Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Human System

I have an ongoing joke with my wife Candace about my “system”.  It’s the way I like to heat the rooms of our little  house in the winter, and it involves turning in-room heaters on or off and opening or closing certain doors at various strategic times. Candace smiles at the arcaneness of my “system”.  Here, where I am  referring to my “system,”  I mean “a way of doing things” that I repeat each day when the outside environment calls for it.  

We can call the local weather a "system" in another way.  It is certainly a regular way of doing things, but, unlike my opening and closing doors,  it is not a goal-directed process.  It is a natural, self-organized, physical process that begins in the Pacific Ocean and sweeps across parts of North America, eventually dissipating over the Atlantic.  

There are many other regional weather systems around the Earth, and these together make up an evolving Global Climate System that is presently warming, but that  last wrapped most of the Northern Hemisphere in ice sixty thousand years ago and then melted away over tens of thousands of years. The global Climate System has profound effects on Earth’s surface geology, and on the evolution of living ecosystems.

Here’s how I see things:  The Universe is a system, and it’s  a hierarchy of systems all the way down to the finest detail.  Here on Earth we are a part of the Solar System, which is, of course, a ridiculously tiny part of the Universe.  But we are in an orbit around the Sun that has afforded the Earth a temperature range that has kept most of its water in a liquid state for four billion years, and this is what has made the continued existence of life possible.

We humans are part of the Earth’s biosphere, or Life-system.  
Living systems are different from non-living physical systems because living systems purposely maintain themselves and reproduce, spreading until they reach every corner of our planet.  Since life took over it has been the determining factor in furnishing Earth’s global atmosphere of oxygen, carbon-dioxide, and nitrogen, it has, through preserving the oceans, kept the Earth itself alive and volcanically active over billions of years.  How is this possible?

Living things are so coupled to the Earth that ecosystems have changed both the atmosphere and the climate over aeons.  Indeed, the presence of life itself is also part of the reason that life has had almost four billion years to evolve from bacteria to humans.  Our very oceans have existed for this long time because photosynthetic bacteria and green algae have produced enough oxygen that it has, in the form of high-altitude ozone,  shielded the oceans from too much of the Sun’s ultraviolet light.  Without ozone, over billions of years, the excess ultraviolet would have split enough water molecules to empty the Earth’s oceans.

If you find this hard to believe, consider Mars:  Mars does not have a Life System, and so far, we see no evidence of there ever being one.  There is no water there now, not even a puddle, and very little atmosphere, but they say, that there used to be water there...  Life cannot maintain itself without water;  Water cannot maintain itself without life.  

The Universe is systems all the way down.  Life is a planet-wide system.  Humans are biological organisms, which means that each individual human is a single biological system made of skin, bones, muscles, specialized organs and consciousness.  All biological organisms, including humans, are systems entirely made of cells, and each cell is a tiny system of molecules, membranes, and organelles, containing within its nucleus a genetic system that can direct the building of any cell in the body from scratch.    
The very long, from our perspective, timeline of natural systems, such as the Earth’s global climate, demonstrates this rule of thumb:  the bigger the system,  the longer the time frame that’s involved in that system.  Human systems occupy a middle ground, between microscopic systems that grow and die in minutes or days, and planetary, star, and galaxy systems that grow and die in the space of billions of years.

But here's an exception to my rule - hydrogen atoms. In relation to humans they are submicroscopic systems. And as for age they are the oldest of all, the same age as the Universe. Our bodies are made up of molecular systems that contain a significant proportion of hydrogen atoms in relation to other elements. And wait - there's more! Just about every atom in the Universe is either Hydrogen or it was made from Hydrogen by nuclear reactions deep inside of countless stars. They make up the most plentiful thing in the Universe and they just happen to be the oldest systems around.

Each one of those tiny systems is the basic building block for all other systems. Each hydrogen atom is directly connected by origin to the birth of the Universe. This is what it means, in systems theory, to say that everything is connected.

Let's go back to my rule of thumb: The bigger the system the longer the time-frame. I keep saying that humans occupy the middle ground. The reason is because it took the universe fourteen billion years to produce us. We are young, we are infants compared to almost everything else but our own artifacts.  Some say humans evolved one half million years ago.  I mark the dividing line at two million years, with the first evidence of Homo Erectus.  

Homo Erectus is more than just an ape man.  Hominins - that’s our evolutionary precursors - start to look more like modern humans with Homo Erectus.  And in the time space of one and a half million years after Erectus appears in the fossil record, humans evolved bigger brains, longer childhoods - thus greater potential for learning - and at first the ability to shape and fashion specialized stone tools, then to control fire, to cook food, and to migrate over the rest of the Earth.

Should we claim for human systems the possibilities inherent in billions of years when we have only been around for scarce two million? Can we grow as big or bigger than the Earth’s life-system? I believe that these two  questions are really  the same question.

The fact that the human race is only two million years old, and it took  four billion years for the Earth’s Life-system to  reach that point, indicates nothing robust about humans.  We are delicate, precarious beings.  We couldn’t have evolved eight million years ago, let alone four billion years ago.  Imagine a world without flowers, which evolved 160 million years ago, or mammals, who celebrate their 250 millionth birthday today.   We are contained in the Earth’s biosphere and cannot escape it because we utterly depend on it for our survival.  

What is the human system, that we believe that it could surpass the Earth’s Life-system?  Is it our technological systems that would make this possible?  The evidence of the last three hundred years decisively contradicts this hope.  We are now in the midst of an Extinction -Event, something that happens about once every hundred million years.  Scientists call this latest event The Anthropocene age, for the unmistakable fact that humans are causing this latest collapse in biodiversity.  And we are causing it because our advanced technologies give us access to fossil fuels.

When it comes to systems, size matters.  Large systems can  utilize more energy and have more powerful effects.  The Pacific Ocean has a greater effect on the Earth’s weather patterns than the Atlantic Ocean.  The Earth’s plate tectonic system has an even  greater effect through its access to the tremendous heat in Earth’s Core and Mantle, changing the shape of the continents and the seas over a time frame of hundreds of millions of years.

The human system cannot grow beyond the bounds of Earth’s Life-system.  We cannot grow bigger than a system that we totally depend on  without fatally undermining ourselves in the process. In point of  fact, one could ask, how is it even possible to do this?  How can humans, who must derive their nourishment from the biosphere, surpass the biosphere?

The human system has tapped into The Earth’s tectonic system to extract energy from fossilised carbon.  We have grown in numbers and power as a result.  We are using up the energy that was stored in the Earth for hundreds of millions of years in the space of only three hundred years.

It is because we have tapped into an ancient form of accumulated energy from the Earth that we humans have been able to build  global systems in the past three hundred years: systems of transportation, economic systems, communication systems,  legal systems, administrative systems.    When we start decreasing our use of fossil fuels our systems will have to get smaller too.  With less access to energy what the system can do will be less.

The best scenario I see is to gradually stop the extraction of fossil carbon and replace it with a more decentralized system of renewables.  Society will then have to run on a smaller scale because we will lack the concentrated energy of fossil fuels.

Or we can opt out of a future for humanity altogether.   We can continue to burn more and more fossil fuels and allow our systems to grow bigger and bigger, until the entire  human system, in all its power and glory, smashes into the wall and breaks apart into countless shards.
  Global Warming is a sign that we have already grown too big and gone too far, but why not push the envelope that much further, and risk our very future for the sake of greater financial rewards and bigger and faster cars?  

Size matters.  The Earth cannot sustain a population size of seven billion humans or larger.  We have reached this size by using fossil fuels.  This increased usage of energy  is changing the Earth’s Climate System.  Remember, this system usually works on a time scale of tens of thousands of years or more.  Human civilization is less than ten thousand years old.  The use and extraction of fossil fuels only started in earnest about three hundred years ago.  The Climate is warming in the space of one hundred years. Each new year brings  more and bigger  Floods, Forest Fires, Droughts, Hurricanes;  it is like something out of the Bible.

With energy comes power, and power allows us to do more things. Having more power means having a bigger effect on other systems.  Eventually the effect of this power will alter the behaviour of the larger system in a way that undermines our survival as a species, because we cannot escape being dependent on the larger system.  When the Global Climate System works against us our human systems can quickly become overwhelmed.  When we have grown big enough to effect this system, we cannot escape the effects of altering it.  These effects will not be benign.  

Humans have been living in ignorance of these larger systems for  two million  years, with differing consequences.  When the Climate cooled, as it did a hundred thousand years ago, human systems shrunk dramatically.  When the Climate has been favorable, as it has been for the last ten thousand years, humans have prospered and human systems have grown exponentially.

Each system has an optimum size.  Too small and it loses too much access to energy.  Too large, and it undermines its own existence.  A star that grows too large destroys itself in a massive supernova.  A Galaxy that is too large becomes full of black holes.   A living population of organisms that grows too large, runs out of food and drowns in its own waste.

Our Solar system is four and a half billion years old, roughly a quarter of the age of the Universe.  The Earth’s Life-system is somewhat younger, at roughly four billion years old.   

At approximately two million years old humans are a young species.  Many species have been around longer than us - most species of birds and insects, for instance. The human system is young.  But it has the distinction of being  the first system that can identify and understand  all  or almost all other systems.

 Some human systems are very young. Language as a general system of communication could be anywhere from one hundred thousand years to five hundred thousand years old.  Writing, as a communication system is about three thousand years old.  Printing, in the West, is about five hundred years old. The internet is less than half a century old.

On a smaller scale,  human systems, such as particular languages, nations,  and cities, have lasted for hundreds to close to thousands of years, families last from several to thousands of generations.  Economic systems grow and die over the space of hundreds of years.  Some  institutions  like marriage, have lasted thousands of years.   All these human systems grow and die, change and evolve, competing and sharing with other human systems.
Most non-human systems that we can observe are far older than any human system.  The geographic features that we live in can be anywhere from tens of thousands to tens of millions of years old or more.  

In the area that I live in, Northwestern BC, the geography was mostly the result of an ice-cap that covered the northern half of North America for most of the last hundred thousand years.  And for the first eighty-five thousand of those years, there were no human footprints here.  

The scale of many natural systems dwarfs the scale of human systems.  The only place that this is not true is in our imaginative systems.  We imagine that we are important because that’s how imagination works.  It always starts with our own experiences and generalizes from that.  

One knows a system by observing its behaviour and its boundaries. In order to better understand the Human System, we ought to know as much as possible about when it began and how it began.  Then we can better distinguish it from other  kinds of living systems.  

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