Thursday, April 16, 2015

Unsolvable 5, Part 2

Toes to the fire, here’s a confession plenty of agnostics would make:

I prayed once. Earnestly, fiercely prayed.

Nine or ten years-old, I was on a bad-news softball team embroiled in some kind of tournament.  In those days, I was a right-field specialist.  It’s a very difficult position, contemplating the universe from a portion of the field where almost nothing happens.  But I have one reliable excuse for being a lousy fielder:  My glove.  More toy than a professional instrument, it was slick plastic and undersized.  Somebody, probably my father, cheaped-out when they bought it for me, and they must have felt wise as a consequence, seeing how I couldn't catch half of the balls hit to me.


I was sitting on the bench when prayer happened.  Details suffer, what with the decades and the lack of ESPN coverage.  But I know it was a strange field in some distant part of town, and we were playing under the lights, both factors giving the event far more importance than it deserved.  I don’t know if I was pulled from the field as a defensive measure or waiting my turn to go up and swing at the fat, slow, impossible-to-smash ball.  Either way, we were losing and losing badly, and I was unusually worked up about our lousy play and anguished about my role in this ongoing tragedy.  That’s why I struck up a conversation with God.  Starting out with the old nonsense about “I don’t ask for much” seemed like a worthwhile tactic.  I remember that much.  Shameless as can be, I begged for one little effort on the Almighty's part.  Was it so damned hard, making a couple balls fly where they normally didn't belong?

It’s interesting to consider:  What if we had rallied and won?  What if I was the boy who cranked the dramatic home run?  Would I now be approaching forty years of service to God as a priest in the Episcopal Church?

The image brings a chill.

Despite my temporary passion for softball, and despite all the good that might have come from one little miracle, we lost our game.  And I will take a moment now to argue that my experience is common.  No team has ever won shit through prayer.  Dumb luck, yes.  Ignorant foolish unfair luck never sleeps.  But when your team relies on its resident skeptic to talk to the Creator, then you know that you have already dug yourself a considerable grave.


On the subject of prayer:  I've read about studies that have tried to test the concept, studies generating data and using statistical methods to examine the data.  In particular, researchers have tried to determine if sickly people can be helped with nothing but a few well-practiced chants.

Guess what.  You can’t help them.

What I recall from one paper is that the only possible relationship, and this was very slight, was that more prayer was tied to a slightly reduced chance of survival.  In agnostic eyes that means big-hearted people know the patient is miserably sick, and they liked the old gal, and that’s why they throw in an extra dose or three of self-reported magic.

And my point in this?

I don’t believe in God’s existence.  But being agnostic, I have no taste for God’s nonexistence either.  Agnostics and atheists are different beasts.  We have separate meetings, different secret handshakes.  Atheists are The Faithful of a different sort, while agnostics have very few opinions about Cosmic politics. Personally I have nearly zero faith in every kind of magic.  A philosophy that has always hamstrung me as a fantasy writer, but the same sensibility has made a better, more furious SF writer.

As a rule, I don’t believe in optimism serving as a tonic for what ails you.  But being human, I’m capable of making wishes.  I wish for things that I can imagine, using a voice even less sophisticated than the voice used during prayer.  Sunshine after a long dreary patch of rain.
Who doesn’t imagine that?  Strong knees.  Everybody wants strong, stable knees. Everybody envisions professional successes, and if that happens, we greedily want more success.  And more than any other father in this universe, I wish my daughter finds enough happiness to carry her over life’s random disasters.

Being an SF writer, I also wish for truly big things.

A video transmission from aliens, for instance.

One lush plateau in the Amazon crowded with dinosaurs.

And I want an event that would seem utterly miserable should it occur.  But the misery brings humanity to its senses, which would a blessing beyond value.

I imagine the sudden release of melt water from the West Antarctic ice sheet.  That’s what I want for Christmas.  The seas rise a credible distance and in a frighteningly brief period of time.  I want people leaving Miami Beach and complaining to the cameras about their losses. Unfortunately I’m also hoping that a million strangers in Bangladesh drown or die as refugees.  A one-foot rise in one impossible year:  That would force the world to look hard at itself and make the easy necessary changes.

But being a charitable nonbeliever, I also wish that the collapsing glaciers manage to cool the southern seas enough to stop the melt for ten years, give or take.  Until we’re complacent again, and then another wave of destruction, and our resolve rises with the waves.


Modest Biblical floods aren’t among the most likely futures.  Data and the computer models show that three giant glacial masses are melting today.  Greenland and the two pieces of Antarctica.  They’ll undoubtedly melt faster in the future, but they probably won't peel away from the crust and ocean floor tomorrow, as in Hollywood spectacular-style.  Unless of course the models are wrong.  Which does happen now and again. So there's that hope, praise the Lord.

I won’t pretend optimism anywhere.  I don’t imagine any sudden fever of reason washing across the world.  Nations and entire cultures aren’t going to do the simple blunt and very workable act of taxing carbon.  Moral people can and will do minimal actions according to their own sensibilities.  I can lower my thermostat.  If my wife is at work, I can lower it even more.  I can also compost my banana peels and coffee grounds.  But those are tropical indulgences brought north at a respectable cost to the environment, and I still demand bananas and coffee in my life, and aren't I a shit?

The collective decency of smug people doesn’t change the grand equations. Certainly not in the time allotted.  The world is getting warmer.  There will be droughts and blistering summers punctuated with awful storms.  Nations will fail, and some of the collapses will have climate as a recognized agent.  There could even be patches of ground where summers grow too hot for too long.  Electrical systems will crash, air conditioners will crash, and wet-bulb temperatures best left in the lab will suffocate thousands and millions of praying souls.

No, I won’t pretend optimism here.

But I don’t believe in pure pessimism either.  And why is that?  Because I have a robust sense of human adaptability.

The average person will die younger than she “should”.  But barring other global disasters, lifespans in this century will remain long.  Certainly better than the mortality rates stood five centuries ago. And it's worth wagering that in every period of history, many people were absolutely convinced that they were content, if not outright happy.

Wealth is going to suffer.  Not that there won’t be rich people or fertile societies.  And for that matter, certain industries and professions will prosper during the coming decades.  We can hope that private militias aren’t the growth industry of 2051.  My suspicion is that some of my neighbors will make fortunes growing milo, that lowly grain that says “fuck you” to drought and heat. And anyone who builds compelling games and other virtual reality playgrounds...well, they'll be eating bananas at Starbucks long after the rest of us are dreaming of milo stew.

On the matter of imperiled nations:

Certain countries look risky on paper.  Drought and heat as well as political trouble could spell the end for Egypt.  And probably Texas too.  But Pakistan is perched near the top of my worry-list.  A mostly young population in a society with minimal infrastructures, a failing education system, and a government that won’t rid itself of corruption.  Plus uranium.  Pakistan has U-235 in abundance.  Which is the added spice for a cauldron that will probably simmer for the rest of this century, if not out and out explode.

And yet.

Put two hundred million Americans into today's Pakistan, and nothing good would happen.  We’d battle each other for power outlets.  We’d sit in the dark, weeping about lost comforts.  As long as we think like Americans, we would be useless to ourselves and our future. But miserable Pakistan has shown enough backbone to survive until now, which is an amazing, mostly unheralded accomplishment.

And then there’s India.  The larger, not-so-different brother of Pakistan certainly deserves concern.  Its bombs aren’t uranium-based, but plutonium, which is harder to steal and far harder to handle. And India seems enjoys more education and prosperity, a farther reaching bureaucracy, as well as a diverse and somewhat united population--if only in comparison to its neighbors.  But India also has too many people and too little potable water, and while the British left behind cricket and the iron-backed civil servant, they also left a fondness for burning coal and dreaming big.  Shifting monsoons and great droughts could ravage entire regions.  The heat alone might kill cities.  Or Pakistan dies, either in a regional war or from a succession of human-inspired disasters.  And living next to a radioactive failed state is the kind of nightmare that should put an Indian politician in the mood for making peace and building good lasting bonds.

Of course I’m not Indian.

Set me down in Mumbai, and I am as lost as a right-fielder with a toy glove.

Yet that spirit of deep ignorance makes me hopeful about the situation in southern Asia.

India and Pakistan have to come to terms.  Because the only choices besides accommodation are so very miserable, or unlikely, or just daft.

Will Pakistan ever have the power to remove its neighbor from the equation?


And even if India could win a blunt war, or avoid war with a dying Pakistan, what would remain?  A stateless neighbor, heavily armed and profoundly angry.  With U-235 sitting inside its file drawers.

With humans, at some point history and hate will mean less than a person's immediate survival.  And that’s the heart of what I wish for.

The idea is growing inside all of us, telling us that our survival is at stake.


I'm asking. Out of all the things people do with their days and nights, what is the most fundamental human activity? What can we do inside one long weekend, taking pleasure and then coming away telling ourselves, “Now that’s about as fundamental as you can get, all things considered.”

A weekend of dancing, some are thinking.

I hate dancing.

Drinking colorful cocktails.

Well, there certainly is that opinion.

Three days and nights of sex parties.

Really?  You’re thinking that?

What I’m suggesting here is an activity that cuts to the core of our species.  That reaches back to our very beginning.  Which communes with our forefathers in ways nothing else can.

I’m talking about L.L. Bean.

I am thinking about colorful tents and smoky fires, food eighty steps removed from grilled mammoth...and yet wild food nonetheless.


What I wish for is some event, vast and obvious, that leaves our world ready to camp.  I’m not imagining every stomach surviving on the paleo diet, which would be pretty much a nightmare for meat everywhere.  Or even everybody inside a tent.  No, I'm just hoping for a sequence of events that convinces us to take a little trip, building a new kind of home and new routines while living inside that more minimal existence.  Plane flights are rare.  When you travel, buses and self-piloted electric cars are the norm.  (I have little faith in American abilities to build continent-spanning train lines.)  By “camping”, I don’t mean misery.  I don’t even mean a standard of living that hearkens back to the 1880s.  I just want us to be fancy refugees on a world that is trying to take everything from us, and in order to free up resources for the great fight, we go camping for the next hundred years.

Al Gore loves the frog-in-the-warming-water story.

Lift the temperature gradually, and the frog doesn’t realize that he’s being cooked.

But let’s take the frog in a new direction.

Scare him.

Down he goes, diving deep into the cool depths of the pond, holding his breath until the danger vanishes.

That’s what I wish for.

People ready to make the dive.

But I won’t pray for it, no.  If God can’t fix a fucking softball game, She sure as hell can’t fix this inevitable mess.