Adding Up to Insanity

Most people have problems comprehending big numbers. I’m not talking about accurately comprehending the number of drinks you’ve had, the kilograms you are currently overweight, or even the size of your personal domain of fame. No, I am talking about issues with comprehending really big numbers.

Remember that ploy Carl Sagan used in his Cosmos program to demonstrate the size of the galaxy within which we reside? He grasped a handfull of sand on a beach asking if we might appreciate how many grains of sand there might be in his fist. That’s a big number. Then he went on to suggest that the number of stars in our galaxy is larger than ALL of the sand in ALL of the world’s beaches. Sobering stuff for those who insist on the substantive peculiarities of their own personal existence…

How many people can really imagine the world’s entire human population? 6 going on 7 billion! How many people can really comprehend a number like that? Particularly when, for most of us, the world’s population is generally calculated more like this: (me+family+workmates+people I know personally) = (a really big number) ≤ (the number of folk in my local city) which, in turn, is approximately = reality as I understand it. All the rest [(world’s population) – (local community)] is just an abstract number. Just like all those grains of sand in all the world’s other beaches.

Carl Sagan always held to the proposition that we poor self-centred humans would never understand the relative place of our race, if not our planet, until we could see it as a tiny blue dot from outer space. Which is precisely why he convinced NASA to turn Voyager 1’s camera eye back on earth 3.7 billion miles from home to make his point:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

The importance of our local community, if not our own self-importance, if not the importance of everyone else we could ever know, was rather emphatically demonstrated at that point. Big numbers and big dimensions are humbling… or should be for such a self-obsessed species as ourselves.

All of which, I think, explains the current head-in-the-sand absurdities of contemporary arguments and denialism over the contributions of humans to global warming. This argument, so everpresent in the more conservative circles of modern society (the professorial tea parties of contemporary academia, for starters…), and amongst all the rest of us who lack an education and/or an intellect. No, most folk can’t comprehend the accumulative destruction we collectively dump on this poor pale blue dot of a planet to which we are currently confined.

The logic works like this: my own personal emissions are small. Because I can’t comprehend numbers bigger than (say) 12, the collective contributions of society as comprehensible to me (my local town, say) must also be small. Therefore, human-induced global warming must be bunk. Or at least it must be bunk in my back yard (which is, let’s face it, pretty much the whole world that’s comprehensible to most of us – everywhere else is just the stuff of marketing fancies in travel brochures…).

Here’s an extract from my motorcycle owner’s handbook (the only oil-fired vehicle I own – the other six are bicycles…):

Exhaust fumes are poisonous and can cause loss of consciousness and death within a short period of time. Always operate your motorcycle in the open-air or in an area with adequate ventilation. Triumph Tiger Owners Manual, p. 56

Consider this warning… The fumes just this one bike emits are enough to kill me. Where do those fumes go to? Do they leak into outer space and gas aliens in the Betelgeuse system? No. They are glad-bagged into the atmosphere clinging precariously to our planet. Now imagine how much a car with 2 – 3 times the engine size of my bike might emit. Now multiply that by, wait for it, 700 million (cars in the world today)! That’s an incomprehensibly huge emission of toxic fumes! Every minute of every day, day in day out, year after toxic year. Most cars are currently emitting something like 350 to 500 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre travelled. How could this kind of thing NOT harm us or our planet? That’s a big clean-up burden for those trees we have condescended to leave in the ground (an acre of forest is needed to clean up the emissions of each of those 700 million plus (and growing) cars per year, more or less…).

Putting aside the science of atmospheric dynamics, I’d simply propose this simple experiment through which we can re-connect with the consequences of our comprehensibly local actions. If you live in a city, go visit a national park (well away from civilisation) for at least a week. Clear your lungs. Return to the city. Breathe in. What do you notice?! If you live in a rural place, go visit the city and breathe in the air. If that’s not enough to prove the point, take up urban cycling. Ride in traffic. You will see what I mean pretty quick smart. Your eyes will water, your lungs will scream. You will die a bit more for every second you spend in the fume tanks of our urban places. Is this not a graphic pale-blue-dot moment through which we might connect to the realities of what it is that we each do to this planet of ours? How can any person put his or her head in the sand of non-contributive innocence when he or she drives a car?

But still we deny personal responsibility! And keep on keeping on doing it despite all the oceans of government clean-up-our-act rhetorical spin. People stick to their delusion that it’s not what I do but what everyone else does that is the problem. Why and how does the individual become so separated from the notion of personal contributions to collective consequences on the occasion of driving a car?

I know how to fix the problem. Instantly. It’s a perfect cure. It’s a perfect way to connect the consequences of individual actions back to their perpetrators. Connect a pipe to the end of your exhaust pipe. Channel that pipe back in through the window of your cabin. Keep the windows up and inhale. Then cyclists will, truly, finally, inherit the earth… As Darwin’s logic would inevitably postulate.

Pilgrimage to the End of Days

What does this painting do for you (click on it for a larger view)? It’s the Pilgriage of St Isidore by my favourite painter, Francisco Goya. It is one of Goya’s ‘black paintings’; painted on the wall of his country house west of Madrid in 1821. Painstakingly peeled off that wall, this work was eventually transferred to canvas and placed in the Prado Museum in Madrid where today, you too can sit under it and contemplate the mental imagery it so furiously invokes.

There are Goya paintings all through the Prado. But none, in my view, match this. It’s wall fillingly huge. It’s breathtakingly mesmerising. It tells stories.

The story this work speaks to me is the march of our race to self-imposed destruction. A self-imposed, self-deserved march to hell… It is a black painting, after all! Do you expect that a work coloured by all the shades of hell could invoke anything else?

There are a few components of this picture that add up to the picture of misery the image portrays to me. The long chain of followers, following one-by-one in the almost dark depths of a gloom blanketed blasted landscape is the central story element. The faces of those you can see at the front of this queue tell all without the need for words. It’s not a happy picture! Nor should it be.

The mental movie this picture invokes is of a directionless, pointless march from the place we once might have called home to the homelessness of a world gone universally bad via the accumulative destruction each and every one of us has inflicted on an environment we all knew was at its limit. This is the panorama of the end-of-days to follow our hedonistic orgy of oil-burning, greenhouse emitting overindulgence in planetary exploitation. An orgy of the abject pursuit of consumerism unconstrained by even the concept of self-responsibility. This tragic parade of misery is a column of recognition that the things we each do add up, add together and come down on us like a torrent of universal pain. The folk in this plodding directionless pilgrimage to nowhere probably all, now, realise what it is that they have done. Now, at last, they are connected in their sharing of the circumstances to which they have each contributed. I see harmony in this crowd. They all share the misery that’s now their collective reward. No one is more to blame; their fate is shared.

One wonders what this crowd might then do if it could be directed backwards in time to adjust the contributions each and every one of them have deposited to their unpleasant collective fate. How would they have done things differently to preclude the inevitability of this march to hell?

Is this an inevitable fate? Is this meandering pointless parade our ultimate journey? What’s Goya trying to say? What’s this painting telling you? I believe there is a clue embedded here. Notice that this crowd is both amorphous in endless anonymity while, at the same time, is personalised via an uncensored expressive focus on the faces of those in front. This tells us that this meandering line of misery is a line of individuals, each contributing to the whole we see spread so widely across this wall. The whole is a sum of its parts. The whole is a place we don’t want to be. You can see that in the face of the few faces highlighted at the front; despite the brave display at least one of them is trying to invoke (that tragic guitarist singing a tune I suspect is as black as the scene). We can imagine that every face in the line might be of equally agonised demeanour. This reinforces the reality that the totality of any crowd is simply the accumulation of individuals. It’s what each individual does, one influencing the other via socially constructed cultures of interaction, that accumulates to the panoramic wide-screen of misery that this painting so breathtakingly presents. These pilgrims each share membership of a whole gone very wrong.

They could, conceivably, also be members of a collective with an entirely different fate. If each and every person in this conga line of shared depression could have a second chance, do you think their ultimate fate would be the same?

It’s a sobering blockbuster of a painting, this. It’s a powerful siren through which to wake us from our individual contributions to an intolerable collective destruction. This crowd needs reconfiguration. The story needs to be re-blended from scratch. If you ever get to the Prado, make sure you spend some time to hear the story it might invoke in you. I found it hard to drag myself away. I can’t recall any work of art that has produced such an impact as this. It’s worth the trip to Madrid…