Monstrous Nothing

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Warning: the following article makes no recommendations as to what we can do about climate change/global warming. The author believes that most of the things we can do are already known, and that the problem is that we are not doing them – or not doing them as if we genuinely believed in their necessity. The problem is that the future for our planet predicted by the scientists is so far from our experience that it is almost impossible to think about, let alone believe. Perhaps the exercise of carrying this trend to its logical, “if-left-to-itself” conclusion will help us to understand what we are doing now. Think of it as a kind of quiet scream: “This isn’t a dream! This is really happening.”

Fool: Can you make no use of nothing, Nuncle?

Lear: No, boy. Nothing can be made of nothing.

So far as we know, in the vast space of the universe this planet is the only place supporting life.

The only place where plants transform light into life.

The only place where there is an atmosphere just the right weight to support a butterfly in flight.

The only place where there is water just right for a fish both to swim in, and to get oxygen from.

It is a great pity that we are killing it.

Not, “If we’re not careful we might kill it”. The killing has begun. A big part of our world has been pronounced dead; a bigger part is known to be dying. .

We can’t say we hadn’t been warned. This has been public knowledge for decades. It was 1972 when the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth. The title, at that time, was startling. In an age in which “growth”, “development”, “economic expansion”, “technological progress” seemed to have taken control of the historic process itself, carrying us automatically to a prosperous future, it took courage to announce that this journey is coming to an end. But that is what, in a quiet voice, the authors announced:

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. (23)

The planet has a limit: this was the part that so many found unbelievable. However accustomed we are to looking at world maps and globes the planet, lived in, feels infinite. And anyway, many of us thought, they gave us a hundred years; a lot can happen in a hundred years. Now, about half of those hundred years have gone by, and, yes, a lot has happened. We have recycling now, and are separating garbage, and using some alternative energy; some of the worst polluted cities and waterways have become cleaner; the language of ecology is familiar to most everybody. But the main trends pointed out in The Limits to Growth are continuing on schedule. And we have crises that the Club of Rome authors could not at that time foresee: global warming, climate change, polar ice melting, oceans rising, increasing super-typhoons, hurricanes and tornados, Brazil, Australia and California burning, and three major nuclear power plant meltdowns, among other wonders. The crisis remains what it was, “resulting,” as the authors put it pithily, “from exponential growth in a finite space”. (51)

From the human perspective, planet earth is vast, but the space on it that supports life is far smaller. Called the biosphere, it includes the earth beneath our feet as far down as plant roots, burrowing critters, insects, bacteria and mold can be found, and extends over our heads to the point where there is not enough oxygen, and the temperature is too cold, to support any birds or insects who might venture to go there. If you select a patch of earth and dig a hole deep enough to hit hardpan, you will have exited the biosphere at the bottom. If you take a jet plane to a far-off destination, you will along the way exit the biosphere at the top, this made clear by the fact that if a window blows out and you don’t put on your oxygen mask, you will die.

It is this biosphere that is, so far as we know, the only place where life is possible (leaving aside, of course, airplanes and spacecraft, where the oxygen content, temperature, and pressure of the earth’s atmosphere are artificially replicated) . And it is this biosphere that is steadily shrinking. Every patch of ground paved over with concrete or asphalt is subtracted from the biosphere. Every lake, waterway, or section of the ocean declared dead has also been subtracted from the biosphere. It is not only individual lives, or even species, that are endangered, but (the environmentalists are telling us) the immensely complex system that supports those forms of life.

This is danger different from the dangers earlier conservationists sought to warn us of. What John Muir wanted to preserve was “wilderness”, nature hitherto untouched, as it was believed, by human civilization, and now threatened by logging, dams, and such things as sheepherding, which could in a day transform an alpine meadow into a mud puddle. Gazing at this wilderness, Muir believed he was witnessing God’s glory. Yosemite, Yellowstone, Hetch Hetchy, these were God’s masterpieces. We should treat them as cathedrals, protect them from desecration, and more urgently, from destruction. Hetch Hetchy might be dammed up and lost, but that God’s creation as a whole, the infinitely complex set of interrelationships, interdependencies, wildly improbable coincidences, cause- and-effect relationships and just-in-time rescues that together operate to produce our living “world” – that this might go haywire and start to shake itself apart was surely beyond the imaginations of people of that generation.

And so it remains with most of us today. We recycle, we do our best to buy eco-friendly products, we turn down the air conditioner and turn off the lights when we leave the room, but we also raise children and don’t cry out in fear when they give us grandchildren. We cooperate in long-term projects, we join institutions on the assumption that they will still exist when our grandchildren are old, we lobby to have areas set off as national parks “in perpetuity”. From our actions, it’s clear that we really don’t believe that the catastrophe predicted by the environmentalists is going to happen.

Of course, the environmentalists don’t always agree in their predictions. Like the science fiction writers and even before them the poets, they see a number of possibilities. Some, like Robert Frost, waver between fire and ice, some favor nuclear meltdowns, some storms and flooding, some starvation, coupled with wars over dwindling resources. Some are hoping for a miraculous techno fix, the modern alchemists betting on nuclear power; others predict a brutal reduction in the human population, the survivors living in deadly poverty. Still others (somewhat romantically) take comfort in imagining a world liberated from human destructiveness and returned to the innocent wild animal and plant life. And there are others who (somehow) find comfort in imagining a world in which we have been replaced by life-like robots that have been taught to reproduce their own kind.

But there is another endpoint hinted at in these writings, though not often spelled out. If what our civilization is destroying is the mind-boggling, impossible-yet-actually-occurring set of interactions on the planet among chemicals, elements in solid, liquid and gaseous states, and rays entering from outer space that taken together make life possible – then the logical endpoint is a situation where there is no longer any life at all.

I am not here predicting that this is the most likely outcome; I have no idea what is most likely. It is, however, the natural “if left to itself” endpoint to the processes we see going on around us. Looking at that endpoint, or at least attempting to do so, can help us to understand what exactly it is that we are doing now.

We can imagine an earth with a surface something like the moon’s (about which astronaut Buzz Aldrin, at the moment he became the second person to set foot on it, gave us the honest words, “magnificent desolation”): no plant or animal life, no water, no oxygen or other gases, at a temperature that would kill any of the forms of life we know (on the moon +127°C in the day, -173°C at night) . But anyway (we can think) even if planet Earth comes to look like that it will still be flooded with light in the daytime, and at night the sky will be brilliant with the moon and the stars. Sunrises and sunsets will continue as always, even if there will be no one there to see them.

We can imagine that, because we have life. But for there to be what we understand as a sunrise requires a living being in a position to see it. Viewed from outer space, there are no sunrises. The earth revolves, and the sun’s rays strike the surface that faces it. What we call a sunrise is something experienced by a living organism with the sense of sight, standing on the surface of the planet at the moment the earth’s rotation brings that patch of ground around to where the sun’s rays will fall on it. That is, a “sunrise” is an interaction between certain light rays in a certain place, and a living being, capable of interpreting different frequencies as different colors. No life, no sunrise.

The same is true of light generally. For Muir, light was sacred. Especially when it shone on his beloved mountains and forests, it was a gift of God. It is no refutation of that view to point out that what we call “light” comes into existence only when what we call “light rays” encounter a living being equipped with eyes complete with lenses, retina, optical nerve and a brain to decode the signals sent it by these gadgets (or some other set of gadgets equally capable of sensing those rays).

I began this essay by mentioning that on this earth plants have the capability of turning light into life, the process we call photosynthesis. But to the plants, what they turn into life is not even light. It is, the scientists tell us, rays, or maybe particles (actually I think no one knows quite what it is) which, when it passes into those delicate optical instruments we and other animals have implanted in our heads, produces the experience we call light. Without living organisms with eyesight, it would not be accurate to say that the universe had descended into darkness (to judge it as “darkness” would require eyesight, and a knowledge of “light”). It would be more accurate to say that the universe had become invisible, but even that isn’t quite right. It is the existence of living beings that produces the phenomenon of visibility. With no life, nothing is “invisible”; rather, there is no such experience as visibility.

The same is true of the other senses: sound, touch, smell, taste, and any sixth sense you might wish to believe in.

Still, we would want to respond, the universe would continue to exist as always. Surely it would be wildly anthropocentric to claim that without the form of life that exists on planet Earth, there would be nothing. Even without us, the planets and stars will continue to move, the universe to expand, myriads of permutations and combinations would continue to form and dissolve until eventually somewhere, somehow, perhaps life would reappear. Things would happen. Time would go on.

Maybe. But we need to remember, as St. Augustine brilliantly analyzed long ago, that what we understand as “time” (and, a fortiori, “motion”) also takes its form by the way we grasp it as sentient beings. As Augustine pointed out, our perception of time depends on an awareness of both the past and the future, that is, memory and anticipation. We cannot experience an absolute “now” because, just as a point in geometry has no dimension, so a “now” has no duration and therefore can’t be experienced; it is, strictly speaking, nothing. What we refer to when we say “now” is a brief period that includes what happened just a moment before (preserved in our memory) and an understanding (actually, a kind of faith) that there will be a next moment, when something else will happen. Deprived of both memory and anticipation all that remains is the “now” which, having no duration, is nothing.

We, of course, can still have a Stephen Hawking image of the great expanding universe packed with wondrous objects and producing colossal events, even in the areas where there is (so far as we know) no life. But again, yes, we can think those things: because we have life.

It’s natural that we don’t think about a world with no life in it. Such a situation is unthinkable. Unthinkable not only in the sense that, like nuclear holocaust, the idea is unbearably frightening. It is that, but it is unthinkable also in the sense that it simply cannot be thought. There is nothing there to think, nor is there anything there to do the thinking. It is, as Edna St. Vincent Millay put it in her meditation on possible doomsdays, to be “lost in whistling space without a mind/to monstrous Nothing yield your little breath”, except that without a living ear to hear it, there will be no whistling.