POPULATION EXPLOSION + CLIMATE CHANGE = THE END

by Kevin

Paul’s recent essay here at Two Old Liberals regarding our mass denial about the devastating consequences of overpopulation is excellent and very sobering indeed, but as he points out, this is a solvable problem. We can do something about this, and we must do so now.

When we add our mass denial regarding the apocalyptic consequences of unchecked Global Climate Change on top of the Population Explosion, we have a perfect storm. Population Explosion + Climate Change = The End, UNLESS we act now to curb the population and stop the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, by corporations and national governments.

Evidence is mounting fast that time is running out. On July 24, 2012, PHYS.org published a chilling report and photo (above,)provided by NASA’s Godard Space Flight Center, showing four days of unprecedented Greenland ice sheet surface melt from July 8 to 12. The July 8 photo (above left) shows 40% of the ice sheet thawing at or near the surface. By July 12, the NASA satellite photo shows that 97% of the ice sheet surface had thawed (above right.) This rapid flash thawing has alarmed scientists, who report that nothing like this has been seen since 1889. They are working to verify the causes of Greenland’s flash melt now. The leading hypothesis points directly to Global Climate Change caused by human activity, of course. Read the entire article, “Satellites see unprecedented Greenland ice sheet surface melt,” July 24, 2012 at http://phys.org/news/2012-07-satellites-unprecedented-greenland-ice-sheet.html

In addition, both polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate. Sea levels are rising. If we have some sudden cataclysmic events, like the rapid disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet and Antarctica’s ice shelves into massive icebergs floating in the oceans, sea levels will rise very quickly, inundating low-lying areas and forcing populations to relocate. Many of the world’s largest and most densely populated cities are located on the coasts at sea level. As the population of the world continues to rise, greater numbers will be dislocated by sea levels rising. And as Paul pointed out in his Population Explosion essay, food production for the hungry masses will become more and more problematic. Already, here in the U.S. this summer the crops are dead and the corn is aborting in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Nebraska and other states, and food prices are expected to rise significantly and quickly.

The twin challenges of Overpopulation and Climate Change compound one another, but it can be argued that Overpopulation is the root cause of Climate Change, since it is human activity that is rapidly warming the planet. What can we do? We will have more to say about how to respond in the near future, but it is fundamentally essential to promote birth control and to bring major pressure to bear upon fossil fuel companies and national governments to shift rapidly away from extracting and burning carbon in favor of safe, clean, renewable energy.

Anyone and everyone who is concerned about saving the Earth as an environment that can support life must ask herself/himself: 1. What can I do to help? 2. What am I willing to do to help? 3. What am I qualified to do to help? I believe in miracles. If we all apply our particular talents and energies in creative ways to waking the world up and sounding the alarm and demanding a reversal of Overpopulation and Climate Change, we can save ourselves and the planet as a habitat that will support future generations. If not… The End.

THE EXPLODING POPULATION BOMB

By Paul

If you have a way of accessing the Los Angeles Times, whether in paper format (who does that anymore?), or on line, you might want to take the time to read the series they are currently running on out-of-control population growth.  It started on Sunday, July 22, 2012, and runs in several installments until Sunday, July 29.  What you will find there is extremely interesting, enlightening, and very frightening.

Right up front, statistics tell much of the story.  Although demographic predictions are not an exact science, there are some things we know for sure.  It is, of course, a fact that the world now has more than 7 billion people in it.  We passed that dubious landmark in 2011.  But what is even more startling is that by the year 2050, only some 38 years from now, the global population will rise to a minimum of 9.3 billion.  It may rise even higher, to as many as 11 billion people, depending on whether the average birthrate declines to 2.2 children per woman, or if it remains at its current 2.5.  According to the nonprofit Population Council in New York City, we are adding over 70 million people to the planet every year, and have been doing so since the early 1970’s.  And even if we were somehow, miraculously, to lower the average birth rate to 2.1 children per woman, the population would still continue to grow (albeit at a slower rate), given the inexorable mathematics of the sheer numbers of people we are talking about. 

Numbers, however, do not tell the whole story, and it is all too easy for us to dismiss them as abstractions that do not affect our lives.  But if we put it into some kind of context, these numbers come more to life.  Right now, for example, 1 person in 8 lives in a slum, in other words, some 12% of the population of the world, which is bad enough to be sure, but possibly not that shocking to many of us.  By the year 2050, though, given current levels of poverty and patterns of migration to cities, that number rises to closer to 33%.   Now there’s a number that ought to command our attention.  By 2050, a third of the people in the world, 1 person in 3, will dwell in squalor, living at best in substandard housing if not actually on the streets, without anything near what most people in the west would consider normal sanitation, let alone adequate nutrition.  And beyond that, we can pretty much altogether forget about education for any of them.  Even today, the U.N. lists some 1 billion people as being chronically hungry.  What will we do, then, when there are 2 – or as many as 4 – billion more mouths to feed?

And this does not even take into consideration the fact that some countries of the world, such as China, are becoming more affluent, and in the process people are expecting to eat better.  No longer are wealthier Chinese content to eat only grains and vegetables; they want more and more meat, and even dairy products, just as people in the west do.  However, the roundabout process we have of raising crops in order to feed animals in order to feed people demands much more of the land, a great deal more water, and a lot more energy than merely growing crops for human consumption.  According to William Lesher, former chief economist of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, “we are going to have to produce more food in the next 40 years than we have in the last 10,000.”  And this at a time when the majority of our best farmland is already under cultivation.  In other words, we can’t just go out and find more land to farm.  Add to this the fact that climate change will also almost certainly begin to take away our ability to access some of the arable land we currently use, and we can see that the globe is headed for a train-wreck of a future, if we do not do something soon.  There are already too many people for the planet to support, and yet most of the world wants more and more children.  Again, let me remind you, these things will be taking place not at some time in “a far distant future,” when none of us will be around anyway, but within the next 30 to 40 years.  And if you are old enough now that you may not likely be alive to see it, remember at least that many of the people you love will be. 

So, the question suggests itself, is there anything we can do about it?  Well, of course, there is, but it won’t be easy.  The problem essentially boils down to this: fertility rates remain too high because of tradition and religion, lack of education, the inferior status of women, and of course either lack of access to, or taboos against, the use of contraception.  None of the items on this list is outside of humanity’s ability to fix it, but whether or not we have the will to do so is a very big question indeed.  

Another issue of serious concern is that fertility rates remain highest in some of the poorest parts of the world.  Take Nigeria, for example, where only 8% of reproductive-age women use contraceptives, compared to 72% in the United States. (And frankly, it amazes me that 28% of women in this country do NOT use contraceptives.)  But note this: the number of women who use contraceptives climbs rapidly when these women are afforded an opportunity to get an education.  What happens in the process of becoming educated is that women begin to take control over their lives, and specifically of their own reproductive lives.  In other words, to be perfectly frank about it, educated women are better able to resist the twin forces both of traditional societies, which demand large families (and especially large numbers of sons), and the dictates of religions, which it seems are so often are at odds with what is best for the world. 

Here is another related, and rather startling, statistic for your consideration:  of the (minimum) 2 billion people who will be added to the planet by the year 2050, 97% of them will be born in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  In other words, the vast majority of the growth in population in the world will be in those parts of the globe which can least sustain that growth.  This spells trouble for everyone, and if you think that it’s basically a problem only for the people who live on these continents, think again. 

As long ago as 1974, again according to the Los Angeles Times, even the likes of Henry Kissinger is reported to have said in a then-classified memo that “growing numbers of young people in the developing world (are) likely to be more volatile, unstable, prone to extremes, alienation, and violence than older populations.”  He went on to add that “it is urgent that measures to reduce fertility be started.”  And the bi-partisan commission convened to study the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 concluded, speaking about extremism in the Islamic world, that “a large, steadily increasing population of young men without any reasonable expectation of suitable employment (is) a sure prescription for social turbulence.”  Such turbulence, as we have seen, has a marked tendency not to remain only within the borders of one country.

Yet, in spite of evident and growing problems associated with run-away population growth, the topic remains an extremely sensitive one for many people, and the twin forces alluded to above of tradition and religion continue to exert enormous influence in many societies. This includes the United States, let it be noted.   It is no secret, for example, that the U.S. government has over the years drastically changed its own policies in regard to educating people in less developed countries about contraception due almost entirely to ever-increasing pressure from the religious right.  Among many evangelicals, and some Catholics as well (although not all, in spite of what the bishops continue to preach), not only is abortion considered to be a sin, but so is the use of contraception.   

 Finally, the explosion of the population bomb is tied inexorably to the topic of global warming, which my friend and co-blogger, Kevin, wrote powerfully about in a recent posting.  One does not have to be a trained demographer to see that with smaller populations come fewer demands of all kinds on the ecosystem, and by contrast, the more people there are, the greater the strain on the system.  In this case, the “system” turns out to be our home, Earth, the planet itself.   

My fear is that the population bomb, and what will happen as a result of it, is similar to global warming in yet another important way, namely, that most of us are quite happy to ignore it.  I wonder if people think that both will somehow magically disappear, if we pay them no heed.  Unfortunately, such thinking is not only counterproductive, it has become downright dangerous.  At very least, what we can do is vote to elect progressive thinkers who might actually pay attention to the bigger picture, representatives who will stand up to the dictates of unthinking tradition and moralizing religion.  We can talk to our friends and our relatives, and urge them to find out about what is happening to our planet, the planet their children will inherit.  Those who are in the child-bearing years can make active choices to have one child, or at most, two children.  Or better still, why not adopt a child, who has otherwise come into this world unwanted and unloved?

One way or another, we need to take whatever action we can devise in our own lives, however large or small, to protect the planet against the ravages of the exploding population bomb.

THE CORN IS DEAD… WHAT’S NEXT?

By Kevin

 

My octogenarian aunt and uncle and their two adult daughters visited my extended family last week for three days. They were so excited to see green trees and fields of living crops in our state. They reported that back in Iowa, Indiana and Illinois, all the corn and soybeans and other crops are dead and the vegetation is brown. On July 19, 2012, Reuters confirmed this report:

The most expansive U.S. drought in more than a half century intensified this week and stretched further into major farm areas of the western Midwest where crops had largely been shielded from the harsh conditions that decimated yields further east.

The moderate drought in parts of eastern Nebraska, northern Illinois and much of the top corn and soybean state Iowa was downgraded to a severe drought in the past week, climate experts said Thursday, and forecasts showed little relief in sight.

Prices of both corn and soybeans soared to all-time highs on Thursday, with corn climbing more than 50 percent in the past four weeks alone due to the worsening drought, squeezing ethanol and livestock producer margins and chilling export demand.”

We ate lots of sweet corn on the cob during the family visit. When my relatives left, my friend Jerry directed me to Bill McKibben’s July 19, 2012 article in “Rolling Stone” entitled, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” with warnings that it put him on the floor! McKibben’s article is based on three crucial numbers:

  1. 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees F.) is agreed upon by leading scientists and listed in paragraph 1 of the Copenhagen Climate Accord of 2009, as the absolute maximum we can allow the planet to warm without utterly disastrous consequences. As McKibben writes in his article, “The official position of planet Earth at the moment is that we can’t raise the temperature more than two degrees Celsius – it’s become the bottomest of bottom lines. Two degrees.” He also reports that many scientists and nations feel that 2 degrees C is far too high. The planet has already warmed .8 degree C and there is another .8 degree C of warming built into the system through inertia, even if we were to stop emitting all greenhouse gases now. So… we are already ¾ of the way to the 2 degree C maximum, and massive damage has already been sustained.
  2. 565 Gigatons of carbon dioxide can be released by mid-century without destroying the planet. At current emission rates, we will emit that amount in 16 years, by 2028.
  3. 2,795 Gigatons of potential carbon dioxide emissions are currently held in the proven coal and oil reserves of fossil fuel companies and countries that behave like them. That represents at least five times more carbon dioxide than we can safely emit without destroying the planet as a life-sustaining habitat. Fossil fuel companies and nations are planning to burn all that carbon, and they have based their shareholder profit forecasts and national economies on this $27 trillion worth of carbon. We are in very big trouble.

About 12 years ago I heard a brief report on NPR about how the polar ice caps were melting and I suddenly understood for the first time that all life on earth is in peril. I fell into a year-long, low-grade depression about this tragedy and felt constantly nauseated. But I recovered to create a “survival strategy” for Robert and me, which involved selling our big 5-bedroom/ 3 bathroom house on 1.1 acres in the suburbs of a major U.S. city, and moving to our current humble digs on 12 acres deep in the woods at the end of a dead-end dirt road, where no cell phones ring and we must have satellite dishes to receive TV and Internet service. We’ve been here, living intimately with nature in our woods, by our half-acre pond and our little stream for six years, loving it more and more as every month passes. It is an abundant green paradise where pure drinkable spring water flows out of the hillsides, and wildlife abounds. It’s Heaven! Or, at least, I often tell Robert that if Heaven turns out to be anything like our woodland retreat, I won’t be a bit disappointed.

When I read Bill McKibben’s article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” in “Rolling Stone” a few days ago that low-grade depression and nausea returned. I couldn’t read it all at once. I had to take it in two sittings, because the implications are so devastating. Climate degradation is moving much more quickly than I thought, caused by human behavior and specifically caused by the greed of fossil fuel companies – the most profitable businesses in human history. I had selfishly hoped that at age 63 I might be old enough that I would not see the worst effects of Global Climate Change. McKibben dashed those hopes. He reports that without a miracle, we will pass beyond the maximum threshold of safe emission levels in about 16 years, as I approach my 80th birthday. My maternal grandmother lived to 103 with all her marbles, and virtually all my relatives live well into their 80s or beyond. My parents are now in their late 80s. Conclusion: Robert and I must revise and accelerate our survival strategies for living to the end of the world. We have a whole lot to learn and much work to do, if we plan to live 20 more years.

I was shocked to learn that we have already warmed the planet .8 degrees C and that same amount (.8 degrees C) of additional warming is built into the system even if we stop burning carbon today. I guess I was still in some partial state of denial, despite all the dramatic climate developments recently:

  • We had no winter this past year where we live. For the first time our pond did not freeze over and our big koi did not bury themselves in the mud and sleep through cold weather.
  • 260 homes and cabins and over 100 out buildings were destroyed in the Colorado fires.
  • In June 3,215 high temperature records were broken after the warmest May in U.S. history. This was the warmest spring ever recorded in the U.S.
  • For the 327th consecutive month global temperatures surpassed 20th Century averages.
  • The world’s oceans are now 30% more acidic than ever before.
  • The air over the oceans is 5% wetter, causing massive storms and floods. Think Katrina.
  • Climatologists report a dramatic increase in the likelihood of severe heat and drought, and we are experiencing the beginning of those conditions now, even before August.
  • Arctic sea ice is at the lowest levels ever recorded. And what are we doing about it?…
  • Fossil fuel companies are taking advantage of receding ice masses to explore for more and bigger oil reserves. The tragedy is compounding itself: Ice loss = more oil = more greenhouse gas emissions = more ice loss.

I have rather sadly worked as a creativity consultant to Fortune 500 companies for 22 years. One thing I know about them is that they only speak one language — the language of MONEY. Nothing else gets through. All things are viewed and judged through a cost-benefit analysis lens relative to the bottom line — profit. If it doesn’t enhance profits, walk away, fight it, condemn it, deny it, and discredit it if you have to. The fossil fuel industry has done a good job of discrediting climate change science in an effort to protect profits and forfeit the planet in the process. Can anybody explain to me how that is good for the bottom line? Extinction is not good for business!… They need living customers, right?

Two-thirds of the electorate in my state does not “believe” in climate change. All the major academies of science around the world and 98% of climatologists are shouting that climate change is real and caused by human activity. But two-thirds of my state does not “believe” in climate change. To me that’s like saying they don’t believe in the Pythagorean Theorem! It’s science, for God’s sake! It’s not a matter of belief. It’s a matter of fact, like the earth being round and progressing around the sun every 365 days. What in the name of Heaven is wrong with people?! This is mass suicide, and it is becoming more and more evident. Look around!

A second chunk of very thick ice, twice the size of Manhattan, broke off of Greenland the other day and floated away. Just like the first time this happened, I heard one 30-second news story about it and nothing more. The first chunk that Greenland lost several years ago was four times the size of Manhattan. When I mentioned it just in passing during a lunch chat with a corporate client, he shouted, “Oh quick! Somebody call Al Gore!” Al Gore already knew about it, I’m sure, and I would have strongly preferred discussing it with him.

Okay… so the language of corporate America is MONEY. What will it take to persuade the fossil fuel companies to leave the carbon in the earth? Isn’t it worth any price to save the planet itself and as many life forms as possible that have not already gone extinct? I’ll give them ALL of my paltry little bank account if that will do the trick. If it’s Money that talks, let’s talk to them in the language of Money. Let’s lavish Money on them when they switch from fossil fuel development to clean energy, and then let’s slap severe economic penalties on them when they extract fossil fuels from the ground. Let’s make clean energy appealing and profitable any way we can. Let’s make fossil fuel extraction painful and costly.

But we will have to do our part too. We all have to be ready to give up our gas guzzling cars if we succeed in persuading the fossil fuel companies to switch to clean energy. I’m ready to turn my four-wheel-drive SUV into a storage shed and buy a mule to carry me up and down the steep hills on our land. But if you have more money than I do, you might be able to afford an electric car powered by your solar array. I saw a TV documentary about some guy who made a steam-powered truck. Horses, bicycles, hot air balloons, and our own two legs provide fine transportation options. We just can’t burn fossil fuels anymore.

I suspect that real change has to begin in our own minds and hearts. It has to happen very quickly and achieve critical mass virtually overnight if the human race is to tip the balance away from mass suicide and toward hope and life. As Bill McKibben wryly observes:

Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we’re certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it’s as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.

Our way of life is going to have to change radically if we are to survive. I’m willing to grow my own food and learn how to can and preserve it. I’d live without electricity, and communications and entertainment, if I had to. After all, those things are very recent developments anyway. My father had no electricity or indoor plumbing in his early childhood home, and they certainly could never have imagined carrying phones in their pockets, or communicating with any corner of the globe in a flash via Internet, or watching hundreds of channels of images and sounds on a box called a TV in every room of the house. Those are all very recent innovations. We can break those habits and do without those luxuries. But we don’t have to if we follow Germany’s example and convert to solar and wind and geothermal power. We can still enjoy some luxuries if we use forms of energy that will not poison the planet. But here’s the crux of the fossil fuel problem as Bill McKibben defines it very succinctly in his recent “Rolling Stone” article:

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically aboveground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.

The numbers aren’t exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won’t necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.

How can we stop this lemming-like mass suicide? How can we combat the overwhelming allure of massive profits for the fossil fuel industry and/or make it even more profitable for them to switch to clean energy? How can we overcome our own profound attachments to modern conveniences and return to living closer to nature? Or how can we power our beloved luxuries with clean energy? How can we stop Global Climate Change?

Will all the major coastal cities of the world have to be flooded and evacuated before we come to our senses? Will millions upon millions have to die before we stop poisoning the planet? Do we have to pray for another massive meteor, like the one that killed all the dinosaurs, to hit the earth, wipe out most life on the planet and surround it with a cooling dust cloud for a very, very long time? That would save the planet as a place where evolution could resume and populate this paradise with another intelligent race, granted yet another chance to develop and finally another challenge to live through its own technological adolescence – a test we are failing miserably and spectacularly.

According to Bill McKibben, it looks like I may live to find out what will happen, even though I already think of myself as an old man at 63. Global Climate Change is progressing very rapidly. Look around. It’s obvious. Planet Earth and all life forms upon it are in peril. It’s time to pray for miracles and use any and every talent and strength we may individually and collectively possess to turn the rudder on the ship of humanity away from the insanity of mass suicide and toward a vast ocean of hope for survival, because we believe that life has value beyond our comprehension, and we want to save this precious living planetary organism from becoming a lifeless desert for the remainder of its existence.

The immediate task in front of us may seem overwhelming and hopeless. But we cannot afford the luxury of despair, depression and self-pity. We have urgent work to do to save the Earth, if not for ourselves, then for all the innocent children, animals and plants that do not deserve to die of heat prostration, thirst, hunger and extreme climate disasters. We have to buck up and do whatever we can. And we need to be smart, quick and creative about it. Bill McKibben concludes his “Rolling Stone” article with a moral challenge:

The three numbers I’ve described are daunting – they may define an essentially impossible future. But at least they provide intellectual clarity about the greatest challenge humans have ever faced. We know how much we can burn, and we know who’s planning to burn more. Climate change operates on a geological scale and time frame, but it’s not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a moral issue; we have met the enemy and they is Shell.

You want a big number? In the course of this month, a quadrillion kernels of corn need to pollinate across the grain belt, something they can’t do if temperatures remain off the charts. Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we’re now leaving… in the dust.

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719#ixzz21StVZEer

________________________________________________

From Bill McKibben’s website:

 

Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books about the environment, beginning with The End of Nature in 1989, which is regarded as the first book for a general audience on climate change. He is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, which has coordinated 15,000 rallies in 189 countries since 2009. Time Magazine called him ‘the planet’s best green journalist’ and the Boston Globe said in 2010 that he was ‘probably the country’s most important environmentalist.’

EMPATHY AND FREE WILL

By Paul

I recently read an interesting, some might say a disturbing, op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times (Sunday, July 15, 2012).  Entitled “Head Case Puzzle,” it was written by a Stanford  University professor of neuroscience by the name of Robert. M. Sapolsky.  In this piece, Sapolsky essentially asks one basic question, namely, how free are we to make choices in life?  Another way to phrase the same question is: do we, in fact, have free will?  He cites the case of Jerry Sandusky, the football coach who was recently convicted on numerous counts of having sexually molested young boys.  Sapolsky goes on to describe in some detail the neuroscientific research that has been done of late, which shows neurobiological differences in the brain between pedophiles and the general population. I won’t belabor the details of the extensive research he cites, including even in-utero abnormalities in hormones which contribute to the regulation of brain development.  If you are further interested in this, I recommend the article to you. 

Sapolsky raises the question, though, as have others, of whether or not pedophiles at very least deserve sympathy, or even if there may be some degree of lessening of responsibility on their part for crimes committed, given these brain abnormalities.  He next goes on to, in a sense, argue against himself, or to anticipate counter arguments against such a position.  Such counter arguments essentially cluster around the issue of free will.  They mostly lay claim to something like the following:  just because someone feels a tendency, even a very strong tendency, toward doing something, does that necessarily mean that the person has to act upon those impulses?  Do we not, in other words, have the ability to reflect, to consider, and ultimately to decide?  Are we not capable of imagining the pain that the crime to be committed would inflict on the intended victim, and therefore saying to ourselves essentially, no, this I will not do! 

His answer to such questions reflects back to his training as a neuroscientist.  He says that if pedophile urges are neurobiologically determined, that is, if it’s true that they are reflective of changes, or let us call them “mistakes,” in the physiology of the brain itself, then so too might not an ability to administer a degree of self-discipline or impulse control also be biologically determined?  Indeed, if that were not the case, what else would we posit?  Is there otherwise some “separate part of us,” as Sapolsky says, “(one that) enables us to resist abnormal urges that have arisen from an abnormal brain”? 

Indeed, is there such a separate part of ourselves?  It seems to me that this is a major question in regard to the issue of free will versus what might be called biological determinism.  It is, of course, easy for most of us to imagine being able to say “no” to impulses that we do not have.  Who can forget (if we are old enough at least) Nancy Reagan’s famous, and famously ridiculed, “Just Say No” to drugs campaign, for example?  Surely, if it were as simple as “just saying no,” then would we ever have anyone addicted to drugs, or alcohol, or cigarettes, or any other substance which can ultimately be shown to be enormously harmful to oneself, let alone to society?  Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, always refers to alcoholism as a disease, and one which we very frequently see running in families (just as pedophilia does, by the way, as Sapolsky also points out), and so this would indicate there being some kind of neurobiological abnormality in the brain, would it not?    

Still, people do stop drinking.  They also stop taking drugs, and many quit smoking.  Some people, indeed, do all three!  So, why not stop (or even better, never start) molesting children?  Again, the science appears to point to the fact that such behavior can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to stop, and it is definitely true that the recidivism rates among convicted child molesters are extraordinarily high.

So, does this mean that there are some people who, because of brain abnormalities, are beyond the pale?  Are there individuals who cannot help themselves from doing certain things most of us would condemn, not just molesting children, but committing let us say even more heinous crimes, serial murder, for example?  It has always seemed to me, in fact, that anyone who willfully kills another person, not in self-defense but in a calculated and cold-blooded way, must in some sense be out of his or her mind.  But does that mean that we should not arrest such individuals, but instead give them a pass because they are, in some way, not “responsible” for crimes committed?  No, surely not.  Every society on record has always reserved the right to protect itself against those who, for whatever reason, do not follow its most basic laws.  And what law can be more basic than one that stipulates not to kill one’s fellow citizens?  Or not to molest them, for that matter, not to inflict unwanted sexual advances on any person, but particularly on a vulnerable child?  Surely, everyone has the right to be protected against such an assault.  At the same time, ought we not to also show a degree of sympathy for someone who “cannot help himself” because of something beyond his control? 

Again Sapolsky cites in his article another piece written by University of Toronto psychiatrist Dr. James Cantor entitled “Do pedophiles deserve sympathy?”  Cantor, in fact, argues exactly for this.  Not that it is easy to feel in any way sympathetic for someone who has harmed us, or one close to us.  And yet, here again we come up against the notion of sympathizing with someone who has powerful impulses that we do not have.  Most of us would never dream of molesting or otherwise harming children, let alone killing another human being in a calculated and cold-blooded way.  But let us suppose that things were different in our own background.  What if somehow, whether in-utero or elsewhere, neurobiological changes had taken place in our lives, which produced thoughts, ideas, impulses which we “did not want,” but “could not control”?  How would we then feel?  Would we think it too simplistic to “just say no” to impulses that may otherwise feel to be beyond our control? 

I therefore ask the question: what are the limits of our free will?  And does (abnormal) biological determinism trump free will?  As for myself, I have to say I do feel as though there is some “place,” to use a metaphor here, somewhere outside of our physical brains, which can at least have influence over our lives and over the choices we make in our lives.  Whether or not that “place” is called the soul or spirit, or any other such metaphysical state of being is something that is, of course, outside the realm of science to comment on.  We have, instead, now entered into the arena of faith, or as some yogis and mystics would say, of experience, although clearly experience beyond that of the mere body. 

There are no easy answers to the question of how free any of us is.  While again, most of us would probably never willfully harm a child, which one of us can say he or she has never harmed another human being in some way?  What, for example, of the person who may have loved us once, but whose love remained unrequited on our part?  Was that person not harmed by us?   What of the cheating spouse, or what simply of the myriad meannesses of the human heart that each of us is capable of inflicting on other people, or on animals for that matter, almost on a daily basis?  Are we not responsible for these?  Or are we, ourselves, so injured, so damaged either by a biological abnormality or by the actions of others in our own past, be they advertent or inadvertent, that we too have less control than we might wish to admit?   And if so, who then has the right to blame another? 

Here is one of my favorite passages from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (Song of Myself, Section 48, lines 1269-1272):

I have said that the soul is not more than the body,

And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,

And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,

And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own

        funeral, drest in his  shroud

Whoever walks one furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral, dressed in his own shroud.  We are in fact dead to ourselves and to the world around us if we are incapable of empathizing with another, whoever he or she may be, whatever he or she may have done.  My view is that this must in fact be among the highest, I might even say the truest, uses of free will, that is, to recognize that we, too, have faults aplenty to go around, wherever they may come from, and that, as human beings in the world, we are, all of us, more than capable both of the most sublime actions, and of the most heinous of deeds.

ENTROPY AND THE LOSS OF CHILDHOOD FAITH

By Paul

 Church buildings, just as religions themselves, come and go.  That is the nature of reality, as we normally perceive it.  All entities in the physical world have their beginning, their growth into eventual maturity, and their inevitable decline and demise.  This is in accord with the basic principle which physicists call entropy.  Here is what Steven Hawking has to say about it (although his main topic in this case happens to be black holes, in the process he gives a very good brief explanation of what is meant by entropy): 

“The nondecreasing behavior of a black hole’s area was very reminiscent of the behavior of a physical quantity called entropy, which measures the degree of disorder of a system.  It is a matter of common experience that disorder will tend to increase if things are left to themselves.  (One has only to stop making repairs around the house to see that!)  One can create order out of disorder (for example one can paint the house), but that requires expenditure of effort or energy and so decreases the amount of ordered energy available.   (The Illustrated Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking, Bantam Books, November 1996, page 130)

He goes on to explain that this is in exact accord with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that entropy in an isolated system always increases.  We see this basic principle in all things, even in the stars, which too have a birth, a period of growth and maturation, and an eventual dissolution.  Entropy, then, is essentially a measure of disorder, and when energy ceases to flow and to hold things together, we say that the organism in question dies.    

So, if even stars (and, of course, people) die, then why not church buildings?  Now, you may be wondering at this point what the reason is for my going on so insistently about church structures.  The answer is because I happened to have read recently in an article in a local newspaper that the church across the street from where I grew up in upstate New York is about to be torn down.  Normally, I readily admit, such news would hardly rise to any level of great importance.  However, for me it does feel big, indeed, inasmuch as this particular church, both the building itself and what it came to represent for me (it was called St. Patrick’s), played such a major role throughout my childhood. 

St.Patrick’s, first of all, was an enormous structure made of red brick.  It loomed huge over the entire town of some 17,000 souls, who at the time clustered around.  And yes, I understand that much of what we once, as children, thought to be vast in size and scope, upon later inspection in adult life will appear far smaller, less grandiose, almost pathetically less imposing.  But I assure you that this is not the case in regard to St. Patrick’s.  I returned many years later as an adult who had traveled the world and had seen something of both the great medieval cathedrals of Europe and the imposing ancient temples of Asia, and this building, St. Patrick’s, still felt as though it towered over all other structures in its domain.  It dominated the neighborhood and the city itself in a way that made everything else feel and somehow even appear to be less.    

St. Patrick’s was built well over a century ago, originally constructed to mimic the great basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes, France, minus the final tower.  For reasons I have never been able to discover, that crowning glory of the building was not added onto St. Patrick’s, due – I always supposed anyway – to lack of funds.  The church, after all, was created as a result of the accumulated donations of hundreds, if not thousands, of poor working Irish in the neighborhood, people like my grandparents and their parents, who labored for a pittance in local factories.  As such, there was only so much money to go around.  Still, in the end they were able to create an imposing structure, splendid, even awesome in its impact.  And this, after all, was the very point.  Just as with any other building constructed for such purposes, St. Patrick’s was made to inspire, to move, to uplift, and to remind people that there was more to life than the drudgery of life’s everyday concerns.  The idea was, literally, to make people look up upon entry, so that they would also feel uplifted. 

Whether or not this architectural feature always worked as it was designed to remains of course a matter of opinion.  It both did and did not for me, I know.  On the one hand, I spent many a morning serving mass in this great church, warm and comforted against the snowy blasts outside.  Inside, according to the old Tridentine rite, the priest celebrated the liturgy in Latin while facing the altar, his back to the people, as we altar boys responded in a Latin learned by rote. At the time, I understood nothing of what I said, although somehow, even now sixty years later, I can still recall almost every word.  Old grandmothers sat in the back, fingering their beads, as the priest spoke majestic words from afar.  Neither these grandmothers, nor virtually anyone else in the entire congregation (the church was filled on Sundays for six different masses) understood what the priest was saying.  But it seemed to matter very little to them in that world of my youth.  People believed that the words were both magical and sacred, and that was enough. 

Those days, to be sure, are now long gone, both for me and for just about everyone else.  Yes, there are a few holdouts who still insist on the mass in its ancient form, and the ultra conservative Pope Benedict XVI has even issued a so-called motu proprio, essentially a kind of executive order, called Summorum Pontificum, which allows bishops to grant permission for the ancient liturgy to still be used in certain circumstances.  But essentially the old mass is dead today, just as, I would argue, the Church itself is also dying.

And why not?  The principle of entropy works here every bit as much as it does with any other organism (organism, that is, in its most general sense, as some kind of an organized whole with interdependent parts). St.Patrick’s, too, is about to die.  Due to ever dwindling attendance, it was closed by the diocese of Albany late in the year 2011, and the local bishop and the city appear to be about to sell it to something called “The Price Chopper.”  Being unfamiliar with this company, I make the assumption that it may be a sort of so-called big box store, which sells otherwise useless items to people who essentially do not need them.  Or, I suppose it could be a grocery store, and living bodies, highly organized organisms that we are, do after all need the input of continued food (i.e. energy) in order to maintain our organized structure.  One way or another, it will replace what was at least intended to be a temple to Spirit with a temple to the body. 

My own brother died on Easter Sunday, 2011, and his funeral mass (non-Tridentine) was celebrated in St. Patrick’s Church.  It was the first time I had been inside the structure in many decades, but it looked exactly as I remembered it.  I imagine that his funeral was one of the last ever to be held there.  From my own admittedly self-centered point of view, I experienced all of it as a sad, if oddly fitting, final goodbye to childhood faith and family, and an ironic, if unwilling, welcome to the entropy that we, all of us, must ourselves one day face. 

I actually take some solace, if you can believe it, in the First Law of Thermodynamics.  It states that energy can be changed from one form to another, but it can neither be created nor destroyed. St.Patrick’s, for better or for worse a building meant to inspire and to uplift, will soon be ripped apart, brick by brick, and in its place a structure put up whose purpose is ostensibly to chop prices.  Is this an equal trade of energy?  I will leave that for you to decide.  The Catholic Church has done as much harm as it has done good in the world, and many (myself included) would say it has done far more of the former than of the latter.  At least the Price Chopper, it can be said, is honest and utterly unpretentious in its self-presentation, and does not purport to be more than it is.

There is no escaping entropy’s final verdict.  We can only put it off for so long.  And so St.Patrick’s too will go, whether I like it or not, replaced by a mere emporium.  That, too, will one day crumble and return to the chaos from which it originated.  When I was a child, the priests of St. Patrick’s used to tell us: remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.  They could have said the same thing about churches, and church buildings, too.  But energy – another form of Spirit? – that’s something else altogether.  It lives on in its essence, permanent, unmoving, unaffected by the laws of physical change.  It has no parts into which to disintegrate, has no ordered organization to fall into disuse or disrepair. 

That’s where I want to live.  Here is one of one of my favorite passages, from Chapter XII of the Bhagavad-Gita (Sir Edwin Arnold’s translation, Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, California, 1975, page 111).  The Lord Krishna (an incarnation of the Divine Spirit) is speaking to his disciple, Arjuna:  Whoever serve Me – as I show Myself – constantly true, in full devotion fixed, those hold I very holy.  But who serve, worshiping Me, The One, The Invisible, The Unrevealed, Unnamed, Unthinkable, Uttermost, All-pervading, Highest, Sure – who thus adore Me, mastering their senses, of one set mind to all, glad in all good, these blessèd souls come unto Me.” 

Now those, in my view anyway, are words you can really build your house on, and no entropy, however powerful, will in the end shake its unmovable foundations.

 

  

MONEY MAKES THE WORLD GO MAD

by Kevin

Money Screws Up Everything!

Sometimes I just hate money. It screws up everything. Any first grader can see that I was born to be an artist. So, of course, I’ve spent the last 22 years as a business consultant to Fortune 500 companies. It was my own fault that I didn’t make any art during most of those years, but I forgive myself. I’m not the only one who would say that if it were not for having to make money, they would be doing something else. People should do what they were born to do, shouldn’t they? Yes… but money screws up everything. For decades some of my more idealistic friends have been urging, “Give up that job! Follow your dream! You are an artist!” Well… I AM an artist, and I AM following my dream, but I don’t want to starve in the gutter. So I have worked full time at my job and then performed a second full time vocation “following my dream” as an artist.

Even pleasure is evaluated according to how much money you pay for the experience. If you go on an expensive cruise or spend time at a fancy resort, everyone assumes you had a wonderful time. If you stay at home and sit in your backyard garden, the same people feel sorry for you. Frankly, I’ve had some truly lousy times on cruises and at fancy resorts, and some of my best times in my own garden, so the price tag on a vacation is a false indicator of its value. Money does not equal fun.

Money madness takes on much more serious forms as well. To get a lot of money, or only what they perceive to be a lot of money, some people are willing to steal, murder, betray loved ones, enslave each other, demean and prostitute themselves and others, and do all manner of illegal, immoral, cruel, awful things. Money basically brings the worst out in people. Why does everyone love it so?

Money is making a mess of our society right now. The Occupy Movement has famously pointed out that the richest 1% of U.S. people holds more wealth than the other 99%. They are doing their best to hold onto more power than the lower 99% too. In fact they are attempting to destroy the middle class. Scranton, PA is broke and the mayor has announced that they are now going to pay their fire fighters and police force minimum wage! Hard working teachers, civil servants and salt-of-the-earth blue collar union members are under attack. As median household wealth drops, people are afraid that others are getting more than they do, and they resent their friends and neighbors having a retirement plan or health insurance or a decent hourly wage. Money envy yields dangerous results.

Meanwhile, the apparent Republican nominee for the presidency may be worth about a quarter billion dollars. Nobody knows, because a great deal of his wealth is hidden in offshore accounts all over the world. Like all his wealthy friends, Mitt pays less than 15% taxes on his income while you and I pay over 30%. I don’t begrudge him his wealth, unless it was ill-gotten, but I do think he should pay his fair share of taxes – as much as you and I pay. President Obama has generously proposed to extend the Bush tax cuts for all income up to $250,000. Even billionaires would get that much of a tax cut, and then the rest of their temporary Bush income tax break would be rolled back to pre-Bush levels. But Romney and the Republicans want the fat cat tax breaks to become permanent. Discrepancies in fairness, like this one, around money and taxes make everyone mad, including me. Money is power, and those who have it often prove capable of stacking the cards in their favor for getting even more.

There’s No Money in Heaven

I certainly hope there is no money in Heaven. One of the things I look forward to enthusiastically about graduating from this mudball and moving on to the next realm is getting rid of money! I cannot imagine money being part of Heaven, can you? Of course not. Money is “the root of all evil.” There couldn’t possibly be any money in Heaven. We won’t need to eat or worry about shelter, since we will be angels, sleeping on clouds or something. We won’t have to buy cars, since we will be able to fly, right? In Paradise we won’t need any possessions other than our harps and white robes, which I assume will be issued at the Pearly Gates. We won’t have to go shopping. We won’t need money! YAY!

It’s kind of amazing, actually, that more people have not tried to come up with alternatives to money here on earth, since it is such a total pain in the ass. Barter is probably the most common effort to get around money, but it isn’t very precise, and someone is always feeling cheated, as in “I think my assistance building your barn was worth more than this one old goat you gave me!” Communes have been an interesting effort to get away from money in my lifetime. Supposedly everyone works as hard as they can for the good of the community without receiving any money to show for it. But then somebody is always slipping into lazy freeloading, and that causes resentment. Besides, most people do want to have a few possessions of their own and a little bit of privacy.

In our society the conservatives loudly proclaim the supremacy of unregulated capitalism – not what I expect to find in Heaven. Even in the material world, capitalism is beginning to look a little shaky. The unfettered economy of extraction, exploitation and abuse of resources, nature and people is ruining societies and our environment. It is increasingly clear that the powerful wealthy elite 1% is succeeding in redistributing wealth from the middle and lower classes to the extremely wealthy. The Republicans are very open about wanting to shred any semblance of a security net, and get rid of all social programs – eventually even Medicare and Social Security – leaving the poor to die in the streets and the remnants of the middle class increasingly desperate and impoverished. So much for our national Christian values of feeding the poor and clothing the naked. They even seem to want to deprive all but the wealthiest families of educational opportunities, to make sure that they keep control of all the money and power. They certainly don’t want another president like Obama, because he believes in fair taxation, equal opportunity in education and work, and fair pay for work done.

It’s a battle royale on planet earth right now over money, whether you want to talk about the Arabian oil fields, or the European Union, or extreme Third World poverty, or the increasing polarization of the U.S. classes. So I guess we’ll have to wait for our halos, wings and harps before we can look forward to living without money. Capitalism will catapult us into Heaven more quickly, however.

Money Makes the World Go ‘Round

Here on earth we are caught in a veritable rat race for money, money, money! My 87-year-old dad points out that back in the 50s, when I was a kid, a good middle class life meant a small modest home with one car in the driveway, a washing machine, and a black and white TV set with three channels… maybe a radio and a stereo, too, if you could afford them. That was a good life. Now we think we are utterly deprived if we can’t have a gigantic house and a big garden shed full of lawn equipment, one car for each family member of driving age, plus some additional recreational vehicles, unlimited high speed Internet access, cable TV with hundreds of channels in almost every room, endless travel and entertainment, huge closets full of clothing, phones in every pocket, college educations for everyone, major retirement savings and more insurance than you can shake a stick at.

 Insurance… now there’s a money pit! I pay for auto insurance for three cars, home and fire insurance for two properties, phone line repair insurance, $500/month for my own health insurance and $1,000/year for professional liability insurance because I’m an independent contractor and an artist with a display room downtown, $2,250/year for disability insurance, lots of life insurance, and I probably have insurance for my insurance! I feel guilty because I don’t have dental insurance and long term care insurance. I know I’m irresponsible for not having those, but I just cannot afford anymore damn insurance! Give me a break! That’s another good thing about going to Heaven… You don’t have to buy insurance in Heaven. You’re already dead!

Money may make the world go ’round, but it makes my head spin! I hate the way people respect you more if you make a lot of money and suspect you of being subversive if you choose not to make as much money as you could, or not to display ostentatiously how much money you make. And if you ever sell your big house, pay off all your debts and radically downsize, you will find out that people resent you for dropping out of the money rat race. “How dare you reject the game! You can’t do that!”

Living With Less

Oh yes we can… we CAN live with less… a whole LOT less. It was a very short time ago that people lived with less than we can now imagine. When my father was a boy, his home had no electricity or running water or indoor plumbing. They weren’t terribly poor. Those things just hadn’t reached many of the rural areas yet. They worked the farm, milked the cows and tilled the fields by the rhythms of the rising and setting sun, the weather and the seasons. They lived close to the land and their animals. Forget the 50s with the one car, TV set, and washing machine. In my father’s youth there was virtually no technology except for a few gasoline engines and 19th Century mechanical devices. At that time he could not have imagined our smart cell phones, iPads and computers facilitating instant and constant communications and business dealings; our global jet travel; our video-game-like drone warfare; and all of our gadgetry, amenities and luxuries. A light bulb and an indoor toilet and plumbing were life-changing luxuries to him.

It is time to live more simply again. Our extraction and pollution economies and technologies are raping the planet and killing it as a livable home for plants, animals and humans. We are starting to see that all around us now. We had no winter this year. Colorado has burnt up. Thousands of heat records were shattered by the end of June. Millions of households had to survive temperatures over 100 degrees with very high humidity without any electricity for air conditioning for a week. What will August be like? We have to reverse Global Climate Change if we want to survive. We have to change how we live and be willing to live with much less. We have to become friends with the Earth and the plants and animals again. Their fate will be ours.

You Can’t Take It With You

Money is not the key. You can’t take it with you. It won’t offer you permanent happiness. Money applied intelligently might be able to improve conditions for all life on earth and for the environment, but so far we are applying it to commit suicide. So it’s not working. Money is not working for us.

But enough of this frivolity. Let’s get serious. I have bad news: We are all going to die. If we are lucky, we will get old first, and then die. I have made a personal study of the aging process. Growing old is about giving up things bit by bit until we finally have nothing and then we let go of the body. At that point we will leave the material world of money, utterly penniless, whether we had billions when we died or nothing at all. Death is the great equalizer. It enforces the ultimate equitable wealth distribution. You may have gotten the impression that s/he who dies with the most money and toys wins. But it ain’t true. Only the intangibles that have fed and defined our souls stay with us. Money, or “mammon,” will mean nothing to us at the moment of our graduation to the next realm.

I’ve never been a Bible thumper, but the words of Christ say it best. There is so much unchristian Christianity going around these days. So, don’t take my word for it… Listen to the source:

Matthew 6:19-33

19 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: 20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: 21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

22 The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. 23 But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!

24 No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

25 Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? 26 Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? 27 Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? 28 And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: 29 And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? 31 Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? 32 (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. 33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

HURRAY FOR THE HIGGS BOSON!

By Paul

It’s not for nothing that theoretical physicists have been searching for the so-called Higgs boson for decades now.  It may sound to most of us like some indescribably arcane piece of scientific trivia, and arcane it may be (at least to the layman), but trivial it definitely is not. 

What is at the heart of all this is one of the most basic questions that humans can ask, namely, why is there “stuff” in the universe instead of nothing at all?  Why and how did matter form in the first place?  This is what is being asked.  And without matter, it goes without saying, we would not have stars or galaxies or planets, or things upon planets, like animals and plants and people, and all of the things that people appear to cherish so dearly.  We know that, at the time of the Big Bang, intense and unimaginably powerful energy suddenly exploded and radiated outward into space.  That energy, in fact, continues to expand today at velocities that seem to exceed even the speed of light itself.  So, wouldn’t it be logical to think that this energy would just keep on going and going and going, ultimately infinitely, if we can imagine such a thing?  What caused some of this energy instead to slow down, to cohere, and to begin forming the molecular structures which eventually themselves bound together to form what we think of as matter today? 

Physicists have long had their theories, of course.  That’s in large part what physicist do, they think about such subjects and they theorize ways in which, given the currently understood laws of the physical universe, it might be logical that things could have proceeded.  It was thus that the physicist Peter Higgs theorized many decades ago about an elemental particle so small that it could not be seen, even with the most sophisticated technology of his day.  He further posited that this particle would travel through an energy field, subsequently called a Higgs field, and slow down, in the process taking on some of the energy from that field.  The particle itself was called the Higgs boson.  The Higgs boson, however, would be a highly unstable form, and would quickly disintegrate into other forms, which themselves would be more stable, and which would then go on to form the basic building blocks of molecules. Molecules would form atoms, and atoms would create the various forms which we have come to know and to love. 

The problem was that it remained only an untested theory.  And in the end, scientists are nothing, if not practical.  If you cannot see it, not with the naked eye, of course (we can’t really see much with our eyes, at least not unaided), but with the technology that we create in order to “see more clearly,” then who was to say if Peter Higgs was right?  Higgs, himself, didn’t know, couldn’t know, for sure.  Maybe it was something else that “created matter,” and not his boson at all?  This, by the way, is why the Higgs boson has sometimes been referred to as the “God Particle,” because in most theologies, it is God who “creates the firmament.”  He (or in very old mythologies, She) it was who made something out of nothing, and brought about the world as we see and know and experience it today. 

Now we know that we do not have to rely on God in order for matter to be created.  Matter came into being, as it were, of its own accord, because an inconceivably tiny particle happened to travel through a certain kind of energy field, thus slowing down long enough for that energy to “stick” to it, and ultimately form what we know as matter. In my book, that is a big very deal!

But what’s an ever bigger deal is that scientists at CERN (the European Center for Nuclear Research – or according to its French title, le Centre Européen de Recherche Nucléaire) have been spinning tiny particles around at enormous speeds for several years, crashing them into each other, and then focusing their powerfully sophisticated computers in order to analyze the results.  The machine they used in order to do this, called the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC for short, has brought about as many as 400 trillion collisions just since June.  Now, 400 trillion as probably as close as I’d ever care to get to an unimaginably big number.  But in the process, they found actual evidence of the Higgs boson!  And that’s the big news in today’s paper, which will continue to roil the scientific world maybe for years, or even decades, to come.  At this point, they know it, or something very close to it, is no longer merely an elegant theory.  They know that it is actually the way things happen in nature.  They have been able to peer into these processes, see them, record them, and analyze them.  The theory has been proven. 

So, what now?  Do theoretical physicists sit back on their haunches and smoke a nice big cigar, sip a glass of champagne, and say we’ve done it?  Hardly!  Most scientists believe that this is really just the beginning of new and exciting research to come.  It appears as though this now opens the door into other, perhaps yet unimagined, ways of exploring the mass-generating capability of the universe.  And in another article, coincidentally simultaneously published in today’s same paper (the Los Angeles Times), there is a report that the bigger-picture cousins of theoretical physicists, astrophysicists, have discovered something of their own in regard to dark matter.  Dark matter is that mysterious stuff which fills a far, far greater percentage of the universe than does ordinary (perceivable) matter.  They have seen evidence of filaments of dark matter connecting whole galaxy clusters, and these filaments extend into many millions of light years in length.   Can it in fact be a total coincidence that these two discoveries, the unimaginably small and the unimaginably big, have come about so close to each other in time?  Perhaps, but then I guess it’s my bias that I’m just not so much of a believer in coincidence. 

How, after all, did energy itself come about, that massless something that we in a sense intuitively understand but cannot see or fully conceive of?  Why did the Big Bang bang in the first place?   Is it possible that such an otherwise inconceivably enormous explosion took place on its own?  Indeed, what was it that actually exploded?  And is thought, and our own energy, tied in some mysterious way to all of this other energy in the universe?  How could it be otherwise?  We are after all, at least in our bodies, made of star stuff; and the same kinds of Higgs bosons that created us also created dark matter, to say nothing of the trillions of whirling galaxies all around us. 

I don’t like to use the word God, because that appears to me to be so limited, so human in form and conception.  I imagine bigger, more immense, more utterly unfathomable.  The God of most religions is tiny and limited and concerned with whether or not we follow certain moral principles, which in the end are essentially man-made principles.   The Higgs boson may be the God particle of the physical universe, and I have no problem accepting this.  But the Divine Spirit that I see, or do not “see,” but feel and open myself to, in my own meditation is beyond any human category.  Whatever we say about God can at best only be a partial truth, because whatever that is will, in the end, only be expressed within the limitations of our ordinary human understanding. 

So, hurray today for the Higgs boson, and hurray, too, for limitless, inconceivable, unimaginable Spirit, who both is and is not within the compass of this, our glorious little universe.