Category Archives: philosophical

Patterns and Connections in this Universe

As is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm.

I was thrilled to stumble upon this video (below) from NOVA, today, on patterns. As I watched it, I kept hoping that it would end the way it in fact did, because I watched a film at our University of Colorado Fiske Planetarium a few months ago where the astrophysics student-narrator zoomed out as far as possible to look at the cosmos, and showed us how it resembled our very own brain neurons.

Computer simulation image of the universe which looks like a neuron

This is an awesome conclusion that astrophysicists have come to. Who among us does not have a sense of wonder about the order of the universe – from the tiniest microscopic inhabitants to the largest? Astrophysicists also tell us to marvel at the fact that we are made up of atoms from the distant past universe events, thus we are part of it, or it is part of us. Either way you look at it is correct. That fact also makes it true that we are all connected to everything else, a fundamental piece of knowledge from centuries old Eastern wisdom traditions.

There are patterns obvious in the natural world that help teach us that there is an incredible order to the universe. Artists like to refer to observations such as we can easily see in a cross section of the Nautilus Shell as “sacred geometry”. Geometric ratios can further be found in harmonic music. It is our senses that allow us to appreciate these natural patterns and the experience of “beauty”.

From reading quotes by Einstein, it appears that he had a fascination and also a great respect (if not a recognition that it was his life’s purpose) for observing and attempting to understand the incredible order of the universe. In part, this was attempted through the use of mathematical equations, though he also appeared to think that the human brain was inadequate to completely understand the governing laws of nature.

Let us review a few quotes from Einstein and consider “spooky” quantum physics events and yet a more intriguing picture emerges.

Quotes by Albert Einstein:

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe”, a part limited in time and space.”

“Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

“I am a determinist. As such, I do not believe in free will.” -— from Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson.

“It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.” —- from Introduction to Philosophy 1935.

The following two quotes attributed to Einstein are from “Einstein and the Poet”:

“The basic laws of the universe are simple, but because our senses are limited, we can’t grasp them. There is a pattern in creation.”

“I like to experience the universe as one harmonious whole. Every cell has life. Matter, too, has life; it is energy solidified.”

Finally, let’s take time to watch the (3-minute) aforementioned NOVA video showing us that patterns structure the Universe:

So none among us can dispute that neural network forms are a basic building block pattern. But could consciousness itself be the larger whole? Watch this TED talk (below) and contemplate that idea. It explores the idea of consciousness being a fundamental building block of the universe, the idea of “panpsychism”, in this talk by David Chalmers. (18 minutes – if you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, at least try to watch the last half)

If these things are all relevant in the “big picture” then we view nature with awe and do not wish to see it destroyed. We see our role as an interconnected part having compassion for the whole. And that, my friends, is how this post ties into the subject of agriculture.

A few references for further exploration of this subject:

A Minnesota Writer Muses on Being Called “Anti-Farmer”

John G. White is a “somewhat retired” award-winning newspaper journalist from the state of Minnesota. Besides newspapers, has written for numerous magazines and is a free lance photographer. I was lucky to have discovered his writing and photography in this piece below, as he echoes my own thoughts and photography which I’ve done a few times on this site before, mine with a Nebraska perspective, his with a Minnesota perspective. Same song, different verse, or, if you will, same subject, different state.

His writing is enviable as he explains what he stands for when a farmer-friend accuses him of being “anti-farmer”. John was gracious to allow me permission to republish his post here. Please, I encourage you to visit his site, Listening Stones Farm – Life on the Western Minnesota Prairie.

Bygone Ethics

Recent rains have given us a rare opportunity to revisit the long-gone prairie potholes that were part of the original, post-glacial landscape.”

Recently a friend who happens to be a farmer asked, “When did you become so anti-farmer?”

After my initial surprise and denial, and later, after subsequently rolling through the countryside, I began to realize how my comments and rants could be taken in that manner. My growing up as a child and teenager was in a different era, when having a thick thatch of grass growing where water could create rills of erosion in a field was not only expected, but common. Also common was leaving a swath of anchoring vegetation along riverine embankments. I can also remember my father’s concern when Earl Butz, as Secretary of Agriculture, began preaching his “fence row to fence row” philosophy.

“That will ruin farming,” my father said. He meant the land, although it has also altered farming into a Catch 22 cash chase.

A recently “refurbished” grassland where the rocks were removed and the trees cut and piled.

Realize, please, that my father and I had many rifts and disagreements, politically and otherwise. Despite that, I grew to firmly respect his attention to real conservation farming practices as well as his trepidation on the Butz preamble.

My father lived long enough to watch as neighboring farms grew quite large over the hills of northeast Missouri where grass and grazing was a better ecological fit. He watched as abandoned farmsteads were leveled, burned and the ashes buried, and he watched as hedge rows were dozed along with tree lines and windbreaks. Fences were pulled, wires rolled, and posts, mainly hedge, burned. Forty acre fields became 80’s, and 80’s 160’s, causing him to sadly shake his head. Folks back in my home country now call this “Minnesota farming.”

“Where’s the grass? Tons of soils have washed off fields where rills and gullies were created by heavy rains and moisture.”

Yes, this is precisely the treatment of the land we see all around us. Industrial road grading equipment is used to extract glacial rocks from fields (which are then stored for sale in faraway cities to landscapers), and groves and farmsteads dozed and burned. Sod and prairie grasses, CRP land … all being plowed. Painstaking efforts are made with a blade to cut just enough of a two-foot deep furrow through fields to aid in the rapid flush of water. In many cases these furrows are too shallow to qualify as a legal ditch, meaning a mandate for buffer strips, and once cut, are carefully skirted by tillage equipment and planters. Cattails are allowed to grow … until hit by contact killing Roundup.

In fields already tiled, new and more efficient patterned tile systems are being installed. Although the technology is readily available that would allow farmers better water table management, the devices have been a tough sell despite years of positive presentations at many winter meetings. At least one watershed project had staffers basically begging farmers and landowners for a single demonstration installation … to no avail. Flush is seemingly the norm for managing water tables, not the holding back or storage of melt nor rain.

Shallow water escape routes are cut in fields that won’t technically qualify as a drainage ditch, therefore not mandated for buffer strips.

Hilly lands that should never have been tilled stretch for miles with no regard for erosion. In wet springs and early summers, like we’re having again this year, runoff water carries tons upon tons of soil off the higher land. We passed a field with corn nearly two feet tall in the valleys with spindly, four-to-six inch stalks poking up on the rest of the acres. “That’s where all the good soil has washed off to,” said Rebecca. Typically, 20 percent of a field has the healthy stalks. The rest? Will it qualify for USDA emergency subsidies?

Indeed, an observer can easily see the change in soil color and tilth … light tans compared to a rich darkness … in field after field, mile after mile. A keen observer can also tell that many are ignoring either the advice or statutes that call for grassed buffer strips along artificial drainage ditches, and any thought of a grass “waterway” would be considered absurd!

Most of us know by now that 99 percent of the wetlands are drained, with a like percentage of native prairie tilled. Where is the rage you see with the distant Brazilian rain forest?

The banks have held and the buffer strips on either side have kept both the field and the drainage ditch in good condition.

Driving through the rural byways in the winter months can just be sickening with mile upon mile of “snirt” — that dirty combination of snow and dirt. Overwinter cover crops are rarely planted, and any thought of leaving stalks to hold soils in place is basically unheard of. Our food supply is threatened in that one day fields will be barren of healthy prairie dirt. Realtor’s will be challenged to barker farms with no soil left to sell.

One wonders where the crops will be grown, of how subsequent landowners and farmers will continue to “feed the world.”

Have we become so selfish as farmers that we can only think of today, of mining the soil for the most cash possible with crops with little direct food value and staunch government policy support?

If we’re blaming policy for the woes and goals of the tractor jockeys, then perhaps some teeth should be placed into the policy smile … a net zero erosion factor as a qualification for any USDA commodity benefits ­— mandated buffer strips on all riparian waters, including drainage ditches; grassed waterways; winter cover crops, especially following soybeans and sugar beets; an actual crop rotation that includes nitrogen fixing legumes; banning practices that threaten pollinators; and so forth.

Common to many ares around the prairie are “ghosts” of the old prairie potholes — wetlands — that perhaps should not have been drained.

Am I anti-farming? Or, am I simply someone concerned about a future that appears ever more ominous for a climate challenged earth that will be incredibly feeble environmentally for our children and grandchildren — indeed, for all future generations.

Am I anti-farming, or am I someone who simply wishes for the bygone ethics of conservation farming practices that promotes soil health and keep earth’s dirt in place?

Am I anti-farming, or someone who wishes to keep our people, our land and our rivers healthy, and in place for future generations. Surely this answers your question.

A beautiful buffer found in Chippewa County.

Human Apocalypses. Mysteries. Cycles.

Flickr CC photo by Cuba Gallery “sunset”

If this world weren’t so mysterious, I don’t think it’d be half as fun. One of today’s looming questions seems to be if we are facing some kind of apocalyptic scenario as a nation, or even as a species.

Predicting apocalypses has been common through the ages. There are always those who expect that a collapse is imminent. Are you one of them? Because it certainly seems like here in America today, the percentage of people with a doomer outlook is pretty high. Doomerism comes up in the media fairly often, and I find it mentioned in conversations surprisingly often among friends and acquaintances that I’d never expect to hear it from. Just what is going on out there that is making us so uneasy?

Here are three examples of preppers that I know of personally. There are more.

• Very recently, an older and wise friend confided that he is acquiring precious metals that he’s keeping in his home office to “buy bread” if the time comes that he needs it.
• A young male acquaintance has a survival kit including a water filter that he keeps while in graduate school, and he plans to steal a bike in his city and bike across a couple of states back to his home if the world should go to hell in a hand basket.
• While on holiday last month, when taking an early evening walk on Balboa Penninsula in California, we visited with a man farming his tiny front yard. There were a few tall corn plants growing, along with a variety of vegetables. He said that he thinks a collapse is imminent and he has a bigger farm in the Pacific Northwest that he can go back to. His approach to dealing with his fear is to grow his own food and learn other skills to be self-reliant.

Many pessimists are fearful about feeding the world in the future. Luckily, being able to adjust our diets and our crop choices gives us more resilience than most people realize. Modern global communication using cell phones and the internet are allowing the exchange of agricultural information and farming knowledge to be shared freely like never before. Contrary to those who always assume the worst in the future of agriculture, on some days I am a cornucopian about the prospects of improving and advancing food production and food production methods in future years. The bigger concern is right politics for healthy food production, in addition to the wild-card of weather conditions caused by climate change.

That said, we do live in the real world and black swan events do come along every now and then, and life moves in cycles – as do civilizations.

I’ve made a list of my top concerns, below. Most of these apocalyptic scenarios would only apply to regions or large groups of individuals in the shorter term.

1. Chaos resulting from political system failures could happen here or anywhere else if people become too polarized, too dissatisfied, lack basic needs and services, or aren’t being represented by their own governments. Rebellions, anarchy, riots, and unrest could become daily events.

2. Survival in our developed nations is reliant upon electricity and liquid fuels, and there are many future energy supply unknowns. The energy industry is becoming increasingly complex technologically, which increases its vulnerabilities. We could be faced with a major oil supply shock due to geopolitical reasons, or we could face a rapid decline in energy availability for various other reasons.

3. Does complexity and technology make us more, or less resilient? At some point, for some reason, we will experience a massive technological failure. We are putting so much trust in technology today that it has become our biggest risk factor and it is our biggest blind spot. Most technology is reliant upon electricity. If we had solar flares or cyberterrorism that knocked out much of our power supply, many of our systems would fail. Very few of us are self-reliant anymore. The technology that we use and take for granted each day is complex so that we can not make the things we rely upon ourselves nor can we fix anything ourselves, like our fathers and grandfathers could.

4. Terrorism, or multi-orchestrated terrorism events including bioterrorism and nuclear or radioactive terrorism are frightening possibilities.

5. There is the possibility of a rapid climate change. This could cause unbearable situations for different reasons in different places and lead to mass human migrations.

6. We could have a global disease epidemic or superbugs that can’t be treated, either of which could cull our human population numbers quickly.

7. We could experience a super volcano or a giant asteroid. These have happened in the past, and will happen again. If large enough, either would be capable of wiping out the food supply of most of the planet.

8. Plundering is part of our human nature, anyway the male part of human nature. There will be more world wars, use of bombs, chemical warfare, drones, and other war technologies which could be related to resource scarcity, or just plain aggression, desperation, or insane leadership.

9. We could have a global financial contagion crisis, failure of our currency or banking systems, or a failure of electronic money. We could have a crisis of confidence in the currency.

11. We could see an end to global cooperation, given certain stressors.

12. We might pollute ourselves into oblivion.

13. Water scarcity could occur where there are large populations. This might require migration or a great deal of global cooperation.

14. Besides water, other resource depletions include topsoil, loss of biodiversity, and multi-species extinctions. Many of these are due to our land use changes in agriculture.

15. There could be planetary tipping points we aren’t fully aware of such as amount of rain forests lost, or the health of the oceans, or ozone changes in the atmosphere.

16. As most population on the planet is locating in cities and urban areas, those areas could become vulnerable if infrastructure or supply chains required to keep them functioning gets damaged.

17. Overpopulation is usually found on lists such as this, yet, the term is difficult to define due to standards of living, geographical circumstances, longevity, water supplies, regional carrying capacities, and so on.

18. Control of media, internet, and electronic communications by evil hands could instigate wrong thinking that could lead to horrific crimes against portions of humanity.

That’s my list. I’m sure there are many more that could be added. So all of you worriers and preppers out there, I invite you to tell us what worries you the most.

One of the greatest mysteries to me is how well man can be a problem solver. Can we evolve to live in peace and harmony? Will neuroscience and new physics discoveries take us places we can barely dream of today? What will future technology, engineering, and scientific discoveries look like? Will people 50,000 years from now view this list above as primitive? When humans do eventually become extinct on this planet, will our DNA go on elsewhere? Will our consciousness survive?