Posts Tagged ‘human technology’

SERMON: “Nature is out to Get You!” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

It’s true.  Nature is out to get you.

It’s easy to forget this, living as many of us do in our modern world of indoor plumbing (with clean, treated water) and safe cars (coated in polymers and pigments and lubricated with oils and grease) and comfortable clothes (some even treated to protect us from UV rays, or to shed the rain, in addition to keeping us warm).  We have the luxury of viewing nature as quaint, pure and benevolent.  It’s not.  It never has been.

Reading “The World Without Us” (reviewed earlier on this blog) had the unexpected effect of giving me an appreciation for the many man-made materials that have been developed to hold off the power of nature to break everything down into its component elements.  Granted, it is these very man-made compounds that are now polluting our oceans and water supplies.  Still, one has to admire the ingenuity of our species and recognize the reality that life and comfort must be continually wrested from the natural world.

And this, of course, is our dilemma.  We have become successful at holding back corrosion and decay and heat and cold and the dark to a point where we have altered the nature we only meant to keep in check.  Well, that may not be accurate.  I expect that most people in generations before ours did not see nature as anything other than a malevolent, capricious force.  In our time, we have gone to the other extreme and glorified this mindless constellation of natural phenomenon to a point that many of our more conservative brethren feel as if we humans are being devalued to the point of being seen as a mere nuisance to the great earth mother.

The reality is, well, the reality of it all: we are a species on this planet doing what we do both for our survival and our prosperity, dealing with a growing awareness that we cannot afford to completely tame our environment lest we choke off the very source of our sustenance.  It’s an interesting dilemma faced — to some degree — by just about every living thing there is: the parasite that ends up killing its host, the locust that consumes everything in its path, the humans that fish the seas empty.

As smart as we are, I wonder whether we really have it in our power to forestall the inevitable depletion of our resources.  Our technology seems to be on an evolutionary path all it’s own (though we humans can seem to be as much passenger as driver of that train).  Of course — as The World Without Us so cleverly shows — our technological progress  can only continue as long as we continue.  But for now — even with all of our talk of becoming “green” — the forces of cold and heat and weather that drove us to create electric cooling and gas heating and internal combustion engined bulldozers continues unabated.

Life exists in the gaps between the forces of nature.

A complication to our proper perception of the many “natural” forces at work in our world is the fact that they act on different scales of time.  In my part of the world (the Chihuahuan Desert of Southern New Mexico), we don’t see houses rot from mold and dampness, or weather rapidly from constant rain.  But we do see paint faded to dust in a few seasons by the unrelenting sunshine.  And though we can see the immediate results of corrosion in a skillet left too long in the sink or the dashboard cracked by sun damage, we don’t notice the erosion of the mountains by wind and rain and freeze and thaw, or the tumbling action of the oceans or rivers that quickly smooth the rough edges off of stones.  Even slower is the movement of the earth’s crust which — though we can now measure it precisely — moves far too slow for us to perceive it (except when we experience the earth-quaking effects of that movement).

Much of the mystery of how nature works has been dispelled by science, and some of the power of those natural forces can be temporally thwarted by paint and steel and concrete and sunscreen.  But nature persists — mindless and random but not causeless — wearing away, fading, smoothing, melting, building and tearing down.  We are soft living things finding ways to stay alive and intact in an inert world of abrasives and searching rays of ultraviolet light that are the source of both our life and our undoing.

Appreciating the raw, relentless power of nature makes the wonder of our own existence even more remarkable.  Life, it turns out, is a thing that exists in the space between the power of nature to destroy and to create.  But even that statement misses the mark, for nature has no intelligence with which to actively create or destroy, it is simply what it is.  And life is the thing that sprang up in the spaces between the abrasive sands and weathering waves, between the planet’s bubbling molten core and the dead cold of space.  It is the fruit of the first organisms that took chemical reactions that one step further to self-replication — that were able to use sunlight for energy and minerals for food.  Life found a niche in a world of inert geology and atmosphere and exploded into abundance.  Beaten back by nature again and again, it came back improved.

Nature, of course, will win in the end.  It always does.  And I don’t mean the nature of the wild things that surround us (the other living organisms such as the virus and the cockroach).  No, all life will eventually be consumed again back into the elements that made it as the universe collapses back upon itself and reforms all over again.  It’s not just the cycle of life we are a part of, but the larger cycle of the elements and energy.

But if it’s of any comfort to you: Nature is not only out to get you but — in a way — itself as well.  So don’t take it personally.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Flying High” by the not-so-reverend bob

Monday, July 26th, 2010

As the mid-size commercial airliner lifted me through canyons and cathedrals of billowing clouds, my face was nearly pressed to my small window to the sky.  A moment ago rain was streaking across the glass, and we were accelerating down the runway beneath a low, gray monsoonal sky.  Now we were above the rain, eye level with layer upon layer of rising cumulous in shades of blue grays where they stood like columns supporting a ceiling of even more clouds, above which shone the evening sun.  Shreds of long, thin cirrus clouds raced by in the foreground.  The beauty of it nearly took my breath away.

As we continued to rise up into the clear, smooth air above the cloud level it occurred to me that just moments earlier I had been reading a book about how the discovery of cooking had played the major role in our evolution from apes to humans.  Now I was flying at an incredible speed in a product of very recent human technology witnessing sights that a tiny majority of life on earth would ever see.

Around me were a cabin full of fellow primates who seemed mostly anxious for permission to turn their phones back on.

I’m not going to be a prig and insist that everyone around me should have been equally rapt with the scene unfolding outside our cozy aluminum cabin.  No.  We each take our moments of wonder and awe when (and as) we find them.  That is the wonder of natural beauty: it is there to be enjoyed by anyone that takes the time to look, and no matter how many people look at it, it is neither diminished nor depleted.  Beauty, when it appears, is an unlimited resource for the time it is on display.

Of course our aesthetic sense is something that has evolved right along with our upright gait and ability to talk, and it is a universal trait of us hominids.  The religiously inclined would likely suggest that such a “natural” view of one of our “higher senses” is a slap against god, and a reduction of humans to nothing more than clever animals.  What crap.

Animals we most definitely are.  But the suggestion that this statement of fact is some sort of diminishment of our status makes less and less sense to me.  Perhaps its because I’ve moved so far from the point of accepting the fact that there is nothing that happens on this planet that is not completely natural in origin that I am now free to more truly appreciate the wonder of who and what we are.  For I would suggest that until one accepts the reality of our actual origins and place in the world, one is not qualified to pass judgement on the “evolutionary” view of life, or to portray it as an insult to god’s image.

There is so much real wonder out there to contemplate that I now consider any religious or spiritual explanation of things to be the true diminishment of our species.  They represent the stories of our childhood as a species.  When considered in that light, our first stories are useful in understanding our development as humans, but when applied as actual, grown-up explanations or as guides for adult behavior, they are woefully inadequate and — I would argue — detrimental to our continued progress.

In my own life I feel as if I’ve just reached a point where I have cleared away enough of the cobwebs and inherited stories to begin my discovery of what life really has to offer.  It only took me 51 years (an age which I would never have reached in earlier times).  And thanks (it would seem) to cooking (more on this next week), I was born in a time where I could spend as little time eating as possible, yet take in enough calories to have the energy, the lifespan, and the time to learn as much as I have learned.

That, in itself, is a source of awe and wonder.

I feel, also, a certain urgency to see just how far I can go with this journey of discovery in my one lifetime.

Around us are thousands of people that seem to live more like animals than we would like to admit, moving with the herd.  At times each of us must move with the pack as well.  But in-between those passages, we have the time, energy and opportunity to look around us, to look at ourselves and explore our lives, our bodies, our world.  It is an evolutionary gift that has been given to no other species as richly as to us.  And it is there to enjoy, just like those billowing clouds I flew through.  Just like the sunset.

Life’s riches are there for anyone who takes the time to stop and take them in.

t.n.s.r. bob