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Why we must continue to destroy our planet


Ok, so be warned that this blog is likely to be a bit weird. Actually that might suggest our blogs are not usually weird, which they do tend to be, so maybe this should be described as weirder. Firstly an admission: I am not in any sense religious or superstitious; my fascination with the natural world means that gods and all the rest of it are unnecessary. And I suppose I should also say that, without the slightest shred of evidence in their favour, I find people’s belief in such things difficult to appreciate. I do not like all the names given to religious and non-religious people and so I would best describe myself as empirical, although I do tend to believe what a lot of modern physicists say about the universe and the big bang and all the rest of it, which is, to be honest, more a matter of faith (or funding!) than science. But what I do find fascinating is something I have heard many people say over the years i.e. that they are not religious and they do not believe any extraordinary claims about ghosts or gods but they do believe in some impossible to define ‘higher power’. Fair enough because I am one of them, and having thought deep and long about this I think I am some way towards finding that higher power for myself. This I need to say because I have read a great deal of philosophy over the years and two things are very evident; most of it says nothing at all, and that small percentage that actually does say something usually takes a hundred thousand words to state the blindingly obvious. I can’t read religious texts because they don’t make any sense to me, but this is not prejudice because I can’t read Wittgenstein either, although I have read his works in the past and most of what he says is pretentious crap that sounds good because it’s erudite and must be deep because he was a universally acknowledged clever bastard. I’m not picking on Wittgenstein, I could make a long list of very clever people who never seemed to stop writing but who never actually said anything useful. James Joyce comes to mind for other reasons but that’s another story. Bear the above in mind as you try to appreciate that I can also write at length without saying anything useful. But I might actually say something interesting about my belief in a higher power.

I am not willing to go into details about the history of our planet because I assume anybody reading this will be well-versed in the various events that have shaped life on earth (how’s that for arrogance, eat your heart out Wittgenstein.) But sometime in the past our planet was very hot, this happens when about 10 24 tons of rocks and crap forms a globe and compresses through gravity. It gets so hot inside that the heavy stuff eventually settles in the middle and the rest is sort of layered towards the outside, this is still very hot and as a result some of it erupts onto the cooling surface, forming volcanoes or ocean ridges as the surface cools, solidifies and gets pushed around by underlying convection currents. This leads to lots of interesting geochemistry, especially when more stuff is constantly falling from the sky and adding to the mix. And for some reason, probably also due to aerial bombardment, there was lots of water about, and this stuff also makes for some very interesting chemistry. It’s tedious to try and explain just how long this stuff went on for but it was a very, very long time. Certain organic molecules are known to have arrived along with meteorites and some are known to more or less spontaneously assemble given the right conditions, and once our planet started to cool and form a stable crust there were plenty of right conditions. And it seems that sooner rather than later there were plenty of organic molecules of the type that makes living things. The problem now is working out how a living thing might have formed from this mixture of water, rocks (by which I mean an abundance of reactive stuff not normally associated with organic chemistry), heat and radiation. This is the difficult bit, and the bit that many people think is so unlikely as to be impossible. But there are several things in favour of life forming from such conditions, not least of which is that it did, and the evidence is both within and all around us. The precursors are very simple in chemical terms, and all are easy to synthesize under the right conditions, and these conditions were common on the young earth. The difficult bit to appreciate is how the molecules assembled and how they then gained energy in order to maintain that assembly, and this usually means how did they access an electrochemical gradient in order to do so? Easy enough with hindsight; transmembrane proton gradients and the electron transport chain prove that, but getting something like that started from raw materials is another matter. Many people say this would have been impossible, like they say that protein synthesis via some sort of primordial RNA is impossible. Spontaneous black body synthesis is a bit easier to imagine, and oligopeptides getting caught up in such membranes is also easier to imagine. There is so much detail to consider that the natural production of a living system soon becomes extremely unlikely, if not downright impossible. Yet here we are. And impossible things are sometimes delightful to imagine, as the following example will illustrate. Choose the windiest of days, gale force if possible. Take a pack of cards and shuffle them as you walk to your local park, once there throw the pack of cards high up into the air and let the wind take them. Go back when the wind calms down and, using some very sensitive equipment, plot the exact location, orientation and face of each card onto a map, working to, say. 0.01 mm. What are the odds of reproducing that exact pattern from another throw? Forgetting what the philosophers and physicists tell us, it’s zero. Not a snowballs chance in hell of doing the exact thing again. And yet it is possible because you did it once, right? Right! Throw another deck on another windy day and you will produce another impossible to mimic event, and so it could go on ad nauseum. But there are two valuable points here. Firstly that however many packs of cards are thrown, each will produce a unique event, and secondly that, given enough packs of cards, some results might be astonishing e.g. four aces might land on top of each other. Unlikely, but what if 50 trillion packs of cards were thrown? If not four aces, then probably at least something unlikely or astounding will arise. Chemical reactions were going on all over the earth as well as in the seas for several billions of years before life began, and that to me represents our 50 trillion packs of cards. So far as is known, at least from the molecular-genetic point of view, life started only once. And when people say that the natural formation of life is so unlikely as to be impossible, they are quite right because when life evolved it was from a single throw of the cards, and that will be impossible to do again. But, as we know, once was enough, because here we are.

So once there was the first living thing, and here I do not mean the first species (although per se I must) but the first individual fully-functioning thing that could be described as alive. There are various things we attribute to living things, such as the ability to sense and to gain energy from their environment and to reproduce. Lots of the biochemistry, including some of the nucleic acid chemistry, and the physics of energy production from transmembrane ion potentials, must have been fully functioning in the very first organism. There were probably lots of trial runs in which the chemistry or the thermodynamics did not quite work and so these macromolecular assemblages simply decomposed, but when everything came together, like one of those new-born Wildebeests trying to stand up, the game was up. Success may have occurred again somewhere else on the planet but that is doubtful because it would likely have had a different molecular biology, and no modern evidence has been found, so if life did spontaneously occur again it did not survive. For the purpose of this discussion it does not matter where life started, some people think oceanic vents are likely, but it does not matter, what does matter is that it did. When the first organism came into being there was nothing very urgent for it do, after all the chemistry was all sorted out, it had no predators and likely had access to all the food (energy) it needed, not a care in the world. It wasn’t too bothered about comfort or amusement or in fact anything at all, it probably just sat there doing all the things that living things do, like breathing and making energy (ok, so they’re the same thing but anyway..) or synthesizing new bits or itself. Not having a care in the world and not having to give a shit about anything. It was sorted, as the saying goes. Except that it was going to die. Not that it was aware of this, and not that it would have cared even if it was, our first life form was no great thinker. But because of its evolutionary legacy it was in some sense programmed to reproduce itself. And it did, and from the moment it did so the natural selection of living things began because reproduction produces populations and sometimes introduces mistakes, or variations, and the environment works on these mistakes, and this is what we call natural selection. Two things were now important: reproduction and dispersal, because it’s no good having a ‘living’ molecular assemblage if it cannot reproduce. And reproduction embodies everything that is important, absolutely everything. I suppose that a ‘living’ molecular assemblage could in some sense be immortal; it could endlessly survive, grabbing energy from the environment and repairing itself and maintaining its chemical integrity forever. That’s entirely possible and such a living thing might thrive until it was hit by a meteorite or eventually subducted along with a surface plate or suffered some other equally terminal fate. So it had to reproduce, and however many times living assemblages of molecules formed, they were doomed to failure unless they could reproduce. So our first living thing reproduced, and dispersal was therefore part of the deal, at least once the reproduced bit was free of the parent. Reproduction is a dodgy business, especially in a physically volatile environment, mistakes creep in and new forms soon arise, what we might call separate species, and these would go on to alter the chemistry of the planet and to survive the snowball events and all the rest of it. It would take a few billion years but there was no hurry, in fact there was no goal at all, it just kept aimlessly happening. And so did evolution, giving us eyes and temporal lobes and all the other stuff that seems so unlikely in practical terms, so no need for the blind watch maker here. All the way to the all the life we see today, and to all the life we know to have gone extinct in the past, in fact, on our planet at least, all the life there ever was and ever will be. All from one life form. The usefulness of reproduction need hardly be considered, but an interesting aspect of this is the speed at which it occurs, which is slow enough, or maybe quick enough, to make use of the rate of DNA mutation caused by natural radiation, and for the subsequent changes to be useful in an adaptive sense. The importance of dispersal is also obvious but here there may be more than meets the eye, because from the outset it enabled the first life forms to survive what must have been frequent and catastrophic events, and having done so then to capitalize on any changes to the environment that might have resulted. Dispersal as a consequence of reproduction has enabled life to colonize our planet, and it continues as modern species spread and maybe evolve in response to natural barriers. Once life became diverse and common it also became a part of the natural environment that could be exploited by any species with the opportunity do so, and as we look around at the natural world it soon becomes very obvious that all species will exploit anything available, and especially other living things, in order to survive and thrive. This is done without any consideration or remorse or any of the other things us humans feel towards other species. We are a bit more clinical in providing for our needs; so we farm and kill large herbivores by the million and we utilize every natural resource available to us, even if this means levelling mountains or drilling down kilometres into the earth to do so. We destroy the rain forests and sweep life out of the sea and commit every imaginable atrocity in our quest to survive, reproduce and disperse. This includes exploiting each other as well because a common human trait is for us to consider parts of the planet to be ours, for our exclusive use and to the banishment of all others, be it a house or a country or a continent. All this exploitation produces enormous abundances of food and energy and all the other stuff we need for a comfortable existence, and beyond a few very public protests we do not care very much how our comfort is produced. An interesting aspect of this great excess of resource, at least for some portion of our species, is that rather than employ it to increase the comfort of all humans, we use a great deal of it to research such esoteric things as particle physics and understanding the universe. By which, at least in the long term, means trying to overcome the problems involved with travelling to other planets within the human lifespan. This is because we need to keep dispersing, and this because things might come to an end, at least for us should a meteorite strike the earth or some catastrophic geological or solar event make life difficult for us. Which is to say that not much has changed since the first living thing successfully reproduced, and like those first life forms, and every life form that has ever existed since, we exploit our environment with no thought to the consequences in order to thrive. This often has profound consequences for the biosphere and commonly leads to other species becoming extinct. But it’s simply what life has been doing since it started.

So why rejoice in extinction? Dispersal is a strange term because it might mean that a population is spreading out as it gets bigger, that certainly happens with humans and as we go we modify the environment to our advantage. But there are other sorts of dispersals, such as how the fauna and flora accidently arrives and colonizes oceanic islands, or how species migrate across the world, either in response to seasonal climate changes or as the result of land masses drifting apart through tectonic forces. But an interesting form of dispersal is that displayed by humans, which is to say our purposeful voyages to unknown lands, often at great personal risk, in order to settle, expand our population and exploit the imagined natural resources. After we left Africa and developed weapons and food production systems we were off across the world, grabbing everything we could. And this was often followed by a second wave, e.g. in Australia or North America (in fact everywhere) and the exploitation continued. In this way we learned science and how to feed and kill each other much more efficiently. For the sake of such progress we killed off many species and destroyed much of the natural world, and we are far from finished in this respect, but we seem to be hell-bent on this course of action so, basically we do not care. On the other hand we humans can show great care for our fellow species and even our fellow humans, but by and large we do not and it usually takes some political reason for us to do so. In the meantime we rampage on. Our exploitation of the natural world is often seen as a bad thing, especially when it involves the destruction of the tropical rainforests or altering the climate so that the polar regions begin to melt, but, in light of who and what we are, and by this I mean every species on the planet, is it really such a bad thing? Optimistically we can expect to live for a century or so, and despite our well-developed neocortex and our knowledge of the geological past, we cannot even begin to imagine, let alone appreciate, the timescales of planetary evolution. What we are doing to the planet and its biosphere may be terrible but in destructive terms it’s nothing compared to the catastrophic extinction events of the past, events from which life has happily rebounded. We overestimate our impact on the planet, and even were we to ramp up our efforts to exploit and so wilfully destroy much of life on earth we would not even scratch the surface because life is about more than rainforests and penguins. Life on earth is simply a set of variations on an original theme, and that original theme existed very briefly, in solitude, before getting started with the rest of us. Little could it have known but that first life form was in for the long game, and it’s done quite well considering what it had to put up with. If it had had eyes and was able to see the moon, and if it had had a brain and was able to think, would it have imagined that one day it might take a trip up there? Eventually it did take that trip, and in the future maybe it will make it to other galaxies, and in order to do so it will need to keep reproducing and dispersing, creating the conditions in which we, or if we fail then some other product of future evolution, can develop the technology to allow us to continue to do the same thing we have done for several billions of years, all the way from the first living thing. In evolutionary terms it makes no difference which species makes it to other planets and galaxies, it could be Nebria brevicollis for all the difference it makes because evolution will continue, the result will be the same because that first organism will have succeeded in some form or other and that very first string of nucleic acid will have succeeded in spreading out across the universe. We humans have a shot at being the life form to achieve that ultimate dispersal, although to what end I cannot imagine, and apart from one blindingly obvious thing, there is probably no reason for us to disperse across the universe. After all we could use our technology and intelligence to live very comfortably here on earth, and it’s a great place to live so surely that’s the way to go. Except we are going to die. All of us, and I don’t mean all of us humans, I mean all life on earth, every last living thing on this planet will eventually die. And if this happens before we can escape, that first scrap of nucleic acid, destined for great things, will have failed. Optimistically that will not happen until our sun expands, but other celestial events might well bring down the curtain earlier. We need a thriving economy in order to produce the research that might allow us to travel and colonize the universe, and that means exploiting the natural world for all it’s worth. It’s a shame but it seems to be what life does, whether it’s us or something else, life will try and try and try to disperse forever and ever. Or it will all have been a waste of time.

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