Lake Bafa used to be part of the Aegean Sea, but time and nature gradually closed it off. Now it’s a very, very large and brackish lake, nature preserve, camping spot, and popular destination for migrating birds and birdwatchers in southwestern Turkey. The ruins of Byzantine-era monasteries can be found along the backside of Mount Latmus (Beşparmak Mountains), at the northeastern tip of the lake.
We were staying at a terrific little hotel/farm/olive grove called the Silva Oliva when we noticed kayaks along the shoreline one morning. Oh yes.
It was off-season, and this massive lake was almost completely undisturbed, with not a boat or person in site! So we paddled a small part of it, taking in some bird life, a tiny island with crumbling ruins and goats grazing, and several leaping fish that were probably mullet, a determined and wily fish I hadn’t heard of before watching this Discovery Channel documentary about Turkey which shows, among lots of other interesting things, mullet spawning at Lake Van:
Tlazolteotl, the Aztec goddess of earth, motherhood and fertility, played a redemptive role in the religious practices of Meso-American civilization: At the end of life, an individual was allowed to confess hir misdeeds to this deity, and according to legend she would cleanse the supplicant’s soul by “eating the filth”…
As they ride the wind, vultures seek dead things, not dying things, using a sense of smell far more highly developed than any other bird’s. They can detect a dead mouse under leaves from 200 feet up. They are discriminating, preferring corpses between two and four days dead….Vultures, whose name comes from vellere, Latin for to tear, begin their eating at vulnerable spots on the carcass—the anus and eyes. All that being said, you really wouldn’t want to live in a world without them.
When Edward Lorenz gave a talk in 1972 entitled “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?,” he distilled the main essence of his thoughts on predictability, interdependence and “chaos theory” in one pithy question.
Lorenz was a mathemetician and a meteorologist who, in the early 1960s, discovered that weather simulation models he was developing were exhibiting chaotic, non-predictive behavior, despite a fixed set of variables and no apparent equipment malfunction. Two identical weather simulation machines, side-by-side, given the same variables to process. Wildly different results. How?
Lorenz eventually concluded that it was a “dependence on initial conditions” — in this case, the fact of computers rounding variables to decimal points: 3.12879 expressed as 3.13, etc. Even extending the number of decimal points in the simulators did not produce matching results from the weather machines. Minute variations gave rise to wildly different chains of events.
Human civilization supposedly thrives on order and predictability; it means that people will obey traffic laws and pay their taxes, show up to work on time, and keep their word. Predictability gives us a sense of order, and order lends itself in varying degrees to unity, to nationalism, to legality, and to community. Whether we like it or not, much of our lives are governed by these ideas of order and predictability, and by our assumptions that these ideals are universal and natural. And indeed, nature does follow its own order with periodic population swells, predictable animal behavior, and food chains, but in attempting to mimic or find equilibrium with natural conditions, humans never seem to be able to get it quite right.
With all variables seemingly accounted for, chaos often predominates over predictive systems, and we are left wondering what clue we are missing in our search for order in natural systems. In every field of inquiry, scientists have come up against certain problems that until the advent of chaos theory were written off as unsolvable.
Fifth-Century Greek philosopher Democritus, the putative founder of modern science and atomic theory, who laughed constantly and lived more than one hundred years, once had occasion to ponder our sense of smell. It was, he theorized, the result of our nose reading the shape of airborne particles. Democritus called these particles “atoms,” and he thought sweet atoms were “round and of a good size,” while sour ones were “bulky, jagged, and many angled.”
This “shapist” theory of smell, or olfaction, continues to this day. It boils down to the essential concept of tiny pieces of things being “read” by receptors in our nose. Democritus called these pieces “atoms,” but he had no sense of atomic theory in the modern sense, which asserts that these pieces are, in fact, molecules. But that’s just a theory, and the truth is that no one really knows how our sense of smell works. The shapist theory has many inconsistencies and demonstrated limitations. Molecules with the same shape produce different smells; inversely, two molecules with completely different shapes can produce the same smell (sandalwood).
On August 6, 1945, at 8:15am, miles away from the site of the Hiroshima bombing, people reported an impossibly bright light and the smell of burning rubber. This posed a problem for the shape theory of smell: If smell was the result of particulate matter – molecules – landing on receptors in the nose, how then to explain the instantaneous travel of molecules from the blast site to noses miles away?
“It’s not just false hope that’s the problem, it’s hope itself…’Hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.'”
A free-ranging interview with the author of A Language Older Than Words, Welcome to the Machine, and The Culture of Make Believe about civilization, violence, activism, pacifism, reasons for optimism, and why hope is a bad thing.
A counterpoint interview about Malthusian economics and cults of catastrophism is also offered, with social historian Iain Boal, “We’re Not Doomed; That’s the Problem.”:
Many people believe, at least a little, that the end of human beings–whether by ecological disaster, the collapse of the oil economy, or nuclear extinction–is inevitable. For some, this projected collapse represents a just termination for a species they consider parasitic and pathologically unable to establish an equilibrium with the natural world and the creatures who depend upon it. Others laments the tragedy of our fate.
But what role do faith and belief play in all of this? What if the capitalist realities of scarcity and collapse have been mistakenly interpreted as natural inevitabilities?