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
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
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
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
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
Third, modern agriculture is a major source of
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
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.