In Screw 'Sustainability' - And I Am Here To Tell You Why we discussed the fact that Mother Nature is a bloody bitch. She is the mother of catastrophe. She has nurtured brilliant innovations like cells and DNA but she has also given us 142 mass extinctions, 80 glaciations in the last two million years, a planet that may have once been a frozen iceball, and a klatch of global warmings in which the temperature has soared by 18 degrees in ten years or less.
Mother Nature has sunken the pleasant habitat of land creatures to the bottom of swamps and has lifted the havens of sea creatures --ocean bottoms -- to the mountain tops. She has very seldom given us a Garden of Eden, a green and sunny utopia in which she and we live together in harmony and peace.
Nature tosses us challenges and dares us to survive. More properly, she challenges us to thrive.
What’s more, evolution is all about breaking Mother Nature’s rules — defying gravity when a lizard stands, denying buoyancy when a fish controls its depth in the sea, and saying “no” to gravity when a bird has the audacity to fly. That audacity is Mother Nature’s way of feeling out new paths of growth and radical new possibilities. How do we know? Birds have been paid off big time for their insolence. There are four times as many species of birds as there are of us land-lubbing mammals. Each species represents another victory over nature, another corner of nature’s maze turned into a new niche. Each triumph is another of nature’s own victories in the breakthrough biz.
That's why talk about 'sustainability' today is riddled with problems — and with the seeds of self-defeat. The lowest periods in recorded human history have come when society tried to maintain a status quo.
Our goal is not sustainability. It’s not to bow and grovel hoping Mother Nature will also freeze in place. Our challenge is to outrun nature by inventing radically new ways to deal with change. We have to be able to raise food in drought. We have to be able to raise a rich bounty of fruits, vegetables, and grain in flood or in a new ice age. If necessary, we have to farm the bacteria that love the deep freeze of the Antarctic, the bacteria that live in rock and the bacteria that thrive in radioactivity.
If we want to make nature proud, it’s time to ride the whirlwind. It’s time to tame the forces that twist tornadoes and that swirl hurricanes. It’s time to harness their energies. It’s also time to milk energy from the massive pressures of tectonic plates. It’s time to take our sewage and turn it into fuel. It’s time to take the excrement of pigs raised by industrial agriculturists and turn it into a power source. It’s time to see pollution and cosmic rays as a source of something wonderful and new.
Who has given us this mandate, this commandment, this imperative? Nature has!!
Surely that statement is just bullshit. It’s flashy but empty rhetoric. Nature doesn’t really give us any hints about what she and her evolutionary process demand of us.
Or does she?
The answer is, she does. If this were a random universe, there would be a thousand different biochemical systems competing with each other on this planet, a thousand different families of life. But there aren’t. The only biochemical family on this planet is the clan of DNA, the clan of biomass. And you and I are part of that biomass family. We are part of that biomass team.
If Bacteria Settled For Sustainability, Where Would We Be?
Bacteria were our foremothers 3.85 billion years ago. They, like us, are based on DNA, which means we are related to the bacteria in our gut, the bacteria on our teeth, the bacteria that makes our shit stink, the bacteria that rot our bodies and our meat, and the bacteria that infect us when we come down with pneumonia or with food poisoning. Insects, lizards, and lobsters are our cousins. They, too, are the children of DNA. They use the same sort of cells that combine to make your body and mine. Their brains operate with many of the same neurochemicals that keep us thinking, worrying, and dreaming. Thanks to DNA, we are also related to pond scum, to tapeworms, to fleas, to snakes, to weeds, to trees, and even to the food we eat, even if we’re vegetarians.
What’s more, we are all part of a single public project, a single grand ambition, the basic imperative that drives our family, the clan of biomass, the family of DNA.
What is that imperative?
To reproduce! To recruit every atom on this planet into the DNA system. And to do it so frantically that the DNA family makes it through the next mass extinction, no matter what kind of dirty punches Mother Nature throws our way. This is where the old sustainability folks, the post-Club-of-Rome folks, the proponents of a planet with limited resources, the ones who say that we’re plundering a fragile earth, get it wrong. Very wrong indeed. We are using less than a quadrillionth of the resources of this planet.
There is 1.097 sextillion cubic meters of rock, magma, and iron beneath our feet. That’s a one-with-21-zeroes-after-it stock of raw materials we haven’t yet learned to use. We haven’t yet learned to turn that sextillion-square-meter stockpile into fuel, food, or energy. We haven’t yet recruited it into the clan of biomass, into the clan DNA.
But that’s the imperative of biomass, to take these inanimate molecules and bring them into the system of life. Does this sound like mere fantasy? It’s not! Bacteria called lithoautotrophs are already doing it. Lithoautotrophs are eating the rock two miles beneath our feet and three miles beneath the sea, turning granite into food, turning raw stone into biomass, recruiting new atoms into the imperialistic project of DNA.
Then there are the extremophiles you read about if you follow the science headlines. Extremophiles are bacteria that feast on sulphur, bacteria that live in water hotter than the water boiling in your cooking pot, and bacteria that some researchers suspect live in clouds two miles above our heads, bacteria that The New Scientist magazine speculates may work to change the weather to create precisely the sort of sauna in the sky that they like best, their own sky-riding paradise. Those bacteria are doing what nature commands them to do. And to do it, they are defying nature’s rules. They are changing what’s old into something new. If the speculation is accurate, bacteria are re-sculpting cloud formations. And in the process, they are giving nature entirely new tools.
Even if the speculation about bacterial sky riders is inaccurate, bacteria have recrafted the water around hot volcanic shafts in the sea and turned them into Club Meds for exotic eco-systems of chemical processing life forms. And they’ve invented ways to live in the radioactive materials at the bottom of mine shafts and in the radioactive cooling pools of nuclear power plants.
Whether or not bacteria thrive in the sky, the fact remains that mere bacteria are outpacing us at research and development. They’re outpacing us at opening new frontiers to the public project of biomass. They are teaching us many a lesson. Lesson number one is that the resources of this planet are almost endless. Bacteria are teaching us that there are new frontiers, new riches, and new feasts for those species that dare to defy nature and that dare to innovate.
Nature Does Not Agree With Schumpeter — She Does Not Look Kindly On Small Tribes
Lesson number two is this. Nature does not shun megasocieties. She does not favor small tribes. She favors humongous social groups that network their information so well that they form a high-powered collective intelligence, a group brain. A bacterial colony the size of your palm is the norm in the microworld. And that small colony, that bacterial city, has roughly seven trillion citizens—more than all of the humans who have ever lived.
Eshel Ben-Jacob is the holder of the Maguy Glass Chair of Physics at the University of Tel Aviv. His bacterial research has landed him on the cover of The Scientific American. And fortunately Eshel is one of my closest friends. Eshel will tell you that a bacterial colony is a giant parallel processing machine, an intelligent machine that does what no computer can do.
A bacterial colony perceives a problem, looks for a solution, then comes up with a creative way out of its bind. A bacterial colony does something astonishing. It reengineers its genome to make hay out of new forms of emptiness or devastation. That’s why bacteria are defying mere sustainability and outpacing us, out-racing us. That’s why bacteria have been the longest-running players in the evolutionary game.
One the many lessons bacteria teach with their colonies of trillions is this. When it comes to groups, Nature does not favor tribes, she favors size.
Bacterial lesson number three is one I’ve implied half a dozen times. It’s a very strange lesson to absorb: Nature rewards those who oppose her most.
Nature rewards those who invent new ways to circumvent her, new ways to get around her old limitations, new ways to make something radically beyond the previous boundaries, and new ways to break her rules. In the end she punishes those who merely ride her periods of stability. She wipes them out utterly. She rewards those who are so inventive that they can surf the waves of unpredictability. Nature rewards those who extend her powers, something lithoautotrophs have done by finding new ways to defy the norms of yesterday and to transform the molecules of rock into molecules of life.
This bacterial lesson hints that we humans are at our best when we do what bacteria do, when we add to Mother Nature’s capabilities. We are at our best when we invent new technologies, when we invent new strategies, when we grow the web of social interaction in new and larger ways, when we invent new tools, new gadgets, new ways of combining and upgrading genes, new ways of cloning, new ways to use the principles of biology, and ironically, new ways to show off and to strut our stuff. In other words, we add the most to nature’s bag of tricks when we do what some see as “violating” her.
How do bacteria prove that the lessons I’m outlining to you are correct? Bacteria are the only species that’s been here since the very beginning of life and are still here today. Other species have only managed to hang in there for anywhere from 1.6 million years to 160 million. We humans are one of the shortest-lived natural experiments around. We’ve been here in one form or another for a paltry two and a half million years. More important, in our current form, as true Homo sapiens, we’ve only been around for a mere 38.5 thousandth of bacteria’s time on this planet. We’ve been here for a pitiful 100,000 years. Compared to us, bacteria outlast diamonds. Bacteria are forever.
Here’s another indication that bacteria have gotten Mother Nature’s lessons right, another bit of proof that bacteria can show us nature’s hidden ways: 3.5 billion years ago when life was spanking new there were apparently only eleven species of bacteria. Today we’ve counted over eleven million. And we’ve just realized that our count may be far, far too low.
That’s a triumph!! Every bacterial species is a new victory, a carver of a new environmental niche, a creator of a new way of turning garbage into gold. Every bacterial species is a testament to the power of invention, to the ability to break mother nature’s mold.
Rolling back the clock never works
Fortunately the old roll-back-the-clock sustainability is being discarded even as we speak. And a very new point of view is taking its place. The new sustainability has dropped the visions of gloom and of limitation. It has replaced those cramped visions with innovation. Like bacteria, the new sustainability triumphs in finding new uses for waste.
A company called Changing World Technologies in West Hempstead, New York, has developed something it calls the Thermal Conversion Process. It claims that this process uses “water, heat and pressure to reform industrial and agricultural by-products into oils, gases, specialty chemicals, carbons and fertilizer.”
In other words, Changing World Technologies claims to have invented a process that performs the bacterial trick, that makes garbage into gold. The company claims that it can remake the molecules of industrial waste and city sewage—two major sources of pollution—into the fatty acids used to make “detergents, soaps, cleaners, stabilizers, industrial surfactants and pharmaceuticals, personal care products, lubricants and rubber products.”
That’s opening new horizons, not tightening your belt, not abandoning the pursuit of your wildest dreams, and not shutting down. It’s not merely hunkering in place and sustaining, it’s soaring.
I call this sort of new environmentalism echo-techno-pioneering, or echo-tech for short. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times calls it “the geo-green strategy” and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute in El Cerrito, California, calls it simply “post-environmentalism”. Whatever you call it, it’s a small step toward following the imperative of biomass, toward fulfilling the demands of the family of DNA, and toward listening to the lessons of bacteria. It’s a step toward seeing every cataclysm as an opportunity awaiting the technology that will harness it.
Another organization in the post-sustainability movement, the echo-techno-pioneering movement, is The Apollo Project, an alliance of 23 labor unions, of the AFL-CIO, and of more than 50% of America’s environmental groups.
The Apollo Project is pushing for the rapid development of new technologies like hydrogen cars, “high performance buildings,” solar power, biomass power, wind-produced power, and magnetic levitation trains to make America energy independent, to restore economic competitiveness, and to create three million new American jobs. The Apollo Project, too isn’t pushing for self-denial, it’s pushing for new frontiers. In fact, it’s named itself after the crash program that put men on the moon.
Is environmentalism dead?
Ted Nordhaus, vice president of an opinion research firm called Evans/McDonough has released a white paper that says that environmentalism is dead. The movement that’s grown since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, her book on the devastating effects of DDT in 1962, is a walking corpse.
According to this white paper, polls show that the mass of North Americans love the notion of saving the earth but distrust the planet’s self-appointed saviors, environmentalists. 41 percent of the public sees environmentalists as “extremists.” That’s one of the reasons Evans/McDonough’s white paper is called "The Death of Environmentalism." But environmentalism is not dying. It is being reborn. It is switching from a vision of gloom to a vision of light. It is switching from techno-fear to techno-lust.
Even John McConnell, founder of Earth Day, has turned from talk of shucking technology to visions of opening new frontiers through eco-techno-pioneering. “It is my dream,” he said in a mass email sent out April 23, 2005, “that the Battle for Earth will bring a rapid transition from polluting fuel to clean energy…[and] new villages where interactive communication by computer enables people to work in their homes or neighborhood for offices in other cities.” McConnell has switched from visions of a society that radically reins in its energy needs to one that revels in the powers of electricity and that puts a computer in every home and on every desk.
Now it’s time to wake up people like McConnell, the folks at The Apollo Project and, most important, the media and the general public, to the real nature of mother nature. It’s time to change their perceptual lens, their worldview. It is time to show them that we need to do far more than milk energy from garbage.
We need to anticipate and harness the powers of nature’s favorite test-mechanisms, massive climate changes and catastrophe. We need to make moveable farms, something we could do with hydroponics. And, more important, we need to make something impossible--moveable cities.
Floating oil platforms but why not floating cities?
The Mongols had a moveable city and moveable towns in 1332 ad. They went mobile by building their yurts, their felt tents complete with grilled windows, on wagons. Today we have the makings of floating cities in our offshore oil platforms, which can be built in clusters, can house over 300 people each, can keep their inhabitants safe from flood and storm, and can give those inhabitants movie theaters and sports facilities.
Meanwhile, an engineer-turned entrepreneur named Norman Nixon is promoting a plan for Freedom Ship, a floating metropolis for 50,000 ultra-rich inhabitants who will live, work, and travel on a mega-cruise ship, a ship that’s nearly a mile long, 35 stories high, and has 100 diesel engines. This sea-roving center of financial might will be linked to the world by satellite phones and by the Internet. And Eugene Tsui, a Chinese/American architect who has caught the eye of NASA, has even bigger dreams. He's sketched plans for "Nexus", a floating city of 100,000.
No matter how we make our urban populations mobile, we need to realize that 60% of the humans on this planet live in coastal areas, and that no matter how many Kyoto Treaties we sign, those coastal cities will someday be at the bottom of the sea.
As I said in the beginning, we have to learn to raise food in drought. We have to learn how to grow food in flood or in a new ice age. If necessary, we have to farm the bacteria that love the deep freeze of the Antarctic. We have to suck energy from tornadoes, hurricanes, and climate shifts and use that energy in our homes. We have to recruit every atom that we possibly can into the scheme of DNA, into the clan of biomass, and into the family of life.
We have to have a trick up our sleeve for every curve that nature throws us…because tossing us curves and challenging our creativity is what Mother Nature is all about.
This is not an easy challenge. But you and I have to become the ultimate players of Mother Nature’s game. And you and I have to be the ultimate educators in the skills of riding nature’s challenges, her catastrophic waves of change.