In our last exciting episode, you put together a timeline to show the relationships of everything from the big bang and the birth of the first galaxies to the poetry of Andrew Marvell. And something became obvious. Glaringly obvious. Hitting-you-over-the-head and stopping-you-dead-in-your-tracks obvious. This universe is on a constant climb toward higher degrees of flamboyance. Higher degrees of order and complexity. It is not doing what the believers in one of science’s most sacred principles, the second law of thermodynamics, insist. It is not tumbling downward toward heat death. It is climbing. It is step-by-stepping on a constant staircase up. And that upward staircase is unlikely to end anytime in the next twenty, thirty, or forty million years.
The second law of thermodynamics, that all things tend toward entropy, that all things tend toward a random whizzle, does not fit the cosmos emerging from your timeline. In fact, your timeline makes the second law seem ridiculous.
But the second law is not the only scientific assumption that your timeline seems to question. From the 1950s onward there is another apocalyptic drumbeat, the drumbeat of ecological extremism. A lot of ecological thinking is right. But some of it is wrong. Not just wrong, but upside down, backwards, and perversely counter factual. And you are exposed to these topsy turvy extremes of ecological thinking earlier than most.
Let’s go back to high school. The high school that the headmaster you tortured was kind enough to let you into—The Park School of Buffalo. You are no longer a brash twelve year old. You are now sixteen. The other kids do not like you. You are a science nerd, a kid from another planet. They will not vote you president, vice president, or treasurer of the class. Those are popularity positions, and you are not popular. But when it comes to positions that demand actual work, well, they do not like to get their hands dirty. And you don’t seem to mind slaving away. So they vote you the head of the program committee at Park School for two years in a row, from 1959 to 1961. Which means that you program two eight am school assemblies a week and emcee five. Not a big deal. This is high school in one of America’s least distinguished cities. But it is more of an opportunity than it might seem. More of a periscope position—an opportunity to peer into strange corners where unusual things are going on. One day in roughly 1959, you book a speaker on the plight of whales. This is twenty years before saving whales will become a symbol of the eco-vanguard. The speaker arrives and is strangely off-putting. He is big, dour, austere, and angry. He is not interested in socializing. Warmth and simple human gestures like small talk are not his thing. When he takes the podium and shows his slides, his pictures of whales being butchered are ghastly. Profoundly disturbing. But the man is as memorable as his slides. He may be your first encounter with a genuine puritan.
But that is just your first run-in with the new field of environmentalism, your first encounter with ecological thinking. From the age of thirteen, you have been trying to use the tools of science to understand mass human behavior and mass human emotion. You have been attempting to use the modes of thought of the first sciences you plunged into, the ones that consumed you at the age of ten—theoretical physics and microbiology. You’ve been using those ways of thought to examine the mass passions that fuel the forces of history. So in 1968, nine years after your encounter with the whale activist, you graduate Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude from NYU. Thanks, in part, to your timeline. You are offered four grad school fellowships in physiological psychology—now called neurobiology. You bypass them and go into a field you know nothing about, pop culture. Why? You want to dissect human mass emotions at work in the real world. You want to see the forces of history in vivo. You hope that a scientific expedition into pop culture will take you to the dark underbelly where new myths and new social movements are made.
One of those social movements will be environmentalism. In 1969, friends of yours are involved in the first Earth Day. It is a great vision, making sure this planet will stay green. And the way of thinking that it promotes—environmental thinking–cleans up a problem. When you first came to New York City in 1964, you tried wearing white pants and white shirts in the summertime. It didn’t work. By noon there were lines of black in the horizontal creases of your shirt and pants. And by four pm your white outfits were black, white, and gray. There were four huge smokestacks on the East River at Fourteenth Street, just east of NYU and seven blocks from the slum apartment on Seventh Street between Avenue A and B where you were living. But twenty years later, in 1984, the smoke was gone. Why? The eco-movement’s pressures had resulted in the creation of an Environmental Protection Agency, and the EPA had turned the smoke coming from the Con Ed towers from black to white. The EPA had also cleaned up the air in cities all over North America, England, and Europe.
Yet there was something off in the underlying attitude of the eco-enthusiasts. Something you’d glimpsed in the harshness of the whale activist. Some eco-extremists hated the agricultural revolution and the Industrial Revolution. They opposed modernity. They thought technology was the problem and that technology should be muzzled, leashed, and rolled back. But you have a sense that technology is the answer. In fact, you have a sense that without technology you would not be who you are. And you have the impression that if the environmental extremists had their way, you would be stripped and helpless. So would at least a billion others.
Then you start a PR firm in a field you know nothing about—rock music. It is what you hope it will be—a tiny window into the forces of history. You help champion subcultures using music to assert their right to exist—from a Southern community trying to break out of the ghetto of the Bible Belt with country crossover; a Texas culture trying to express its dignity through the music of ZZ Top; the gay community seeking to liberate itself through its chosen music, disco; to the white middle class rebellions of heavy metal and punk, and two musical forms that the black community is using to assert its identity—rap and the sort of black crossover manifested in two of your clients, Prince and Michael Jackson. You are asked to help expand the visibility of Amnesty International in North America. You are asked to kick off Farm Aid. You work with the Black United Fund, the United Negro College Fund, and the NAACP. You are named Ambassador of Texas Culture to the World by the mayor of Houston and the unofficial musical spokesman of the gay community in New York City in the same month, despite the fact that you are neither Texan nor gay. Insiders let you into their communities. They let you see firsthand how their subcultures have distinct worldviews, distinct ways of interpreting the world. And they let you see how they become true believers, and how they sometimes pay no attention when the belief systems of their subculture make predictions that prove to be wrong. Wrong as wrong can be.
That’s what happens when you are let into the eco-community. One of the musicians you work with is a founding father of New Age Music, Paul Winter. And New Age Music is the pop expression of ecological thinking. Paul Winter is marvelous. He is a saxophonist who duets with wolves and whales. And he is deeply committed to bettering the world. He is deeply committed to “saving the planet.” Your commitment is to help him get his belief system across. But there is a problem. In 1978, Paul tells you point blank that all the whales in the sea will be gone within two years. Off the planet. Out of the oceans. Disappeared. Extinct. Again, that is in 1978. If Paul’s prediction is on target, there will be no whales left outside of Sea World by 1980. And Paul’s information comes from some of the greatest ecological activists on the planet. Yet there will actually be an estimated 1.7 million whales still swimming the oceans in 2020.[i] Something is not right.
Paul speaks on behalf of an eco-community. A community dedicated to predictions of apocalypse. And there is apparently something askew with that community’s claims.