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Eutopian Thought Experiments

Or: Planet-Gedanke-Experiment (Planet Thought Experiments)

What does it mean to make a thought experiment? Especially one that concerns the whole planet? Will it hurt to think large thoughts? as Arne Naess once wondered.

Einstein and Infield suggested that knowledge of laws can be gained through the contemplation of idealized experiments created by thought, Gedanke-Experiment. For example, to address the equality of intertial and gravitational masses, that is, how the problem of general relativity is connected with gravitation, Einstein imagined an elevator at the top of an incredibly high building, and then imagined what research would be done in this local environment. Such experiments might seem "fantastic" in his words, but they might help us understand what we are trying to understand.

Although ecology is orders of magnitude more complex than physical systems, perhaps we could imagine and use such experiments to help us understand what is happening with our complex planet composed of many interlocking ecological systems. The thought experiments presented below are incomplete, but suggestive of the kinds that we could be thinking of.

1. Imagining a framework for all human cosmologies (that is, images of the orders of cultures): Modern technological cosmology, beyond being another kind of order, more linear and abstract, is wrongly considered the evolutionary successor to traditional cosmologies, and is displacing them rapidly. Where human understanding is still underdeveloped, humanity cannot afford to suppress the diversity of thought necessary for adaptation to the diversity of environments, nor can it afford to eliminate ecosystems and the societies adapted to them. The ecological, social, and political problems of today do not have simple, disciplinary solutions. The problems are cosmological and must be solved on that level. But a single cosmology cannot solve all problems in all places. Each place needs its unique cosmology.

2. Costing out replacement of planetary ecological services: Some economists and ecologists have already started to calculate the true costs of natural services (once considered "free" goods"). For instance, if pure water costs seventy cents per liter to purify, or if local climate modification costs 28,000 dollars per day, you can imagine that for a city of 50,000 people, the costs of replacing basic ecological services could be billions of dollars per year.

3. Replacing ecological functions with mechanical devices: The machine metaphor dominates modern society. This metaphor, and the agricultural model, result in tree plantations, in which many of the functions of the wild forest have to be taken over by human ingenuity. On some tree plantations, many of the functions of a wild forest have to be duplicated. For instance, shade cards are used to protect young shade-intolerant species; plastic sheaths are used to protect bark from predators; fertilizer is used on young trees; and some trees are doped with mycorrhizal fungi. Extending this trend, modern forestry eventually may try to create a mechanical forest. By taking this to a ridiculous extreme (the argument known as reductio ad absurdum), we might try to create an artificial forest with just one living organism, Douglas fir trees. For example, we could replace the functions of nurse logs with gigantic nylon sponges. As a thought experiment, I would like you to try to come up with artifacts or tools to replace the functions of woodpeckers, bats, insects, fungi, shrubs, mature trees, etc. in a mature forest.

4. Imagining a planet without trees: Let us imagine that forestry and conservation both have failed, and the earth is a planet without forests and without trees in general—except for a few artifacts kept in arboretums. For the first time in over a billion years, the planet is not sheltered, the climate is not moderated, other plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria are not protected. Humans have made shelter for themselves, but we do not want to share it with mosquitoes or grizzlies. Have the ice caps melted? What is the shape of the global system? Are all human crops grown inside? Is the reduction of biodiversity causing unalterable (and yet unknown) changes? Can forests ever be replanted? What kind of forests could live without fungi and bats and centipedes? The Buddha, as related by E. F. Schumacher, taught that every good Buddhist has the obligation to plant and establish at least one tree every five years. Would planting trees be required by law in our treeless world? Imagine what changes would occur in human psychology.

5. Observing things in a framework of deep time: Ecosystems have been changing for millions of years. A chronoscope in low orbit over the planet for the last billion years would show forests moving like shadows over the landscape, with climate changes, glaciers, and shifts in moisture. On the ground, changes seem chaotic. Ecosystems remember, are chaotic systems. A tree for instance is embedded in a vast interconnected process that is creating an intricate and implicate order (Physicist David Bohm's term meaning internally related). Order and chaos seem contradictory because of our linear thinking. Linear thinking can be illustrated by industrial forestry: if something works well, such as cutting old growth and planting Douglas-fir, then more is better. Nature, however, is nonlinear.

6. Imagining giving over all military power, except for local police or national guard, to the United Nations. Wars are being fought over resources and territory, as well as for religious and personal reasons, without an international referee with power or respect. Many of our wasteful conflicts could be more easily resolved through a neutral power.

We could certainly expand these brief possibilities, as well as create more. One expectation that philosophy has raised in people is that "there is no right answer." The best response to a question may be a hypothesis, that is, a thought experiment. Through that, you can create explanations and discover answers in a dialog with others.

In practice, erring on the side of preservation, the prudent and conservative course, means minimizing the influence of human activities on so much of the land. It means experimenting cautiously with new approaches to experimentation and being properly skeptical about claims for sustainability. It means drastically reducing our demand for natural products, through conservation, re-use, recycling, and human population control, so that the greatest possible amount of natural habitat can be left wild and degraded lands have time to be restored to health.

Bohm, David. 1980. Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Einstein, Albert and Leopold Infeld. 1966. The Evolution of Physics. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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