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Category: Humans

Pass the Hot Sauce
I advise you not to read the most recent U.N. report on global warming. It hasn’t been published yet, but some of its findings have been leaked to the media. Let’s just say that your worst fears are well-founded.

If it were just me, I guess I wouldn’t be that concerned about the end of civilization. I’ll probably be dead by the time the worst effects unfold. It’s not just me, though. There are some people I really like who will live on after I go, and I worry about them. I even have a bit of an emotional investment in civilization itself. For all its failings, I really do hope that humanity can survive in comfort for centuries to come.

I wonder what the science deniers plan to tell their children and grandchildren when the truth is finally and painfully apparent. They bought into the facile explanations offered by the employees of Big Oil. They voted for the politicians who told them what they wanted to hear. They accepted the rationale that asked the least from them. Their chosen course of action called for no action at all. When the time comes for them to account for their own irresponsibility, their mouths will be filled with ashes.

But what about us — the non-deniers? What will we say to future generations? “I bought a Prius”? Okay, but what if we can’t afford one? Is there something else real and substantial that we could be doing — something we can offer with a straight face as proof that we are not weak and irresponsible? My history of driving semi-fuel-efficient vehicles might be offered as a defense, I suppose, or my strong track record of recycling. Still, the degree of sacrifice required for these acts might seem pretty thin against the background of a global wasteland.

I do have an answer, I think. It’s not a new idea, but for some reason it hasn’t caught on the way that hybrid vehicles and solar panels have, and that is surprising. Besides saving the Earth, my solution would also save money and promote good health. I’m talking, of course, about becoming a vegetarian.

In case you don’t know, cows are among the worst offenders in creating greenhouse gases — right up there between automobiles and termites. Like termites, they produce enormous amounts of methane, a gas with twenty-five times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. So, if I stop eating beef, there will be fewer cows — and less deadly methane.

Now that I think of it, though, my solution does have a major drawback. When the time comes for my accounting, my legacy might turn out to be somewhat less than noble: he stood tall and strong in the face of cow farts. That just doesn’t seem like enough. If I really want to occupy the moral high ground, I’ll have to take it up a notch.

I’ll stop eating beef — and start eating termites. That should pass the test of history.
Super Aliens from the Dawn of Time
I am confounded by the ease with which people are able to dismiss science. I don’t understand how they can live in a world of wonders based on science, yet when faced by an empirical truth that spooks them, they’re ready to vilify scientists as grand conspirators plotting to destroy all that is good and right and pure ... or something. It could be worse, I suppose; in the old days, messengers bearing bad news were often executed on the spot. At least we’ve made some progress.

Maybe the problem here is the scientific method itself. (Bear with me, please. I’m looking for an explanation for science-denial beyond the too-obvious “people are idiots.”) The scientific method, in its very first step, calls on its users to make guesses about why things are the way they are. These guesses are called hypotheses. They are not conclusions based on experimentation. Under the scientific method, those two steps are supposed to come next. Hypotheses are simply conjecture, and nothing more, but I think that sometimes people might confuse these conjectures with scientific conclusions. Since some of the guesses are pretty wild, you can see how folks might be ready to pooh-pooh science completely in favor of wishful thinking.

Am I trying too hard to be nice here? Am I letting people off the hook for being stupid by suggesting that they are merely ignorant? Perhaps, but consider for a moment the Super Aliens from the Dawn of Time Hypothesis. That’s not what Harvard astrophysicist Abraham Loeb calls it, of course, but the gist fits. He is the scientist who imagined that, during a window of time a mere fifteen million years after the Big Bang, conditions might have been perfect for the evolution of life… pretty much everywhere.

I should make clear that “everywhere” was not as big then as it is now. The universe has done a lot of expanding in the last 13.8 billion years (even though it has lost weight). In those early days, the whole exploding mess was still permeated by the warm afterglow of the Big Bang. As a matter of fact, every hunk of rock, no matter where it was in the firmament, was in the “goldilocks zone.”

These days, when astronomers talk about the “goldilocks zone,” they are referring to a temperate cocoon around stars where water can exist in liquid form. Such conditions are thought to be vital for evolution and the maintenance of life. Earth is in such a zone around our sun, and thanks to the very pleasant temperatures here — not too hot, not too cold, but just right — life (like Goldilocks) has thrived here on a steady diet of Baby Bear’s porridge.

Can you imagine the entire universe (small though it was) as one big temperate zone and therefore completely hospitable to life? Neither can I, but I’m not Prof. Abraham Loeb, doctor of physics and all kinds of other stuff. His conjecture is that life may have come into being and thrived during that time. Who is to say that the descendants of those life forms (despite the fact that his “goldilocks zone” would have lasted only seven million years) do not still exist today…as Super Aliens from the Dawn of Time?

If I am right, this is just the kind of dizzying theory that the ignorant (though not necessarily stupid) among us might seize upon as justification for dismissing all science. Loeb’s guess is so far outside the box, so crazy-sounding, that a normal person might be tempted to reject as untrue everything that science had actually proven over and over. Right?

No, not right. Now that it’s seen the light of day, my theory (call it a hypothesis) does not stand up to close examination. I like Dr. Loeb’s guess about the warm, young universe as a cradle of life. It makes a crazy kind of sense to me. It actually makes me trust science more for daring to ask such unconventional questions. In fact, isn’t that the absolute best way to search for truth?

In keeping with the scientific method, then, I withdraw my hypothesis. It was a worthy effort, I think, but once it was submitted to thought experiments in the laboratory of this blog, it failed to hold liquid water. So be it. Science deniers, I have concluded, reject science for one obvious reason, and you don’t have to be a Super Alien from the Dawn of Time to know it: people are idiots.
The Meating's Been Cancelled
Even though it was all his own doing, it’s not hard to feel empathy for Yang Jinhai. He crawled into that tiger compound on purpose, but he was clearly not in his right mind. In a way, though, I feel even sorrier for the tigers.

Mr. Yang, according to his family, had been feeling depressed about work. His job experiences in the Chinese city of Chengdu had been boring and monotonous, he said — so much so that he decided to let the two tigers at the Chengdu Zoo “eat his meat.” He climbed a tree and dropped into their modest enclosure, hoping to incite them into an attack. For twenty minutes he yelled, waved his arms, and made faces at the startled beasts. The female, Shenyang Mother, ran to the far corner of the cage; Ningbo Mother, the male, dragged the man around a bit, but showed no interest in devouring him. The animals were eventually tranquilized by officials, who then entered the compound and escorted Yang Jinhai to safety. He is now in a psychiatric home receiving treatment.

The tigers weren’t so lucky. They woke up to find themselves in the same boring and monotonous existence they had been living for years. These two are rare white Bengal tigers, a breed now extinct in the wild. They’d have no place to go to even if they could escape. They are also the offspring of zoo animals, so “the wild” is not even a distant memory for them. They have never stalked, killed, and eaten prey. Their world consists of sitting in a cage all day and waiting for dead meat to be delivered.

I don’t know why the tigers wanted no part of Mr. Yang. Perhaps they weren’t hungry. Perhaps they were confused or frightened by his antics. Or maybe they were so removed from the environment that produced them that they didn’t know what to do.

Chendu is only the seventh largest city in China, but it teems with over nine million human inhabitants. Like many Chinese cities, it is often noisy and choked with smog. It is not hard to understand why Mr. Yang might think “there must be more to life.” Still, I hesitate to suggest that his tale might have been a happier one if the tigers had taken him up on his offer. I cannot hope for any human to be eaten alive, even if that is his express desire.

I can’t help thinking, though, that eating Yang might have brought meaning to the cloistered existence of those tigers. Imagine that Shenyang Mother and Ningbo Mother could have eaten just one of the tens of thousands of creatures who have stared at them for every second of their lives. At least they would have known — for that fleeting moment — that there is, indeed, more to life.
We’re all doomed, of course, but I guess you already knew that. No matter how clever you are, no matter how many healthy choices you make, you’re not going to live forever. To everything there is a season, including you.

The same goes for your chain-smoking, war-making, climate-change-denying species. This is not pessimism talking, just common sense. A pessimistic view would set the date as early next week, and that’s not my position. I prefer to envision our demise coming many thousands of years from now, with the last human being passing quietly after a long, fulfilling life and surrounded by her loving pets. We don’t know when the day will come, but it certainly will. The self-proclaimed lords of the universe will finally disappear from planet earth.

Which begs the question: who’s next? Will it be a brainy species like chimps or porpoises? Might it be an animal that commands the sheer numbers to mount a conquest? Cockroaches, which are already living in our homes, would seem to have a leg up (or six of them) on the competition. Or is there some other contender for the crown, some creature both plentiful and cunning, who could take our place at the top of the food chain?

Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester who studies Earth history, thinks he has the answer. I’m not sure where a geologist gets off telling us about biological extrapolations, but Professor Zalasiewicz is a man of science, so I’m willing to cut him some slack. He’s been conducting some serious thought experiments on this subject, and the animal he sees as best positioned for takeover is… the rat.

I know. I was hoping for something a little more noble and/or cuddly. But he’s got a point; rats are already comfortable pretty much everywhere. They are clever enough as infiltrators and survivors to have avoided extermination at the hands of the mighty human himself. In fact, as we have prospered, so have they, growing in numbers and breadth of range.

They will flow easily into the ecological space created by our departure. After that, the professor points out, they will begin to evolve in response to a world without humans. That evolutionary process, as it has in similar situations in the past, will no doubt lead to larger rats. Much larger rats. Brontosaurus-sized rats. Thunder rats, if you will.

They could evolve in any way, really, as long as it helped them to survive. Their hairless tails might morph into great sails that could carry them across the seas. Their teeth, so adept at chewing, might help them tunnel for precious minerals. Their whiskers might turn into antennae and provide the organic hardware for a worldwide web, the Ratnet.

But there is, I think, a more exciting possibility. Sixty-five million years ago, when an asteroid brought doom to the dinosaurs, the humble tree shrew stepped into the void the dinos left behind. Those shrews, from whom we are descended, were not so different from modern rats. Who is to say that rats will not evolve into a new, perhaps improved, version of humanity? Why not? The streets and sewers are already in. I’ve got a trunk full of old clothes they are more than welcome to.

I find this prospect oddly comforting. The optimist in me believes that those “new” humans might pick up where we left off, only this time they would do things differently. They would read our history and learn from our mistakes. They’d see that we had been doomed by our own foolishness (becoming our own asteroid, you might say) and finally snuffed ourselves out. An object lesson in stupidity. With that wisdom, they could make our dreams their own, then turn them at last into reality. The earth would be a garden again; peace and the brotherhood of all beings would reign upon our world.

At least until the cockroaches took over.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon