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16.4.10

Tortured Logic

I read this morning that a volcano in Iceland has produced an ash cloud that has interrupted European air traffic and has created a chemical soup that threatens ecological disaster. This puts me in mind of a thought problem I have mulled for many years now to whit: why do we distinguish between Natural and Man-Made disasters? The idea that somehow Mankind can create problems that are unnatural is predicated on the idea that we humans are outside of Nature.

The logic, as I see it, is as follows: Mankind exists outside of Nature, therefore any action on our part is unnatural, so that we can choose to live in harmony with Nature, or act in ways that are against Nature.

I recall one of George Carlin's superb HBO concerts. George, of course, was a stand-up philosopher, a la Mel Brooks' character in 'History of the World, Part I.' In one of the concerts, George concludes with a rant along the lines of this article, that Mankind cannot produce something that is unnatural. To paraphrase him, how do we know that Nature did not produce Man because it could not produce plastic itself? Being unable to create plastic on it's own, Nature had to create an agent (Mankind) in order to perform the process on its behalf.

Thus, to the crux of the issue: if Mankind is a product of Nature, then Mankind is incapable of acting in a manner that is unnatural. Now we may do things that are unpopular, distasteful, immoral, even evil, but those are all human constructs based on our interpretation of sensual data by the individual and the collective. They are not, in fact, objective judgments about our actions. They are subjective conclusions based on a limited point of view.

To state things the other way around, if the mind of Man is a natural product of natural processes, then we are incapable of conceiving of, or doing anything that is unnatural. An oil spill might be the result of our actions, but it is not unnatural. Oil is a natural product, found commonly in the Universe (in fact, Saturn's moon Titan is awash in hydrocarbons) and Nature itself produces oil spills in the form of tar pits and the like. Plastics are products of hydrocarbon wax (paraffin).

In like manner, atomic fission and fusion occurs in stars, which are natural objects found by the trillions. A screwdriver is an extension of our figernails and a hammer is an extension of our fist. Every technology we have or will conceive of is a product of our minds, which are themselves natural phenomena. It is impossible for humans to think of or do something which is unnatural.

There is some validity to the argument that our actions can be good and evil. Good and evil are constructs of our minds and therefore natural divisions. However, as a kabbalist might point out, my guardian angel is your most fearsome demon. All things are a matter of perspective, but not necessarily unnatural.

One might argue that Man's destruction of his environment is unnatural, but as any high school biology student knows, if you culture a bacteria in a medium, it will grow unabated until it has completely consumed the medium and the whole colony dies. A parasite often thrives at the expense of its host until both host and parasite die. It is illogical, but not unnatural. These phenomena exist outside the cause and effect of human action, but by extension humans can behave in the same manner without being outside of Nature.

Ultimately, all disasters are natural. Whether Man is the agent or the victim is simply a matter of degree, but either way the disaster itself is completely natural. Whether it is a volcano or a chemical plant explosion, the result is the same. The only difference is whether Man was the agent and had some ability to avert the situation. Whether we are the agent or the volcano is, is inconsequential.

I suppose, in the end, what differentiates us from other natural phenomena is that we are capable of modifying our environment to our best advantage. That we have a choice not to consume our medium until the point of extinction is the advantage of sentience, but sentience is not unnatural. Smart or stupid are value judgments, and in the greater scheme of things, they are inconsequential. What is a tragedy for one species is an advantage for others. We are but one species among millions on this planet, and our planet is but one among trillions that can be inferred from current data. Therefore, our choices and actions, either individually or collectively, are of vanishing significance in the greater tapestry that is Nature. Once we have achieved our purpose, Nature will dispose of us, as it has of countless other species before us. All that we are, all that we have achieved, can be wiped out in an instant by an Act of Nature, whether that act be the sun going nova, or Mankind vanishing by its own hand. Ask the people of Banda Aceh or Pompeii if they distinguish between natural and man-made disasters.

In the end, all the hand-wringing about climate change or oceanic trash pits or other cause celebre du jour, is pointless. Either we, as a species, choose to act in a way that promotes our survival, or we don't. Either way, it makes no difference to the Universe at large. Nature will exist either way.

In a way, it's like the health craze. You can eat well, exercise daily, reduce unnecessary risks, and pray daily, and still die. The issue is the quality of the time you have, not the quantity. I know many people who are rabid climate changers who own multiple vehicles, live in large houses and consume far more than their needs. Al Gore comes to mind. Yet, they want to be comfortable, just like every other human being on Earth. It all comes down to our motives as both individuals and as a species.

A disaster is a disaster, regardless of the agent. Human history is replete with examples of great advances based of great tragedies. When we look back, we see that it had to be, but when we are in the midst of it, we bemoan the suffering. All a matter of perspective.

My father had a sign on his desk for many years that read, "When you're up to your ass in alligators, it's hard to remember that your first thought was to drain the swamp."

Truer words I have not heard.

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