Feasting On Catastrophe: The Tale of the First Half Teaspoon of Life

By

Howard Bloom

child taking a spoonful of catastrophe

The earth beneath your feet is the opposite of what you and I have been told. This planet, is not a warm and nurturing place.

3.85 billion years ago in the cold black of space, there was a planet of hostile stone, a planet scalded by liquids, gassed and poisoned by its atmosphere, lashed by floods of photons, and bashed by catastrophic rays.  That planet was the mother of climate change.  The mother of climate catastrophe. In those murderous, bad old days, there was less than half a teaspoon of life.  Half a teaspoon threatened with extinction by a toxic planet.  How did that half a teaspoon survive?  

By exulting in materialism, consumerism, and, yes, waste.  By seething with ambition, competition, collaboration, social innovation, and creativity.  By itching to turn things on their head.  By turning poisons into pleasures, disasters into delights, and wastelands into fields of waving grain.  Life survived by opposing nature. Life survived by violating nature’s ways.  Oxygen and phosphorus, for example, were deadly.  They were poisons.  So life invented ways to use them as pistons in the machinery of life. Life tapped the chemical tricks of phosphorus to produce and distribute energy, turning the burning, white substance from a toxin to a daily necessity.  Life inserted these murderously flammable white phosphorus atoms into a molecular merry-go-round called the Krebs Cycle and turned those toxic phosphorous atoms into energy storage and transport devices. Yes, life turned biohazards into spokes and gears of her machinery. These were sins against nature’s status quo.  They were unnatural acts.  But they were not alone. 

Nature confronted life with vents at the bottom of the sea so scalding that they sometimes hit temperatures nearly 500 degrees above the boiling point. The ocean surface was no more welcoming.  It was whipped by turbulence and bombarded by radiation.  All of these were mortal threats.  But life turned those dangers to its advantage, too.  Life turned the sea vents into an energy source and a cozy home. Life harvested the incoming bullets of  radiation—photons—at the ocean surface and used them to break CO2 down to oxygen and carbon, thus providing energy and the building blocks of photosynthesis, the building blocks from which life could make more life.  Life thrived by upsetting the existing order.  Life thrived by turning the “nature” of nature upside down.  Life thrived by eating its environment.  Life thrived by remanufacturing its surroundings.  Life thrived by turning the toxic spaces of an alien planet green.

Was this conservationism?  Far from it. Our foremothers, the first life forms, desecrated, and “raped” their environment.  They remade it.  Bacteria three billion years ago changed the chemical composition of the very atmosphere.  They rejiggered the planet’s weather. They altered the chemistry of the sea. They despoiled their virginal surroundings.  And in the process, they transformed a raging heavenly body into a nurturing mother—an earth.  They made the nature we worship today.  Again, they did not do it through conservation.  They did not do it by a false worship of a past that never existed.  They did not do it by holding tight to the way things used to be.  They did it by raging against the way things were. They did it by grabbing the future.  They did it by making change.

But that was just the beginning.  In the next 3.85 billion years, mother nature tortured the planet with 142 mass extinctions.  How did life survive?  By explosive growth, by explosive multiplication.  By explosive imperialism.  By explosive colonialism.  By explosive real estate development. And by explosive invention of new  technologies, new strategies, new techniques, new engineering schemes, new ways to turn poisons into energy sources, new ways to turn dangerous spaces into niches and parks, new ways to remake, rejigger, rearrange, evolve, transform, revolutionize, and reinvent the natural order.  New ways to upend, upset, and transmogrify nature’s ways.

And here’s the clincher.  At the heart of consumerism is waste–garbage, and excess.  At the heart of consumerism is the throwaway.  But who really invented the habit of building material things at extravagant cost, then carelessly tossing them away?  Nature.  She did it when she invented death.  She did it less than a billion years after the big bang, when she tossed her most complex  and expensive contrivances—stars—away.  Yes, nature killed stars off.  And she did it painfully.  Wastefully. Flamboyantly.  She did it by exploding stars in the gaudy and unbelievably huge explosions of supernovas.  She did it by using her most intricate creations as luminescent garbage, fireworks displays.  Ten billion years later, nature did it again, when she decreed that every organism ever born shall die. And nature went farther.  She invented cruelty.  She did it when she invented pain.  But from mounds of trash and from exultation in consumerism, materialism, waste, and vain display, nature made amazements.  How and why?  And what do her strategies mean for you and me? What demands are hidden in the natural laws that eco-proponents fail to see?

The Case of the Sexual Cosmos will show you where our concepts of materialism, consumerism, waste, and vain display go wrong.  The Case of the Sexual Cosmos will show you why theories of limits to growth, shrinking resources, and anti-growth are big mistakes.  It will show you how these concepts have produced massive benefits, but have gone overboard and are now dumbing us down.  It will show you how a sneaky collaboration between plants, animals, humanity, and technology has dramatically upped the GAS, the Gross Amount of Self-awareness, the Gross Amount of Living Spirit, on this planet.  And The Case of the Sexual Cosmos will show you how, without knowing it, we humans have carried out the mandate of the first teaspoon of life 3.85 billion years ago.  The Case of the Sexual Cosmos will show you how we have carried out nature’s most basic mandate in the most surprising way imaginable: by turning nature on her head.

What’s more, the Case of the Sexual Cosmos will show you how we’ve been misled about consumerism and materialism.  We’ve been told that our civilization, Western civilization, is plundering the planet and producing a population explosion that will usher in apocalypse.  We’ve been told that the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago, the Industrial Revolution of 1750, the rise of the West, and the West’s offsprings, capitalism, consumerism and materialism, are forms of rape.

Yet the evidence indicates that consumerism, materialism, waste, vain display, and the Western System are not enemies of nature and mankind.  They are the very opposite.  

    • Consumerism, materialism, waste, vain display, and the Western System have more than doubled the human lifespan in 150 years 
    • Consumerism, materialism, waste, vain display, and the Western system have allowed the poorest paid Western worker to earn what seven workers earned in 1850.
    • Consumerism, materialism, waste, vain display, and the Western System  have upped the peace among humans since 1650 by a factor of ten.  Yes, thanks to consumerism and materialism your odds of dying a violent death at the hands of a fellow human being are nearly one-tenth what they would have been 350 years ago.  And one tenth what they would have been in one of those indigenous cultures we are told live in peace with their neighbors and in harmony with the earth.
    • Consumerism, materialism, waste, vain display, and the Western System have boosted the IQ of the average child to the level that would have measured marginal genius on an IQ test from 1916.  Which means that today’s average dummy is 35 IQ points smarter than the average teenager a little over 100 years ago.
    • And materialism, consumerism, waste, and vain display have increased the spread of trees on this planet in the 35 years from 1983 to 2018 by an area the size of Texas and Alaska combined.  In other words, materialism, consumerism, waste and vain display have increased the dominion of what we call nature.  Yes, we’ve increased the dominion of nature.

 

How the hell have we pulled this off?

But that’s just the beginning.

    • Consumerism, materialism, waste, vain display, and the Western System have increased the amount of conscious life on this planet by a factor of 700 since the early agricultural revolution of 11,000 years ago.
    • Consumerism, materialism, waste, vain display, and the Western System have expanded your senses and your transport powers in ways that would have taken biological evolution half a billion years to achieve.
    • Consumerism, materialism, waste, vain display, and the Western System have created a privilege that scarcely existed before 1750–personal freedom—a wide range of daily personal choices.
    • Consumerism, materialism, waste, vain display, and the Western System have expanded something that’s become a cliché–freedom to access knowledge, freedom of information.
    • Consumerism, materialism, waste, vain display, and the Western system have increased the amount of information on tap from 2.6 exabytes in 1986 to nearly 20 zettabytes in 2018.  That’s 8,000 times more information at your fingertips in less than two generations.
    • Consumerism, materialism, waste, vain display, and the Western System have allowed a mere middle class person to buy medicines and machines that the richest techno-lover of 1850, Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, could not afford…or even conjure in his wildest dreams.  Among other things, Albert died at the age of 42. Of an illness that could probably have been  cured in 72 hours by an antibiotic. Yes, Prince Albert died at 42. You are likely to live to 80. 
    • Thanks to consumerism, materialism, waste, vain display, and the Western System you are likely to own a car, something that for all his riches and power, techno-loving Prince Albert could never have achieved.
    • And, to repeat, consumerism, materialism, waste, vain display, and the Western System have vastly expanded the activity of something else that’s vital but hard to quantify—the human spirit.??  Yes, consumerism, materialism, waste, vain display, and the Western System have upped the amount of what legendary paleontologist, evolutionary thinker, and priest Teihard de Chardin called the noosphere.  The realm of thought and feeling with which the planet has become aware of herself.  The realm of thought and feeling with which the cosmos has come to regard herself in a mirror. Yes, the realm of thought and feeling with which the very universe has come to know herself.

 

Did modern, industrial, agricultural, consumerist, materialist, wasteful and vain Western Civilization accomplish this by plundering nature?  Far from it.  We did it by adding to nature’s powers.  We did it by increasing nature’s sway.  How?

How in the world did a culture decried for its materialism, consumerism, waste and vain display pull off a string of material miracles?   How did that culture’s materialism, consumerism, and waste actually add to the biosphere?  And how did surplus and vain display play a vital role?  For the answer, read The Case of the Sexual Cosmos.