- Weather predictions are often wrong, seasons disappoint expectations. The whole world beyond a narrow local environment seems out of control. Some seek stability in scientific certainty, some in spiritual foundations, some in calm infinite vistas of eternal nature. But science revises conclusions, religions reinterpret revelations, and nature itself mutates and shifts.
- A rock is stable. People are not, and probably should not try to be. A perfect couch potato is a poor example of human possibility, though it has achieved a state as still and certain as death. We were probably born from thunder to ride the storm, and whatever we may do will involve change and catastrophic lightning. That is the truly inconvenient truth.
Inconstant illusions enliven dreams
But when awake
- Unstable life on Earth is based on water, which is weirdly unstable in its own way. Within our “normal” temperature ranges, it can be solid, liquid, and gas at the same time. As a vapor, it surrounds us at all times, mostly invisible except when condensing to form clouds, but can congeal to magically fall as liquid or solid. As a solid it floats _ oddly compared to many other substances _ and can when thick enough deform, flow, and carve channels through rocks. As a liquid its weird properties _ such as ionization, ability to dissolve almost anything, tendency to deconstitute into its elements under certain conditions _ are too numerous to mention. Nothing lives without it.
- We just take it for granted. Hey, it’s water, all over the place. Maybe it will snow soon. I need to drink a glass. On and on, just thinking it is one of the more normal eternal things we can possibly encounter in the universe. As stable as we may wish our chaotic lives would be. But if water were an inert substance, we would not exist. I should learn a lesson from that regarding what I am and ought to be.
“Ah, this is so nice,” exclaims Joan, sinking into a bench at the Arboretum greenhouse. Flowers are in bloom, the warm air is filled with semi-jungle scents, we have yet to explore the wondrous rooms of orchids. “Too bad everywhere can’t be like this.”
“It takes a lot of work,” I note. “All of this could get destroyed in a day or two if the heat failed. And somebody has to trim and water and keep the insects down. It’s beautiful, but not natural. “
“This time of year,” she continues, “I don’t really care for the natural.” She gestures at the bare trees beyond the glass windows. “Unless, of course, we were in Florida.”
“Oh, they have their issues too. The whole world does. It’s one unstable, inch-away-from-disaster, beautiful mess.”
“I guess,” she looks more closely at the bird-of-paradise next too us.
“That’s what I don’t like about the political slogans this year,” I continue, ignoring the fact that she is ignoring me. “Make America great again implies some kind of golden age. This is the golden age. Make America greater I might be able to support.”
“Oh, relax and look around, this is wonderful. What’s that?” she points at a tree. I read the label, but she does too. “Ah, coffee. Interesting.”
‘We’re all hothouse flowers now,” I grumble. “If our heat, water, food, electricity, police, social services, or anything else we expect fail, we will be dry and dead as quickly as anything here.”
“Stop it,” she commands. “Unstable or not, we are having a perfectly wonderful time, and at least this afternoon the flowers seem just as happy as we should be.” As usual, she has the last word.
- Long Island is probably no older than modern humans _ it was underwater when North America’s crust was pushed down by weighty glaciers not much more than fifty thousand years ago. It’s composed of all that is left from those frozen bulldozers. Mostly just sand mixed with clay _ which is just sand ground finer. In such a short time were inland mountains worn away. A hundred years from now, parts of this land may still remain, for a while, above water after Florida submerges in the rising seas. The way things are going, it may outlast people.
- Soil is even more recent. I sometimes contemplate the long view and mistakenly think the natural world stays quiet and stable as our lives flicker briefly and vanish. But that is not so, not for rocks, nor mountains, nor entire large islands. For that matter, most of these mudflats themselves are composed of the decaying remains of not-so-ancient trees, fish, and birds. I may regard my existence as brief, but everything else that I love also has a surp
risingly short role in this world.
- Human intelligence and consciousness is probably rare or unique in the universe. I’m sure life exists in many places, but the peculiar circumstances that led to homo sapiens and the extinction of other hominid lines are unlikely even at gazillion to one odds. Nothing else on earth _ not anything ever in the sea over billions of years, not dinosaurs who roamed and fought for hundreds of millions of years, not even other mammals and primates, have more than a glimmer of the toolmaking, learning, logic, and multigenerational culture that people possess. And it is all based on climate instability.
- Dinosaurs, like sea creatures, lived in unchanging and almost static environments. Land mass configuration led to stable climates just about everywhere _ what changed, changed slowly. Specialization led to dominance, but also to extreme niche sensitivity. It remains an open question what might have evolved from dinosaurs were they not wiped out by a meteor, but even the next age of mammals was rather sluggish until the ice ages began.
- Then, suddenly, came a time of ongoing slow-motion catastrophes. Rising or falling oceans, extensive floods, extreme extended droughts, periods of freezing cold, areas of tremendous heat. Over and over, never exactly the same way in the same place twice. Hominids began to despecialize, out of desperate necessity, but nevertheless were ruthlessly slaughtered by unexpected climatic anomalies. Many lines failed, our own branch survived by the skin of its teeth, apparently at one time reduced to a tribe with only a few thousand individuals, if that many. And it did so only because of a set of genetic accidents which allowed the development of _ yes, exactly _ toolmaking, learning, logic, and multigenerational culture.
- Our core being remains animalistic, our drives are ruled by hormones and sensation. We can apply logic and learning to our situation. We are conscious of the contradictions. Nothing else we know of comes close _ not whales or dolphins, or dogs, or cats, or rats, or parrots or anything at all. We are unique on this planet, now, because we handle instability. We actually enjoy instability and are bored without it. When deprived of change, we retreat into dreams and entertainment to keep us happy.
- So _ what are the chances that life anywhere else went through _ and survived _ such a phase? The Goldilocks and Anthropocentric view of the universe _ our universe _ seems more and more likely. I’m kind of sorry we won’t get to meet space monsters and their foes. But that just seems incredibly unlikely. And, never forget, we ourselves have not yet survived the ice ages.
- Speaking of ice ages …. A blizzard yesterday has left almost two feet of snow everywhere. There could hardly be a greater difference between two days ago and this morning, when leaving the house is difficult if not impossible. So fragile is the equilibrium taken for granted that a shift of ten degrees one way or another determines if precipitation will be relatively harmless water, or annoying and sometimes dangerous snow.
- We fortunately live in the electricity age, when such vast storms are almost inconsequential novelties. We stay warm, we watch news, we have light, we cook, we even drive and push snow where we want. No other civilization has had such benefits. If we conquer instability, at least to make it a harmless relic like the cheap thrills of an amusement park ride, it will be because we adjust fully to the use of limitless electricity. The word power is often thrown about as if it is synonymous with our “industrial age,” but none of it goes to the heart of our being like our casual use of all that is electric _ a harnessing of the unstable shells of electrons in atoms _ to gain control over a completely unstable world.