Thursday, September 15, 2011

Anti-Copernicus (V)

Continuing from here a piece on Adam Roberts' E-published work Anti-Copernicus.


When Adam sent me this text he described it as sort of a borderline environmentalist fable, except not really. Is it environmentalist? There's no simple answer because of conflicts over what “environmentalist” means, but it's possible to clarify those meanings by considering the different ways in which the story might or might not be. My own understanding of what environmentalism is about is idiosyncratic, so I'm going to have to summarize it in a few paragraphs.

Modern environmentalism has two main branches of concern: ecosystems (habitat and wildlife preservation, sustainability, endangered species, climate change, etc.) and pollution (persistent bioaccumulative toxics, radioactive wastes, industrial chemical releases, untreated sewerage, smog, etc.) Clearly there is some overlap. But at base, when people talk about environmentalism, I think that they're generally talking about damage to ecosystems or damage to human health from pollution. I'm leaving out resource depletion concerns as such because if the resources in question are renewable, that's an ecosystem concern, and if they're not, the usual next step is to say that they should be replaced with renewable ones.

So, what are ecosystems about? Mostly, they are centered on the Sun. The best way that I've found for thinking about ecosystems is that they are complicated ways to trap solar energy and use it to maintain biomass. The solar energy coming to the Earth is limited and approximately constant for any particular geography. The more efficient the ecosystem is at using solar energy, the larger a biomass the area can support. Biomass, in turn, makes everything that we live on: air, water, food.

Why do I write that they're “mostly” centered on the Sun? Because science is really overwhelmingly Copernican in that not everything has a single center. The ecosystems in abyssal hydrothermal vents are based around geothermal energy, which comes partially from primordial heat of the Earth's accretion and partially from radioactive decay. And of course life in tidal pools depends in part on tidal energy, which is mostly from the Moon. But most of the other forms of energy in the environment, like wind and hydropower, come from the Sun indirectly.

What makes an ecosystem efficient? I'm simplifying tremendously, of course, but it's largely a matter of whether specialist species have coevolved in the area. The longer an ecosystem goes on in more or less the same state, the more time that evolution has to produce species that occupy complicated ecological niches and trap solar energy that would otherwise not be used. Disturb the ecosystem seriously and the specialist species die and generalist species remain or move in. But they can't maintain the same ecosystem efficiency as before. I remember a particularly ignorant poster, back in the days of Usenet, who declared that human damage to ecosystems didn't matter because if you took wild land and turned it into a city block, it was still habitat for nonhuman animals – as if generalist scavengers like crows and rats could replace a functioning climax ecosystem.

So human economics, the allocation of scarce resources, is really a subset of a more important ecosystem economics. There are various chemical substances that can limit biomass if they aren't present, but the most important limited resource is solar energy. But it has to be solar energy that's used, and the way that it's used is by being filtered through a vast, evolved information system – the information held within both gene and population distributions – that is adapted to local conditions. This information system passes around all of the local resources that it can hold incessantly among its living components. Human damage to the ecosystem through land use, over-extraction, bioaccumulative toxins, or climate change either destroys part of the information system or changes conditions so that it no longer applies. Over-extraction may also mean that too much biomass/energy is being appropriated for human use out of the system, as with some kinds of farming.

Getting back to the story now, is Anti-Copernicus an ecological story? There doesn't appear to be anything ecological going on that I can recognize with the dark energy. It's not directly used by anything, not passed around within a system. It's not a sustainability story, because there isn't a resource produced by the system that is being overused; there isn't a mechanism by which the universe removes or detoxifies dark energy that is being overloaded. Within the story, the universe seems to simply have a limit on the amount of dark energy generated within it during a big bang/big crunch cycle, and below this limit the universe going back to a big crunch again and restarts the cycle, above it it expands forever. It appears to be an ecological story because of the basic idea that “you're communally approaching a limit over which you should not go”, but … not really. Things that you communally or individually should not do, yet do anyways, are a staple of all kinds of admonitory stories, including the Biblical myths referenced in several places in the text, and this isn't really a specifically environmental concept.

So I'll go back to the other main branch of environmentalism. Is this a pollution story? Here the argument looks a lot clearer. There is dark energy, an unwanted byproduct of human activity -- thinking, in this case. We're heedlessly putting more or more of it out into the environment as our population grows, and over the long term it's going to destroy the universe's ability to support life.

But there are subtle differences that make this not quite work for me as an environmentalist story either. The pollution in this case is a necessary part of our existence as human beings, since we can't stop thinking. It's not the result of our tool use or our built environment. That's not necessarily a problem: all organisms produce waste of some kind, and many organisms have evolved the ability to produce poisons that work in the environment specifically to kill other life. So pollution is something that ecosystems naturally have to deal with. Ecosystems have evolved ways to deal with pollution of this type, though, and detoxify or re-use it. There's no way that the universe in this story has to deal with the dark energy.

What the story reminds me of most, in an environmental sense, is the Proterozoic Eon when cyanobacteria were producing the free oxygen that now exists in the Earth's atmosphere. I can imagine one implausibly intelligent cyanobacteria telling another that “If we keep producing this much waste oyxgen, we'll overwhelm the banded iron formations on the ocean floor. We need to reduce our numbers before all the dissolved iron is used up, or there'll be a mass extinction.”

It's a good analogy, but following it along, the rise of oxygen in the atmosphere was also when eukaryotes appeared, another form of life. A pollution-related catastrophe on Earth (by a volcano that put too much ash in the atmosphere, say, or perhaps a worldwide radioactive isotope release from some kind of dirty bomb) can't normally destroy the whole ground of being. Life just starts evolving again to meet the new conditions. That is no comfort for species (like us) that are either destroyed in the extinction event, or that depended on particular ecological conditions that are now gone.

But the potentially catastrophic buildup of dark energy in Anti-Copernicus is supposed to have no direct effect on humans until the universe keeps expanding rather than contracting again. The human species would probably be long gone by then in any case, or if it were still around, might last longer in the continually expanding universe than one beginning to contract. So we wouldn't really be destroying ourselves – we'd be destroying the ground of being for all future life. It's this element of SF escalation that turns this from what I think of as an environmentalist story into something else. Something that's surely about overpopulation, but in a more religious kind of story-type – there's one sequence where Ange imagines the horror of an afterlife where the multitudes of dead don't allow anyone oblivion. That's a rather picky interpretation, though, and someone else who wanted to think of this as an environmentalist story could without being wrong.

One last bit: there are many species that use a kind of waste that they're immune to as the aforementioned poison for other life, giving them an evolutionary advantage. For instance, dead leaves from trees kill other plants that might compete with the trees for sun or soil nutrients. In Anti-Copernicus, humans are apparently immune to the negative effects of a high concentration of dark energy, perhaps since they're evolved in those conditions. (But those conditions wouldn't occur until intelligent life did, and by that time there wouldn't there already be a lot of humans in comparison with the one-per-planet rule elsewhere? Yes, I'm looking at this too closely.) But the dark energy is fatal to other intelligent life within a fairly short time interval. So the dark energy from the multitude of humans is like dead leaves from trees, crowding potential competitors out. That might be the environmental story within the story.

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