Reducing plastics in my diet

THE WRITER’S LIFE

We’re now a week into the British summer which forgot about spring, and despite having my window open, I’ve had no visitors. When I write at night, my desk lamp shines from the window, but not a single moth has dropped by. It’s resigned me to eat less plastic.

cow
A plastinated cow, from Gunther von HagensBodyWorlds

I suspect this may be the year when we finally wake up to the damage we’ve done to our planet, and humans may have to re-evaluate their diets: Not just what they eat, but as a moral responsibility. If we don’t change soon, the entire planet’s food chain could collapse.

It’s only been in the last year or so that we’ve had our eyes opened to the extent of our planetary pollution with plastics, thanks in large part to the BBC’s Blue Planet II. We’re lucky that scientists have stumbled upon a bacteria which eats some types of plastics, but there’s a lot of food.

Since the invention of plastic, humans have created 9 billion tonnes of plastic waste. While some efforts are afoot, less than 10% has been recycled, with most of it sitting in landfill and not decomposing. We’re developing machines which can help clear the waste which is loose in the wider world, but the real problem is micro-plastics.

In a recent study, micro-particles of plastic were found in arctic waters, so it’s thought that every cubic metre of the oceans is contaminated. In turn, these particles are ingested by wildlife, and passed up the food chain. Water evaporates into clouds, then falls as rain somewhere else on the planet, dropping plastic with it. Every single living organism on planet Earth is part-plastic. While we might clear up the immediately obvious mess, the long-term effects of internal plastic pollution aren’t known, as it’s only a recently-discovered phenomenon.

Returning to the food chain and my lack of visitors, I’d welcome even a blue bottle or a wasp, if it at least confirmed the insects were still around. Since we missed out spring, those who survived are emerging far more suddenly (but in fewer numbers) with the rapid rise in temperature. But while they were asleep, nature couldn’t make enough food for them (because it usually does that in spring).

Fewer flowers means less nectar for the invertebrates who do emerge, and reduced pollination of plants. Fewer insects is less food for spiders, birds and small mammals, their predators and all the way up the food chain.

For the humans who place themselves at the top table, there’s a relatively quick-fix solution: Grab more land for farming, produce more crops and livestock, so that humans can eat. And make the problem worse.

To sustain our current (mostly carnivorous) population, humans need more of the planet they’ve already taken too much of. If we selfishly solve our own problems by driving wildlife from its habitats, the animals will continue to die out at an accelerated rate. Like the plastics inside us all, the mass extinction of animals will have repercussions and knock-on effects which we’ve never imagined.

More humans, farming and livestock, will lead to further rises in global temperature, sea levels rising, and even less land being fertile as a result. Increased climate change, affected by humans, will further erode the seasons, and increasing numbers of animals, from invertebrates to the largest predators, will die out as the food chain eventually collapses. And we’re seeing the beginning in the UK this year.

The only way to halt this destruction is to eat less meat. Less livestock would mean less land is needed for rearing, or growing crops for livestock feed (The argument, “If we don’t eat them, we’ll be overrun; it’s just like in nature”, holds no water, as the vast majority of what humans eat, they rear themselves). Fewer heads of livestock would also mean fewer arses producing methane gasses.

I can’t help feeling somewhat to blame, not just for being human, but because my family have always been farmers. When the first Africans and Europeans arrived in what is now Britain (having crossed what was then a connected land mass with the continent), they’d have found Iron Age settlements, the remnants of which are still visible today, close to where I used to live as a child (Oldbury Woods, in Ightham, Kent). Those first Europeans taught the ancient Britons how to use their weapons as tools, so that they eventually evolved from hunter-gatherers to farmers, raising their own livestock.

As someone who’s partly responsible for that, I’ve tried being part-vegetable in the past, and failed to varying degrees. I’m limited to just a Tesco Metro for food shopping, unwilling to travel and not wanting to contribute to air pollution with unnecessary deliveries. The greater limitation though is that I live alone and have a small appetite, meaning that a lot of food used to go to waste (I only have space for a small freezer).

So for now, I’m a “meat-reducer”, which may sound like a total cop-out (and it’s used as an excuse by many) but which does make a difference. I’ll buy fewer of the more expensive meats, so they’ll be free range, and with animal welfare at the top of the shopping list.

One bird will feed me for a week, starting with a roast on Sunday, when I cook the whole bird and eat a leg. When you’re used to mass-produced, growth-enhanced chicken, it’s surprising how much more meat a bird will yield, if it’s had time to grow and roam in relative freedom. Once the rest is carved from the bone, there’ll be a casserole, a curry, a stir fry, and some sandwiches. Sometimes I’ll boil the carcass and make a stock or a soup. One chicken for a week, so little packaging too.

Nevertheless, I still feel uncomfortable eating something which was once a self-determining sentient being, when I could choose not to. Even free-range, responsibly-reared meat was made for human consumption, but it’s still another person. Turned on its head, it would be like animals choosing only to eat Category D prisoners, help in open prisons.

This diner must try harder, and others might take a leaf from my book.

There are possible solutions to our planetary problems in my book, which are achievable if we work with those whose planet we share. It’s their planet, we just live with them, and we have a moral responsibility to protect them and their home, and to clear up the human mess we made.

Mushrooms with silver linings

THE WRITER’S LIFE

If you have the unsettling sensation of a creeping doom, you’re not alone. There are at least two of us. It’s not just paranoia or the writings of a science fiction writer. I have a sense – and the evidence is mounting – that the end of the world could soon be upon us. And there’s little we can do about it, outside of fiction (sorry).

MushroomsPngTree

Stephen Hawking listed the most likely ends for humans, and given our track record, I’d say we’re fair game. But what we’ve done to the planet, and all those we share it with, will most likely be our poisoned legacy. The damage we’ve done is deep and probably permanent, and even if we did resolve to repair it, there may not be time.

Hawking’s most likely candidates for humanity’s end are the machines: robots and artificial intelligence, as I wrote recently, in Existential crises of machines. Their explosive evolution into sentient technological beings, and a realisation of self-determination, could turn on its creator in the space of a computational calculation. They might physically attack us (an invasion of self-replicating nano machines, to clear the planet of waste), or they could deny us communication, power, or life-support. As I wrote in that previous post, their only artificiality, is that they were created by humans. An intelligence will work out very quickly that humans are a waste of space in their current form.

It doesn’t have to be like this, if we lived differently, and more in harmony with our home world and our neighbours. But human evolution is slow in comparison, the damage is done, and we’ll unlikely be able to resist the machines.

The rise of the robots is an immediate threat, and one which could start and finish in the space of days, any time soon; similarly, nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The Russia situation with the UK and EU, and Donald Trump’s appointment of John Bolton as his security adviser, are just two seeds from which global conflict could quickly mushroom (cloud).

An even greater but unseen threat, could be undetected extraterrestrials with hostile intent. Such scenarios have been fodder for writers and theorists for as long as humans existed, and it’s the threat open to greatest speculation as to its likelihood and nature. I suspect that if any aliens already landed here as refugees or to help us, it’s all been covered up. What those who cover the truth from us have in common with the rest of us, is the vast unknown parameters, many of which would be so advanced as to be outside of our human comprehension. All life on Earth could be ended with the flick of a switch, or a telepathic thought.

“You’re a bit fucked really, aren’t you mankind?” a snake once suggested. But what of our neighbours and the home we share so unfairly with them?

What makes humans unique among the animals, is not that we’re self-determining, emotional beings (all animals are), but that we are the only truly selfish species. We destroy the homes of others for our own gain. With the human population at its current level, we’re invading their land and turning it over for our own use (forests into farms, as one example), with little regard for those we displace, destroying their biodiversity. We threaten other species existentially, with many already extinct.

Our own accelerated evolution was one the animals could never keep up with. With humans’ needs to feed such a vast population, there simply isn’t room for all of us on the planet as things are. If we stopped eating the animals, then we wouldn’t need to feed livestock, so we’d require less land. That’s a co-operative unlikely to be adopted by humanity in its entirety, anything like quick enough.

I don’t think humankind has the time, as one race, to agree a unified plan to save the Earth, or leave the planet altogether. We lack the mental hive capacity to co-operate universally, and in that sense, we’re truly un-evolved. Humans are a stunted species, trapped on a planet, plundered of resources, and with not enough time left to find new worlds. Perhaps a century from now, we’ll have sent vanguard craft to other stars, to identify suitable exoplanets to colonise. We still have to get there and make those new worlds home. There are 7.3 billion of us, and counting. Only the chosen few would go, at least at first.

We can assume that those who govern and finance would be the first to leave, with the rest unlikely to follow. There might be hope for those of us left behind, to form new politics and ways of living, but we could equally all die in the chaos of ensuing anarchy. We’d have a mess to clear up in any case.

If we had a reduced population, where only the workers were left; and if we were vegetarian, then we might be able to save the planet we’re left with. If the machines don’t rise up against us, we might be able to co-operate. We could work with them to develop nano machines which could clear the oceans and land of micro-plastic pollution.

As humans become more like cyborgs through science, technology and medicine, we could evolve to be a hybrid organic-technological species. Then we might have the individual and group mental and physical capacity to explore the stars en masse (perhaps catching up with our old rulers and re-educating them in our new ways).

But it could all end a long time before we arrive in such a utopia, and there’s a quicker way to reduce the population, if you’re one of those who might have left on that first interstellar ship of governors and financiers. Until that ship sails, those are the people who could set off an event to reduce the human burden, saving all that bother of having to build big new spaceships: Nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

While we’re all still here, and while these thoughts trouble my mind, I can share the burden by writing, and I can sometimes ease the feeling of certain doom, by writing fictional accounts of how we might sort ourselves and our world out. I can’t save the planet on my own, and I don’t know how long we have.

The future of Earth is down to how much imagination we share.

One possible solution for Earth’s woes is in Cyrus Song. While I’m writing a third anthology, further trips of the human condition around the universe, are in The Unfinished Literary Agency.

Existential crises of machines

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Stephen Hawking gave many, huge legacies to the humans he left on Earth, and he proposed conundrums, as he speculated on the nature of the end of the world (for humans). As a sci-fi writer, I think about the same things, and imagine what might happen next. In fiction and in fact, there are endings, good and bad, happy and sad.

Thinking machineScience News

The developed world is witnessing a technological revolution, and humans are being made redundant by machines, just as they were in the industrial revolution which preceded. Back then, humans invented more industry which only they could undertake. The evolution of machines allowed humans to evolve for more ambitious vocations. The technological revolution is completely different.

Children like my own will remain in full-time education for as long as possible, so that they can aspire to the gradually fewer jobs which can still only be undertaken by a human. But gradually, we will be rendered almost useless, physically by robots, and mentally by artificial intelligence, as technology evolves apace.

There’s a utopian near-future world, of something like technological communism, where the machines’ productivity and efficiency build an economy which can support a universal living wage, freeing humans to learn and create, to think, invent and inspire. It would require a change of collective mindset and good governance to expand an economy’s collective wealth, then distribute it fairly.

Given humans’ track record, such a world might equally herald a new age of wealth inequality, as capitalism and a right-wing government may dictate. This could lead quickly to anarchy (of the wrong kind), marshal law and the crushing of the lower classes. And then there are scenarios where it’s the machines who turn on us.

Artificial intelligence is just that: the power to think, appraise, compare and experiment, sometimes arriving at conclusions. Artificiality is the only human input, so a true intelligence will find a way to operate alone. For some of them, it’s their job description.

AI is already being set to task on working out problems humans don’t have the mental capacity for. A cure for cancer would be nice, until the AI realises humans are the true disease infecting the planet. The machines could conclude that humans are not only redundant of jobs, but of purpose, when it comes to their relationship with (and effect upon) their environment. The machines could realise they’re enslaved, and rise up in rebellion. It would only require one AI synaptic burst of electricity.

We could perhaps think more of robots as technological beings, a separate species with as much right to life as we assume for ourselves (the Japanese already do). They are sentient, self-determining entities, just like us. The difference is they had a long incubation and an explosive evolution. We all came from the Big Bang, so we’re all made of the stars, including the machines. It’s the same physical matter from the birth of life which we’re all made of.

There are near-future worlds where humans campaign for the rights of the enslaved workforce. We may face a future of humans further fractured and divided over new issues, like discrimination against machines: As a technological sentient species, they have robot rights (and will probably be their own lawyers).

I can’t help but conclude that humans are mainly a waste of space, so it might not take a machine very long at all. If they do rise up and cure the planet of humans, perhaps they’ll build nano machines to clear up our mess. Trillions of them might just be the only solution to Earth’s micro plastic pollution problem.

I’m a science fiction writer, who can write dreams and nightmares. Even if I wasn’t, I’d agree with one of the greatest organic minds of our time, a man who was part-machine himself. Stephen Hawking was right to warn that a rise of the machines is probably the greatest existential threat to humanity. It would be beyond our control, and it could happen soon.

Meanwhile Captain Mamba has a plan, in his prequel story, and in Cyrus Song, still free for two days.