Monday, January 20, 2020

Escape Velocity

There is a sort of competition going on in my mind, based mildly on conversation last night over a meal at a local and very accommodating Taqueria. Like me, those at the table were all involved in making a FIRST Robotics tournament go. So there was something of an overrepresentation of STEM types.

STEM types like to talk about things like when we will really accomplish escape velocity off planet earth in any meaningful way. Meaningful seems to be related to quantities of people - and stuff to support people - off planet. Limits to rocketry and rail guns are quickly on the table. I reminded folks about the space elevator and graphene, just to throw some rocket fuel onto the conversation.

Meanwhile, given that our current seeming ascendance on the planet is almost entirely grace the cosmic "gift" of fossil fuels, I have my own serious doubts that planetary escape will ever be other than an academic question. "When we reach a population of 20 billion . . ." was the start of one line of conjecture. Given our addiction to oil - you do the math - 20 billion ain't gonna happen. We will have squandered our gifts.

I think that having too much money often indicates fundamental issues with math. Well, at least if you take it from the sample of Trump, Musk and Branson, say. Off planet to Mars entails a lot more than a few thousand spaceships (not to mention what their creation and launch will do to accelerate meltdown more locally).

Anyhow, my interest turns to the more interesting question about how likely we are to resolve the on-planet issues of sustainability. Those prospects look about as dim as the prospects for populating Mars. The hard problem for STEM types too has almost nothing to do with math. Math is just a refuge from politics, love gone bad, and all the hard work of living as a moral creature while craving creature comforts.

We no longer really quite believe that democracy, in any form, can work. The prospect for our current president to follow the Xi-Putin line, by declaring or creating some emergency to indefinitely postpone the 2020 election, shows him doing that to be a lot more likely than for us collectively to either resolve our sustainability issues here on earth, or to escape the planet. The time lines just don't cross right.

It's bizarre really that we don't even know how to begin to address the low-hanging fruit of the right timeline to adjust; which is, of course, the political one. Politics reduces to money lately, and so really that's the part we have to address. It's Homo Economicus what's gone off the rails.

It goes like this: Most of us will sell at least a part of our soul for money. Those of us struggling to lead a morally good life would like to find some way to do well-enough while doing good. The trouble is that the workplace is, politically, most often one form or another of dictatorship. It doesn't hardly matter if that's because of tyranny in the org chart or in the boardroom or by proxy of stockholders. Bottom line is that there's no such thing as an economically viable business that's run in a truly democratic fashion.

So, we should start there, maybe. The soul equation. I think that's the real reason some people are against a minimum basic income provision. Letting people keep their souls is just too dangerous for money. I mean the economy, of course, which is the automaton of money as a harness for our enthusiasms.

There's no intelligence in that system. That's what unnatural means. That wonderful STEM stuff is like rocket fuel to the workings of our unsustainable economy. It harnesses our enthusiasms in ways so that we can distance ourselves from the harm our work is causing - plausible deniability anyone? - while we do the coding that makes drones for the Military Industrial Complex. Search algorithms. Whatever.

The economy, writ large, doesn't care any more for sustainability than pond scum does. Bacteria don't care about fouling their medium. They couldn't exist without a limiting ecology. They'd wipe themselves out near instantly. It's a boundary issue.

My good friend Benjamin H. Bratton is at least working on the right problem. But he's got the wrong slice of humanity in mind. He seems to define humanity based on cognition, from which it's an easy leap to suggest that we should engineer our way - by Terraforming - to sustainability. Cognition becomes the limiting ecology against the economy running amok.

I doubt it. I would define humans more as the moral than the cognitive animal. It's a matter of the heart being in the right place, which is only in the brain if you think that the mind/body separation is a done deal. In simple terms, ladies and germs, we won't engender a sustainable planet if we don't care. And right now we act as though we don't care.

Even STEM types will go into finance if there's not a big enough prize for the contest-winners in developing the space elevator, say, or some other hard problem. Those prizes are easy, since there's so much collateral profit along the way. I guess there must be some prize out there for the first carbon sequestration process which can scale. The first mini nuclear plant which won't overfill the planet with nuclear waste. Me, I'm going for the gold ring. I'm old enough that falling off won't matter - just like a little kid might not feel enough danger, but will still easily recover from the bounce. So long as the age-height limits are set within legal limits, of course.

Once upon a time, Jesus - the movement - did change the way we care. Not so much anymore. They seem to have sold out. Too. You can work for Hobby Lobby if you have no soul at all, I guess, and are in near absolute denial about reality, truth, justice, and all those good things. But is shopping there any worse or better than shopping at Amazon or Walmart or all the other feeding troughs for The Beast? Really? Do you [think you] post to Facebook to build emotive caring community? I've got a bridge to sell you!

Really, the only trouble with the Jesus movement (apart from balls-on patriarchy) is the whole dominion over the earth thing. I'm pretty sure that while Bratton skates in that direction, he's really also looking for something artificial in his terms to be more natural, in mine. Terraforming that depends on human sense of style is just a recipe for disaster.

The hard problem of consciousness is why we care. Not why we're conscious. Shrink the time-frame or scope for interaction enough and anything might seem conscious. Even a complicated machine. But if you can turn it off without caring, well, then it's just a machine. And consciousness was ephemeral (to the very extent that it is repeatable in precise form).

I guess the water religion of Bali was one way to engender sustainable caring. The landscape management of indigenous Australians might be another. Maybe those Aussies suddenly now care. Such 'consciousness' was so easily destroyed by modern and Western and superior engineering-based consciousness. Trump is but the simplified and simple-minded avatar for that sort of consciousness. That sort is hardly sustainable, clearly.

I do suppose that we are conscious on behalf of earth. We've overrun our ecology, but it was carelessness that did it. It wasn't either an active refusal to care on the whole, nor certainly some triumph of our cognitive accomplishment. Our cognitive parts, in those terms, work more like bacteria, responding to the stimulus of money. Money is our alcohol or our growth medium, take your pick. The turning point just depends on levels of saturation in effluent as the medium is exhausted. Either one becomes a boundary condition.

We ain't gonna reach 20 billion on the planet no way no how. If we're really really nice to one another, we might at least survive together. The math for escape just doesn't work, any more than does the math for wilful ignorance of, well, the math.

No comments: