Quintillions of untold stories

Published on 2024-03-16

Content warning: climate anxiety

We've groped for comfort before the sling and arrows of fortune for millennia, and I begrudge nobody their sources of solace.

But science provides tools.

$100 billion a year in scientific studies and medical R&D has brought us some pretty damn powerful slings and arrows of our own.

This world is amazing, and I'm going to live to experience more of it thanks to people who refused to gracefully accept the ineffability of reality.

I find my courage where I can, but I take my weapons from science.

Because they work, bitches.

Sometimes I wonder how many stories have gone untold, merely because they aren't bound by the nature of physical reality.

Occam's razor is generally told as "the best explanation is usually the simplest." I first heard of the more advanced and deeply ideological version, often called Newton's flaming laser sword (though Newton had little to do with it) as a child, which argues that questions not answerable with the scientific method are not worth answering--that is, the right answer is always the one that can be explained through cause, effect and observation.

There was always something unsettling about this idea to me, though at the time, I didn't really have the language to explain it. Today, I think it's because the statement clearly presupposes that science is the correct way to understand the world; that other ways are invalid by their very nature. There's something... totalitarian about it.

Scientific apostasy

Not unlike the hatless stick figure in the xkcd comic quoted above, I do have respect for science in its capacity to make "weapons," tools with which we can challenge the nature of reality, although unlike the hatless stick figure I do hesitate a little, and question the extent to which that's actually a good idea. For all the wonderful comforts it has brought me personally, I do find myself equally haunted by the apparent event horizon that seems to always be lurking around the corner--the day my heart is laid on the cosmic scale, my sins are tallied, and it is revealed once and for all, that whether it be the forest or the trees, I am personally complicit in a lifetime of walking the path of least resistance.

When I was in high school, one day, it occurred to me as I discarded the wrapper of a granola bar, that for most intensive purposes, that wrapper would never truly go away. First it would land in my trash can, and then the trash would be taken to the curb. A truck would take that bag away to a place I've never heard of. Maybe it'd land in a large pile outside my city, or maybe it'd be placed on a ship and transported to a country in the Global South for "processing." It'd sit for years, before perhaps due to some fluke of gravity, an object would shift in place, tearing the plastic flesh of the bag, rifting its containment, and slowly, over a geological time period, my trash would spill out to the Earth. The water would fall from the sky, again, slowly reacting with the trash, tearing it apart, molecule by molecule, as it degraded into an aqueous solution of leachate. In the absolute best-case scenario, this site would happen to be a "sanitary landfill," and this leachate would be collected and piped out for evaporation and other "residual management" procedures. Otherwise, it'd seep into the soil where it would spend all of eternity, constituting a new, anthropogenic strata--a layer of human waste, completely entombing the Earth in our geological record.

All I could do is hide from it.

I imagined my heart as a massive ball of these discarded granola bar wrappers. I was haunted by the image of my home as a place that honestly kept score of my sins: a dump, overflowing of perfectly preserved food waste in stores so barren of oxygen that they won't fully decompose for millions of years, minerals, synthetic polymers... A monument to my legacy on Earth.

In the month following, I had become obsessed with recycling. I would wash and sort all my family's trash, I immersed myself in websites explaining how to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle, I desperately tried to push reusable and otherwise waste-free products on the people I lived with... They seemed annoyed, but they didn't exactly stop me. Intuitively, they seemed to realize that what I was doing was "right," in a sense--what we all should be doing, if we had the energy.

It didn't last long, though. A month, maybe. Maybe if I was living in a different place, a different time, with different people, I could have made it work, but the inertia was just too strong. My fear subsided, and I grew used to wastefulness again.

Today, I try not to investigate my individual impact on the environment more than is healthy. I know that for however terrible I may have been, and I may be, I'm still just a drop in the ocean of seven billion people, all marching towards the event horizon.

Fritz Haber, famous for chemical warfare and the chemical innovation that enabled industrial agriculture, is often thought to be directly responsible for the massive growth in population we've seen over the last century. Nitrogen--an element extremely useful in the fertilization of plants--was pretty hard to come by. So hard, that we were robbing graves all over the world just to dig it out of people's bones. Haber found a way for us to synthesize nitrogen by pulling it literally from the air. I imagine it's unlikely the world could support this many people without it. And similarly, it's hard to predict how exactly the Earth would support the rest of the life it supports without the massive amount of nitrogen uptake from humans. Otherwise, it's just there. The slow nitrogen cycle has been completely upset by our presence; our presence may be strictly necessary for it to remain in its steady state.

"Plastic," as we conventionally understand it today, was first invented by a man named Leo Baekeland in 1907. Indeed, he invented the word "plastics" too. Substances that are "plastic" (in the adjective form) have been around since the dawn of time, and have been extremely useful for their malleability. With plastic, you can make pretty much anything. Modern plastics, though, are cheap and easy to make. Unlike naturally plastic materials, they're extremely expensive and hard to "unmake." They don't degrade gracefully. Overtime, they turn into microplastics. Over the course of my life, the accumulation of microplastics in the human body has effortlessly graduated from a serious concern to a fact of life.

I could go on and on about this. Other entries in the highlight reel include CFCs and the depletion of the ozone layer, the degradation of soil through repeated monoculture, pesticides and pesticide drift, atomic weapons, artificial intelligence and the industrial deskilling of labour... What all these things have in common is that they were done by people acting out a role they were assigned in a story--THE story of our time: the endlessly turning wheel of scientific and industrial progress. The story of infinite growth. The heroism of those who refused to gracefully accept the ineffability of reality. Their role was to give us new slings and arrows, and give us they did.

It is a central theme to the degrowther left that what we're experiencing today is possible because of over extension. The body keeps score, as it were. Everything we take has to have come from somewhere. Until we surround someone else's sun with a Dyson sphere and find an economical way to mine other people's planets, that place we're taking from will always be our home.

We are haunted by the spectre of the event horizon. Maybe we've already crossed it, maybe we never will, but either way it's still there. Right now, we still have time to tell a new story, or an old story, or any story other than the one we're faithfully acting out right now. When we cross that boundary, there will be no more people to tell stories, and no more stories to tell.

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