Greener Pastures – Humans Move Rather Than Solve Their Problems

I remember reading a short story titled “Farmer on the Dole” by a science fiction writer that first appeared in Omni Magazine (October-November 1982). Fredrick Pohl’s career (1937–2012) spanned 75 years. His numerous works earned him many prestigious awards for the following: Gateway (1977), The Years of the City (1985), Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980), Heechee Rendezvous (1984), and Man Plus (1976), Jem (1980). Also included were short stories Fermi and Frost (1986), The Meeting (1973).

This story became unforgettable and continued to trouble me because it contains a hint of what concerns me most about humanity. What it suggests about us leaves a negative aftertaste that cannot be washed or flushed away. It is a story where robots are created to imitate and replace the humans who have abandoned the planet they ruined to go to new worlds to repeat the process. Those humans remaining behind on the dying planet are a bit lonely and nostalgic and want company. It is a repulsive view of man and his unwillingness to solve the problems he created. It reveals the principal flaw in our species. We run from problems. We do not like having to work to solve them.

Farmer on the Dole focuses on an old human experience and attitude. Pohl merely changes the time, place, and circumstances. He takes the story out of our time and simply inserts it into the future elsewhere. Our species pollute, abandon, and go elsewhere to do the same all over again. We never learn. We never really grow or evolve in our behavior. It is a continuation of our stone-age primitive slash and burn agriculture practices to planetary levels. In Farmer on the Dole, mankind has launched himself into the stars, but his brain is still the naked ape hunter-gatherer. We are still the clever monkey of our dimming past.

Following his line of thought, we must ultimately accept mankind as incapable of learning from even the vilest of his past follies. Looking at our world at this juncture, we must accept that verdict as plastics flood the streams and rivers, clogging and collecting over vast stretches of the oceans that determine life. The conclusion is clear. We proceed to flatten mountain tops to extract fossil fuels raising the planet’s temperature and threatening to end civilization as we know it. It continues so a few can live luxuriously for a bit longer before the curtain falls.

Rather than solving problems, Pohl’s humanity leaves and creates a complete fleet of robot androids to carry on in their absence. What a novel idea; our ultimate dream. Androids have all the appearances and behaviors of living creatures like us. We are capable beings; however, we are not smart. Is this not the way we are currently treating the Earth, our home? Do we just go on wasting the land and ruining the water and air until the planet becomes a desert (physically and spiritually)? Will Ursula K. Le Guin’s observation in passing in The Dispossessed become our reality? Why would we bother to use science and technology to create phantom robot images of ourselves and an equally ridiculous likeness of a plastic replica of our world? What a ludicrous farce.

Our ‘slash and burn’ thought pattern has persisted from our prehistoric predecessors extending back for more than fifty thousand years. The world view of the last 300 years has been dominated by a Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm (Renee Descartes and Sir Isaac Newton) that operates on the assumption mind and body are separated, that the body is a clockwork machine, and reality can be learned or determined by the study of the smallest constituent parts. Not even Quantum theory and Relativity have managed to change the multitude’s thinking in this regard. Everything we have learned in the past 30 or more years with the rise of social media and the implications of our use of big data has not penetrated these beliefs among most. Our faith persists the universe is an orderly and predictable machine. Isn’t God in control? What is there to be concerned about? The book has been written, and events appear as written. We need not be concerned or worried. This has been a useful approach for many, however, the ideas we invent to explain and ensure our survival today become the cause of our demise tomorrow.

Philosopher William Irwin Thompson said the future belongs to the mystic and the systems analyst. Thompson suggested we get beyond our simple exploitive view of nature as a machine to be manipulated. We need to adopt a compatible view of nature that sees its parts as revealing its function rather than defining the entire system as a function of a few elements. We will appreciate the complexity of the system and act more harmoniously. The systems analyst will monitor and report on the organism’s health and the day-to-day conditions of things. The mystic will be the interpreter of the direction the organism must move in the future. The description and terminology Thompson uses are dated in light of all we have seen change over the past 40 years, but his thoughts are relevant and understood. Maybe there is a beneficial use for big data other than using it to control, manipulate, oppress, and enslave humanity.

Human minds internalize objects and make patterns. We internalize the universe as objects. These patterns, once constructed, are not easily changed or altered. The only way of altering embedded thought patterns, according to Thompson, is by one of three means. These changes result from insights often revealed in humor, because of a fortunate accident, and what the late creative thinker Edward De Bono called lateral thinking.

Our perception, according to Thompson, is based on the internalization of the mother/infant relationship, money (economic system), and religion. This illustrates how hard it is to change our way of thinking and perceiving reality. Our view of reality is dominated by ideas from 300 years past. The dominant economic paradigm dates from the same era. It threatens to destroy the planet, most life, and our civilization, but we resist changing or seriously questioning it. In addition to humor, the infant/mother relationship, and economics mentioned above, we should acknowledge our thinking also can be changed by catastrophic events. The ecological collapse caused by global warming and climate change, a massive planetary war, a meteor or asteroid strike, and the crumbling of governments across the planet due to the economic catastrophe caused by any of the above serves the same purpose. The universe within us is inseparable from the universe outside. One is the mirror image of the other. What we perceive influences, determines, and defines our reality. History shows us we rarely make such fundamental changes.

The human flaw may be due to our short life awareness of the consequences of our actions. We seem unable to appreciate the long-term implications of our behaviors. It reveals the inadequacy of our educational processes to foster a longer view. We have the acquired wisdom and knowledge of overcoming these shortcomings, but we refuse to employ them. Our resistance and comfort in wallowing in denial, ignorance, and superstition prevail. We must develop our awareness of the interrelationship of all things. We must acknowledge our role in the process. We must find and learn new ways to think about and approach our world. We must change our thinking from destruction and extraction of the planet to investing in its health and sustainability we require to survive and thrive. We will have time to explore the vast universe beaconing us. First, we must learn to solve problems in our own yard before we go about spreading our garbage and refuse across the cosmos. Wabi-sabi. Namaste.

Originally published at on March 4, 2021.

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Tiny Ascension Island: Key to the Future?

Ascension Island

Ascension Island is a tiny volcanic rock south of the equator in the middle of the South Atlantic. Located almost midway between Brazil and Africa, it may provide the key to changing the hostile environments we will encounter when we venture to other worlds. It may also be the key to restoring the Earth.

Ascension is an island of only 34 square miles (88 square kilometers). The British Overseas Territory was essentially a barren rock pile when Charles Darwin visited there at the end of his second voyage aboard the HMS Beagle in 1836.

The Spanish explorer, Joao da Nova, discovered Ascension Island in 1501. It attracted no interest due to its dry climate and little freshwater. Passing ships continued to stop so sailors could catch seabirds and turtles for a change-of-diet, but no permanent habitation.

Settlement of Ascension did not arrive until the British Navy placed a garrison in 1815 as insurance against Napoleon, exiled on Saint Helena some 800 miles to the southeast, attempting to escape. It became an imperial outpost and a rest stop for scientific explorers like Darwin and his friend botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker.

Darwin was on his way home after his five-year exploration mission on the HMS Beagle when it stopped at Ascension Island in 1836. He had visited Saint Helena first and came to Ascension out of curiosity and a desire to compare the two islands. He found little on Ascension about which to be excited. It was an arid island buffeted by dry trade winds from Southern Africa with sparse vegetation and few animals or insects. There were no trees and the little rain that fell quickly evaporated. The Scarcity of freshwater impeded the growth or expansion of the imperial outpost.

Despite its shortcomings, Darwin was intrigued by this island. A few years later when Joseph Hooker embarked upon his scientific adventure and stopped at this barren island outpost on his way home. After returning to London in 1843 and with encouragement from Darwin, Hooker, the botanist, devised a plan to alter its environment.

Hooker’s father was the Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. Hooker, assisted by his father, arranged for trees to be shipped to Ascension to use them to capture the rain. They hoped that using trees to capture moisture from the rain would help make the soil fertile and change the barren island into a lush garden. It was hope without any evidence or example suggesting the plan might work.

Over the years that followed, new shipments of trees of many varieties were shipped annually from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa, and Argentina. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the island was home to Norfolk pines, eucalyptus, bamboo, and banana trees. The 2,817 foot Green Mountain, highest on the island, was transformed into a cloud forest characterized by a persistent low-level cloud cover.

The trees drew moisture from the clouds, enriching the soil and allowing other vegetation to thrive as hoped. Darwin and Hooker assisted by the Royal Navy turned the barren island landscape into a lush oasis. The success of this experiment was far beyond their expectations.   

Ascension Island cloud forest

What Darwin, Hooker, and the Royal Navy created was the first self-sustaining and self-reproducing ecosystem. What might we learn from this first attempt in terraforming? The environment they created is artificial. It has a mixture of plants and trees that do not belong together in nature, but they are growing side-by-side. Such ecosystems as this should take over a million years to develop through a slow process of co-evolution. This ecosystem was built over a few decades by the Royal Navy. The lessons learned here are of immense future importance. It tells us we can create a fully functioning ecosystem through careful planning, trial-and-error, and aided by a few chance accidents.

The process is now known as ecological fitting. The plants on Ascension were collected from locations around-the-world and have self-organized into a thriving artificial system. The success Darwin, Hooker, and the Royal Navy accomplished on Ascension Island remains relatively unknown and largely ignored by the scientific community. Its implications have immense potential importance both in our need to restore the Earth and in the future when we try to reshape environments on other worlds.

Combatting climate change and mitigating global warming, we must change our thinking and behavior. Rather than taking from it by drilling, extracting, stripping, and pumping resources from the Earth, we must invest in restoring the environment and ecosystems to protect its health and welfare. Creating artificial ecosystems by planting large-scale planned forests may not be our first choice, but it may become the only choice. The knowledge and expertise we acquire have implications and impact on what we do later elsewhere on the Earth and in outer space. We may learn how to turn deserts and other barren areas we have created by our rush to extract, drill, and pump Earth’s bounty to support our greed and lust green again.

Green mountain shows us much about how ecosystems form and function in ways we never imagined. It may help us understand how an ecosystem can be constructed and used for carbon sequestration to combat global warming and climate change. Planned forests may be lacking in diversity and the regional peculiarities we find in nature, but they are a small price to pay given what we have lost in our currently warming world.

History and experience suggest humans do not want to face hard realities. We try our best to avoid difficult choices and making painful decisions, even when our very survival is at risk. We seem unable to defer on pleasure even knowing continuing a behavior leads to death. Consequently, acknowledging we must learn to live within the sustainable limits of the Earth’s capacity to regenerate is a requirement and not a choice for becoming a spacefaring species.

Why? Because wherever we go into the cosmos, we take Earth with us. But before we go elsewhere, we have to have a healthy Earth to draw from and return. We have to recreate Earth wherever we go. Any life we find elsewhere will undoubtedly be toxic to us. Bringing the Earth with us wherever we go is not a choice. It is a necessity.  

Global warming and climate change make studying what happened on Ascension Island imperative to help us restore the Earth. Here lies a gift for us, hidden on a small forgotten island in the middle of nowhere. We only need to see and take advantage of what we have inherited. It may provide how we may soon need to save ourselves.

As always, Wabi-sabi

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