Sunday’s New York Times: Links and Comments

Opinion column by Curt Stager: Tales of a Warmer Planet.

This relates to my suspicion and prediction that efforts to ameliorate climate change will come too little and too late — because human nature cannot respond to a potential threat until it actually happens, until it actually affects people who don’t pay attention to long-range political issues until those issues affect their daily lives.

It is now too late to stop human-driven warming altogether. Even if we wean ourselves from fossil fuels within the next few decades, our descendants will still face temperatures significantly higher than they are now — for millenniums to come.

We are changing, through inaction, not only our immediate future, but far futures.

In that far future, there will be no more fossil fuels left to burn in order to sustain the artificial hothouse, and only a reduced, heat-tolerant fraction of today’s cultural and biological diversity will remain to face an age of global cooling that could last as long as half a million years, far more than the entire history of anatomically modern humans up until now.

We are in the geological Anthropocene, as Elizabeth Kolbert described in The Sixth Extinction (post review here).

As pioneers of the Anthropocene, we are an immensely powerful force of nature and can accomplish great things if we not only learn what is scientifically true, but also do what is morally right. Pope Francis tells us that “there is nobility in the duty to care for creation.” As a climate scientist who welcomes international action to address climate change, I offer a heartfelt “Amen” to that.


Sunday’s New York Times Book Review has reviews of two especially interesting books.

On Lisa Randall’s Dark Matter and the Dinosuars, review by Maria Popova. I’ve mentioned this book before, and its thesis, and how Randall evokes the interconnectedness of everything.

Randall calls the force driving that fraction “dark light” — an appropriately paradoxical term confuting the haughty human assumption that the world we see is all there is. … Therein lies the book’s greatest reward — the gift of perspective. The existence of parallel truths is what gives our world its tremendous richness, and the grand scheme of things is far grander than our minds habitually imagine.

Popova concludes,

Science, after all, isn’t merely about advancing information — it’s about advancing understanding. Its task is to disentangle the opinions and the claims from the facts in the service of truth. But beyond the “what” of truth, successful science writing tells a complete story of the “how” — the methodical marvel building up to the “why” — and Randall does just that.


And a review by Frank Rose of Matt Ridley’s The Evolution of Everything, another book on my to-read stack. Ridley’s book is an exploration of how the idea of evolution, of natural selection, applies to much more than organic evolution. Ridley’s thesis is that many things we think are planned or determined in some way are in fact the result of ’emergent’ results, “unplanned and undirected behavior unfolding over time”.

The word for this is “emergent,” and with “The Evolution of Everything” Ridley has set out to construct a sort of grand unified theory of emergent behavior.


As humans, we like to think we control events. We accept, at least in theory, that there is a degree of randomness in the world, but we still try to read some kind of portent into whatever happens. Any explanation is more comforting than the stark possibility that things occur without purpose. Even an inscrutable deity who deals out death and torment for reasons we can’t fathom is preferable to the profound disorientation of chance. We want — need — to believe that someone or something is in charge.

The review goes on to discuss Lucretius (“swerve”), public morals and Adam Smith, but with a reservation or two:

He makes a good case that education would be better off without bureaucrats. But elsewhere he overreaches. His insistence that climate- change arguments are overwrought is rather suspect, especially for someone with a working coal mine on his country estate.

(Always take into account the motivations of any writer.)

The review concludes:

Why are emergence and randomness so hard for people to accept? Could it be that the human brain is such a pattern-­seeking organ that it can barely acknowledge unguided developments as an option? “The belief in the will and in the immortal soul themselves emerged as evolutionary consequences of how the brain changed,” Ridley writes. It’s a thought he might well have explored further.

Well, yes, the human brain is a pattern-seeking organ…

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