Sunday, July 26, 2009

The unfathomable universe

The one thing we know for certain about the universe is that it is unfathomable. We try to come to terms with this fact by telling stories, by creating narratives that are an attempt to abstract general principles from day-to-day events. In fact, making narratives is the primary way in which we transform brute events in our lives into what we call experience. Experience we can remember and reflect upon. Experience is the stuff from which we derive great artistic and scientific expression.

The inability to narrate the events of one's life creates a mere jumble of disconnected elements in the mind, a source of mental anguish and even mental illness. In fact, I have come to believe that so basic is our need for narrative that a good portion of all human illness, physical and psychological, finds its origins in the inability to narrate our lives fully and comprehensibly.

Having said all this, there is always a danger that we will come to believe that our narratives represent the true and possibly immutable nature of the universe rather than a dim and possibly misleading snapshot of its current state in our immediate region. Frequent readers of mine may wonder what this rather abstract discussion has to do with peak oil, climate change and the whole raft of sustainability issues. They will no doubt want to know whether I believe that peak oil, climate change and the entire range of ecological ills from which we suffer are "mere" narratives.

That we are in trouble as a species is palpable. If you cannot feel it in your bones, no amount of narration is going to convince you. Most of our understanding of the world is nonverbal, visceral even. But for the small portion that is verbal, the key question is exactly how we are in trouble and how can we address that trouble.

Keep in mind that when I say verbal, I include all of mathematics and science as ways in which we narratize the world. Scientific knowledge is not a set of facts about the world we live in. Rather, it is a set of inferences based on various related methods of observation, experimentation and measurement, inferences woven together into theories that are essentially stories which science tells us. I am not accusing science or scientists of being sloppy or imprecise. On the contrary, they tell us some of the most precise and testable stories available to the culture. But they remain stories, narratives, nonetheless.

So now I arrive at my purpose. No matter how many narratives we construct, literary, historical, scientific or religious, the universe will remain unfathomable. In a sense it partially mocks our narratives, and we feel it most when we get something wrong. But it can also validate them. We can rarely be sure ahead of time which it will do.

Those who proclaim that the human species, or at least human civilization as we know it, is completely and utterly doomed by the myriad onrushing ecological catastrophes we face know no such thing. There are those who proclaim that human nature is such that even though we know how to build a sustainable society, we won't; and, they say they know this because our evolutionary psychology has made us little more than automatons unable to make the hard choices needed to get to such a goal. But, these people know no such thing. Those who proclaim that our future is bright, filled with endless growth and technological fixes for all our problems, they, too, know no such thing.

Each group proffers us a narrative which we can only judge against our visceral experience and other narratives which we know. For now, on our current trajectory as I perceive it, the prognosis is not good. But the unfathomable universe may yet offer a way forward for it has always been and will always be full of surprises. This is no reason for complacency. The way forward may require extraordinary effort and sacrifice. But such a way, if it exists, will emerge from our own actions and interactions with each other and with the natural world. The fact that we cannot know what the future holds is neither cause for unwarranted optimism that everything will somehow work out nor cause for a doleful and apathetic resignation that becomes the engine for a self-fulfilling prophecy of annihilation.

To say that our collective human fate lies somewhere between complete destruction and an endless cornucopian future is yet another narrative. Even so, such a narrative requires something the other two do not, creative engagement with the still unfathomable universe. That may be the one thing that emphatically recommends it above the alternatives.


Russ said...

"Those who proclaim that human nature is such that even though we know how to build a sustainable society, we won't; and, they say they know this because our evolutionary psychology has made us little more than automatons unable to make the hard choices needed to get to such goal."

The first part of this could have been describing me in an argument I had at TOD just the other day.

But when I argue that "we won't" e.g. have a massive renewables buildout, I don't cite anything like evolutionary psychology. I don't need grand theories for it; I simply have the overwhelming evidence of today's politics.

The evidence (from financial policy, health care, war, agricultural policy, just to name a few) does seem incontrovertible:
The system is so irrevocably bottlenecked, jammed with such feudal obstructions, that nothing, not even modest reform, seems possible.

When such a trivial no-brainer detail as killing the F-22 is hailed as a miraculous accomplishment, and when even that was so hard to do, we can see how hopeless things are.

Even among more mainstream economic writers like Harold Meyerson (not Peak Oil-aware so far as I know) the meme is creeping in that the system may be broken beyond repair, and it is now simply impossible to accomplish anything within this system.

So I at least am not making things up out of thin air when I say nothing will be done within the parameters of this system. My narrative here has all the evidence behind it.

But I'm not drawing the conclusion from this: "do nothing" (although all too many do draw that conclusion).

The conclusion I do draw is: if nothing can be done with this system, it follows that new organizations must act on the dual track of (1)relocalizing as self-starters - I take it everyone agrees with that part, but also (2)engaging in a systematic critique of the existing structure, seeking power as an alternative politic (probably first at the local/regional/state level), and in the meantime trying to hold the line on the core issues of agricultural policy and civil liberties (which are the most important to us).

The only way this second part would be unnecessary would be if we really did have the complete "fast crash", but I don't think any serious person believes this is likely.

So "power", whether anyone likes it or not, is probably going to continue to exist for a while yet. If people just leave it without a fight in the hands of those who currently hold it, it'll only be used more and more fascistically as resource depletion bites, and everyone's preparation measures will have been for nothing, as it'll all be "requisitioned" anyway.

As much as people don't like to hear it, I don't think anyone has a "choice" in the matter. The whole notion of staying out of the way, keeping your head down, laying low, sounds like a recipe for being rounded up one by one, each man all alone when they come to get him.

Clifford J. Wirth, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of New Hampshire said...

Hi Kurt, you are right that "the universe will remain unfathomable." But we are certain that we are rapidly depleting oil, which fuels our main life support systems: water, food, heating, waste water treatment, and medical care. There are few indications that government, scientists, business, and media leaders, nor but a few in the public recognize the problem. Most blogs on Peak Oil, including yours, lack a focus on preparing for Peak Oil impacts.

THIS IS WHAT WE MUST PLAN FOR: With increasing costs for gasoline and diesel, along with declining taxes and declining gasoline tax revenues, states and local governments will eventually have to cut staff and curtail highway maintenance. Eventually, gasoline stations will close, and state and local highway workers won’t be able to get to work. We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel and gasoline powered trucks for bridge maintenance, culvert cleaning to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, and roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, large transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables from great distances. With the highways out, there will be no food coming from far away, and without the power grid virtually nothing modern works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, water distribution systems, waster water treatment, and automated building systems.

Tony Eriksen's study of declining oil production, which is summarized in this Figure,

shows a slow decline in global crude oil production currently and then accelerating after December 2010.

Because oil is used to produce oil, we should focus on net oil production, which is what we have left after oil is consumed to extract, refine, and deliver oil products to market. The rate of decline in net oil production is much steeper than for all oil produced, as shown in Murphy's Figure 3.

The drop in net oil production will probably be steeper than Murphy forecasts. Matthew Simmons estimates that 100 trillion dollars of investment is need to replace the globe's rusting infrastructure of pipelines, drilling rigs, platforms, and refineries. Much of this investment will consume oil to manufacture, transport, and assemble this infrastructure. And everyone who works on these 100 trillion projects will use their pay to buy products made out of oil or transported by oil. Currency is a ticket to buy oil. Thus less net oil will be produced than shown in Murhpy's Figure 3.

Also, as oil exporting nations consume more oil domestically they export less to the developed nations;

hence, the oil supply available to developed countries will be considerably less than shown in Murphy's Figure 3.

This analysis indicates that oil supplies for the developed world will decline precipitously beginning in the next two years and the decline will accelerate over time.

This suggests that a rapid economic global collapse will occur in less than 10 years. Now go back to (above) THIS IS WHAT WE MUST PLAN FOR, because it is less than 10 years away.

Time to focus on preparing for Peak Oil impacts.

hermanvm said...


Our science is an abstract cold and brief
That cuts in formulas the living whole.
It has a brain and head but not a soul:
It sees all things in outward carved relief.

But how without its depths can the world be known?
The visible has its roots in the unseen
And each invisible hides what it can mean
In a yet deeper invisible, unshown.

The objects that you probe are not their form.
Each is a mass of forces thrown in shape.
The forces caught, their inner lines escape
In a fathomless consciousness beyond mind's norm.

Probe it and you shall meet a Being still
Infinite, nameless, mute, unknowable.

Sri Aurobindo



Only by electric hordes your world is run?
But they are motes and spark-whirls of a Light,
A Fire of which your nebula and your sun
Are glints and flame-drops scattered eremite.

Veiled by the unseen Light act other Powers,
An Air of endless movement unbegun
Expanding and contracting in Time-hours,
And the intangible Ether of the One.

These surface findings - screen-phenomenon -
Are nature's offered reasons but behind
Her occult mysteries lurk safe unknown
To the crude handling of the empiric Mind.

All yet discovered are but mire and trace
Of the eternal Energy in her race.

Sri Aurobindo


How shall ascending Nature near her goal?
Not through man's stumbling tardy intellect
Patient all forms and powers to dissect,
But by the surer vision of his soul.

An algebra of mind, a scheme of sense,
A symbol language without depth or wings,
A power to handle deftly outward things
Are our scant earnings of intelligence.

The Truth is greater and asks deeper ways:
A sense that gathers all in its own being,
A close and luminous touch, an intimate seeing,
A thought flung free from the words' daedal maze,

A tranquil heart in sympathy with all,
A will one-pointed, wide, imperial.

Sri Aurobindo

special poems page


You can download a book The Human Cycle in PDF format; In The Human Cycle, Sri Aurobindo traces the evolution of human society and suggests where it is headed.

hermanvm said...


Henry Warwick said...

as usual, you are reading my mind, and I don't like that....




Henry Warwick said...

and since people are waxing poetic, here's some Good Ones for you. Only, as usual, I'm more into song lyrics.

The first one:

Nothing But Flowers
by Talking Heads

Here we stand
Like an Adam and an Eve
The Garden of Eden
Two fools in love
So beautiful and strong
The birds in the trees
Are smiling upon them
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it's nothing but flowers

There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers
you got it, you got it

We caught a rattlesnake
Now we got something for dinner
we got it, we got it

There was a shopping mall
Now it's all covered with flowers
you've got it, you've got it

If this is paradise
I wish I had a lawnmower
you've got it, you've got it

Years ago
I was an angry young man
I'd pretend
That I was a billboard
Standing tall
By the side of the road
I fell in love
With a beautiful highway
This used to be real estate
Now it's only fields and trees
Where, where is the town
Now, it's nothing but flowers
The highways and cars
Were sacrificed for agriculture
I thought that we'd start over
But I guess I was wrong

Once there were parking lots
Now it's a peaceful oasis
you got it, you got it

This was a Pizza Hut
Now it's all covered with daisies
you got it, you got it

I miss the honky tonks,
Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens
you got it, you got it

And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
you got it, you got it

I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
you got it, you got it

We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
you got it, you got it

This was a discount store,
Now it's turned into a cornfield
you got it, you got it

Don't leave me stranded here
I can't get used to this lifestyle

Henry Warwick said...

Of All the Things We've Made
by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (1980)

To want this.
Of everything we've made.
The times its worked before...

Of all the things we've said.
Times that worked before today.

To want this.
Of everything we've made.
The times its worked before...

Of all the things we've said.
They've always worked before... today.

Henry Warwick said...

The New Stone Age (1980)
by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

This is the room!
This is the wall!
This is the body
I’ve been hoping for!
These are the words
I’ve been longing just to say!

So this is my goal
The aim of my life!
This is the feeling
They warned me about!

Oh my God,
What have I done this time?
Oh my God,
What have I done his time?

The things that you’ve done
Real heart, stop in,
You don’t understand!
The arms to be,
The feeling the longing
Everything shouting
The failing that’s gone!
In the new stone age.

Oh my God,
What have we done this time?
Oh my God,
We’ll start living
What have we done this time?
In the real stone age...

Henry Warwick said...

I'm on an OMD kick. Here's another classic.

Electricity (1979)
by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Our one source of energy
The ultimate discovery
Electric blue for me
Never more to be free
Nuclear and HEP
Carbon fuels from the sea -
Wasted electricity!

Our one source of energy
All we need to live today
A gift for man to throw away!
The chance to change has nearly gone!
The alternative is only one -
The final source of energy:
Solar electricity!

E . . .