The Gods Themselves Contend In Vain

In 1972, as the Cold War chilled the world, Isaac Asimov published The Gods Themselves. Reading it today, I can't help but regard the novel as a powerful allegory for climate change as humanity fails to act on the knowledge that our destruction is an inevitable consequence of continuing to consume energy the way we do. That failure is itself a consequence of the failings of our political institutions, of our scientific and political leaders, and of our reason.

The story is set in 2100AD, after the mysterious 'crises' of the 21st century that led to a depopulation of the planet from six billion to two billion. Asimov does what he does best here, creating a fictitious world inhabited by plausible characters who help him churn through expository passages with the humour and humanity he suffuses into their lively dialogue, and into his science fiction yarns generally.

In the first of the book's three acts (Against stupidity...), we learn of a device called the Electron Pump which can provide an essentially limitless supply of clean energy. The device was developed after the serendipitous discovery of an anomalous radioisotope and its spontaneous decay by a man named Frederick Hallam. The isotope originated in a parallel universe. Because of differences in the physical laws governing the two universes, each race--men and para-men--could take advantage of the energy released by the decaying material being pumped into their own universe by their parallel analog.

Hallam is credited as the Father of the Electron Pump, though it was only through his tenacity not his brilliance that the device was developed. In fact, the matter transfers are initiated entirely by the para-men. Because of the injustice of Hallam's stature and jealousy of a subordinate researcher, the Electron Pump is found to be fatally flawed: the ongoing import of energy from the parallel universe introduces perturbations into our own universe which alter the physical properties of matter and potentially accelerate fusion, conceivably leading to runaway solar fusion and an explosion that could form a solar-system-shattering quasar. If the disruptions have to accumulate across the entire universe to trigger the effect, millions of years would have to pass before the cataclysm could occur, but if the disruptions were localized, a sufficient change to the physical properties in our solar system might lead to its destruction within a few decades.

The hypothesis of the potential danger of continuing to operate the Electron Pump is difficult to confirm. Evidence of the effect would be subtle and expensive to collect. Moreover, the scientists who suggest this threat are discredited and marginalized by the Pump establishment, led by Hallman himself. If the threat is genuine, it may be irreversible by the time it is readily apparent. I think you can see where I'm going with this.

A politician in the novel explains his quandary when faced with the hypothesis this way:

"It is a mistake," he said, "to suppose that the public wants the environment protected or their lives saved and that they will be grateful to any idealist who will fight for such ends. What the public wants is its own individual comfort. [...] Now then, young man, don't ask me to stop the Pumping. The economy and comfort of the entire planet depend on it. Tell me, instead, how to keep the Pumping from exploding the Sun."

I expect this insight applies equally well to our current predicament. There remains an extraordinary amount of fossil fuels in the ground that we can still dig-up and burn for energy, though conventional oil production will likely peak in the next ten to fifteen years. Our comfort, growth, and progress appear to depend on continuing to burn fossil fuels. Yet the evidence has been accumulating for decades that the continued release of greenhouse gases will lead to calamitous changes in our planet. Policymakers are paralyzed by their fear of being ousted by a public unwilling to be painfully weaned from its energy supply, and by serving the established corporate interests that prop up their economies. The public, in its attempt to resolve the cognitive dissonance of its entrenched consumption patterns and the consequent disaster it will bring, denies the looming crisis and carries on.

Though striking in its aptness to climate change, the novel appears not to have been conceived for this reason. Rather it was conceived as a thought experiment by Isaac Asimov when told by a colleague that Plutonium-186 could not exist in this universe. The novel grew out of his conjecture about what sort of universe would permit the existence of this isotope. In fleshing out this possibility, Asimov creates not one world but three: post-apocalyptic Earth, the para-universe, and a Lunar colony.

For the alien para-universe, Asimov creates entirely novel creatures governed by the physical properties of that universe. Though their bodies differ from ours, their stars shine more dimly, and their life cycles are totally unfamiliar, the creatures display familiar psychology of self-interest, doubt, shame, love, chauvinism, and nurturing. He focuses on three of the creatures, a mating triad with the names Odeen, Dua, and Tritt, reminiscent of the Russian words for the first three numbers: один (adeen), два (dva), три (tree). Their story is told in the middle act of the novel (...the gods themselves...), and the chapters are numbered with three parts per chapter, the 'a' parts told from Dua's perspective, 'b' from Odeen's, and 'c' from Tritt's.

I stalled when the novel entered the para-universe. The environment was disorienting and the usual literary tricks Asimov exploited to allow character interactions to drive his plot were lost on me: I could hardly identify with shimmery shape-changing, photosynthesizing, ephemeral blobs. But at the encouragement of a friend, I revisited the para-universe and discovered that in fact I could identify with these creatures, their parental instinct, curiosity, rational detachment, shame, jealousy, anxiety, and sexual politics. We were the same beings, and only the physical constants of the universe were different. The para-men understand the peril to our universe that the Pump may pose, but elect ultimately to keep Pumping because our destruction would not imperil them.

Back on Earth, Lamont, the dissenting scientist of the novel whines, "The best proof [...] is to have the Sun explode." It is to this standard that our scientists seem to be held. The title of the novel is inspired by a phrase written by Friedrich Schiller, a nineteenth century German dramatist and poet. The line appeared in his Maid of Orleans: Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain. It is not stupidity we must contend with so much as ignorance, denial, and self-interest. Another passage late in the novel:

"Earthmen want the Pump; they want the free energy; they want it enough to refuse to believe they can't have it."
"But why should they want it, if it means death?"

"All they have to do is refuse to believe it means death. The easiest way to solve a problem is to deny it exists."

On the moon, research confirming the threat posed by Pumping is uncovered. Here we encounter the third world conceived by Asimov. This section of the book sparkles with insightful flourishes about low gravity, conservation, politics, design, diet, and physiology that fully render life on the moon: The discomfiture of an Earthie adapting to his awkwardness and sagging fleshiness on the Moon. The repulsion of a Lunarite to stories of pastures, beaches, and even air. The quest for independence of the Earth-governed colonists. Asimov nails so many details, and evokes them plausibly and subtly.

Ultimately, the underlying problem with the Electron Pump is overcome by more technology. Rather than dissuading people from continuing to rely on a device that endangers them, science prevails by offering a solution that involves creating a channel to another parallel universe, this one capable of offsetting the perturbations caused by the first.

I suspect that we will not be so lucky. Geoengineering is a dangerous prospect. It has a long history in human culture but on a localized scale. What else would one call the razing of land, diverting of waters, and colonization with foreign plant and animal species but geoengineering?

When, in our past, cultures rose beyond the carrying capacity of their environment, they invaded their neighbours and expanded the pool of resources they could tap. When their expansion stretched beyond their ability to harvest, expropriate, and govern their territory, the cultures collapsed. Jared Diamond's book Collapse details several fascinating case studies of cultures that, as he puts it, "choose to fail."

With an integrated global network of commerce, transportation, extraction, agriculture, and manufacture, we are able to exploit the abundance that the entire planet has on offer. Our voracity is unprecedented, and the scale of our impact is not regional but global. When we outstrip our surroundings this time, the world will be spent and reeling, and ultimately billions could suffer.

Those of us who consume the most are, for the most part, unrepentant about it, continuing to elect governments committed to propping up the status quo, to fly for our vacations, to drive almost everywhere and alone, to clog landfills with waste, to pave over arable land with sprawling development, and to pat ourselves on the back for installing a few compact fluorescent lights in our homes. We are the most responsible and at the same time the most insulated from the impact of human-mediated climate change. When the die-off comes, it will visit other shores first.

Here's to Looking Out For Number One.

No comments: