Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Freak Solar Flare May Render a Whole Hemisphere of the Globe's Human Population Sterile!

Consider this thought experiment brought to you by the economist bloggers of Marginal Revolution. A freak burst of solar activity causes all animal life on the sunward side of planet Earth to become sterile, i.e., unable to reproduce. What would result?

Well speaking quite literally, about this world, and not some abstraction: No doubt, the food chain in that portion of the world would be severely disrupted. It seems a quick road to disaster for human beings with regard to supply of food animals. Once humans in that half of the world had worked their way through the present bovine, ovine, porcine, cancrine, piscine, cervine and avian generation it seems they would, at least temporarily be in a pickle (or at the very least subsisting on pickles and their vegetative brethren.) Thank goodness yeast would be spared. They would not only still be able to create vinegar for those pickles, but beer to take the edge off a meatless existence.

But, things wouldn’t necessarily be rosy for Veganism in that part of the world either. Given that animals are tied closely to plant life cycles, green, orange, and red vegetable brethren would quickly disappear from that side of the globe. Small beasties are essential components of the soil, aiding plant growth. Bees and other beasties allow many species of plants to reproduce. And if things aren’t bad enough on land, the ocean food chain, too would break. As far as I know, some plankton are members of the animal kingdom and precariously near the base of the oceanic food chain. So, it seems that a major disruption of life on Earth would certainly occur.

Come to think of it, I don’t think we humans would stand a chance after much more than a few days. Remember, each of us is really a very complex symbiotic community. All those beneficial bacteria and microorganisms that we harbor would disappear almost instantly. Holy indigestion!

Yeah. Yeah. I know. I’m kind of missing the point of the post...

The point is to lay bare a basic presupposition of human life that makes institutional behavior, indeed culture, possible, i.e.: that our cultural efforts and the members of our culture will persist into the future.

Now, Marginal Revolution, a blog by economists, asked this question with economics in mind. Not surprisingly, they predicted various nasty things of an economic nature would result. For instance, they suggest that trust in and use of fiat currency would collapse, depending as it does on long term regularities in promissory behavior, and trust in widespread continuation of the same. Hey, once the future is eliminated, all bets are off.

Thanks to an ambiguity, between the post title “The Mass Sterilization of Half of Humanity” and its description “A freak solar event "sterilizes" the half of the planet (people, animals, etc) facing the sun...” the post gives occasion for considering different scenarios. WaPo opinion writer David Brooks took it as the title suggests. He asked what would be the likely consequences if human beings were the only ‘target’ of the freak solar storm.

His conclusion: The cultures affected would radically shrink their temporal horizon. There would be no posterity to plan and strategize for. These cultures might try to bring in replacement population from parts of the globe that were unaffected, but the chances that these immigrants would take over the cultural mantel are low. Instead, they would bring their own culture.

Seeing this, after a relatively short period of time the sterile cultures would shrink their temporal horizon of care. Something like 60s era pop philosophy would become the norm. “Turn On Tune In and Drop Out,” and “Be here now” would take on axiomatic status as statements of the primary approach to life.

Brookes envisions a population of hedonists, a hippy paradise, or hell, depending on how well you think the vestigial societies would survive into dotage. What is more, waiting, either within the confines of the dying culture, or in the wings, would be other distinct cultures that would simply fill the space.

Depressing, but interesting. Without the goad of the future, as something to plan and provide for, a culture would crumble. That seems to be the basic idea.

The blog question is a bit like the question we’ve all heard at least once in our lives: “What would you do it you knew you only had one year to live?” Thinking about that scenario, one might hope that Brookes’ gloomy scenario isn’t the only possibility.

Sure, a person with only a year to live might shrink into living the ‘life of Leary’, an addled 60s version of the Life of Riley, but he might also work to pass something of value to posterity, even if not to direct progeny. He might use his time to mentor, teach kids the value of a life well-lived. He might simply want to record history as he knew it, so others he will never meet can profit.

Fact is the existence of other people (even if not progeny) provides this individual a goad in the face of his mortality. The fact that his death is brought near to hand does not alter the fact that he is just as mortal as anyone else. While he may be behaving in this way sooner than he would have liked, he is doing something that is neither unexpected nor extraordinary. He is still exhibiting care for the far temporal horizon, and those that will survive him. This is not unusual behavior as anyone can attest who has had the benefit of grandparents or elderly friends and family members.

I am not convinced that the doomed cultures would not default to something similar. I can imagine a mass effort to record the culture’s history, its outlook, its morality, and its justification, maybe even extended arguments with the lucky survivors, arguments made in favor of their adoption of the expiring cultures’ ‘artifacts’ (values, ideas and practices as well as objects.) The doomed culture would probably desire to make gifts of these things, a sort of inheritance to surviving humanity. The expiring culture would be very busy indeed, and not an object of pity and contempt.

But, hey, what the heck do I know. It might just as well happen that the society does ‘party like there’s no tomorrow.’

I just don’t think it’s a forgone conclusion.