Monday, July 12, 2010

What is the Earth?

I belong to a little-known organization called the metaphor police. Our job is to seek out inappropriate metaphors and stop them from further damaging the collective consciousness by exposing their inappropriateness in the light of day. It has fallen to me, then, to attack and destroy the metaphor of “spaceship earth” once and for all.

What is the Earth? The Earth is a planet, a self-organizing system that has evolved over the vast time period of four billion years. The earth is a planet in the solar system, a self-organizing system of the Sun and the nine or so planets in elliptical orbits around it.

Perhaps the universe as a whole was designed. Perhaps not. One can just as easily argue either way because there is no way of knowing what preceded it. But all matter organizes itself. It coalesces into atoms, and atoms into stars and planets by the force of gravity and by other fundamental forces of nature.

Anybody who calls the solar system a “machine” or a “mechanism” is making a fundamental error. All machines are made by human beings. Each machine is designed by someone to do a certain kind of work. A hammer is designed to hammer nails, and to pry out old nails. A bicycle is designed to carry a person from one place to another.

They are all designed to work for various human purposes. The solar system was not designed to be a solar system. It came into being because matter coalesced into bodies by the force of gravity, and these bodies then interacted with each other through the force of gravity. The planets orbit the sun because the sun happens to have a disproportionate amount of mass compared to the rest of the planets.

When we call a natural phenomenon like the solar system a machine we are anthropomorphizing. That is, we are taking what we know about ourselves and projecting it on to other things which were not made by us.

We look at the solar system and we realize that it serves a purpose for ourselves. It provides a source of energy and a stable livable environment for life on earth. Because it serves an important human purpose - making our continued survival possible - we can easily fall into the trap of perceiving the solar system as designed for our sakes. This is like a small child who believes that the world exists solely to further its own existence.

In order to understand how different phenomena work we have learned to analyze things according to scientific principles about the composition of matter and the forces that influence and interact between the component parts. We take these principles too far when we talk about the design or mechanism of natural entities.

When we say that the huge wings of an albatross are “designed” for long-distance flight we are speaking metaphorically. But it is sometimes not easy to realize this. The albatross's wings make long-distance flight possible, just as the wings on a jet plane make long-distance flight possible. But no-one designed an albatross. The albatross evolved over millions of years from previous kinds of birds. There was no conscious design involved. The principle involved is given the particular environment that these birds lived in - namely the open ocean, those birds with longer wing spans up to a certain limit, were more likely to survive and produce progeny than birds with shorter wings, and the progeny will have longer wings because they have inherited the DNA of their parents. This is Charles Darwin’s theory of the evolution of life by natural selection plus a bit of modern chemistry.

It is a mistake to call natural selection a “mechanism” although lots of biologists do so. Natural selection is a form of self organization amongst populations of the same species and their environment. Living things try to maintain themselves. In order to do so they eat each other. They sometimes cooperate. They mate and produce offspring. They die. In doing this some life forms pass on more progeny than others and eventually some of these surviving life-forms become separate species. Their is no overriding purpose to this other than that each living thing wants to survive and pass on its progeny.

When we call natural selection a “mechanism” we are speaking metaphorically. But, unfortunately, by using the term “mechanism” to describe natural phenomena we import the idea of design and purpose into our perception of these phenomena.

When we call the Earth, “Spaceship Earth” we are making the same mistake. The Earth exists and evolves by the self-organization of it’s parts, as in the interaction of earth, water, fire, air and life. A spaceship is a human machine, designed and built to escape the Earth’s gravitational field and fly into space. It is somewhat self-contained, in that astronauts who fly in spaceships can live for short periods of time in space without physical contact with earth.

But note the proviso: “short periods of time.” No-one has invented a spaceship that serves as a world. That is, no-one has invented a spaceship that allows people to survive indefinitely in space away from the planet earth. Every astronaut that leaves earth’s gravitational field is just as totally dependent on the materials from earth for his survival as is all the rest of humanity who remain on earth.

The idea of “Spaceship Earth” was developed by Kenneth Boulding to emphasize the point that our economic system is bounded by the limits of the earth which is a finite thing. The earth does not receive any significant amount of materials from outer space, so we must make do with what is here already.

Unlike a spaceship, the Earth does allow human beings to survive indefinitely because life forms a self organized system on Earth, of which we form a part. We may have spent hundreds of millions of dollars designing and building spaceships but no-one has been able to design a spaceship that can maintain itself and the life inside it independently.

The idea of such a spaceship is a fantasy. But the Earth is a reality. If what we want to do is live responsibly within the limits of the Earth so that we continue to survive as a living species, we need to base our perception of Earth on reality, not fantasy.