Sunday, August 30, 2009

In the Eye of the Storm

I’ve loved astronomy for as long as I can remember. And for nearly the same amount of time, I’ve wondered about people’s fascination for astrology. The truth is that anyone who revels in the cosmic ballet of planets and stars, stars and galaxies, galaxies and supermassive blackholes – the vast, cold, beauty of the Universe, will find astrology petty and inconsequential. Unfortunately, by that very definition, such people are hard to find. If you are seeking an explanation, look no further than good old anthropocentric ego (I’ve discussed this phenomenon here), and a human centric view of the Universe that no amount of astronomy can dispel.

What is Jupiter? Many people might say that it is the planet (or the thing, for the less knowledgeable) that will make me have a fight with a loved one today. Or, if you and I read different horoscopes, it is the reason I will get new clothes today. For me, Jupiter is a planet, a gas giant so large that it can encompass all other planets, and a gas giant so beautiful, with its multihued bands of clouds. For astrology, such things as gas giants cannot exist without a human-specific reason. It harks back to the days when everyone believed that all heavenly bodies were distant lights revolving around the Earth. Perhaps, they were divine lights expressing the mood of the tenants upstairs, and had to be interpreted thus. Today, we know otherwise; we have seen a Universe 10 billion light years in size – yet we cannot let go of anthropocentrism. In almost all religions, human-like figures are Gods, responsible for the whole of creation. Doesn’t that just smack of conceit? We cannot even claim to be a microscopic speck in the universal flotsam. I sincerely hope that alien civilizations will be discovered in my time: that should throw a rather large spanner into the works. Or maybe not. The aliens may then be a) considered the scions the (human) Devil, to be loathed and avoided; b) considered the scions of the (human) God, to be feared and worshipped; c) completely ignored.

There’s another way of putting the idea of human centrism. Think of a story, and the characters in that story. How would you view it? Is the story secondary, purely a property of the characters it contains? Or is the story paramount, with the characters simply parts of a rich tapestry? Obviously, the first is anthropocentrism, and you will immediately see its pervasiveness. Is there a critically acclaimed film, for instance, which falls entirely in the second category? I think many people simply take themselves too seriously. The breadth of cosmic vision that delights, fascinates and ultimately motivates astronomers, makes most people withdraw into a shell. The more of the Universe we see, the stronger the shell grows, and more constricting. There’s another thing about anthropocentrism that is interesting, and almost paradoxical. It implies an external locus of control. If personal destiny is impacted by a supernova 10000 light years away, then how do we know that every time we decide to take a shower, a black hole somewhere isn’t quietly gobbling up its partner? Put this way, it sounds ridiculous, but modern astrology isn’t too dissimilar.

The whole idea reminds me of a sequence in that astoundingly good novel series ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, where people are tortured and driven to insanity by an instrument that reveals to them the sheer depth of their cosmic insignificance. Perhaps such an instrument is exactly what the world needs.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On conservatism, environmentalism and all things green

Environmentalism is rather hard to justify, one would think, for someone who calls himself liberal. After all, there’s always the word ‘conservation’ lurking somewhere in all the green, just out of sight. But is it really? The issue here is the inadequacy of language, rather than something philosophically contradictory. Conservatism is not conservation; it is more of a refusal to roll with the times, a mindset that views any change in existing structure as an impending catastrophe. (Or if you want me to put a more positive spin on the definition, conservatism is being traditional.) This definition can easily put conservatism at odds with conservation. Let me give an example. Traditionally in the US, people keep firearms, ostensibly for personal safety. Today, as crime levels spiral, gun control activists seek to impose restrictions on gun procurements; one might think that such activists are being rather conservative. Politically speaking, however, they are liberal, because they are suggesting something that goes against the norm. Environmentalism is similarly liberal in a conservative way. Remember, there was no environmental movement fifty years ago.

Why bother? This is the obvious question asked of environmental conservation’s proponents. Things went along jolly well for four billion years; why start worrying now? The late George Carlin was a well known environmental sceptic. He wondered, in his charmingly cynical way, how human beings could be so conceited as to believe they were capable of destroying planet Earth. He was referring to the commonly cited ideal of the stereotypical environmentalist – ‘Save Planet Earth!’ The Earth didn’t need any saving, he claimed, it was only self-preservation that drove environmentalism. It’s perfectly true that the Earth doesn’t need saving; good old Gaia has survived ice ages, asteroid impacts and nuclear explosions. (On a sidenote, what exactly comprises the destruction of the planet? Will boiling off all water into space do OK? Or do you require it to break apart into a thousand chunks?) Again, the seeming contradiction here is due to language. When an environmentalist wants to save the planet, he is, more specifically, talking about life on the planet. Humans are life, and consequently are part of an environmentalist’s agenda, but that’s not all. I fail to see how concern for rainforests and endangered species can be driven by self-preservation. And therein lurks another argument, which can again be paraphrased as: Why bother? Let endangered species rot, we’re smart and we’ll inherit the planet, scorch the Earth and let all twenty billion of us live happy lives. Some people even compare human-caused extinctions to carnivorous animals’ kills. No one complains when lions hunt deer, right? We’re just doing the same.

We can’t do that precisely because we are smart. Everyone knows humans have superbly evolved brains. These remarkable instruments have helped us produce generations of delightful music. They have enabled us look so far into the past as to the see the birth of the Universe. They have produced reams of literature, and helped us build structures that dwarf us in size. It’s superbly hypocritical to seek to emulate less evolved animals whenever we want to evade responsibility for our actions. Humans have to be responsible, because humans can be responsible. We have the capacity to destroy life; that is inarguable. Extinction rates are nearly hundred times the pre-human era average. Environmentalists are not technophobes, they are not asking us to shun modern life and revert to dwelling in the forest as hunter-gatherers. All they are saying is that we should exercise some caution. If environmental ethics is so important, why doesn’t my religious text say so? More importantly, why wasn’t it there fifty years ago? Er, I think there were slightly fewer people back then.