writ large. Or maybe it’s that I’m imagining that I am a synecdoche for Earth. My aim is to find a framework to understand not only what challenges Earth is facing, but what part I might play in responses to those challenges.

So I’m germinating an idea of Earth as a metaphysical being, that is conscious in some sense; a system modulating its environment. Something akin to Lovelock and Margulis’s Gaia theory (which I need to read more about).

The more I learn about the history of Life on Earth, the more apparent it seems that both Earth and Life are long-running experiments in discovering problems and then solving them. But conditions are never static, so the supply of problems is inexhaustible.

I’ve been thinking about heaven too, especially in contrast to the above idea. I’m not Christian, but I grew up with Christian ideas of heaven, and they’ve never seemed very appealing. With my new concept of Life itself being solving problems, though, the old idea of heaven (where everything is perfect, everyone is eternally happy, there is no want or need) seems not only impossible to imagine, but nonsensical. And in no way something I’m interested in. In fact it seems like interest of any sort, interest in anything, is antithetical to heaven. Because if everything is perfect and no one has any needs or wants, there is nothing to be interested in. I also don’t see how there can be individuality or distinctions between entities. And you can’t have bodies, because bodies need things. It seems like about the only thing you could be, in heaven, would be something akin to a ball of energy, like a star. Although even stars don’t live forever, and during their lifetime, they do things. So maybe heaven is nothingness. Which doesn’t seem appealing either.

Whatever local environments we are born into, no matter what type of organism we are, provide us with problems that need to be solved. The more resources we can bring to bear and the more skills we develop and the more support we receive, the more likely we are to advance to a different level or category of problems. But the existence of problems themselves never disappears. So that’s another way that Life seems to be problems.

Earth itself contains trillions or gazillions of organisms of all sorts, and as they interact with each other and their abiotic environment(s), we are all co-evolving together, and complex circumstances never before seen continue to arise. In a mythic sense, if Earth created Life to experience complexity, She must be pleased with the results so far.

Complex problems require multifaceted responses. Simple, rational, linear, methodical responses will fall far short. The more difficult and intractable the problems we face, the more opportunity there is for astonishing, game changing, innovative responses that completely transform our paradigm. In my own life I’ve seen that it’s only when I’ve got my back against the wall and am in utter despair that I’m willing to try anything that might work. And that is often when I’ve discovered who I am, and what I’m capable of, but also that the world (of possibilities) is much larger than I imagined.

When we carefully stay within our limits, known or perceived, we cannot verify what our limits truly are. And many phenomena only occur when a threshold for emergent properties is reached. I think our culture’s Zeitgeist is on the verge of a threshold for transformation to something we cannot imagine. But something that allows us to move forward, making the world a better place for more than just the people we like. I think all the upheaval going on in the world — natural disasters, conflicts between disparate viewpoints, connections between people widely separated by geography and other demographics — all those seams of contact are co-creating enormous possibilities for the future of Earth.

When everything is going well for us, inertia persuades us that introducing upheaval to help others that are not-us is messy, chaotic, unpredictable. Is any of that really necessary? However, when the world is in dire straits for everyone, everyone has a stake in improving their own prospects. Everyone is highly motivated to not accept the status quo. And as we work individually, to benefit ourselves and our loved ones, we create collective effects, which are emergent. And I wonder if that isn’t precisely what Earth had in mind all along? Global climate change has caught the attention of a great many human beings, most of whom seem rather interested in fixing things before they get worse. Scientists and environmentalists have been trying to warn the public and politicians about the need to make changes in policies and practices for at least the last 50 years, probably much longer. But it’s only now that things are really bad that a great many people feel quite motivated to work together, even with people they don’t know well, to see what can be done.

I think we’re on a threshold  of creating a collective consciousness of ourselves, other living beings, and Earth itself. But this wouldn’t have become possible if we were somehow able to keep ignoring consequences indefinitely. Facing problems and generating creative solutions, even though many will not work, not only allows more people to be heard, but more ideas to be tested and modified and made stronger, and more and more people to get experience with cooperating and working collectively and caring about the welfare of others. Bit by bit, a better world is created. It is not harmony and abundance, but problems and conflicts, that make that possible.

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