The Biology of Obama's Vision Crisis: The Case for Looking Up
America is in a crisis it doesn't see. A crisis our national articulators and explainers, our journalists and politicians, seem blind to. But one that could lead our civilization, American civilization, into a pit of darkness and despair. It's a lack of something that even the author of Proverbs saw was desperately important to a nation. Without a vision, said Proverbs, a people will perish. We are in a vision crisis. And a vision crisis is more than a mere crisis of ideas. It is a crisis able to affect your body and mine. It is a crisis of biology.
On October 27, 2009, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed for the first time that over 50% of Americans had lost faith in a president who up until then had been wildly popular. Over 50% of us believed that Barack Obama was not leading us in the right direction. Why? Because Barack Obama, in spite of all his intelligence and idealism, does not seem to be leading us in any rousing long-term direction at all. Does this mean the president has no purpose? Not at all. His push for basics like health reform has demonstrated a tenacity beyond that of the previous string of illustrious presidents who have tried since 1912 to give us health reform and who have failed.
So what does Obama's failure of leadership amount to? It means Barack Obama has no destination he can point to. No promised land. No way of defining our 40 months in the desert of war and recession as a march toward something glorious, something that makes sacrifice worthwhile. In other words, confidence in Barack Obama has slipped because he hasn't yet provided us with a purpose, a mission, a goal. He has not yet had what President John F. Kennedy got 20 months into his administration -- his Moon Moment. The prophetic instant in which he fixes a simple, vivid new target, a new challenge in our mind. One that will elevate us and uplift all of mankind. Barack Obama needs a vision!
Why did the Moon do for Kennedy what Obama needs today, even though the material payoff was literally nothing but a suitcase full of rocks. And even though the nation was in recession and felt it should spend its money on earthly problems, not on goals in the sky. Because the non-material payoff was huge. It was a payoff in a form of energy we fail to count when we're totaling figures like GNP. It was a payoff in the realm of spirit and imagination. The landing on the moon gave us literally a new picture of the earth and of our place on it. The photo of earth taken from the moon has driven the eco-movement that today is preaching sustainability. The photo of earth taken from the moon has appeared on postage stamps and appears on thousands of web pages. Why? Because people love it. It lifts them in some indefinable way. The videos of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bouncing down a ladder and setting their first footprints in moon dust have given us a new sense of what humans can achieve. Neil Armstrong's phrase, "One small step for man, one giant step for mankind" has entered the language as a basic form of thought-tool, the mind-tool we call a cliché. Most important, the moon landing and the Apollo Program behind it set new levels of aspiration, new notions of what humans and their collective endeavors can achieve. For nearly half a century, "we need another Apollo Program" has been a mantra recited by those who want America to dedicate itself to a cause they feel will change the world. It's a mantra used by those of us who want to see humanity climb dramatically and who want to change and upgrade the nature of daily reality.
To inspire the best in us, we need visions that look up. There is a huge problem with the conservation-based-vision of the last 50 years-the vision that has most successfully capitalized on the power of the anthemic photo of earth that the astronauts of nearly half a century ago shot from the moon. The conservation-based-vision Barack Obama does not overtly preach but that he is wedded to. The conservation-vision of space-ship earth is a vision of limits, a vision in which we are rapists and plunderers. That conservation worldview has made us reperceive our relationship to the planet, a necessary thing. But the conservation-vision looks down. Its big thing right now is carbon sequestration-burying the exhalations of our civilization in the cold, dark ground. And looking down obsessively is dangerous for a civilization...and dangerous for you and me. Why?
In fantasy literature and in the myths that preceded them, there are frequently two groups in conflict, the people who live in the bowels of the earth and the people who live in the sky. The people who live in darkness and the people of the light. In religion, this opposition between those who look down and those who look up shows itself in a hell beneath the ground and in a heaven that hovers somewhere above the clouds. Why is this meaning of up as good and down as evil so universal? The answer is in a simple fact of evolution and biology. Mother Nature loves those who oppose her most. She rewards those who break her laws. She favors those who transgress and in the process reinvent her. She showers gifts on those who re-create the very nature against which they rebel. Sounds like empty rhetoric, right? And possibly right wing rhetoric at that. But it's evolutionary and biological fact.
The most basic natural law ruling those of Nature's creatures who crawl the land or walk the seabed is gravity. And nature rewards those who break her gravitational bounds mightily. You and I, for example, break those limitations with the simple act of walking upright balanced on the contact points of our feet. To see how unnatural that is, drink six shots of alcohol or simply go to sleep. You'll slip into your default mode, your totally natural mode, the mode dictated by gravity. You'll be as horizontal as a worm strung out on your lawn after a rain. Stand tall again and you will pull off a miracle, a radically unnatural act, one that's become an everyday thing. An astonishing balance mechanism-your vestibular system--will keep your full weight focused on just the balls and heels of your feet while the rest of you stays upright. You will defy the laws of gravity.
Has nature punished you for your defiance of her decrees, for your daily rebellion against her gravitational dictates? No, it's just the opposite. She has showered you with prizes. She has rewarded you big time. Anthropologists will gladly tell you how walking upright and freeing your front paws to act as hands, fingers, and opposable thumbs has made your race and mine, Homo sapiens, the dominant species on the planet.
John F. Kennedy's big vision, his moon program, unleashed the energy of the human spirit. An energy as important to a society as the energy that comes from oil, coal, gas, wind, or solar power. But there was an even bigger payoff to Kennedy's vision thing, his moon mandate. An even bigger payoff that comes from a vivid vision, and specifically from a vision of a goal above our heads.
That payoff is in the realm of biology. Your biology and mine. In nature, creatures have pecking order contests, showdowns to see who will come out on top and who will be forced to the bottom. Who will be above and who will be below. Lobsters have them, lizards have them, ravens have them, and puppy dogs and horses have them, too. It's the up vs. down, heaven vs. hell theme in the realm of creatures without ideologies and without oratory. What's the point of these confrontations? To see who can defy gravity the best. To see who can literally rise the highest. When two lobsters face each other in one of these battles they each use the powerful muscles in their tails to see who can lift his head the highest. And it's the same when two Anolis lizards have a faceoff. The lizards go through a chin-lifting contest. The Anolis lizard who can get his head the highest wins.
What happens to the winner and the loser of these look-to-the-sky contests, these height contests? The outcome utterly resculpts the contestants' neurophysiology. But in opposite ways. The outcome for the beast on the bottom, the outcome for the victim of defeat, is dire. And the outcome for the lizard on top, the outcome for the victor, is glorious. The neural receptors at the synaptic junctions of the winning and losing crustacean are swapped out like LEDs in a billboard display or like Christmas tree bulbs. New receptors plug themselves into the synaptic walls. And those new receptors reinterpret the neurohormone serotonin-the chemical that many anti-depressants boost. But the receptors of the winner and the loser interpret serotonin in opposite ways.
The newly installed receptors in the victorious lizard interpret serotonin as a chemical of ebullience. The winner struts around holding his head up high and behaves like the master of all he surveys. Why? According to Donald H. Edwards and Shih-Rung Yeh, the experimenters who first probed the neurobiology of up and down in crustaceans, the winner gets the equivalent of a new brain transplant. Equally important, he gets Mother Nature's ultimate prize--sex. He gets the girls. He gets to reproduce.
And what happens to the loser? What happens to the lobster who fails in the gravity-defiance contest? The bottom lizard? The lizard who literally can't get it up? He, too, has the old receptors in his synaptic walls swapped out. He, too, has the equivalent of a new brain transplant. But his new receptors interpret serotonin as a chemical of despair. The loser slouches miserably, slips into a stunned submission, and takes whatever happens on the chin.
You can see the neurochemistry of nature's height obsession, her breaking-the-law-of gravity addiction, even more clearly in Anolis lizards-Anolis carolinensis. These slender reptiles the length of your hand go through the getting-it-up contest just like lobsters do. The lizard who thrusts his chin the highest wins. And you can see the impact on his internal chemicals instantly. He turns a bright green. You can also see the chemistry of confidence in the winner's system at work in his behavior. The victor goes to the top of the highest object he can find-a rock or a stick thrusting from the ground-and displays his magnificence like a lion-king. He makes it clear that victory is a reach-for-the-sky thing.
But what happens to the loser? What impact does being tossed from the heights and becoming low lizard on the totem pole have on his physiology? Again, you can see the bio-consequences of moving down, the bio-consequences of defeat, in the loser's skin color-he turns a drab brown. And he literally tries to dig a hole in the ground and hide. He digs a shallow trench and lowers himself to near invisibility. Down is the direction of loss. And more. Down is the direction of self-destruction. The system of the losing lizard laboring to dig his own grave and to flatten himself into it is flooded with stress hormones. Stress hormones in long, slow doses, are poisons. And in the lizard who comes out on the bottom, the overdose of stress hormones is long and slow. A steady flow of stress hormones shuts down your perceptions, makes you blind to solutions to problems when those solutions are literally right under your nose, kills off cells in your brain (in your hippocampus), and lowers the resistance of your immune system to disease. And it does the same to the lizard who is literally depressed-pressed down-by loss. Yes, the chemicals and receptors your body produces when you lose are the same ones at work in the lizard. And in many cases, those chemicals kill the loser who is trying to stay invisible in his trench. Meanwhile the winner gets more than just his climb on high. Like a winning lobster, he gets the girls. He gets sex. He gets the right to reproduce.
Lobsters and lizards parted company on the tree of life over 600 million years ago. So the same height contest in both shows how basic the touch-the-sky thing is to us multicellular beings. How basic it is to nature. How basic breaking Mother Nature's gravitational commandment is to her evolutionary machinery. And it hints at how basic looking up vs. looking down is to you and me.
What does this have to do with Barack Obama and the vision thing? One dominant focus of the Obama administration is on health reform. That's a focus on our limitations, not our possibilities. And a fixation on limitations can be as bad as defeat. Creatures that sense they have reached the "carrying capacity" of their environment go through a shut down very much like that of the losing lizard or lobster. And creatures that see open horizons and unending opportunities go through a neurohormonal shift very much like that of the winner in lobster and lizard lift-contests. In population biology these two opposite biological and behavioral modes are called r & k.
But, in fact, we humans have not reached the carrying capacity of our environment. This earth is not running out of resources. Far from it. We are running out of imagination. We are running out of what Barack Obama in a speech at MIT on October 23, 2009, called "those intrepid few willing to take risks on an idea that might fail -- but might also change the world." We are running out of vision. We are gripped in the fist of an artificial, man-made picture of equally artificial limitations. Like the synaptic receptors of losing lizards in a death spiral, we are interpreting the photos of earth taken from the moon all wrong. There are 1.097 sextillion cubic meters of rock beneath our feet. Sounds useless, right? And like something we should not profane. Something we should not touch. But that is not the way that nature works. These are resources waiting to be tapped by the powers of life. Waiting to be tapped by human beings.
Is this a radically mistaken recommendation, a suggestion that we rape an exhausted earth even further? Or is this is close as nature can come to issuing an evolutionary command? Once upon a time all the continents of this planet were nothing but naked stone, virgin rock. Then Mother Nature did her thing. She rewarded those who opposed her most. Creatures like bacteria and worms attacked the pure and unsullied rock, cracked it, broke it down, and turned it into soil. Yes, the rich loam of the lands was the result of what our narrow conservation-vision would interpret as a rape, an act of desecration. An unnatural act. An act in which nature used those who opposed her most to utterly remake herself. Even old growth forests, with their roots cracking open the rocks below and their tops defying gravity and lifting leaves to the sky, are unnatural growths of the very kind that Mother Nature seems to adore the most...and to reward. But surely the idea that the earth's sextillion cubic meters of rock are resources waiting to be tapped, resources nature herself indicates are there to be transformed into bio-stuff, surely that's another rhetorical trope and a wildly mistaken one. Surely Nature's imperatives dictate conserving, not rapaciously ravaging, every bit of matter in sight. Right? Very likely wrong.
Bacteria are nature at work. Raw nature without ideology, without corporations, without credit default swaps, without capitalism, and without brains. But bacteria are our most successful competitors in nature's research and development race. And bacteria are the way nature and evolution formed them to be, outrageously innovative, hungry, and "rapacious." They are creatures who do what Barack Obama praised-evolving breakthroughs, taking risks on revolutionary approaches that "might fail-but might also change the world."
Bacteria live in complex societies of up to seven trillion, seven trillion in a colony the size of your palm, a colony so thin that you and I can't see it. That's more citizens in one small social cluster than all the humans who have ever been. These bacterial megalopolises form what University of Tel Aviv physicist and microbiological pioneer Eshel Ben-Jacob calls "creative webs," massively parallel computational bio-engines with citizens operating as individual information processors. Bacteria constantly exchange data with their colony-mates using a chemical language. These societies are what we would call "greedy," "materialistic," and "imperialistic." They periodically evolve massive breakthroughs, massive new ways to turn barren wastes into fertile new frontiers, empty expanses into gardens, new ways to bring inanimate atoms into the web of life, and new ways to rope every substance in sight into their economies. How do bacteria deal with the 1.097 sextillion square meters of granite beneath your feet and mine? Do they worship its purity and make the cellular equivalent of vows to protect its virginity? No. They create ways to eat it. Bacteria called chemolithoautotrophs are feasting on the raw rock of this planet right now two miles beneath your feet. That is nature at work in its purest form. What lessons does it preach to you and me? More important, what lessons does it offer to Barack Obama?
First off, we think we're smarter than bacteria. But if we're so brainy why do we see over a sextillion cubic meters of rock as sacred and untouchable while bacteria see it as dinner and dessert? Could the answer be a vision deficit?
There is a vision already in Barack Obama's grasp-and ours-one that has the potential to open our sense of our opportunities, to open our sense of the future resources available to you and me, to open our sense of our earth's carrying capacity. It's the techno vision embodied in President Obama's October 23rd speech at MIT, a speech in which he praised new technologies that could open up vast new pools of energy. Technologies that could expand the carrying capacity of our environment-"windows that generate electricity by directing light to solar cells; light-weight, high-power batteries that aren't built, but are grown...engineering viruses...to create batteries; more efficient lighting systems that rely on nanotechnology; innovative engineering that will make it possible for offshore wind power plants to deliver electricity even when the air is still." That potential techno vision is also implicit in the 37 new technologies a nearly invisible governmental office, ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Administration for Energy, bankrolled with $151 million in research and development grants on October 26. These 37 technologies involve cultivating bacteria and algae to turn the excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere-the greenhouse gas we are afraid will precipitate a climate catastrophe-into fuel and energy. The ARPA-E technologies also promise to turn salt water into drinkable water for a water-parched West Coast. And the technologies highlighted by Obama at MIT and supported by the ARPE-E grants could eventually provide some of the "green energy" and "green collar jobs" President Obama promised in his election campaign.
Alas, Obama seems to have left the green energy, green collar jobs, and green economy visions outside the door when he entered the White House. In fact, the press who accompanied Obama to Boston for his MIT speech were utterly confused about the point of his talk. They couldn't figure out the take-home message, the headline, the so-what. But these energy and water initiatives are the raw material for at least one vivid and rousing vision. Now Obama has to turn them into anthems, to turn them into poetry.
But green energy and water desalination visions have a problem. They do not thrill us. Like the rock eating of chemolithoautotrophic bacteria, they do not inspire us. Why? Because they do not rouse the human spirit and the human spirit's underlying biology. They do not look on high. If you are President Obama, where do you find a vision of boundless resources and of open horizons, one that does lift our spirits, our biology, and our eyes? You get it through a vision that looks to the skies. Like lobsters and lizards, we were built to lift our heads. Like lobsters and lizards, we were built to rise. The greatest resource base ever to beckon life, the greatest new frontier ever to call on eco-systems to soar, adapt, and prosper, is above our head. In space.
Space experts like Australian metallurgist and materials specialist Mark Sonter and American solar and orbital entrepreneur Dennis Wingo explain that a single asteroid has a trillion dollars worth of resources, including iron, nickel, germanium, and platinum. Others like former Boeing Phantom Works scientist and project manager Ed McCullough and Rutgers' Director of the Center for Structures in Extreme Environments Haym Benaroya explain that moon dust and moon rock are the perfect raw materials with which to build 10,000-inhabitant glass space cylinders hovering in the sunlight between the earth and the moon, cylinders with rolling fields, grass, farms, artificial gravity, and spacious homes. The moon's metals and minerals are the raw materials of glass, steel, concrete, and microchips. More important, they are the raw materials for entire ecosystems in the skies.
Experts like NASA-veteran John Mankins point out that the solution to our energy problems is in space. The space satellite industry is already a $250 billion business. And it works by harvesting solar energy in orbit and beaming that energy down to earth as radio and television signals. But that is just the barest start. Solar energy on earth has severe limitations. It can be shut down by weather anomalies. One of those anomalies is called clouds. Another has a nasty habit of putting solar panels on idle every 24 hours for from eight to twelve hours at a time. That meteorological oddity is called night. Solar energy in space is five times as intense as on earth. It runs 24/7. Its infrastructure can be erected using existing space shuttle launch vehicles and empty shuttle fuel tanks in orbit. And solar power harvested in space can be beamed down to earth using harmless electromagnetic rays like the ones your cell phone sends and receives.
Retooling ourselves to use renewable energy generated on earth is far more expensive than most of us realize. It will cost two trillion dollars to bring the land-hugging grid of wiring that delivers electricity today up to the level needed to shuttle land-based solar, wind, and geothermal energy around just this one nation. And it will cost far more to wire up every remote village in Africa and Asia. But solar power beamed from space radically decreases the need for wiring. Sun-farms in orbit-solar power harvesting satellites--can beam electricity directly to even the most remote region on the planet's face.
Global energy demand is already a trillion dollar a year proposition. And energy from space can turn America into what it was before 1950, a net energy exporter. It can generate a million new jobs. American jobs. What's more Buzz Aldrin believes that the robust development of space transportation and habitation can turn America once again into a net technology exporter.
Air Force Research Lab veteran James Michael Snead recently completed a year-long study for a group I run, the Space Development Steering Committee, demonstrating that even if we use every source of clean energy -- terrestrial solar, wind, and geothermal -- and every source of dirty energy -- coal, oil, gas, and nuclear -- we will run out of energy well before 2100. So we will need the solar power of space no matter how hard we try to keep our power sources down to earth.
But there's more. New space industries will produce more spinoffs and more radical change and upgrade than any other energy business-from changes in transportation and changes in medicine to changes in materials science, changes in sport, and changes in the very concept of real estate.
If we don't bring the resources of space to life, if we don't tap solar power in the sky, others will. The Japanese have already dedicated $21 billion to space solar power. Former Indian president Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has urged his country and its 500 space-related companies to take the space solar power lead. And the intentions of the nation most likely to tap space solar power in a big way are shrouded in mystery-the Chinese.
But we need space for more than just the next phase in global economic development. We need it on behalf of life itself. There have been 142 mass extinctions on this planet. We need to take ecosystems beyond this fragile nest. And we need space to give us a vision-lift.
Why must the president's new vision look up? It's an imperative built into our biology. On first hearing, that statement sounds out of whack with our current notions of reality. But it's time for our current notions of reality to change.
Let's go back to evolution and biology. Lizards in their height contests look up to the heavens. They do their best to rise. And some lizard ancestors, dinosaurs, turned that upward-looking aspiration into a radically new reality 210 million years ago. They literally gave their right and left arms, investing them in the equivalent of a nutty bio-scheme dedicated to rising to the heavens at which where their eyes were aimed. Let's do a bit of anthropomorphism to get a sense of the rebellion against gravity these dinosaurs pulled off 210 million years ago...and to get a feel for that rebellion's consequences. In the Jurassic era a group of dinosaurs ached to leave the land and to actually take to the skies. If you and I had been traditionalist, sensible, down-to-earth, conservative dinosaurs around at the time, we would have tried to get these saurian dreamers to get real. To get serious. What is there up above your head, we would have told them. Nothing but clouds and stars. Nothing to eat. No place to sleep. No place for even simple shelter. Emptiness. Nothing but open space. Everything good is down here on earth, we would have explained in exasperation. Every bit of food and greenery. Every place to hide at night from beasts who regard you as prey. The soil beneath our feet is Mother Nature's bosom. Nature, we would have said, rewards those who cling to her. Not those who give her the finger. Not those who flee from her embrace. No dinosaur has ever flown before. It's hideously unnatural. Surely none should even try.
Today the conservative dinosaurs who insisted on clinging to Mother Earth and her bounty are gone. They died out 65 million years ago. And the dinosaurs who broke the laws of nature? The dinosaurs who rebelled against gravity? The dinosaurs who placed their bets on the empty space above their head? What was their fate? They're called birds.
But that's not all. There are twice as many species of birds as there are of us land-lubbing mammals. In other words, birds have found twice as many ways of making a living in the empty space of the skies, twice as many new "environmental niches," as we nature-lovers and predatory "dominators" of the earth have opened down here on land. And there's more. Sky-soaring creatures-be they birds or mammals like bats-live roughly 60% longer than animals that walk the earth's surface.
Is Mother Nature trying to tell us something? Something you, I, and Barack Obama should take a bit more seriously? Something about our next big source of jobs and plenty, our next big resource base? Something about our next step up not just for human beings, but for eco-systems, our next step up for life? Something about the importance of lifting our eyes? Something about the importance of a vision, a vision that looks to the skies?
Can a bankrupt nation, a nation with the greatest debt in history, reach above its head and deliver new capabilities to all mankind? There is no certain answer. But there is one bio certainty. We are at our best when we unleash the American spirit, when we unleash our bio-based energies-the energies that surge through the winning height-seeking lobster and the champion chin-lifting lizard, through the beast that most successfully defies the commands of gravity. We are at our best when we do what nature demands-when we break the shackles of nature's limitations. We are at our best when we aim at the impossible. We are at our best when we are driven by high-minded visions. We are out our best when we look up above our heads. We are at our best when we aspire to rise. We are at our best when we strive for goals that will uplift all mankind and when we pursue those goals not because they easy, but because they are hard. We are at our best when we aim for the skies.
Howard Bloom is the author of The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism, The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History, and Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century. He is also founder and head of The Space Development Steering Committee, a group that includes astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Edgar Mitchell and members from NASA and the National Science Foundation.
Image by Luxerta, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet