Saturday, September 6, 2008


I finally got off my duff and wrote up a "war story" article for the ProjectsAtWork website. Look for it to be published in September (I'll add a link at that time). It's partially about the lengths people will go to in order to preserve their comfortable way of working... even if it means falling well short of the project's goals.

Writing this piece got me thinking about the great myth that we humans spread from Africa to occupy the whole planet because we're so adaptable. We must adapt well, the thinking goes, since we live everywhere from tropical jungles to Arctic tundra, from sea level to mountaintops.

But in truth, I don't think we adapt very well at all. We can't grow fur, let alone grow and shed in a cycle matched to the weather (something many dogs can do). We burn in the sun, freeze in the cold, dry out in the desert. Drop a naked human into the Arctic, or the desert, or onto a mountaintop, and he's dead within hours. Physically, we're pretty optimized for 60-90 degrees Fahrenheit, not too dry, not too wet, and we really don't do too well outside that environment.

The real secret of our so-called "adaptability" is our trick of taking little bubbles of our native African savanna environment with us. The igloo in the Arctic, the lean-to in the jungle, the air-conditioned shopping mall in Phoenix--these are all examples of how we take little micro-environments with us. So is an astronaut's space-walk suit, of course--or the Shuttle or Soyuz capsule, and the Space Station both are visiting. Or, more prosaically, the respirator that a farmer wears when heading inside the composting silo (where there is typically too little oxygen to support life) to do a repair.

We're not above stealing from other, better-adapted creatures, of course--one of the first things we did when we headed into the colder regions was to borrow the fur from native animals. Heck, once we ate him, that polar bear didn't need his fur anymore.

The furthest extreme of our adapt-the-environment-to-our-comfort habit is the good old science fiction concept of terraforming. Tinker with the atmosphere of Mars, add a little carbon dioxide to trap heat, and in a few centuries (or so it goes in the stories) you've got an earth-like planet where people can stroll about without those uncomfortable space suits and respirators.

All of which leads me to an alternate formulation of this whole global warming issue. The "Gaia hypothesis," hopelessly oversimplified, says that all life on earth fits together to form a single organism, which adapts itself and the planet to be more conducive to life. Well, what if global warming isn't just an accident or the product of corporate greed? What if it's the human species unconsciously altering the entire planet to expand the range in which we're comfortable? Not to say it's working all that well, given the expansion of deserts and coming submergence of coastlines. Then again, if Siberia were to become a comfortable grassland like the Great Plains of North America, it might represent a significant expansion of our range. Who's to tell? I guess we'll find out if we live long enough. And it might make for an interesting SF story...

No comments: