From Nature to Meta-Nature: The Fold Point in Time

Jim Fournier

This is an edited transcript from a talk delivered at the
Planetwork Conference at the Presidio in San Francisco on May 13, 2000.


I want to talk about where we are at this point in time — our lifetime, our life-span in general, but also even right down to this year.

This is the archetypal diagram of where we stand. This could be a plot of population growth, it could be a graph of almost any kind of materials use against time, and most disturbingly it represents a graphical depiction of the rate of destruction of species. Without tinkering with the details of exactly how that curve works, in each of these cases and many others, this is the graphic picture of our time. The question we’re facing is where does that curve go. As Hardin illustrated very well, it’s much easier to come up with dark scenarios than optimistic ones about where those trends seem most likely to go in the near future.

Until my lifetime, progress, technological change, seemed to be something that we just assumed was positive and would somehow get us through. But now, in a very short period of time, we have gone from a state where that is the prevailing implicit cultural assumption, to one where there’s a growing sense of apprehension about where that trend takes us. There is a considerable segment of the population that feels we need to somehow go backwards, that we’ve taken a wrong turn and if we just went back to some more naturalistic mode things would be OK. But if you stop and think it through, it becomes very clear that given the population we already have that’s not an option, there’s no going back. The only way out is through. And yet to do this the technology we have right now needs to completely change.

What I want to do is talk about a number of very concrete material parameters, measures of what’s going on, that can explain rationally why this time, our lifetime, is as important a point in the history as the discovery of fire — that we really are at a very fundamental fold-point in time. Some of what I talk about is going to seem abstract in a number of different directions, but I think that it is very useful to frame the question completely differently from the way we normally think about it; not in terms of business or statistics or embedded in our usual assumptions. So I’m going to start out talking about chemistry — and before you get frightened, I’m going to take this diagram down in a second — I’m going to talk about it not the way we usually talk about it, but in using a diagram I made up.

This is the periodic table. It’s the periodic table expressed as a continuous spiral. There’s something about it that I find very beautiful and it’s also very useful because it let’s you see some things about the puzzle, about the nature of matter, that you can see graphically and grok when you look at it this way. And you don’t have to know anything about chemistry to get it. The purple dots going straight up are the Nobel gases. These are the elements whose orbital shells are exactly full. They’re inert. They can’t react with anything, so they’re gases. The elements coming down from the center on the line opposite the Nobel gases are in green. These are the half-full key elements. The first one is carbon, the basis of life, and the one right under it is silicon, the basis of rock.

I’m going to zoom in on this a couple times. This version has all the transition and inner transition elements — for those who know chemistry — wrapped into one continuous spiral, so it’s kind of hard to read; you lose clarity. Here I’ve taken out the transition elements so we just see the eight-fold nature of chemistry. Then, if I go one more, that’s just the first two rows. That’s where all the action is. All of life mostly involves the trading back and forth of just these elements in the first two rows, the smallest most compact elements. And for as long as we’ve had higher life forms, well at least as long as we’ve had animals, there’s been something called the carbon cycle, wherein plants and animals are continuously trading back and forth carbon dioxide and oxygen in the atmosphere.

So, here’s carbon, there’s oxygen and there’s hydrogen. Those three elements, right there, that triangle, right in the middle, that’s where it’s all going on. For as long as there have been photosynthesizing plants on the planet, the thermodynamics of the situation has been that sunlight has been coming in, the plants have been absorbing it and they’ve been using that energy to build chemical structures called hydrocarbons, and accumulating them. This is accumulated in soils and in fossil fuels, both built up over a very long period of time. All of the available energy, with the exception of nuclear, tidal and geothermal, on this planet is a result of green plants capturing sunlight. That’s where it all came from for a very long time. Green plants did this at a certain efficiency rate, about one percent. It was enough, there was no economist telling them they couldn’t afford to do it that way — it worked. It did very well and continues to do very well. As Hardin pointed out we’re now at the point where the amount of that bio-energetic output that we’re taking every year is closing on the point where it will become very dangerous whether we can sustain it.

Now, as Hardin also pointed out, we, over the course of history have moved through a series of fuels. We’ve moved from wood, to peat, to coal, to oil, to natural gas. Each time we’ve moved from one of these to the next, the ratio of carbon to hydrogen has gone down. The material has gotten lighter, the energy density has gone up, in general there’s been more hydrogen per carbon. This trend naturally converges on hydrogen. There’s nowhere else it can go. That’s clearly where we’re going. The bridge to hydrogen is natural gas, which is already a lot cleaner than any of the other fossil fuels. What I’m trying to point out here is not the details of what’s going to happen, or how exactly it’s going to work, but instead to try and get a big picture of where things are inevitably going in general. We’re embedded in a process that seems to have it’s own trajectory as much as nature did. What I think is very important to recognize about this is that when we see where we’re going — no matter what — we’re likely to go there much faster. So the recognition of the inevitability of the hydrogen economy is something that this culture really hasn’t taken on board, at least the politicians haven’t, many scientists have. There may still be open questions about how we will use the hydrogen, because it’s problematic if we burn it in the air as it would still make pollutants with nitrogen. So we will almost certainly use it in a fuel cell. Indeed the revolution in fuel cell technology may be the other half of the photovoltaic revolution, but at this point we can see, no matter what, if you’re going to carry around a chemical form of fuel, it’s got to be hydrogen.


Now the next question, the real fundamental question, is how do we transform the solar energy that we need. Our current energy technology is still using the accumulated reserves from plants doing that for countless millennia, but now, even if we had an infinite supply of fossil fuel, we are limited by the side effects of liberating all that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — it’s like we’re hyper-animals. You can think of plants and animals as chemically balancing each other’s effect on the atmosphere. Our fossil fuel combustion technology does more of what we as animals do, but now there’s nothing on the plant side to keep it in balance — we’re just throwing it further and further out of whack the more we burn fossil fuel. But there is something we’ve just discovered how to do fairly recently that would take the place of plants in the equation: we can take the second octave of carbon, silicon — it’s the basis of rock, it’s the basis of computer chips, it’s also the basis of silicon photovoltaics — and make a solid-state silicon photovoltaic panel. The panel sits there and transforms sunlight into useful energy, into electric current. It takes the place of plants in the basic equation and it turns out existing silicon photovoltaics are ten times more efficient than photosynthesis! They’re an order of magnitude more efficient.

What I’m trying to point out is that the potential for matter to do this, for matter to be able to arrange itself in this way, whether it’s a green plant or a photovoltaic panel, the potential for these structures to exist is built in to the nature of matter. The puzzle can only be assembled in certain ways. Nature, what we think of as nature, can assemble matter in certain ways. But I propose that there is also another octave of potential solutions that are as elegant as what nature has done, but are only mediated by us bringing them into being. The point of inflection on the S-curve will be characterized by our recognition of where we’re going, by our recognition of the potential for those basic solutions to exist. What I want to propose is not that technology won’t keep changing.


The other thing I want to talk about is this: for as long as humanity has existed on this planet there have been two basic operating imperatives have been: make more people, and cut down trees to do it. You can extend trees into coal and oil, but basically what we’ve been doing is we’ve been taking what we as respiring organisms do, as mammals, and extending it, that is consuming plants by burning them. Respiration is really just a kind of fire, a kind of burning. So the basic operating instructions for humanity, for all of time, have been to make more people and less trees. But now, in one lifetime, we’ve hit the point of inflection where those imperatives have inverted, and the magnitude of what we’re trying to deal with, the depth of what’s programmed into us that we’re trying to reverse in our lifetime is vast.

But at the same time the fact that the technology has converged at just this moment to allow us to do it indicates that it is actually on track. We’re at this moment in this kind of lunge in time wherein that process completes and we’re here, we’re at this point. All of history is sort of flat up to almost 1700 and then we go into this lunge. And right now we’re here and it looks terrifying and the only thing that converts this from looking terrifying to optimistic is to see the potential existence of this kind of plateau state — this climax state if you will — technology.

It’s also very encouraging that perhaps the single most likely thing that nano-technology could actually do soon would be to build photovolatic panels, because this would just require a repetitive process of putting the silicon together right. So if we can simply deploy enough nano-technology to build really cheap, and also really durable, photovoltaics — because the longer they last and thus the less often you have remake them, the better off you are — we could actually take this escape velocity trajectory that we have right now, that looks so frightening to many of us, and recognize that it’s the necessary velocity to get to where we’re going. But at this moment, we have to see where we’re going, and it’s that very recognition that will move the thing off in a new direction.

In the not too distant future, as we start to approach the climax state technology, what would happen, what will happen, is this: right now we can make tremendous progress toward getting there in a very short period of time, because we’re very far away and its easy to improve things a lot, but as you start to close on it, how much closer you can move in each given period of time will start to be reduced, until we’re chasing some sort of perfected state very far out in the future, that we can only close on very slowly over any period of time, but never actually finally reach.

Again it’s important to emphasize that when I’m talking about technology here I’m talking about certain technologies for basic human technological life support, replacing the carbon cycle with essentially a carbonless photovoltaic photon hydrogen fuel cell energy cycle. In the above discussion I’m also not dealing with the rest of the industrial ecology that Hardin is talking about, which involves the whole issue of closed-loop material cycles and essentially generating two different kinds of material cycles, those that involve industrial nutrients, that you have to keep in a closed-loop, vs. biological materials that you have to manage at a completely sustainable rate within the biosphere. But we can pull these cycles together if we can get the energy. The energy cycle is the key, both the actual sources of energy and the overall thermodynamic efficiency of the energy cycles we ultimately use. As a bridge we will probably take some of the remaining fossil fuels, sequester the carbon and convert them to hydrogen in the interim. Natural gas is the obvious first bridge, which leads in that direction now.


I want to give you one more thing that’s just totally out of the box, totally irrational by conventional standards, but I think very beautiful. In some ways, what I’m proposing here is such a radically optimistic view that it seems like it would require a miracle. I’m pointing to this time, our lifetime, as being pivotal and maybe even to this year, at least psychologically, as the marker, the milestone. Just at the moment we’ve created a global culture, that culture has arrived at the end of its second millenium, which is arguably the focal-point in time in the psychology of that now global culture. It has also often been repeated that the millenium was just this arbitrary point in time that was made up in an accident of history and it doesn’t really mean anything. Well it turns out, by accident, or however these things work — and I would argue that the universe is not an accident and that there is in fact a deeply embedded pattern of coherence to the whole thing, and that this is what this culture is missing in our mechanistic thinking, and that’s why we’re so terrified, because rationally we can’t see how we’re going to pull it off — that the way the geometry of the solar system works within the context of the galaxy, you can think of the solar system as a cross, or a little X; there are two solstices and two equinoxes as the earth moves around the sun, that make an X geometry with respect to the galaxy. This little X spins every 26,000 years causing what we call the precession of the equinoxes. So the orientation of our solar system, within the larger galaxy is on a 26,000 year clock. About 6500 years ago the equinoxes, the axis of the spring and fall equinoxes, aligned with the center of the galaxy. The Milky Way is the edge of our local galaxy looking toward its center, and now with astronomy we can identify the exact line that’s really the central equatorial plane of the galaxy. So at the dawn of civilization 6500 years ago the equinoxes were aligned with the point where that line crossed the ecliptic. In 1999, on the winter solstice, as close as we can measure it, the winter solstice point was exactly aligned with the galactic equator. Now, it moves so slowly that perhaps we can’t really be absolutely certain that we can dial it in to one exact year, but as close as we can measure winter 1999 was the year. But then, also by further synchronicity, in 1999 the full moon fell on the winter solstice. So that on the winter solstice in 1999, the moon, the sun, the earth, and the galactic equator were all precisely in one line on the full moon, with the full moon closer than it had been in quite a long time. That part of it got a lot of hype. I’m pointing to this as kind of an indicator of a quality to existence that I think our rational reductionist system just misses. The East has in some sense been better at seeing the tendency of things to occur together, to see patterns. These patterns may not have anything to do with what causes what, but if you close yourself to them, you miss a capacity to see the whole. And the point we’re at right now really requires stepping way back and to see the whole.

Finally, I would also caution that although I’m making a very optimistic case here in terms of the big picture and the long term, I’m not at all optimistic near term, that we’re going go through this point without tremendous suffering. We’re already seeing tremendous degradation of species. If you really allow yourself to take it on board, it is absolutely heartbreaking, it is a tremendously painful time to be alive — there’s no way that we’re going to avoid deep upheaval. And I think that to really react — the reaction necessary to make the adjustments that we as a species need to make are only going to come as a result of reacting to perceived threats. These huge storms of biblical proportion that are now sweeping over the world are just the beginning of the consequences of the warming we’ve already set in motion.

Yet, if one looks at all of the existing spiritual traditions in the world, in one way or another, they all talk about a spiritual death and rebirth process on the individual level wherein what seems to happen is that for an individual to become ensoled, they need to go through a process of personal psychic death and rebirth. In this process, as you approach the point of birth, or spiritual rebirth, it must look to you as convincingly as possible like death; it must come, can only come, with the full force of that fear. So if we as a species are now going through some sort of point of collective birth of some higher order global structure structure, it’s very likely that the process of that structure coming into being is necessarily accompanied by a very real encounter with collective death. And the way these things work, it’s not just a fear, the threat is real, and there’s no guarantee we pull it off. There’s no way around all of us individually going through that together. I suspect that if there is some sort of collective global entity that’s trying to be born — the way we as individuals know that we exist is because we have the fear, the visceral fear, of not existing. After all, we’re just an aggregation of cells. They’re all independent, or at least they used to be independent, now we’re this single thing. If the world is becoming one thing it’s moment of birth will very likely marked by a point where we all collectively know we’re in it together and we come very close to not existing — together. I very strongly suspect that within the next decade or two that’s what we’ll be traversing, and that in order to have any chance of doing this successfully, we have to start to take charge of the nervous system we’ve been growing.

Capitalism is a growth hormone. It’s very good at growing this nervous system. It’s doing a great job, it’s growing it like crazy, but it’s not the purpose. If you think about the mantra of modern capitalist industrial technological civilization it’s growth, growth, growth — why? Nobody can answer that question. I would posit that what’s going on is that we are engaged in this kind of lunge to get to this plateau state, and that we need a certain escape velocity to get there, but then no sooner than we have it, we have to put on the brakes and bank sharp to the right — and that’s where we are now. Thank you.