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Design a life support system

Written by Sherwin, published on October 15, 2009

graphic representation of metastable

Today is a good day to think about our life support system. Our life support is our earth. It’s a delicate mixture of gravity, various nuclear forces that hold our subatomic and atomic particles together, solar energy, some electrical forces that hold our molecules together, a chemical soup composed of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon and hydrogen1 all brought to a simmer over four and a half billion years.

stableLife here on Earth has been around for about a billion years. Humans have been around for about two hundred thousand years and the life stuff and the human-life stuff both rely heavily on the fragile mixture of the chemicals and various fundamental forces of our universe at play here on Earth.

unstableThis fragility is what I want to comment on today. Somehow we’ve developed a cultural story, here in North America and elsewhere, that our life support system isn’t fragile. The cultural story is that humans have some kind of God given right to exist. We think our life support system is something we don’t have to care about. We think that the life support system is in constant and eternal regeneration and that humans are too important to go away. We are adoring of our consumptive practices. The story is that we are entitled to our consumptive practices.

metastableBut our Earth is not eternally regenerative. That is, the way our Earth is organized to support human life, is not eternally regenerative. It is possible for our life support system to fail. It is possible for our life support system to collapse. It is likely that if it does, we won’t be able to fix it.

Anyone that has scrambled an egg knows that some things can’t be undone. Anyone that has mixed paint until they ended up with a grey-brown smear has a personal experience with entropy. Anyone that has watched a loved one battle against disease and lose, knows first hand that there are things that we can’t undo or fix or do over or reset or restore. It’s never the simple presence of chemicals and forces in our bodies that matter. It’s their very specific arrangement that allows or disallows the body to live.

I think the Earth is very much like a human body in this way.

Anyone that has watched a loved one battle against disease and lose, knows first hand that there are things that we can’t undo, reset or restore. Sometimes there’s no do-over.

It’s not the simple presence of various chemicals and forces at work on Earth that makes our Earth a life support system. It’s the unfathomable arrangement of the stuff that keeps us alive. This complex, interconnected arrangement of stuff can be helpfully understood as a metastable system.

Our life support system is a metastable system in the sense that it can withstand a certain range of strain. Like our human body, it’s not like you give it a shove and it simply undergoes a radical and irreversible collapse. But neither can you keep shoving it without the system finally succumbing. Eventually the system undergoes a shift so dramatic that it’s no longer functioning in a recognizable way.

Climate Change

How resilient is our life support system in the face of climate change? This is a zillion-quadrillion dollar question.

I believe our life support system is not infinitely stable.2 So our life support system is metastable. How stable is it? I believe that our ability to answer this question is extremely limited. We don’t really know. Let’s face it, the Earth and it’s vast delicate interconnectedness(es) is beyond our current science.3

I’m not suggesting that climate change could cause our life support system to stop supporting all life. Well, actually, I think that is within the realm of possibility. But mostly I’m suggesting that climate change could result in a life support system so changed that it no longer supports human life.

All of this points towards change our sense of entitlement and our approach to consumption.

  1. I mention these elements because of their importance to our atmosphere, oceans, carbon-based ecosystems and basic earth. Really there are a bunch of important elements but I’m not a biologist or a chemist so I’ll leave it at these four.
  2. Even hard-headed libertarians, neo-conservatives and Fraser Institute analysts with no science training should be able to accept this premise.
  3. It is possible that it will always be beyond our science.
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  3. Douglas Jack says:

    Sherwin,
    I appreciate the three graphics to illustrate stable, unstable and metastable systems as well as your discussion of this puts it into terms that will help most people trying to understand this.

    Remember that much of the reaction to Anthropogenic Climate Change theory and data is related to a reader’s personal energy/material consumption and a resulting cultural addiction. Many of us are trying spiritually to understand our physical lives in terms of a greater calling to creating sustainable life, but many are simply struggling with self (ego) image in a social world.

    The real issues are people struggling for self-confidence and a sense of control in their lives. See ‘Control Theory’ by William Glasser. Our schools and institutions, trying to homogenise human understanding according to limited knowledge templates, violate personal sovereignty very early in the child’s life. Libertarians, Neo-conservatives and folks from the Fraser Institute are merely voicing concerns with institutional life that many of us have learned to succumb to. Neither the monetary capitalist world that conservatives thrive at, nor the cooperative-socialist reaction to it, are sustainable.

    Both right and left worldviews are schizoid fragments of a once integrated indigenous whole, but we tend to get sucked towards either extreme rather than rebuilding their complementary integration. Yet we’ve been alienated against our ‘indigenous’ (Latin = ‘self-generating’) heritage from every quarter on earth and thus have lost heritage of culture and sustainability. Hence reaction to considering life on earth as a whole is more concerned with genetic and cultural memory of unconscious innumerable phantoms (trauma and death) than with the facts themselves.