Total Drek

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Change

If there's any one thing that characterizes the universe it is change. Nothing, as the saying goes, lasts forever and this is as true for individual human lives as it is for galactic megastructures. People are born and people die, planets are born and planets die, stars are born and stars die, and so on up to the largest levels of existence. In such a maleable world we have all had to come to grips with the idea that the world does, in fact, flex and shift and generally go on about things without us.

Unfortunately, we as humans are somewhat limited in our perspective on change. We perceive the world at a particular rate* and for a limited duration. Things that change more rapidly than we can perceive we know only through their consequences. Things that change more slowly than we can perceive, in turn, seem eternal and unchanging. And so, because of our limited perceptual ability, we may fail to notice things that are, in many ways, staring us in the face.

I have been thinking about change as a consequence of three stories that have hit the news in the last few days. The first is that water may still flow on the planet Mars. When I initially heard this story I suspected that scientists had looked at some new canyon or plain and concluded that water still exists under the surface and has reached the surface sometime in the past century or so. For geologists, this is essentially contmeporary. I was only half-right. In fact, scientists have compared photographs of the same canyons taken several years apart and noticed new deposits that strongly appear to have been laid down by liquid water. So, in other words, within not just our lifetimes but within the past few years liquid water may have touched the surface of Mars. This is, to put it mildly, fucking exciting, and has substantial implications not just for the possible existence of native life on Mars, but also for eventual human terraforming of the Red Planet. In this case change over a short period arouses considerable interest. It is, after all, something we can see in pictures.

Then comes a second story: that here on Earth things may be changing as well. Specifically, our oceans are getting warmer. Why is this of concern? Well, because it seems to be killing off the photosynthetic critters that we depend on. How do we depend on them, you ask? Well, it's simple: we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon-dioxide. They inhale carbon-dioxide and exhale oxygen. It's a wonderful little cycle. Thing is, while terrestrial plants do this too, the role of oceanic algae in replenishing our oxygen supply is immense. The oceans have even been referred to as the lungs of the Earth. Without them, we're going to be in bad shape. This change is also one we can see, but over a longer time span than in the case of Mars. It's a little harder for us to grasp but it's still there in the data if you care to look.

And then we come to our last story. In this story we hear about how the outgoing Chair of the Senate Environmental Committee, James Inhofe, has spent years campaigning against the idea that Humans are partially responsible for global warming. He has, in fact, referred to the media's promulgation of the global warming idea as the "greatest hoax perpetrated on the American people." In his last hearing on the subject he brought in three witnesses who are skeptical of human responsibility for global warming to testify on the subject. Now, obviously, there remains disagreement on the issue of global warming, but by and large we have a scientific consensus: the Earth is warming, and Humans are at least partly responsible for it. We may be wholly responsible, though I have my doubts on that. Nevertheless, the change is occurring, and for industrialized nations dealing with this problem would be expensive and difficult. Thus- like a child arguing with its mother- we offer up a littany of excuses and equivocations so as to avoid punishment. Some of us take comfort in hiding behind a tiny sliver of scientific disagreement, hoping that it will stem the overwhelming flood of scholarly consensus. In this case scientists are extremely certain that we are presently in the midst of a massive environmental change brought about partly by our own actions, but this change is one that has been occuring slowly. So slowly that most of us don't even notice. The world we know is different from that of our parents, and the world of our children will be different from ours, but in the meantime things are happening so slowly they seem not to be happening at all. Yet, this is not the same thing as stability and, however slowly it may overtake us, change is in the works.

As a sociologist such long-term changes are nothing new to me. Societies change but, by and large, they do so slowly. Sexual mores are different now than they were fifty years ago and will doubtless be different in another fifty years. If the current trend continues, what will become acceptable casualwear will doubtless shock me as much as current standards shock my grandparents. So be it. Each generation makes its own world using the tools given by its predecessors. I see no reason why my children should not have this blessing, and curse, themselves. In any case societies, like the Earth itself, are always changing but are so slow in it that we often forget that our world is not constant and is not stable.

And so, perhaps, it is appropriate that these two slow-changing things are now locked in an embrace. Mr. Inhofe is being replaced in the chairmanship by a Democrat who is receptive to science and seems to recognize the peril we are in. Change is occurring on a short-span as well, a few years, and that change may have longer-lasting effects. If we as a society can change, we may be able to ride out the consequences of our behavior and become responsible stewards of our planetary environment. If we cannot change in this way, then change of another sort will still overtake us in its own time. As such our social world, and our physical world, are now one. Change to one may prevent change to the other- at least for a time- but we cannot hold it all back with sheer force of will.

Whether we want it or not, change is coming. So let's pick the changes we want and work for them while we still can.


* Sometimes known as a "chronometric," meaning the subjective experience of continuous time. So, for example, if I were to fire a gun in front of you, you would be unable to perceive the bullet in flight. This isn't because the light can't reach your eyes fast enough, or because the bullet doesn't traverse the intermediate space, but because your brain can't process that information rapidly enough for you to see the bullet. In essence the human chronometric is too slow to see the bullet. By contrast, we can see a much slower baseball just fine.

5 Comments:

Blogger Practicing Idealist said...

These small changes can also be seen on an individual level. Often we lament that couples have drifted apart, but it's a series of slow, slow steps that causes the eventual dissolution of relationships in many cases, rather than monumental events. That's partly why communication (and resolution) of the little things is so vital to the prolonging of relationships, much as resolving small things that lead to global warming must be instituted to truly change the larger-scale effects. -D's SF

Thursday, December 07, 2006 11:07:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Are you trying to tell me something, dear?

Thursday, December 07, 2006 11:13:00 AM  
Blogger Practicing Idealist said...

Not at all! I was actually worried about how that was going to sound. I was just looking for an example that would resonate with the personal experience of many who read your blog. You are an excellent communicator! I'm just not always that hot at it ; ). -D's SF

Thursday, December 07, 2006 11:28:00 AM  
Anonymous bookmobile said...

Ha! That's funny!

Thursday, December 07, 2006 4:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear god, did you just call Drek a good communicator? I guess no one could ever argue that he's not direct...

-Another Sociologist

Monday, December 11, 2006 10:44:00 AM  

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