You Are A Stone’s Way of Imagining New Stones
The path that led to The Case of the Sexual Cosmos began in 2006 when I was asked to speak on sustainability at Yale. Creating technological and agricultural processes that do not damage the biosphere is a great goal. But there is a side to sustainability that’s like the frigid touch of liquid nitrogen to the soul. It’s the insistence on sacrifice, self-denial, and, most of all, shame. The insistence that we stop our exuberant creativity, despise our technology, and crawl back to a new stone age. So my Yale speech was not the praise for sustainability that the occasion called for. When I phoned the conference organizer to tell him what I wanted to speak about, he nearly fell off his chair laughing: “Fuck Sustainability.” We toned the title down to “Screw Sustainability.”
Then I was asked to repeat the key points of the Yale speech in a keynote lecture at an international conference on governance sponsored by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in Seoul, Korea—the World Civic Forum 2009. And I was asked to do it again that same year at a conference of rocket scientists and space experts—the Space Frontier Foundation conference in Las Vegas.
The path to The Case of the Sexual Cosmos was pushed a step farther in 2010 when three of Pakistan’s leading industrialists gathered on a conference call to meet me. One owned a four billion dollar business, another owned a $750 million company, and the third had headed Pakistan’s software association during the years in which Pakistan’s software industry had doubled. Before the conversation could begin, the three wanted to apologize for something: they wanted to apologize for Dubai. Why? Because of its materialism, consumerism, waste, and gaudy display.
That apology made something obvious. There is a huge subculture in the 57-nation Muslim world that’s modernist, pluralist, and passionate about free speech. But out of fear of having its throat slit by militants, it dares not raise its voice. One modernist, secularist Pakistani governor was shot 38 times by his lead security guard for an act of tolerance, visiting a Christian woman imprisoned for blasphemy. In a country where blasphemy brings a death sentence??. Within an hour, the security guard was elevated in the public imagination to a culture hero. Dubai speaks up for the Muslim world’s tolerant, secular subculture. Outrageously. Courageously. Not with words, but with architecture. There’s the 163-story high Burj Khalifa, which “has been the world’s tallest building since 2009.” And there’s the fact that Dubai now has more quarter of a mile high skyscrapers than any other city on earth.” Which means that there is something more to materialism, consumerism, waste, and flamboyant display than at first there seems. Something related to the way that the human spirit and its aspirations reshape reality.
What do the craze for sustainability and the shame of the Pakistanis have in common? Both are tied to one of the most basic questions of our time. Have we raped the planet? Are we running out of resources? And the answer is surprising. No, we are not running out of resources. We are running out of imagination. For every ounce of living substance on this planet there are 200 million ounces of dead matter waiting to be kidnapped, seduced, and recruited into the process of life. Two hundred million!
Wait a minute. Is the hulking quantity of raw stone and magma beneath our feet really raw material for living things? Isn’t that just more of the rape-and-pillage philosophy with which we have perverted nature and polluted the planet? You be the judge. At this very minute twelve miles beneath your feet and mine, bacteria are turning granite and basalt into food and fuel. Bacteria—chemoautotrophs–are turning raw rock into resources. They are turning barren stone into the stuff of life. Are bacteria profit-maddened capitalists? Are they rapists and plunderers? Or are they nature?
If it’s true that we are smarter than bacteria, then why don’t we see the potential of the rock on which we stand? Why are bacteria doing more creative R&D? Why are bacteria doing more to expand life’s sway, the realm of cells and DNA? Why are bacteria doing more to green and garden the place? It’s simple. A false concept of nature is leading us astray.
One more thing. We have invented environmentalism and are using it to save other species, something no species before us and no civilization before us has ever achieved. Environmentalism is a product of Western civilization. Let me repeat that. environmentalism is a product of the civilization of the West. Environmentalism is a gift for which we give our civilization, no credit. That is an enormous mistake.
So what’s going on here? Not only is our view of nature way off base, but so is our perception of the civilization in which we live. And our perception of our civilization’s potential.
Get our concepts of nature and of our civilization right and you might just save the consciousness of herself that nature has used us to achieve. And you just may save our ability to add new powers to nature’s range of capabilities.