Monday, May 31, 2010

Maximizing Life

A few days ago, I spelled out my vision of an ideal world:

In the world I want to live in, to help create, we all have our highest allegiance to the entire biosphere, and focus on establishing healthy relationships with each other and other species. We accept that we are transient, yet important, parts of this larger whole, occupying a critical niche of protecting it from threats it was until now powerless to mitigate (instead of becoming a larger threat ourselves). We also allow ourselves to experience a kind of joy we are uniquely capable of doing, as a proxy for the other species who can't (which they likewise do for us). That joy comes, ironically, from the enabler of our darkest deeds: the comprehension and use of abstractions (through conversion into new types of experience) to fathom the fundamental structure of the Universe over a large range of distances and scales.

Previous definitions, which still apply, were more quantitative, focusing on the maximizing of mean happiness/life expectancy (the two are strongly correlated), and overall survival time for our species. Also, in my ideal world, population would never decrease due to anything except lowered birth rate. My research indicates that we could do at least this much if we keep global resource consumption constant while increasing the amount of renewable and reusable resources consumed by at least five percent per year.

The new definition, generalized to all life, re-enlists us in what appears to be the ultimate mission of the biosphere: to maximize the amount of life throughout space and time. To maintain itself and grow using the wide range of configurations of energy and matter in the Universe, life must become more complex and maximize efficiency to reduce the rate of entropy production that inevitably results from its efforts. Simply put, it must learn to BECOME the Universe.

What we, a single species, have chosen to do instead is to develop complex technology that can do the job of converting multiple sources of mass and energy into a limited amount of life (our own, and a relatively few others), along with objects that either remind us of life (such as images and abstract, fictional characters that are becoming more “real” as technology improves) or enhance our personal experience of our own lives. We don't value efficiency because our technology has (until recently) allowed us to find other sources of “raw material” when a given supply runs low, and to escape the impact of the waste we've generated -- much of which other species have been forced to bear, and die from. We are trying to force the components of the Universe to either become us, serve us, or disappear; and it is the impossibility of the last option, the creation of waste leading to the unavailability of resources, that is dooming our efforts.

If we recognize that all life is valuable, and that a living Universe has the ultimate value – even if we are incapable of imagining or being a dominant part of it – then we might have some chance at redemption for the death and destruction we have caused, as well as extending our own future. Our course of action would be obvious, beginning with reversing (or at least stopping) our negative impact on the biosphere:

  • Restore natural habitat

  • Stop introducing invasive species (including ourselves) into established ecosystems

  • Stop consuming more each year than the previous year

  • Enable everything we use to be perpetually consumable by life, and attempt to do the same with pollution we've already created

  • Stop hunting species to extinction (including ours, through war)

Our ability to detect and understand events at multiple scales, from astronomical to atomic, allows us to recognize threats to our biosphere such as asteroid and comet collisions with Earth, and the warming of our climate due to greenhouse gas pollution and the aging of the Sun. Through our ability to create tools, harness massive energy, and modify the Earth's regulatory systems, we can potentially eliminate or mitigate these threats. We should be careful in the process to avoid otherwise limiting life's survival, including the possible diversity of life in other venues (such as other planets, since we could potentially mitigate the threat from solar warming by sending life further away from the Sun).

Extending the biosphere into space, like dealing with threats from space, will require the development and maintenance of some level of interplanetary transportation capability. While we may already be past the point where doing so can be sustained and might imperil existing life (through the associated industrial infrastructure), we should take the final steps that are within our grasp with the aim of making it self sufficient in a part of the Solar System that is currently unpopulated. Those involved in this effort should already share the value of life as proposed here, otherwise they could become a threat by themselves either through direct action or lack of care.

Although it's good and important to understand the objective requirements of an ideal world, it is the associated subjective experience people have, that will ultimately determine whether it can – or should – become a reality. How does it feel to have more life, to be around it, and to appreciate the vastness and yet intimate connectedness of the Universe? Through most of human existence, people assigned human characteristics to what was around them, imagining that life they could know permeated everything. Many of us today call it “spirituality,” tied through faith to a part of our beings that viscerally knows that even if it isn't human, the known and the unknown are part of us, and we are part of it, and it is either living, has lived, or is yet to live. To the extent that there is truth to this awareness, we will find fulfillment and peace; to the extent that it isn't, we will find the opposite. The feeling of separation, dread, and stress that is overcoming too many of us, is screaming that we must return to the values embedded in our core selves, and work with each other and the rest of life on this planet to restore purpose and joy to our mutual existence.

No comments: