Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Juvenile Chimp Lands in Alaskan Methane Lake

It was another gripping NPR field interview, this time with a young woman PhD, a specialist in lake formations. As the seaplane buzzed steadily to its destination, the biggest new lake in Alaska caused by melting permafrost, the young woman shared her mounting enthusiasm at the research prospects. She carefully explained the phenomenon, widely noted in Siberia, trans-Finland, and Alaska: with accelerated polar warming, the tundra is beginning to melt, forming lakes where only a few years lay frozen spongy peat-like surfaces, dotted with trees. Now more and more lakes are forming, trees starkly protruding from the waters, and with them, methane gas, lots of it. Methane is 21 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and vast amounts have been bottled up as clathrates in frozen permafrost bands near the poles.

The young PhD was an obvious candidate for a popular interview. Not only was she a female scientist, but she had an engaging, bubbly personality. Her enthusiasm for her work was contagious. She especially liked the simple test of lighting a match to detect the methane. More sophisticated were the subsequent steps of bottling it for further study in the lab when she got home. But encountering methane from these lakes, the likes of which the earth hasn’t seen in several million years, was what really turned her on. She told the woman interviewer about the time when she struck a match and the combustion knocked her over backwards, badly singing her eyebrows, lashes and hair. What a blast!

The interviewer asked the researcher about the perennial problem of the young woman professional: what about marriage? Can you do your best work and progress in your field while raising a family? Still unmarried, she responded thoughtfully, admitting that she knew far too many women who had lost their place in the fiercely competitive world of academic research after starting families. Yes, she wanted a family, but she wanted to work in this newly emerging field to her utmost as long as she could.

As the seaplane started its descent to the lake, the excitement in her voice rose. Upon landing, she rushed to be the first to jump out of the plane. You could hear the whomp and crackling roll as she hit the ground, whooping loudly with joy. Clearly she had found work that was passionate play. How fortunate she was, and how inspiring for us, the listeners, to hear such joy over important work in an emerging field.

But not long into the interview I began to shrink in horror at this unfolding personality. What a prime example of our flawed species. Celebrating the achievement of the pinnacle of her sub-specialty by lighting methane, laughing at the rush of excitement with the explosive whoosh, she behaved like a tomboy juvenile chimp. Lost in this excitement was that she was celebrating very likely the beginning of our end, since the accelerated release of methane from the polar tundra would be more than enough to shove Gaia into uncontrollable warming.

Our species behavior has always been thus. The young scientist’s ebullient methane burning is eerily like the men who discovered oil wells, the stuff spewing over little towns in Pennsylvania and Texas like uncorked black champagne. It also reminds me of friends and acquaintances, all male, who had accidents with their basement chemistry kits, some serious, one fatal. We love to play, and fire is our favorite plaything. We are on the verge of destroying ourselves, taking many of our co-species with us in a fit of burning. The party began with the coal-powered steam engine and we've never looked back - until now. It has reached a paroxysm, the rate of CO2 emissions – and now methane - increasing every month, despite dire warnings from the climate scientists. The methane flames at the mouth of each oil well are signal fires of the Last Party, while China builds a new coal-fired plant each week to make damned sure it's a blowout.

In reflection, most of us know where we are headed. But our paleolithic emotional heritage is more like the chimp, and studies have shown that our moral code is a rational overlay on a much more basic, instinctive core that makes instantaneous decisions – for reasons of immediate survival (or gratification) - that we share with other mammals. We act first, then think afterwards, deftly rationalizing our actions.

So would the chimp-scientist be more sober about the implications for the fate of mankind of her rapidly-expanding field of study if she became a mother? I would hope so. For it is only when we reflect upon the consequences of this global bonfire for our children, grandchildren, all the seven generations, that we pause, perhaps breaking the addictive chain that fuels endless gratification of our material desires. EO Wilson builds his hope for those future generations, and continued species diversity , upon biophilia, the innate love of all life-forms. The cosmologist Brian Swimme cites studies of cross-species mammalian bonding as the basis for living with other creatures growing out of more than cultivated respect, reaching more deeply into our emotional core to affective bonding.

To counterbalance our prodigious advance in the connection between the neocortex and the technological extensions of the opposable thumb, we need remedial work in biophilia, best experienced as a creature (the hunter-gatherer)living in a nested habitat that of necessity teaches respect for the intertwined neighbor species. Lacking that, we need to raise our young, and thus place ourselves, with frequent experience of the outdoors, in a world affording as much wildness as possible, teaching by sympathetic identification the moral imagination which NPR’s engaging young woman scientist seems profoundly to lack.

Labels: , , , , ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]