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Is this the answer to life, the universe and everything?

Finding a solution to climate change is now becoming the most urgent of all human problems.

Human capacity to transmit knowledge and views through time is one of the great differentiators of the species. To the best of knowledge so far, it seems to be in one direction only i.e. from the past to the present. The transmission of knowledge though is certainly one of the big factors in the current success as a species. The accumulation of knowledge, learning from others experience and building on their discoveries has allowed us to do things no other animal has achieved, including leaving the planet to visit our moon. Knowledge consists of "how things work", like the solar system and "how things should be". The latter body of is usually thought of as morals, ethics and rights: what it means to be human and what, if anything is the meaning of consciousness and even life itself.

The story of man's search for meaning and answers to life was explored in a playful way in the late 1970's by the author Douglas Adams. It started out as a radio broadcast on the BBC, was developed into a series of books (which turned out to be a trilogy in six parts) and a cinema movie. At the centre of the story, is the idea that a hyper-intelligent race of beings, construct an enormously powerful computer called Deep Thought to calculate the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. After seven and a half million years of pondering the question, Deep Thought provides the answer: "forty-two". As you might imagine, this was not quite what was expected so the quest is then on to discover the Ultimate Question. That task falls to the human hero of the story, Arthur Dent and is eventually revealed as "WHAT DO YOU GET IF YOU MULTIPLY SIX BY NINE". In the radio and cinema versions of the story Arthur is heard to comment on the discovery by saying "I always said there was something fundamentally wrong with the universe". (For anyone who is still struggling with the math, 6x9 is normally regarded as being 54, not 42).

It may seems strange to credit the works of Adams as being similar to those of Aristotle and Plato but there is an old saying that "many a true word is said in jest" and, it appears, there is indeed something in the numbers that is fundamentally wrong to the way we live our lives.

Most of the world now uses a number system which counts in a base of ten. The ability to count and calculate is an important but not unique feature of our success. Consider our ability to control and direct energy which is, possibly, the one feature more than any other that has allowed our species to thrive. Our ability to coral fire to generate heat on demand doesn't really need us to be able to count but our ability to focus energy to leverage our strength and build enormous structures; our ability to harness energy to propel ourselves greater distances with less effort than virtually any other species or our ability to use energy for destructive purposes certainly is made much more effective by it. (Just how much more effective can be seen by considering that there are still sufficient nuclear bombs stored in the arsenals of the superpowers to destroy all civilisation and life on the planet).

It hasn't always been like that. Our ability to destroy in such a vast way has only been available to us for the past 65 years. And, while the capacity of individual nuclear devices of today is many times greater than those which were actually used in the Second World War, we have so far managed the tension between our constructive and destructive tendencies. There are now more humans who live longer and healthier lives on the planet today than ever before. In many ways, we are at the peak of our success, so how can there be something fundamentally wrong with our world?

The answer to that lies in looking at the thing that has made us successful. Over our history we have made uses of many sources of energy: wind, water, animal, even human as the mainstays for most our history. In some places, fossil fuels like peat and coal were used for warmth but not to any great extent. Then, in the 18th century, came the Industrial Revolution. The invention of Thomas Newcomen's and, subsequently, James Watt's steam engines changed everything: the modern world had begun.

Over the past 250 years, we have become increasingly dependent upon energy. In the past 100 years it has become indispensible. There have been two shift changes in energy importance with the advent of electricity grids in the 1930's and mass automobile transportation from the 1950's onwards. Underlying it all has, primarily, been fossil fuels. These are the product of about 200 million years of concentration of energy that came from the sun. They are remarkably versatile and potent things. We can move them around to where we want to use them and the amount of energy they can release allows us even to power flight. They truly do seem like a "gift from God". But, there is a down-side.

When we burn fossil fuels, they release certain gases the most common of which is carbon dioxide. In common with other natural substances like water, some of it is a good thing but too much brings problems. In the case of carbon dioxide, we discovered in the 19th century that one of its properties was to trap heat from the sun and keep it is the atmosphere. The higher the concentration: the more heat that would be retained. For a while, this didn't seem to be too worrying but then, at the start of the 20th century we started to get a better idea of how the atmosphere worked and the first predictions that the amount of gas that was being released by human activities could alter the climate of the planet. From the 1950's on, evidence began to emerge that this was, indeed, the case and that body of evidence has been growing over the past 60 years to an extent where our body of knowledge now is such that we are as sure of it as we are that a force we call gravity is what keeps us from falling from the planet.

The popular response to this knowledge has been to ignore it or, at best, to do not very much about it. To me, this is as puzzling as how 6x9 can equal 42.

When we look back at our history, there is a possible explanation. We are a social creature and a complex one too. We have built many rules and norms into our societies that help us to get along and help us co-operate for the general good of us all. Virtually all of our societies have some method of controlling people who don't play by the rules' and virtually all have some method of helping those who hit emergencies, especially life threatening ones. So, people who murder will usually be punished, people who get hit by a vehicle will usually be taken to hospital.

As social creatures, our interactions with each other are motivated by many factors; security, fear, love, anger, happiness. We also interact with lots of types of other people, family, close friends, authority figures, and strangers. To help simplify some of this complexity we have developed a device that allows us to interact much of what we want do with the greatest of easy. It is called money.

Money is an enormously powerful concept and although not all of us become entirely preoccupied with it, it is a very difficult life if you cannot access some of it. The "science" of how we cope with money and use it to interact with other people and things is called economics. Inside that "science" there is a whole host of rules and norms to determine how we "account" for money. But there is a very funny thing about economics and accountancy. The basic rules of accountancy were made up long before the Industrial Revolution: in fact about the same amount of time before it as there has been since. Our ideas of how to account for our economic activity are about 500 years old.

In terms of human history, 500 years is quite a long time and our condition has changed greatly in that time. There are about 20 times more of us on the planet than then and we have in the meantime discovered how to use fossil fuels. Yet we still have a system to account for economic activity that considers the Earth's resources and services to be "free" for our use. A system that is telling us that, not only is it acceptable to destroy the planet's forests, oceans, fresh water supplies and atmosphere but assures us that to do so is "rational behaviour" because that is the "cheapest" way to do things. Thinking about it in this way, it would seem obvious that we simply need to update our system so that we account for our economic activity differently; so that we reward ourselves for nourishing natural systems rather than destroying them. But the obvious is seldom simple, which brings us back to where we began.

Our accumulated knowledge allows us to work out cause and effect but predictions of the future that are precise in time, space and scope still elude us. We know from cause and effect the general outcome of what will happen as we carry on releasing carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere a million times faster than it was taken out. Concentrations will continue to rise; more heat will be trapped in the atmosphere and that energy will affect the weather patterns; ice will melt & sea levels rise. There are lots of detailed scenarios of what that might look like, where and by when the affects will be felt. They make uncomfortable reading and they see people presently on the planet being adversely affected. Some of them are apocalyptic in their forecasts. Our difficulty with numbers is looking more and more likely to lead us to environmental melt-down and ruination.

If we do trash the environment to such an extent that it can no longer sustain the human population, we will not be the first animal to do so. But we will be the first one to do so knowingly. And that, surely, would mean there is something fundamentally wrong with the universe.

Is this the answer to life, the universe and everything?

By: Harold Forbes
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Is this the answer to life, the universe and everything?