A Reality Czech  

by Jan Kozderka 


Reality is for the most part unknown and for the most part unknowable - in order to capture its complexity down to the last subatomic particle, our model of reality would have to be more complex than the universe itself.

Also, gathering information as well as storing it is costly. Thus our perception of reality, our map, or our matrix, if you will, will always be limited and simplified, similar to the shadows on the ceiling of Platoīs cave, possibly enhanced through the most modern of the instruments, but shadows nevertheless.

But even though our knowledge is and will be a grain of sand in the whole galaxy, modeling of reality is imminently practical, because evolution is about the survival of the fittest to the specific environment (and not the strongest, as many languages would have it), thus our survival depends on our adaptation to reality.

Humans are very fragile, in the space of just several so called formative years they need to absorb the bulk of this model chunk by chunk. As most of the information is acquired through others, the already sketchy model will necessarily be tainted by interests of other people.

No kid has the time and means to verify and test all the information he or she is given. Growing up, we need to trust what the authorities say, what people we like say, what many other people do. We pay more attention to the scarce and filter the information in order to stay consistent with previously acquired knowledge.

These mental shortcuts serve us well for the most part, but they can also lead us astray. Enter science, a way to separate ideas that are close to reality from marketing and bullshit. At least in theory it submits ideas to a test - if the idea withstands the reality check, it can be considered as a trustworthy map of reality. What makes science special is that one should always remember he is looking at a map, not at reality itself. And even if after a million tests the map works, if it doesnīt a millionth and first time, it should be redrawn.

Of course science does have its limits, as all human endeavors ultimately do. It is also often misused. But letīs have a look at three areas where science is reasonably clear, but society as a whole seems to prefer a vanilla sky:

1) Environment - climate change is a fact. So is biodiversity loss and the disrupted cycle of nitrogen and phosphorus. As they are all weak links, their breakdown will bring down the whole ecosystem.

Even the most hardline climate change deniers do agree that humans have some influence on the environment, as interaction with the environment is one of the definitions of life. They just find it hard to imagine that a race that is currently able to destroy the planet with one big explosion could achieve a similar effect by millions of small explosions in the pistons of its machines.

Scientists couldn't be clearer, the impact of humans on the environment is real and so large that they have coined a new term for our era: the anthropocene.

2) Economy - current mainstream economics is not science. It is based on the discredited notions of the rational consumer and market equilibrium and as a wanna be map of reality, it is becoming dangerously obsolete, as the economic crisis manifested clearly enough for those willing to wake up. It should be more aptly described as a propaganda tool.

At the same time the current economic system is based on the principle of growth, because of the concept of financial interest at its core. As the interest is an exponential function and our natural resources are limited, this system will sooner or later hit the brick wall of reality.

3) Energy - if we convert human labor into joules and compare it to fossil fuels, it turns out that there are more than 11 000 hours of human work in one barrel of oil. So in fact we are still living in a slave society, only the work is being done by fossil fuel slaves. More than 30 for an average North American.

Do you look down on the people that took mortgages on mansions they couldn't afford? In terms of energy units we are all subprime. We are living beyond our means. We took a huge mortgage from nature and we are starting to receive the bills.

Now there's still lots of fossil fuels left, but they will be progressively harder to extract. Alternative energies? Their problem is low energy density. Science might come up with a solution, but there is no guarantee that it will not create more problems than it solves.

The irony is that the problems above are the result of humans being extremely good at what they do. Also they are very natural: if an organism discovers a large supply of energy, it will colonize it and replicate until either the supply is gone or until it will die in its own waste. In this sense tasting a good beer or wine is enjoying the results of a collapse of a "civilization" of yeast. The difference between yeast and us is that our map of reality ought to be better.

We tend to look at cities as independent units, but a more realistic view is that cities are a small fruit on a large tree whose leaves, trunk and roots are agriculture. There are 3 features of agriculture that make it particularly relevant to this discussion.

First, it is not a coincidence that agriculture started independently in several parts of the world approximately at the same time: for the last 10 000 years the climate has been unusually stable. As climate change is bound to bring weather extremes, humans can probably hide, not so the crops they depend on.

Second, modern agriculture is very energy intensive. For 1 calorie of food consumed in the US, 15 calories of energy inputs are needed, if we add up the whole cycle (production, including fertilization and protection by pesticides, processing, distribution and food-related personal travel). It is far from sustainable.

Third, modern agriculture is a major source of pollution.

Responses to this type of fragility may differ. In my own bubble, without any claims for scientific accuracy, Iīm trying to experiment with a philosophy that focuses on lowering of inputs and maximizing of outputs: permaculture. Although mainstream research is lacking, it seems that permacultural methods are more in line with the nature of reality and reality of nature.

For example take a self-sustaining natural system like a forest. You donīt need to irrigate it, fertilize it or spray it. It does capture so much sunlight energy that the bottom level might be quite dark. The only problem is that it doesnīt produce much food for humans.

Permaculture studies the principles at play in natural systems and uses them to design landscapes that can have several times higher yields of food per acre than a typical monoculture. The emphasis on the principle of diversity makes the system more resilient by design to for example the spread of diseases. The principle of layering optimizes space by planting tall trees, smaller trees, bushes, herbs, root crops and vines together. The principle of using renewable resources motivates planting of plants that fix nitrogen from the air and fertilize other plants naturally.

If this is the more realistic way to feed the planet I donīt know. Maybe Iīm just drifting in my bubble far, far from objective reality, but it is subjectively fun and when I look at the growing trees that will hopefully be here long after Iīm gone, I find this work meaningful.



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