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M. C. Escher 1967-1968

Möbius Trip. The Technosphere and Our Science Fiction Reality

In his feverish essay concerning the role of these efficient, yet paltry, energy distribution devices called humans, science writer Dorion Sagan exits the Anthropocene in pursuit of epochs, evolutionary constellations and thermodynamic possibilities beyond consensus models. A tireless and curious exploration about the trip that humanity is on.
We are stardust We are golden And we’ve got to get ourselves Back to the garden. -Joni Mitchell (1969) When the failure of this business as usual [. . .]. It will be claimed that there is no choice but to try and tame Gaia. Geoengineering will be presented as a logical accomplishment in the great history of human emancipation and mastery and those who resist will be accused of betraying our destiny. The script is already written. -Isabelle Stengers (2014) Some persons fancy that bias and counter-bias are favorable to the extraction of truth—that hot and partisan debate is the way to investigate. This is the theory of our atrocious legal procedure. But logic puts its heel upon this suggestion. It irrefragably demonstrates that knowledge can only be furthered by the real desire for it, and that the methods of obstinacy, of authority, and every mode of trying to reach a foregone conclusion, are absolutely of no value. -C. S. Peirce (1878)
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William Blake ca. 1795. Source: Wiki Art

“Tiger Tyger burning bright in the forests of the night what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?” The answer to Blake’s tiger, a more Vedic version of Schrödinger’s Cat, is you, I—the double-eyed creature that reads these words and shares a lineage with felines. As the poetic image of the eye, be it the personal world, allied to dream for Heraclitus, the “idios kosmos,” different for each of us humans, or the same cloud-flecked blue eye of Earth blinking or winking in the high depths, the deep heights, perhaps endless, of space — : as the poetic image of the eye/I suggests, all is not necessarily as it seems. The self is in such scientific flux—we are cell colonies, we are animals, we are parts of global technic empires; we are parts of Earth history, of a recently appeared geological veneer popularly now called the Anthropocene. When we die now, we may become ghosts, digital images preserved, say on YouTube or Facebook as traces, in the emerging memory of the technosphere. In continuous existence, we, as life, might regard even our current identities as mere patterns or place savers among vast, perhaps eternal and infinite, forces. Reality, as usual, remains more surreal than the most forward-looking science fiction. “The Earth has skin diseases,” Nietzsche’s strange prophet Zarathustra says, “one of which is Man."Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra. Chemnitz: Schmeitzner, 1883, section 40, “Great Events”: “Die Erde, sagte er, hat eine Haut; und diese Haut hat Krankheiten. Eine dieser Krankheiten heisst zum Beispiel: ‘Mensch.’” [“The earth, said he, hath a skin; and this skin hath diseases. One of these diseases, for example, is called ‘man.’”] The more usual “quote” that, “The Earth is beautiful but has a (skin) disease called man,” appears to be an apocryphal pebble, albeit polished by time.
I
In this short essay, I contest the current consensus account that humans, as we move linearly into the future, are uniquely disruptive. A better metaphor, I contend, is that we are on a kind of Möbius trip.
Earth has had skin diseases before.
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From the perspective of a philosophy of deep time, we can hazard the guess that humans at present exist as a sort of snapshot along a vast continuum in a kind of Nietzschean ecology of power and more-than-human energy patterns. Such ecological patterns seem to show up at ever more inclusive levels as evolution proceeds. Humans at present represent the pioneer-settlement stage characteristic of early ecosystem succession, before biodiverse networks find more capable, more slowly growing, but overall more energetically prodigious and sustainable forms. As evolution increases in extent and diversity (allowing for the fits and starts of mass extinctions, each of which has ultimately bounced back to a higher number of species, and a greater amount of energy being commandeered by the biosphere) it tends to repeat one of its grand themes—consolidating populations into individuals. This process is ancient. Samuel Butler, author of the intriguing utopia Erewhon (1872) and the famous novel of Victorian hypocrisy, The Way of All Flesh (1903)—canonical texts better known than the evolution books he published at his own expense—argues that technics are not only genuine biologic extensions of humans into phylogenetically more evolved beings, but also that mineral substrates and unconscious technology was mastered long before the appearance of mammals.
Groups of microbes produced bone and muscle tissue, potato skin, trees, and, through us, technology.
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In Butler’s time, this was confined to such things as umbrellas, watches, and steam engines. Nonetheless, in Darwin’s day in the middle of the nineteenth century, Butler extrapolated from the existence of the telegraph to predict a multisensory global internet that included smell and taste as well as sound and vision. The technosphere hasn’t quite caught up with him. Writing as “Lunaticus” (1863) for the Christchurch, New Zealand newspaper, The Press (which now has a website) he foresaw a time “when all men in all places without any loss of time [will be] cognisant through their senses of all that they desire to be cognisant of in all other places, at a low rate of charge so that the back-country squatter may hear his wool sold in London and deal with the buyer himself.” In the future visionary Butler suggests, you will be able to sit in your own chair in a back-country hut and “hear the performance of Israel in Egypt at Exeter Hall.” You’ll be able to “taste an ice on the Rakaia” (a New Zealand river), which you are “paying for and receiving in the Italian opera house.” This is “the grand annihilation of time and place which we are all striving for and which in one small part we have been permitted to see actually realised.“Lunaticus” (Samuel Butler), 1863. “From Our Mad Correspondent,” The Press, September 15, 1863, Christchurch, New Zealand. Reprinted in: Joseph Jones (ed.), The Cradle of Erewhon: Samuel Butler in New Zealand. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1959, Appendix C, pp. 196‒7.
We don’t remember says Butler, when first we—here he means our cell ancestors—grew an eye. From Butler’s far-reaching perspective, we should not assume there is something super-special about our technical productions, which pale in comparison to the cellular production of our own bodies and the bodies of other organisms. With our fingers and hands—Heidegger’s more-than-human locus for our human specialness—we like to think of the universe as constructed, as God shaping clay, or as a clockmaker making clocks. But, as the Episcopal priest-become-Californian-guru Alan Watts poetically emphasized, we do not come into the world, we come out of it, like fruit out of trees. Productions of the biosphere, we are “children of the sun,” as the Soviet geochemist, Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky, the first to popularize the term biosphere, put it.Jacques Grinevald, “Sketch for a History of the Idea of the Biosphere,” in Peter Bunyard and Edward Goldsmith (eds), Gaia: The thesis, The mechanisms, and the implications. Wadebridge: Wadebridge Ecological Center, 1986, pp. 1‒25.
Although solving the enigma of the thermodynamic disequilibrium of the atmosphere, by showing that the unstable mix of Earth’s gases is kept in a steady state because these gases are continuously emitted by microbes, Lynn Margulis, co-creator of the Gaia hypothesis, insisted that Earth’s surface is not an organism (let alone a goddess or woman!). She insisted on this because the global ecosystem effectively recycles all its own wastes, which no organism can do.Bruce Clarke, “‘Gaia is Not an Organism’: The early scientific collaboration of Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock,” in Dorion Sagan (ed.), Lynn Margulis: The life and legacy of a scientific rebel. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2012.
Primary founder James Lovelock presented Gaia as an organism, he says, in part to influence people to care for the Earth, by treating it as they might a person, rather than an inert object. In The Vanishing Face of Gaia, Lovelock compares life on Earth to a dying old woman who might be saved by geoengineering, the Gaian equivalent of dialysis.James Lovelock, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A final warning. New York: Basic Books, 2010.
Unfortunately, many commentators seem to glide too loosely from what should be a thermodynamics of Gaia scientifically described as a global ecosystem to the rhetoric of Gaia as an organism, patient, object or subject of feminism, animism, teleological mysticism, or “boundedBruno Latour, Face à Gaïa. Paris: La Découverte, 2015.
home planet. Even Margulis, in stressing the biosphere’s un-organism-like ability to recycle its wastes, may have overlooked thermodynamic disequilibrium. Like other natural complex systems, the biosphere necessarily produces entropy as heat into space, a heat which, if not exported away from life’s sensitive surfaces, entails (as do material wastes) dangers to the functioning of ecosystems, as does heat too near the surface of overheated animals and machines (and even nonliving systems). Gaia, a “good four-letter word,” suggested to Lovelock by Cornwall neighbor William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, refers to Lovelock’s discovery of the implications of Earth’s surface as a planet out of thermal and chemical equilibrium, maintaining and increasing its complexity as it uses the energy of the sun.
Far from violating the second law of thermodynamics, however, this distance from equilibrium, this continuous complexity, is a natural form of entropy production. Life helps energy to spread.
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Like other dissipative structures, the complex thermodynamic systems of gradient-finding, gradient-reducing life measurably tap into, and spread, available energy both more quickly and more completely than is the case when their organized cycling systems are absent. From bacteria to dangerously quickly growing human technical civilization, life’s entropy-producing systems are completely natural within the cosmic context of the observed tendency of energy to spread. Indeed, life’s ability to identify and delocalize concentrated pockets of energy is arguably its natural reason for being, why it is favored in a thermodynamic universe.Dorion Sagan and Jessica Whiteside, “Gradient-Reduction Theory: Thermodynamics and the purpose of life,” in Stephen H. Schneider, James R. Miller, Eileen Crist, and Penelope J. Boston, (eds), Scientists Debate Gaia: The next century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004, pp. 173‒86.
Genetically able to continue its dissipative processes, via metabolism, growth, reproduction, and evolution, living matter has grown to encompass Earth’s surface in a non-equilibrium biosphere measurable in the atmosphere, in principle by distant beings equipped with spectroscopes. Full of life, Earth’s thermodynamic systems drive a kind of amoral, more-than-human progress. Evolution’s main trends—increase in number of individuals, species, and taxa; increase in bacterial and animal respiration efficiency; increase in number of cell types; and long-term increases, despite periodic setbacks from mass extinctions, in biodiversity, captured energy and matter, including the number of chemical elements in the Periodic Table actively involved in biotic circulation at Earth’s surface—all seem part of a life-associated trend of increased entropy production (gradient reduction)—as well as phenomenological correlates—net increases in information processing, networking, types of perception, social communication, etc.—at both local and global scales.
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M. C. Escher 1961. Source: Wiki Art

But it would be a mistakeJeremy Rifkin, Entropy: A new world view. New York: Viking, 1980.
to associate this entropy production with either imminent doom for civilization or with any kind of necessary pathology. Life is a kind of energy expenditure.Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An essay on general economy, trans. Robert Hurley, vol. 1: Consumption. New York: Zone Books, 1988; originally published in French, La part maudite. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1949.
Gaia’s ability to tap into local chemical, and then the solar gradient flowered early, with the diversity of bacterial metabolism; despite the technosphere’s seemingly suicidal and insatiable appetite for limited, environmentally polluting and, at the limit, culture-destroying fossil fuels, the most powerful entropy producers measured on Earth are the biodiverse Amazon rainforests.Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan, Into the Cool: Energy flow, thermodynamics, and life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
What may unconsciously alarm us is not so much massive entropy production (we don’t mind it in the rains of the Amazon jungle) so much as unsustainable rates of entropy production, which tend to be associated with unsustainable exponential growth and the early, passing stage of pioneer monocultures in immature ecosystems.
Gaia, thus, is better understood not as an organism but as a global ecosystem using solar energy to stably produce entropy. Nonetheless, this global ecosystem regulates global mean temperature and atmospheric chemistry in ways that are similar to the regulation of blood chemistry and temperature in an animal. Gaia is more impressive than an organism in the sense that it has solved recycling problems which individual organisms have not, and because it displays an ability to regulate major variables of Earth’s environment (such as the reactive oxygen gas composition of the atmosphere) over not decades or hundreds but hundreds of millions of years. Unlike organisms, which fill the ranks of some ten- to thirty million extant species, not to mention the 99.9-plus other species now extinct, the living Earth sits alone in space, flanked by atmospherically inactive, entropically static (over 90 percent of their atmospheres are composed of carbon dioxide) planetary neighbors, Mars and Venus. And Gaia, unlike organisms, comprises a population of precisely one. Spurred by this disconnect between Gaia and an organism, some years ago I was challenged, in the bathroom, at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union San Diego, by agronomist Wes Jackson (he has invented perennial wheat) to provide evidence for the typical claim that Gaia is an organism. Gaia is a crock, he said. Organisms have offspring; Gaia has none. Later, contemplating the attempt to build a human-containing ecosystem in Arizona, I returned to Jackson’s challenge. Looking forward to seeing such enclosures in space, I argued that long-lived self-sustaining human-built ecosystems, despite sprouting from the technosphere, would qualify as genuine reproduction of the global ecosystem.Dorion Sagan, Biospheres: Metamorphosis of planet Earth. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.
Moreover, as Lynn Margulis pointed out, technospheric ecosystems might be taken to represent not only reproduction of biological identity at the hitherto greatest global ecosystem level. They might also, given the many kinds of resistant propagule-forming forms that have appeared over the course of evolution, represent a fantastic new level of multispecies inclusiveness—that of propagule formation by the biosphere itself.Dorion Sagan and Lynn Margulis, Biospheres from Earth to Space. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1988.
Many groups—tardigrades with their radiation- and desiccation-resistant structures called tuns; plants with their hardy overwintering seeds; protoctists with their cysts; fungi and bacteria and bacteria with their airborne spores—have evolved propagules. Here is another tentative example of “Nietzschean ecology,” the recrudescence of important evolutionary structures over immense time periods as groups of same- and multi-species individuals, under evolutionary pressures, merge, to lose themselves as individuality is forged at ever more inclusive levels of organization. (It is tempting to say “higher” here—higher levels of organization—but as Margulis pointed out, that suggests a value judgment that is more attuned to a Victorian rhetoric of progress than to evolution, which involves merging and overcoming. All extant species are equally “evolved.” It is also worth noting that the loss of individuality is symptomatic of incorporation into a group form.) Accepting for the sake of argument, that Gaia, to be true, would have to reproduce like an organism it seems that human-made ecosystems, for example in the future on Mars, or in orbit around Titan, would represent Gaian reproduction. And even without full-scale ecosystem production, our fledgling efforts in this direction could be taken as propagule formation at the Gaian level. That Gaia needed technical humans to do it was no argument that it wasn’t doing it, just as Butler argues that a plant requiring bees as its means of reproduction was still reproducing: what is a reproductive system, if it be not a system of reproduction? If we remove our anthropocentric blinders our technics takes its place, not so much above but next to earlier evolved, energetically more subtle, behaviorally more flexible, nanotechnically compact, room temperature-running, self-maintaining, and reproducing forms . . .
Recycling in space or on the surfaces of other planets, “artificial” ecosystems would represent both Gaian reproduction and expansion of the technosphere. Removed would be the need to “camp out” in space, that is, to import supplies.
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The umbilical cord of transportation would be cut. Such propagation is, at its nonhuman face, more than human. Indeed, if we keep our anthropocentric blinders off for a moment longer we can imagine Gaia using humans to flirt with sporulation into outer space. As Freeman Dyson colorfully put it, humanity could “kick off its human shoes.” A. E. van Vogt, in his “The Human Operators,” represents an imaginative middle stage in this process. Spacecraft deep in space occasionally meet up to reproduce their human operators, who have forgotten their origins. Van Vogt thus portrays humans as completely integrated techno-symbionts, remnants perhaps in the process of disappearing completely, humans no longer human, like unto us as the Cheshire cat’s smile is to the feline that presaged it. No more may be left of us than lines of code on the self-making ships’ onboard computers . . . Bronislaw Szerszynski points out in “The Anthropocene and the Memory of the Earth” that Deleuze, following Kant, describes “memory [as] the real name of the effect on self by self.Bronislaw Szerszynski, “The Anthropocene and the Memory of the Earth,” paper at the conference “The Thousand Names of Gaia: From the Anthropocene to the Age of the Earth,” Casa de Rui Barbosa, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, September, 15‒19, 2014. See [“Os Mil Nomes de Gaia” conference]( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqr6bH_U0-o], accessed August 2016.
Kant in The Critique of Judgment (1790) points out that, organisms, unlike watches, produce themselves. An organism, unlike a watch, is “both cause and effect of itself,” and organized beings have “an end that is not a practical end but an end of nature, and thereby provide natural science with the basis for a teleology.” Biology, Kant judges somewhat prematurely, will never have its Newton, who can explain “even a single blade of grass.” Since Kant’s lament, however, the world has been treated not only to Darwin’s and Wallace’s explanation of evolution by natural selection, but to a detailed understanding of genetics via biochemistry as well as increasing understanding of life’s genetics, thermodynamics, neurochemistry, epigenetics, and phenomenology. There is no hands-on deistic maker of cells and bodies but, as Samuel Butler suggested, masses of micro-actions (including technology-like, sometimes-crystalline precipitation of hard parts like metals, silica, and carbonate) into aggregate forms. Biomineralization, including of our own calcium phosphate skeleton with skull and teeth, presages human technics. DNA provides chemical stability for metabolic modes that ensure access to ambient energy. Bodies are natural energy flow systems. Extra-corporal human technics commands huge amounts of energy, but not necessarily stably. Like flames but far more organized, bodies are regulated by nucleotides, the DNA and RNA “lighters” that help keep the cold, complexly shaped, room temperature-burning fires going. Less random mutations and more sex, symbiosis, lateral gene transfer, and multiple recently discovered modes of “natural genetic engineeringJames Shapiro, “Natural genetic engineering in evolution,” Genetica, vol. 86, no. 1 (1992): pp. 99‒111.
maintain variety and drive evolution. Bodies, unlike Kant’s watches, assemble themselves. Before the term technosphere, both Vernadsky and French priest-and-amateur-paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin used the term noösphere—from noös, “thought” in Greek. Vernadsky had noticed the movement of munitions in the First World War and, thinking biospherically, linked the movement of wartime metals to natural movements, such as bird migrations and biblical plagues. A mineralogist, Vernadsky was already thinking about life in a non-vitalistic way, life as a moving mineral, an impure form of water, planetary in extent, growing and feeding off its own green fires, transducing into chemical energy the solar energy of the sun. Vernadsky’s view of the biosphere shares something essential with Lovelock’s Gaia. Both thinkers deconstruct the vitalistic distinction between “life” and “the environment”—both recognize that life on Earth forms an open (and not radically “bounded” as anthropologist Bruno Latour strangely emphasizesLatour, Face à Gaïa.
) thermodynamic system, connected to the sun and its available energy. Lovelock makes the move by considering Earth alive, Vernadsky by considering life a mineral. Both are right. On top of the biosphere, Teilhard de Chardin and Vernadsky saw what they both (and they had met in Paris in 1929Grinevald, “Sketch for a History of the Idea of the Biosphere.”
) called the noösphere. For Teilhard de Chardin this growth of the technosphere was part of an epochal teleological movement, resonant with Christianity. Through technics and spiritual elevation, humanity was heading for a techno-religious “Omega Point.” Vernadsky, an atheist living in the Soviet Union, examined the concept more naturalistically. If technology is part of a grand telic movement, the technosphere, it brings into play elements present in all life, not just humans.
Szerszynski argues that Earth has a memory; he tries to argue that even gas, the atmosphere, has a memory, albeit much more malleable and short-term than, say, trilobite fossils left in the rock record. In Szerszynski’s typology of memory, space can become time and vice versa—reminding us of Wagner in The Valkyrie where, at one point, it is said: “Here, my boy, is where time becomes space.” Derrida talks of, and Bernard Stiegler shows that his televised image illustrates future ghosts produced and reproduced by what here we are calling the technosphere.
Apparently, the ancestors become more real as we move into the future. Aided by the increasing mnemic fidelity of human technics, by electromagnetic devices and digital memories, ghosts, once fanciful, become realized. What of the future?
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Which mnemic traces, preserved in our midst in the present biosphere, will become clearer; come into technospheric focus, as we go forward? Szerszynski speaks of hypermnesia, remembering too much. Buddha it was said remembered everything. In information theory, curiously, a limit is defined by the energetic necessity to erase information. Still, as solar-energized life on Earth engineers increasingly impressive technics via humanity, its memory capacity, fidelity, and ability digitally to record itself provides architecture to connect to its own past. Often considered to be essentially random due in part to the neo-Darwinian invocation of random mutation as key to the evolutionary process, energy-driven evolution shows trends ranging from expansion of the area inhabited by life to increase in respiration efficiency (measured by living representatives of animal taxa ordered by appearance in the fossil record) to increase in sensory modes, increase in information processed, and increase in energy stored, commandeered, and deployed in life’s operations at Earth’s surface. Despite setbacks from mass extinctions (the most serious of which, in terms of species lost, was not the Cretaceous, which killed the last of the dinosaurs, but the Permo-Triassic), biodiversity, as well as the number and rates of chemical elements cycled in the biosphere, have always afterwards increased. This suggests a more-than-human, thermodynamically driven, ecosystemic increase in biodiversity, net intelligence, perceptual and metabolic modes—again with fits and starts—over evolutionary time. With the evolution of human beings, as Vernadsky pointed out, rare radioactive isotopes never before seen in this region of the solar system appear fleetingly on Earth’s surface. Perceptivity enhances as life accelerates its energy flow system. Ever more energy is stored and deployed, to the possible recent detriment of the thermodynamic functioning of the system as a whole. Life is progressive, expansionist, mnemic, evolutionary. These trends become comprehensible when we recognize life is an open, natural energy flow system in which intelligence helps deploy life’s stored energy to tap into existing energies and find new gradients. The technosphere seems to be the latest addition to this epochal process. Those on a Möbius strip walk a cryptically twisted path. The Möbius strip seems a straight line but returns its voyagers to their starting point. Evolving life, especially in its Nietzschean ecology mode, may be similar. When Genoan explorer Christopher Columbus set sail under the auspices of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1492, he knew the Earth was round but estimated our sphere to be only about 60 percent of its actual size. Attacked by French privateers in a previous eastward expedition, and familiar with the Atlantic currents off the Canary Islands, Columbus estimated the distance westward from the Canary Islands to Japan to be some 2,300 miles; the Santa Maria sailed thirty-six days and set shore on the Bahamas after 3,700 miles. Columbus’s underestimate of Earth’s circumference threw him off. He mistakenly believed he’d arrived at mainland China; he thought he’d circumnavigated the entire globe, reaching Asia, the “Indies.” In fact, of course, he’d only gotten about half-way.
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M. C. Escher 1963. Source: Wiki Art

But whereas Columbus underestimated his circular trip, our seemingly forward, finalistic ecological-evolutionary progress may in fact be more of a circular voyage. Our present situation with regard to ecology and evolution is a kind of funhouse mirror image of Columbus’s roundabout route. We are not the first sort of organism to cause mass extinctions. Our effect on the atmosphere is orders of magnitude less impressive than that of previous life-forms, the cyanobacteria. Indeed, the changes that accrued from their growth and pollution (specifically oxygen gas) was a key condition for the possibility of our existence and evolution. And, while previous organisms have never created a global electromagnetic communications network, we are hardly the first species whose populations have moved from being solitary individuals to increasingly connected forms. “The past,” Shakespeare said, “is prologue.” Columbus knew he was headed back, but the premature conclusion of a complete circumnavigation led to the confused discovery of a “New” World. In our case, we make a similar but opposite mistake, in the realm of temporality rather than spatiality. We think we are moving linearly into a never-before-seen future when, in reality, we may be repeating a variation of an ancient ecological tune.
II
Our planet is beautiful, wrote Nietzsche, but it has a pox called man. Yes, but this is not Earth’s first “skin disease.” It has had others, as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra suggests. There is no doubt that climate change (but we should define it) or global warming, insofar as it exists, may be anthropogenic. Nonetheless, to remain scientific, important questions and uncertainties need to be raised. To pursue the truth in the modern, politicized, monetized, and polarized “heated climate” of global-warming discourse requires we keep an open mind. Cooler heads should prevail. But, because of a perceived need to close the ranks, even the questioning of models can be dismissed as climate-change denialism. This part of the “heated climate” debate should, I think, change. In 1982, James Lovelock calculated the life span of the biosphere, reckoning its demise as coincident upon a final lack of available carbon in the atmosphere for life to store in the ground: there must come a point, he reasoned, when life, running out of carbon dioxide to bury via marine algae and decayed plant matter, will be insufficient in the atmosphere to counter the sun, whose luminosity is expected to continue to increase in accord with astronomic status as a medium-sized yellow star. The time was estimated at hundreds of millions of years in the future: a bit too early to adopt an apocalyptic tone. Indeed, even without worrying specifically about climate change, at our current rates of doubling every half-century, humans will number in the quadrillions in just two thousand years. We have problems that are more pressing. Our worries about climate change are in the decades or at most hundreds, not thousands, of years. Still, the big picture, especially for my Möbius trip argument, is worth considering. The average age for a vertebrate species in the fossil record is four million years. By some reckonings of human evolution, we are already up against that limit. But of course we are a technical species, flirting with extraterrestrial expansion, and have high hopes. Perhaps we will join that rare pantheon of life forms that exponentially reproduced and then stabilized at vast numbers, like the symbiotic bacterial ancestors to mitochondria and plastids. An initial limit for “us”—obviously a labile term—may be when we run out of C4 plants. Productive crops like corn, sugar cane, sorghum, amaranth, Bermuda grass, and Rhodes grass (Chloris gayana) are C4 plants as well as fast-growing weeds such as nutgrass, crabgrass, and barnyard; Although C4 plants make up only 3 percent of the vascular plants, as grasslands familiar to savannah-evolving humans they contribute an estimated 20 percent to global primary productivity. Evolving in hot climates and able to retain water better than C3 plants, C4 grasses include a native Amazon variety that holds the record by being able to produce a hundred tons of dry matter per hectare per year. When, or if the sun heats up, such plans may be necessary to fix greater quantities of carbon than ever before in human history. Of course, long before carbon and/or the means to store it, climate change as global warming may have proved fatal for too-rapid growing humankind. As we know, rapid growth, along with inevitable “checks” (as Darwin called them) on such growth, drive evolution by natural selection, with success-story variants differentially surviving. But rapid growth may also engender the opposite of such growth—putting checks on the growth itself. For the last several years with Josh Mitteldorf, I have been exploring the implications of the strong evidence that genetically controlled aging, which is flexible and doesn’t exist in some species, prevents fast-growing species from overgrowing their ecosystems. Assuming Mitteldorf is correct, then the serious more-than-human danger of organisms growing monstrously fast at the “wrong” stage of ecosystem succession, “tera-forming” (from tera—Greek, “monster,” not terra, Latin, “earth”) one might say, making them the equivalent of one of Nietzsche’s “skin diseases,” has been cured many times but never by conscious activity or technical engineering. The evidentially supported idea that genetically underlain aging prevents organisms from destroying themselves and their environments suggests there is strong selection pressure at the ecosystem level.Mitteldorf and Sagan, Cracking the Aging Code: The New Science of Growing Old—and What it Means for Staying Young, Manhattan: Flatiron Books, 2016.
Every organism that ages, and there are many, may be exhibiting an example of unconsciously evolved adaptive regulation on ecosystem-destroying overgrowth. Here we might speak, with apologies to actor Jim Carey, of “dumb” and “dumber”—with dumb referring to the mute sophistication of nonhuman species that have solved aging with neither human-style technics nor eugenics, but biochemically; and dumber would refer to us—in the sense that, even if anthropogenic climate change is not a foregone conclusion, its more-than-human cause ‒ the evolution-grounding tendency of entropy to be maximized, connected to life’s exponential reproduction, but regulated in big, diverse, healthy ecosystems ‒ is already always at work, firing not only our imaginations, but our out-of-control industry, technics, and capitalistic growth too. The tendency neither has allegiance to us, as individuals or as a species, nor historically been reined in by anything resembling human intelligence.
Despite our high regard for ourselves and our intelligence there is no necessary equivalence between the technical intelligence on which the technosphere was and continues to be built and our ability to arrest our exponential population and industrial growth through acts of cleverness or deliberation.
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Indeed, an important check on humanity’s tendency for exponential growth, as well as impetus to technics themselves, appears to be war. With regard to climate change, arguably currently threatening the global ecosystem, we have seen vast organism-caused shifts on Earth’s surface before, indeed ones orders-of-magnitude larger than anything humans have done or presumably will be able to do in the foreseeable future. The original green wildfires stemming from life’s ability to “burn” at room temperature created an atmospheric apocalypse—adding reactive O2 gas—oxygen—of which we are the happy inheritors. With regard to the much smaller addition of carbon dioxide by human beings (hundreds rather than hundreds of thousands parts per million as was the case with oxygen in the Archaean) we should perhaps be vigilant before we attempt to (quickly) fix it. On fixing things, there is a difference between something being wrong and knowing how to fix it. One danger here is techno-fixery, what might be called the “Oak Ridge Effect,” from the purported practice of engineers in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. After nuclear testing, to save people from radioactivity leaked into the water supply, they added lead to the water supply, making matters much worse. Whether or not this is the case, the more we consider climate science an absolute certainty, the more likely it is that ill-considered geoengineering proposals will be put into place, lowering the chances of climate justice. Ludwik Fleck’s analysis of thought-styles in professional science (Fleck was belatedly acknowledged as a precursor by Thomas Kuhn) is important here.Ludwik Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Fleck, a physician, noted that the effects of poisoning by the mercury used to treat syphilis became part of the description of that disease. Similarly, certain geoengineering is to increase temperatures. Certain geoengineering “solutions,” far from fixing warming could, as per the aforementioned “Oak Ridge Effect” exacerbate it. For example, it is thought that pervasive emplacement of particulate matter into the troposphere could retard the fall of rain or snow, heat the atmosphere, impede heat-loss from the Earth and then, upon finally settling to the ground, produce further heating as the particles absorb solar radiation by darkening reflective ice and snow. Moreover, if coal fly ash, an entropic waste of coal plants, is already being added to the atmosphere, it could lead to methylmercury poisoning and ozone-destroying chlorofluorohydrocarbons.Marvin J. Herndon, “Obtaining evidence of coal fly ash content in weather modification (geoengineering) through analyses of post-aerosol spraying rainwater and solid substances,” Indian Journal of Science Research and Technology, vol. 4, no. 1 (2016): pp. 30‒6.
Planetary temperatures were higher for hundreds of thousands of years in the Paleocene and Eocene 50 million years before humans evolved, when global mean temperatures averaged as high as 23 °C (73 °F) compared to under 15 °C (60 °F) today. At that time palm trees grew and crocodiles swam in the Arctic Circle, which was likely free of ice.Mark Pagani, Ken Calderia, David Archer, and James C. Zachos, “An ancient carbon mystery,” Science, vol. 314, no. 5805 (2006): pp. 1556‒7.
So, too in the Pliocene 3.3 million years ago, global mean temperatures were 3 °C higher—and global sea level was twenty-five meters higher than today.Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure: After 45 years, counterforce is on the horizon. London: Prestel, 2016; and see, Newton Harrison and Helen Harrison, [The Force Majeure]( http://theharrisonstudio.net/the-force-majeure-works-2008-2009-2), p. 22 “Peninsula Europe,” accessed October 15, 2016.
Then, in the late Pliocene, massive glaciation hit, covering Greenland. Temperatures are also thought to have been higher in the Hadean Aeon 4.6 to 4 billion years ago when Earth, bombarded by meteorites, was forming as molten lava cooled. Finally, in the Archean Eon, when life is first thought to have evolved (including thermophile archaea, tolerant to this day of boiling-hot temperatures), temperatures also may have been significantly hotter.David Schwartzman, Life, Temperature, and the Earth: The self-organizing biosphere. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002; and David Schwartzman, [“The Geobiology of Weathering: A 13th Hypothesis”]( https://arxiv.org/abs/1509.04234), accessed October 15, 1016.
Thus, Gaia has “had a temperature” multiple times. For the most part these warmings occurred before industrial humanity’s laying to waste of the concentrated energy reserves of trees, coal, and oil. That the biosphere bounced back from these hot spells suggests that it is not helpless, but may have benefitted from complex biofeedbacks at the biotic planetary surface, similar perhaps to a person sweating if overheated. To what extent is such potential Gaian feedback accounted for in consensus models? And what do we do with the fact that the climate-change models, the vast majority of which are based on other models,Paul N. Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer models, climate data, and the politics of global warming. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013.
necessarily leave out many relevant factors? What, for example, is the global effect of cooling by evapotranspiration—the genetically underlain solar-powered thermodynamic flux of water from tree roots through the stomata of leaves and from thence into cloud cover? Has the cutting down of forests, which leads immediately to heating, been correctly incorporated into consensus models? What of variable heat from the sun (including sun spots), as well as variable heat through Earth’s liquid core to its upper mantle, such heat which it has been claimed is impossible to run convection proposed to drive Earth’s geomagnetic field in the standard geological model, now almost a century old? A lesser-known theory was proposed by a student of Harold Urey who was praised by Inge Lehmann, discoverer of Earth’s solid core. This theory proposes that Earth’s magnetic field is produced by a natural geo-reactor as uranium is fissioned, and variable heat produced, but not in the mantle, which never becomes “top-heavy” enough through thermal expansion for convection to occur.J. Marvin, Ph.D., 2014. Herndon’s Earth and the Dark Side of Science, Herndon, J. Marvin, CreateSpace. See also, “Questioning Students to Question Earth-Core Convection”: http://nuclearplanet.com/Question%20Earth-Core%20Convection.pdf
Have variable geothermal and solar heat even been incorporated correctly, or at all, into consensus warming models? For better or worse, science is not democratic, and the route to knowledge, as Peirce suggests, is through investigation, not consensus.Charles S. Pierce, Collected Papers.1878, 8 vols, 2.653.
That such questions, posed scientifically, may sow doubt at the consensus side of a simplistically polarized political debate, is not sufficient reason to dismiss them. Given that Earth is a population of one, and I cannot predict with certainty how I will feel after lunch—and I have several billion other people with whom I might compare myself—does it not seem an act of almost Swiftian faith to believe without question, let alone act in all sorts of ways, on the consensus of an official intergovernmental panel such as the IPCC? Do we really have apodictic certainty about what will transpire in a year, a decade, or a century? And what about geoengineering proposals that enrich corporations and overlap with military research? And what about profits consistent with ecological prudence? Have the modelers accounted for the cyclicity of little ice ages? The current Holocene interglacial, a geological interval of warmer global average temperature lasting thousands of years, began about 12,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene. Internationally recognized scientists such as geologist Kenneth J. HsuKenneth J. Hsu, “Sun, Climate, Hunger, and Mass Migration,” Science in China, Series D: Earth Sciences 41, no. 5 (1998): 449‒72.
and ecologist A. K. Dewdney, former writer of the Mathematical Recreations column at Scientific American, are among the serious, long-time students of climate change. They note that we are in an interstadial (between little ice ages) and that, in the slightly longer term we have more to fear from cold—especially triggering violent human migrations southward, as has happened in the past—than from heat. Aristotle had two metaphors for life, one a ship in which the art of shipbuilding is built into the wood and two, a doctor operating on himself. For purposes of geoengineering, if not metaphorical accuracy and depth, the second, less profound metaphor is more to the point of our present malaise. The question on which it focuses is whether we think we stand in for the whole of life as well as its doctor or whether, in fact, the symptoms and disease of the singular patient should be more carefully studied before the rush to treatment.
None of this is to suggest that either global warming or anthropogenic global warming does not exist. If the IPCC and company models are correct, and sea levels rise by one- to three meters, we may already be seeing the beginning of displacements, migrations from extreme weather, from Alaskan villages that have been extant since before Columbus having to relocate, to floods in Louisiana to droughts in Syria. Trying to stem this literal tide (with a three-degree rise in ocean temperature, the sea should become three meters deeper, with five-foot tides flooding inland), innovative eco-artist couple Newton and Helen Harrison have taken a kind of martial arts approach to climate change—trying to work with, rather than against, Earth’s elemental forces. With such a rise, San Francisco Bay will overflow the San Paolo and push inland, pushing the Pacific Ocean into California’s productive Central Valley.Paul Mankiewicz and Dorion Sagan, “Life is a Force: Growing home,” in Mayer Harrison and Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure, 451‒54.
Instead of getting in a fistfight with mighty Poseidon (or rather, Pontus, pre-Olympian ocean deity and offspring, via Ouranos, the sky, of Gaia), the Harrisons’ propose to work with her. A three-meter ocean rise, they claim, would lay the groundwork, or rather, splash the water, for a highly productive half-a-million acre estuarial lagoon that could grow fish and many of their species in what was once the prime farmland of the Central Valley of California. Mycologist Paul Stamets has argued briefly and cogently that nature is intelligent, and that it communicates continuously, deeply, and effectively without human tongues.Paul Stamets, HD nature video (2 mins), [Life, Fungi Secret of Life](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aeb_Gv5JGXE), accessed October 15, 2016.
It is clear that life, multiple times, has overcome crises far worse than any one thing those latter-day populous apes, human beings, have yet loosed on it. Ambient heat is something it has grappled with before us, and will deal with during periods of rapid, pathological growth, techno-industrial or organic, after us. With the big picture of Earth history in mind, we might do well to study with an eye to following nature, mimicking her diverse experiments, emulating her mature biodiverse ecosystems, rather than focusing solely on our own economic/population growth and trying to stem the tide of inevitable entropic pollution from such growth with over-quick technological fixes.
III
Not just living but nonliving and technical systems are damaged by ambient heat. Consider an overheated laptop, no longer able to function; a child, with a dangerously high fever; or even a fluid dynamic system such as a convection cell, disappearing when a temperature gradient becomes too steep. Insofar as it exists, anthropogenic global warming, I would argue, and have, is a literal example of thermodynamic dysfunction: heat near the surface interrupts the export of entropy, interfering with the natural function of the thermodynamic system.Dorion Sagan, “Energy: Understanding the essence of the Second Law,” in Gian Paolo Beretta, Ahmed F. Ghoniem, and George N. Hatsopoulos (eds), Meeting the Entropy Challenge: An international thermodynamics symposium in honor and memory of Professor Joseph H. Keenan, held at MIT, 4‒5 October 2007. Melville, NY: American Institute of Physics, 2008, pp. 194‒7.
Even a machine, an overheated computer or car, will cease to function if overheated. However, life is at least the most exquisite of machines. If your body heats up you sweat, pick up a fan, turn up the AC, seek shade, go swim, or take off your clothes. Gaia science, aka Earth Systems Science, drew upon the discovery that Earth’s atmosphere has long been out of thermal and chemical equilibrium. For hundreds of millions of years at a stretch, the biosphere has maintained metastable health, regulating variables of which the first to be discovered was atmospheric gas composition (strongly suggesting that life, as a planetary phenomenon, could not exist on Mars). A 20-percent oxygen gas atmosphere is highly reactive and should come to stasis, yet it is maintained via the collective operations of life, transducing solar energy. Lovelock then showed that, within a broad range (between the freezing and boiling points of water), global mean temperature also looks to have been regulated for billions of years. The same is true of marine pH, marine salinity, methane, and other compounds. Using the energy of the sun, Earth’s surface keeps itself away from thermal and chemical equilibrium, exporting entropy as heat into space and thus keeping itself relatively cool. All this suggests that the biosphere, although not an organism, is, like your body, physiological; as with your body, only on a far greater (if less consolidated) scale, it “knows” how to respond to regulate itself. This “knowing,” which it seems is teleological, has been dismissed as chance and mysticism, but Lovelock showed it could be modeled simply by assuming reflective organisms, specifically black and white daisies, grow within certain temperatures. Not even natural selection is needed to show the planetary telic behavior that Richard Dawkins dismissed as impossible and molecular biologist W. Ford Doolittle mocked as being inconceivable without a “secret consensus of organisms.Dorion Sagan, “Introduction: Umwelt after Uexküll,” in Jakob von Uexküll, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010, pp. 1‒34.
In real life, the production of marine gases by plankton, serving as condensation nuclei for cooling rains, as well as turpenes by trees, producing cloud cover by their evapotranspiration, are more likely means of regional cooling. The growth properties of organisms allow for many kinds of complex regulatory feedbacks. The eco-artist Harrisons show us a series of frighteningly whimsical dragon-like figures: Peninsula EuropeHarrison and Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure, 312‒31.
shows Europe after the inundation predicted by climate warming. Much of the land mass, much of France, for example, is submerged (depending on how high the water rises), as the Alps and surrounding areas remain above sea level. The nine-feet rise of water and shaping of Europe’s landscape into an alpine dragon is a fearful “preminder” of what may happen. (This vivid portrayal of warming also might be both more striking and less Euro-ethnocentric if done for all the continents topographically on colored globes.) The Harrisons quote native peoples’ ecological ethics, and look not only to grow biodiverse marine communities with polyculture fish farms, but also to plant heat-resistant Pliocene plant species that thrive higher up on the sides of mountains as ocean levels rise. If nature’s most productively stable ecosystems, and indeed greatest gradient reducers (entropy producers), rainforest jungles such as those of the Amazon, thrive on biodiversity, perhaps we should emulate nature in this area, rather than double down on technical solutions.
Earth is a population of one.
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The fact that we primates have insulted Earth with our rapid spread—typical for early-stage ecosystems but now happening on a global scale—does not automatically qualify us the wisest choice to treat such a singular patient. If indeed she should be treated. Lynn Margulis liked to quote a ditty, popular when she was a young woman, switching the jilted beloved for the biosphere, to the effect that it (we won’t say “she,” because separate sexes evolved long after bacteria) got along fine before meeting its humans, and will get along fine without them when we are gone. Gaia discoverer himself, James E. Lovelock, now says that the best solution for humans may be to follow termites. Doctor, heal thyself; saving life on the planet which has lasted roughly four billion years may be too ambitious, even as the rhetoric of human planetary destruction vies in grandiosity with former religious and current singularity rhetoric of humanity’s virtues. Let us show some etymological fidelity to our name, some humility, from the same root as humus, soil, and human, arguably from Indo-European, dghem, Earth. Earth is no more a rock with life on it than you are a skeleton infested with cells. Perceptual ecologist David Abram has said that we do not exist on the Earth—we live in it. But perhaps we still live too much on it and not enough in it. Earth is beautiful, but has this sickness: it has humans. Should the pathogen be put in charge of caring for the host? Sure, it wants to. But should it? Can it? Admitting again the danger of self-diagnosis, let us provisionally trace the etiology to unsustainable agriculto-industrio-techno potentiated hyper-reproductive malaise—or more simply, HF for hominid fever if we turn to the Interplanetary Diagnostic and Statistic Manual detailing planetary maladies. Such events are not unique in Earth’s history; in “Beautiful Monsters: Terra in the Cyanocene,” I argue that to be ecologically literate we should, before we name the current geological epoch after ourselves for leaving some trace fossils and increasing CO2 levels a few parts per million, name an age after the cyanobacteria.Dorion Sagan, “Coda. Beautiful Monsters: Terra in the Cyanocene,” in Anna Tsing et al. (eds), Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Their wild spread two billion years ago started as a rampant mutant planetary bacterial infection. They raised the O2 level from far less than one to about 20 percent of the atmosphere, where it currently stands—helping power surface plant and animal life, including all living, breathing humans, with the fiery realm of “our” industry and technosphere of course included.
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M. C. Escher 1967. Source: Wiki Art

The epistemological superiority of the scientific method, insofar as it exists, can be traced to its institutional integration of the methodological advantage of scientists vetting one another’s results and being forced to admit they’re wrong in the face of negative evidence; but in the heated climate of corporate-beholden nation-state-driven science, we see seductive complicity of short-term climate-change plans with short-term for-profit pro-growth ecologically destructive thinking. In many cases, science has become a press-release parody of itself, silencing not just the nut cases but the sober critics too, without whom its own methodology becomes fatally compromised. In general, and not just in climate studies, the rush to judgment and silencing and shaming of dissent in accord with neoliberal money-making logic not only engenders a kind of hysteric anti-science posing as its open-minded, superstition-free opposite, but privileges short-term non-solutions at the expense of just the sort of long-term biodiverse ecosystems favored by life. As mentioned, Lovelock himself, who says the IPCC now promotes his own earlier models as scientific consensus, argues that he may have been “alarmist” in his calls for apocalyptic global warming, and that, in any case, we are better off following the termites, whose unconscious physiology allows them to regulate the temperature of their socially constructed mounds. Lovelock, who once advocated for geoengineering “solutions,” suggests now that we concentrate on air-conditioning ourselves, which even termites do in their urbanesque mounds. Instead of hubristically believing we can save the planet with single-shot geoengineering solutions, perhaps a better plan is to follow the idea of the first eco-project of the Harrisons.Of 1970; see note 20 for the link to the website.
That is, on the first Earth Day to “make earth,” and to follow nature’s habit of trying many things, increasing diversity and biodiversity, to foster sustainable, livable, and aesthetically enchanting communities that integrate life’s original, metabolically superior, cleaner, microbially-based recycling stable growth “technologies.”
In short, I contend that, as the technosphere develops, if it is to persist, we must not blindly hack through forest in our rush to get to the future but rather move along this strange Möbius strip, forward to the past. Here we might take Protagoras’s famous comment, that “Man [sic] is the measure of all things,” as less anthropic than usual—not that we are the standard-bearer, but that we need to adjust for our perceptual limitations. One says “I,” but it is not just I: “my” knuckle-wrinkled vein-fed fingers stabilized by calcium-containing minerals first showed their mettle in swimming vertebrate ancestors hundreds of millions of years ago. The same chalk that might write these words in white-on-black rather than ink-on-recycled-paper represents calcium deposits, an ecological waste excreted on the outside of primeval marine cells that would have perished if the toxic calcium ions were not continuously pumped through cell membranes back into the ocean. Maybe it sounds strange, but would it not be better to put down our laptops and return to our bodies, and ancient ecosystems, whose intelligence and interliving modes likely surpass those of all the think tanks and government bureaucracies in the self-aggrandizing eponymity of the Anthropocene? Is it not hubris to think we—but who, we?—are uniquely geological, uniquely placed, uniquely complex, as well as uniquely perceptive, conscious, and intelligent beings?Lynn Margulis et al., Chimeras and Consciousness: Evolution of the sensory self. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.
When I sit at my Apple computer, it is not just me but the mineral precipitates of the Earth, silicon the most common element in Earth’s crust, along with rare earth minerals like neodymium, yttrium, terbium, and europium, planetarily collected from multiple continents and requiring such a global distribution and exploitation of labor that it is increasingly the case that no single country, let alone individual, can produce or mass-produce the high-tech products we increasingly take for granted. When Samuel Butler, in his three-plus nonfiction books on unconscious memory, life and habit, luck or cunning, and evolution old and new, talks about microbes and their mineralogical precipitates constructing our bodies, incrementally and over generations, he was dismissed by Thomas Huxley as a retrograde Lamarckian teleologist. Yet now we see, in the technosphere, a similar situation where, although none of us on any single continent is capable of making a particle collider or even a color television, together, as a group form, we produce technological gizmos and scientific apparatus that, though made on multiple continents, belong to us like vital parts of our bodies. From this sort of deep eco-evolutionary perspective, the emerging technosphere looks less a striking anomaly, to be praised or lamented according to the shifting winds of cultural manic depression, than, to quote Julian Huxley, like new wine in old bottles.
“We” have been here before.
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When LatourLatour, Face à Gaïa.
speaks of the nonhuman turn, and repeats Clarke,Clarke, “Gaia is Not an Organism.”
that Gaia is not an organism, claiming to correct Lovelock’s rhetorical errors, he tends to erase Lynn Margulis’s version of Gaia; he also employs not just his PowerPoint and metal microphone, but the 40 percent of the nitrogen atoms in “his” body that have been fixed synthetically from the atmosphere via intense temperature and pressures in fertilizer plants that work their way into him from conference food; his tenfold superiority of number of bacterial over eukaryotic “animal” bodily cells, and so forth. He, like all of us, is an avatar of the global technosphere. Just recently, I stopped behind a car with a symptomatic bumper sticker: “CLIMATE VOTER” – with a cartoonish Earth, its continents green, its broken bottom dripping like melting plastic, filling in as the letter “O.” Underneath this proclamation of non-harm, in smaller blood-red letters, one could read: “MY VOICE, MY VALUES, MY VOTE.” The presumably unwitting irony here of course is that, given anthropogenic climate change, no “vote” could be more direct than the idling engine of the car itself, out-gassing warming carbon dioxide and monoxide into the atmosphere during and between flashes of its impotent message. Actions speak louder than abstractions; processes run deeper than words.
In my mind, the name Anthropocene repeats the errors of hubris that it should have been designed to avoid—we need to follow nature, not imagine that nature will follow us. The grandiosity of the name “Anthropocene,Bruce Clarke, “‘The Anthropocene,’ or, Gaia Shrugs,” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, vol. 1, no. 1 (2014): pp. 101‒4.
in fact, gives us an opportunity to realize the opposite, namely that nature is not at our beck and call, that we will never be in control of Gaia, and that if we wish to survive, let alone live well, we need neither worship at her nonexistent feet nor make an idol in our own image, but rather study, and perhaps tentatively adopt, some of her more-than-human multispecies ways. Of the many tentative answers to the Fermi Paradox—physicist Enrico Fermi’s provocative question about the naturalness of the evolution of intelligent technical planetary civilizations and the lack of any good evidence of contact from them—perhaps the most interesting is the notion that ecologically stable extraterrestrial civilizations (ESECs) are not in a rapid growth phase.
Can’t you see the movie?
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The aliens touch down, perhaps searing lasting civilizational messages into the DNA of our grain when they land in their saucers making crop circles. They do this not for us but because plants are metabolically superior, being able to respire oxygen as well as photosynthesize. (Perhaps they asked the bacteria to be taken to their leaders.) Apologizing to Oscar WildeWho says in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) that, “The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass”—Caliban referring to the monster in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
we might say, “The twenty-first century dislike of anthropocentrism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The twentieth-first century dislike of naturalism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.” The great science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, conceptual innovator of the telecommunications satellite, poignantly wrote, “A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” A recent provocative variant is, I think, even better: “A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature.Karl Schroeder, [“The Deepening Paradox,”](http://www.kschroeder.com/weblog/the-deepening-paradox), 2011, accessed August 2016; Rachel Armstrong, [“Any Sufficiently Advanced Civilization is Indistinguishable from Nature,”](https://www.nextnature.net/2012/02/any-sufficiently-advanced-civilization-is-indistinguishable-from-nature/), 2012, accessed August 2016.
The notion that a superior, intelligent, human-like civilization would not be in a rapid-growth phase, trying to colonize everything in sight is, perhaps, to a self-centered biped in an unsustainable exponential-growth phase, counterintuitive. But perhaps ESECs are not fast growers but, as my acronym denotes, ecologically stable; and in this case they would, or could be, indistinguishable from nature: not only the nature toward which we are going but, Möbius trip-like, the nature from which we’ve come.