Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bigger Than Science, Bigger Than Religion

Here we have an author trying to bridge a huge cultural chasm - the gulf between science and religion.  This kind of dialogue is sorely needed.

The Earth we depend on is caught up in an unprecedented storm of global scale challenges.  Science provides a window on our planet's natural systems, increasingly stressed by human demands, but too many Americans are in denial.

The tug of war between religion and scientific dogma is extremely destructive. For the sake of our children and generations yet to come, we have to make this right.

The essay below appeared in Yes Magazine, a wonderful resource for life-affirming, progressive inspiration.


Bigger Than Science, Bigger Than Religion

Sunday, 01 March 2015 10:34 By Richard Schiffman, YES! Magazine | Op-Ed

 We're closer to environmental disaster than ever before. We need a new story for our relationship with the Earth, one that goes beyond science and religion.

The world as we know it is slipping away. At the current rate of destruction, tropical rainforest could be gone within as little as 40 years. The seas are being overfished to the point of exhaustion, and coral reefs are dying from ocean acidification. Biologists say that we are currently at the start of the largest mass extinction event since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. As greenhouse gases increasingly accumulate in the atmosphere, temperatures are likely to rise faster than our current ecological and agricultural systems can adapt.

It is no secret that the Earth is in trouble and that we humans are to blame. Just knowing these grim facts, however, won’t get us very far. We have to transform this knowledge into a deep passion to change course. But passion does not come primarily from the head; it is a product of the heart. And the heart is not aroused by the bare facts alone. It needs stories that weave those facts into a moving and meaningful narrative.

We need a powerful new story that we are a part of nature and not separate from it. We need a story that properly situates humans in the world—neither above it by virtue of our superior intellect, nor dwarfed by the universe into cosmic insignificance. We are equal partners with all that exists, co-creators with trees and galaxies and the microorganisms in our own gut, in a materially and spiritually evolving universe.

This was the breathtaking vision of the late Father Thomas Berry. Berry taught that humanity is presently at a critical decision point. Either we develop a more heart-full relationship with the Earth that sustains us, or we destroy ourselves and life on the planet. I interviewed the white-maned theologian (he preferred the term “geologian,” by which he meant “student of the Earth”) in 1997 at the Riverdale Center of Religious Research on the Hudson River north of New York City. Berry spoke slowly and with the hint of a southern drawl, revealing his North Carolina upbringing.

“I say that my generation has been autistic,” he told me. “An autistic child is locked into themselves, they cannot get out and the outer world cannot get in. They cannot receive affection, cannot give affection. And this is, I think, a very appropriate way of identifying this generation in its relationship to the natural world.

“We have no feeling for the natural world. We’d as soon cut down our most beautiful tree, the most beautiful forest in the world. We cut it down for what? For timber, for board feet. We don’t see the tree, we only see it in terms of its commercial value.”

It is no accident that we have come to our current crisis, according to Berry. Rather, it is the natural consequence of certain core cultural beliefs that comprise what Berry called “the Old Story.” At the heart of the Old Story is the idea that we humans are set apart from nature and here to conquer it. Berry cited the teaching in Genesis that humans should “subdue the Earth … and have dominion over every living thing.”

But if religion provided the outline for the story, science wrote it large—developing a mind-boggling mastery of the natural world. Indeed, science over time became the new religion, said Berry, an idolatrous worship of our own human prowess. Like true believers, many today are convinced that, however bad things might seem, science and technology will eventually solve all of our problems and fulfill all of our needs.

Berry acknowledged that this naive belief in science served a useful purpose during the formative era when we were still building the modern world and becoming aware of our immense power to transform things.

Like adolescents staking out their own place in the world, we asserted our independence from nature and the greater family of life. But over time, this self-assertion became unbalanced, pushing the Earth to the brink of environmental cataclysm. The time has come to leave this adolescent stage behind, said Berry, and develop a new, mature relationship with the Earth and its inhabitants.

We’ll need to approach this crucial transition on many different fronts. Scientific research has too frequently become the willing handmaiden of what Berry called “the extractive economy,” an economic system that treats our fellow creatures as objects to be exploited rather than as living beings with their own awareness and rights. Moreover, technology, in Berry’s view, potentially separates us from intimacy with life. We flee into “cyberspace”— spending more time on smart phones, iPods, and video games than communing with the real world.

Science and technology are not the problem. Our misuse of them is. Berry said that science needs to acknowledge that the universe is not a random assemblage of dead matter and empty space, but is alive, intelligent, and continually evolving. And it needs to recognize that not only is the world alive, it is alive in us. “We bear the universe in our beings,” Berry reflected, “as the universe bears us in its being.” In Berry’s view, our human lives are no accident. We are the eyes, the minds, and the hearts that the cosmos is evolving so that it can come to know itself ever more perfectly through us.

It’s a view that has been winning some surprising adherents. Several years ago, I had dinner with Edgar Mitchell, one of only a dozen humans who have walked upon the lunar surface. Mitchell, the descendant of New Mexico pioneers and an aeronautical engineer by training, spoke precisely and almost clinically—until he related an experience that happened on his way back to Earth during the Apollo 14 mission. At that point, his voice brightened with awe.

“I was gazing out of the window, at the Earth, moon, sun, and star-studded blackness of space in turn as our capsule slowly rotated,” he said. “Gradually, I was flooded with the ecstatic awareness that I was a part of what I was observing. Every molecule in my body was birthed in a star hanging in space. I became aware that everything that exists is part of one intricately interconnected whole.”

The Overview Effect

In a recent phone chat, Mitchell called this realization “the Overview Effect,” and he said that virtually all of the moon astronauts experienced it during their flights. In his case, it changed the direction of his life: “I realized that the story of ourselves as told by our scientific cosmology and our religion was incomplete and likely flawed. I saw that the Newtonian idea of separate, independent, discrete things in the universe wasn’t a fully accurate description.”

In pursuit of a holistic understanding, Mitchell founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) to explore the nature of human consciousness. The question of consciousness might seem remote from issues like climate change. But it is central to the question of how we treat the world. At the core of our abuse of nature is the belief that we humans are essentially islands unto ourselves, alienated from the world beyond our skins. A little god locked within the gated community of his or her own skull won’t feel much responsibility for what goes on outside.

“The classical scientific approach says that observation and consciousness are completely independent of the way the world works,” IONS Chief Scientist Dean Radin told me. But physics has known for decades that mind and matter are not as separable as we once supposed. Radin cites as an example Heisenberg’s discovery that the act of observation changes the phenomenon that is being observed.

Moreover, quantum physics has shown that subatomic particles that are separated in space are nevertheless responsive to one another in ways that are not yet fully understood. We are discovering that there is “some underlying form of connection in which literally everything is connected to everything else all of the time,” asserts Radin. “The universe is less a collection of objects than a web of interrelationships.”

As we come to grasp how inextricably embedded in this vast web of cosmic life we are, Radin hopes that humans will be persuaded to move beyond the idea of ourselves as masters and the world as slave to embrace an equal and mutually beneficial partnership.

Another prophet of a new scientific paradigm is renowned Harvard biologist Edward (E.O.) Wilson. Wilson is best known for his biophilia hypothesis, which says there is an instinctive emotional bond between humans and other life forms. Evolution has fostered in us the drive to love and care for other living beings, Wilson says, as a way to promote the survival not just of our own kind but of life as a whole.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection is invoked to argue that we humans are conditioned by nature to struggle tooth and nail for access to limited resources. But Wilson contends that evolution does not just promote violent competition but also favors the development of compassion and cooperation—traits that serve the interests of the group as a whole.

He calls this radical new idea “group selection.” Groups of altruistically inclined individuals have an evolutionary advantage over groups that are composed of members pursuing only their own survival needs. This collective advantage, he argues, has helped to promote powerful social bonds and cooperative behaviors in species as diverse as ants, geese, elk, and human beings.

In championing the evolutionary importance of love and cooperation in the flourishing of life, Wilson is not just revolutionizing biology. He is also venturing into territory usually occupied by religion. But, like Berry, Wilson argues that we need a story that cuts across traditional boundaries between fields to present a new, integral vision. “Science and religion are two of the most potent forces on Earth,” Wilson asserts, “and they should come together to save the Creation.”

A thousand-year worldview

At its heart, the new story that Wilson and Berry advocate is actually a very old one. Indigenous spiritual traditions taught that all beings are our relatives long before the science of ecology “discovered” the seamless web of life that binds humans to other creatures. “The world is alive, everything has spirit, has standing, has the right to be recognized,” proclaims Anishinaabe activist and former Green Party candidate for vice president Winona LaDuke.

“One of our fundamental teachings is that in all our actions we consider the impact it will have on seven generations,” LaDuke told an audience at the University of Ottawa in 2012. “Think about what it would mean to have a worldview that could last a thousand years, instead of the current corporate mindset that can’t see beyond the next quarterly earnings statement.”

When LaDuke speaks of Native values, people sometimes ask her what relevance these have for us today. She answers that the respect for the sacredness of nature that inspired people to live in harmony with their environment for millennia is not a relic of the past. It is a roadmap for living lightly on the Earth that we desperately need in a time of climate change.

This ethic has spread beyond the reservation into religiously inspired communities, like Genesis Farm, founded by the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, New Jersey. Set on ancestral Lenape lands amidst wooded hills and wetlands and within view of the Delaware Water Gap, Genesis has served for the last quarter century as an environmental learning center and working biodynamic farm grounded in Berry’s vision.

I spoke to the community’s founder Sister Miriam MacGillis, a friend and student of Berry, in a room studded with satellite images of the farm and its bioregion. MacGillis told me that she underwent decades of struggle trying to reconcile Berry’s 13-billion-year vision of an evolutionary cosmos with the ultimately incompatible biblical teachings that “creation is finished: Humans were made, history began, there was the fall, and history will end with the apocalypse.” She says, “The pictures I had of God were too small, too parochial, too much a reflection of the ways humans think. We made God in our image!”

Taking the long view fundamentally transforms the basis for environmental action, says MacGillis: “We need to realize that we are the universe in the form of the human. We are not just on Earth to do good ecological things. That is where the religious perspective takes us with the stewardship model—take care of it; it’s holy because God made it. That hasn’t worked real well … The idea of stewardship is too small, it’s too human-centered, like we can do that. It’s really the opposite. Earth is taking total care of us.”

Genesis Farm has propagated these ideas through its Earth Literacy training, which has now spread to many places throughout the world. Their work is a small part of a larger greening of religion, says Yale religious scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-creator with Brian Swimme of Journey of the Universe, an exhilarating trek through time and space portraying an evolutionary universe.

Tucker expects that the upcoming encyclical on climate change and the environment that Pope Francis will issue in early 2015 will be “a game changer” for Catholics. She adds that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has also been outspoken, labeling crimes against the natural world “a sin.” The Dalai Lama, for his part, has been speaking about the importance of safeguarding the environment based on Buddhism’s sense of the profound interdependence of all life. China has recently enshrined in its constitution the need for a new ecological civilization rooted in Confucian values, which preach the harmony between humans, Earth, and Heaven.

“All civilizations have drawn on the wisdom traditions that have gotten people through death, tragedy, destruction, immense despair,” says Tucker, adding that we are currently in a perilous rite of passage. “We will need all of the world’s religions to help as well as a shared sense of an evolutionary story to get us through this.”

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Richard Schiffman is the author of two biographies as well as a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Huffington Post, and on NPR and Monitor Radio.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Solar Energy - Too Cheap to Meter?

Commercial scale solar power is headed for 2 cents/kWh.  That kills the economic justification for pretty much any fossil fuel alternative, as well as nuclear.  If  we were not subject to the deep pockets political influence of the coal, oil, gas, and nuclear power interests,  we would likely already have a national energy policy that would fully encourage the transition to clean, inexhaustible energy alternatives like solar and wind.  Unfortunately, we are under the influence of a hulking, profit driven corporate juggernaut.  Their game is lame, but their money is buying them a  lot of time in the public policy driver's seat.  Their blind pursuit of profit is causing our Earth's natural systems to collapse.  We must change our ways. The sooner, the better.

Where energy is concerned the future is already emerging.

Every place on Earth has access to some type of clean, low cost energy. In transport applications where an energy source is needed that is both clean and available on demand, the path of least resistance is battery stored electricity. In many transport applications, battery stored electricity will not meet the load requirements.  That is where hydrogen comes in as an energy carrier. Hydrogen is the simplest, most abundant element in the universe.  It is clean, non-toxic, and inexhaustible in supply. You can't mine hydrogen, you have to make it by splitting it away from chemical bonds with readily available chemical compounds, like water.

The simplest way to make hydrogen is to split water molecules, which consist of two hydrogen atoms linked to an oxygen atom.   In an electrolyzer, it  takes about 50 kWh of electricity to split about   two gallons of water into enough free hydrogen to equal the energy in one gallon of gasoline.  At 2 cents/ kWh, you would need about a dollar's worth of the solar energy to make the hydrogen equivalent of gasoline. When run through a fuel cell, the efficiency of energy delivered to the wheels of a car from hydrogen is two or three times better than gasoline IC engine. 

I recently got a bid to put a 5,000 kWh solar PV system on the roof of my house. After government incentives, the system would pay for itself in about three years. After that,  all the electric power it produces would be pretty much free. Surplus electricity generated by such a system could be routed through a small residential scale electrolyzer to produce hydrogen for use on demand.  The stored hydrogen could be used to power the home at night when the solar panels are not producing. It could also be used in a car powered by a fuel cell.  Some see hydrogen as a competitor for battery technology. A lot of trash talk still emanates from some battery enthusiasts.  I share the opinion of many people who have a stake in the success of hydrogen.  The fact is hydrogen is an inexpensive way to store electricity for use later on demand. Hydrogen and electricity are two sides of the same coin. They complement each other beautifully. It just makes sense for  them to coexist.

The problem we have now is that our government's energy policy has been captured entirely by big oil, coal, and nuclear interests.  They own the majority of our elected politicians, and those politicians are aggressively engaged in obstructing the pathway to a clean energy future.  Because of that brand of political intransigence, the US is dragging its feet on the clean energy revolution, Instead, it is Europe, Japan, and China that are leading the way. 

I want to live in a  net zero energy house, and I want to drive a car that is pollution free and running on a fuel I can generate with the solar panels on my roof.  A growing number  of  people are already on that pathway.  In two years, I expect to be part of that caravan.

The attached article comes from the renew economy website


Solar at 2c/kWh – the cheapest source of electricity

By Giles Parkinson

Major new study says policy makers and energy planners still underestimating cost potential of large scale solar. It says that within in a decade, it will be cheapest form of power and will fall to 2c/kWh.

agora solar cost fall

A major new study from a leading German think tank and renewable energy specialist says the cost reduction potential of large scale solar is still misunderstood, and predicts that solar PV will be the cheapest form of power within a decade, and cost less than $US0.02/kWh by 2050.

The study by the Berlin-based Agora Energiewende says that the end to cost reductions from solar plants is “not in sight”, even after falling more than 80 per cent in recent years.

It cites a range or reasons for this. Primarily, though, it comes down to an expected doubling in module efficiency, which will mean less panels are needed to produce the same amount of power, and therefore less land, less materials, less maintenance and lower installation costs.

These balance of systems costs are expected to fall by up to 2/3 in coming decades, and combined with a fall in the cost of finance, could cut the cost of solar technology in areas such as Australia, the US and parts of Europe to as low as 1.5 Euro cents/kWh.

“Even in the most conservative scenarios for market development, without considering technology breakthroughs, significant further cost reductions are expected,” the report says.
The forecasts produce a range of outcomes, depending on the actual increase in module efficiency – to 24, 30, or 35 per cent; the scale of deployment in coming decades, and the extent of “learning rates”.

Finally, depending on annual sunshine, power costs of Euro 4-6 c/kWh are expected in Europe by 2025, reaching Euro 2-4 c/kWh by 2050. That means it will be cheaper than conventional technologies – which costs between Euro 5c and 10c/kWh – by 2025.
It will even cheaper – at Euro 1.5c/kWh in countries with more sun.

“For the next decade, this represents a cost reduction of roughly one third below the 2015 level,” it says. “In the long term, a reduction of roughly two thirds compared to the current cost is expected.”
Lead author Daniel Fuerstenwerth said one of the reasons for the study was the lack of recognition among policy makers and advisors about future cost falls in solar PV, and official forecasts which continued to downplay the potential role of the technology.

This is despite the fact that organisations such as the International Energy Agency has predicted that solar costs would fall to 4c/kWh, and would in effect become “unstoppable”, and predicts it will be biggest single source of energy by 2050. Even Australia’s Bureau of Resource and Energy Economics recognises that solar will be the cheapest technology by 2030.

“The long term scenarios tend to underestimate the role of solar in power systems and in decarbonisation efforts,” Fuerstenwerth told RenewEconomy in a phone interview.

“When you look at the scenarios being prepared – there is always a very small share of solar. For example, in Germany, the power grid system is being discussed for scenarios that include a maximum 10 per cent share of solar PV in long term future.”

The Agora study found that in “large parts” of Europe, large scale solar was likely to be competing with conventional technologies – which costs between Euro 5c and 10c/kWh – by 2025.

agora cost ground mounted

In other regions of the world with higher solar irradiation, solar power will be even cheaper than in Europe.

“Our results indicate that solar power will become the cheapest source of electricity in many regions of the world, reaching costs of between Euro 1.6 and 3.7c/kWh in India and the Mena region (Middle East and North Africa) by 2050.

Cost competitive- ness with large- scale conventional power plants will be reached in these regions already within the next decade, at a cost for solar power by 2025 ranging between 3.3 and 5.4 ct/kWh.

(Indeed, in UAE for instance, solar is already cost competitive, with a tender for 200MW of solar going at less than $US0.06/kWh, less than the prevailing cost of gas-fired generation at $US0.09/kwh.

In North America, the study predicts that costs for large scale solar photovoltaics will reach Euro 3.2 to 8.3c/kWh in 2025 and Euro 1.5 to 5.8 c/kWh in 2050, the wide cost range due to significant geographical differences within the region.

In Australia, the study says, costs will reach Euro 3.4 to 7.1c/kWh in 2025 and 1.6 to 4.9 c/kWh in 2050. Interestingly, the study underlines how the cost of capital will be critical to the cost of electricity delivered by solar. This graph below illustrates how (remember the currency is in Euro).

agora cost country

“The cost of capital is and will remain a major driver for the cost of power from solar photovoltaics,” the report says. “Producing power from solar photovoltaics requires a high up-front investment, but subsequently allows power production for 25 years and more at a marginal cost of close to zero. It is thus a very capital-intensive power-generation technology, and the interest paid on both debt and equity has a large effect on the total cost of a large-scale photovoltaic project.”

It estimates the difference of the cost of technology could be as much as 50 per cent. “The regulatory environment will thus be key for reducing the cost of power from solar photovoltaics in the future, as the cost of capital is largely driven by the risk perceived by investors,” it notes. Australian developers understand this very well.

Here is the estimates on all regions:

agora solar


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Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Flow Hive - A Great Innovation for Bees

I have a great affection for bees. They are marvelous little creatures.  They work tirelessly to serve the collective interests of the hive. Bees that reside in commercial hives are the source of nearly all the honey we humans consume. 

Unlike wild colonies, bees in commercial service are constantly stressed by keepers who regularly open their hives to harvest honey and beeswax, and also to check on the health of the hives.  It's been that way since humans entered into a working relationship with domesticated bees.

A group of beekeepers from the Australia appears to have developed an innovation that will transform commercial and hobby beekeeping.

In traditional beekeeping, the harvest of honey and beeswax requires opening the hives, removing the honeycombed panels, scraping away the wax and draining the honey into containers.  It's very stressful on the bees and hard work for the beekeepers.

The innovation that could change all that is called Flow Hive. It uses combed panels that are designed to automatically channel the flow of honey in a way that allows it to be harvested simply by opening a tap.  The hive doesn't have to be opened. The bees are not disturbed. 

The people behind Flow Hive are just now ramping up to manufacture their remarkable innovation.

Check out the Flow Hive website.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Michael Tobias and the Club of Budapest

My long time friend, collaborator, and mentor, Michael Tobias was invited last year into the small, very prestigious circle of global citizens known as the Club of Budapest.  The members of this distinguished collective include Jane Goodall, Mikhail Gorbachev, Desmond Tutu, Mohammed Yunus, and the Dalai Lama.

Michael Tobias and friend

I have been privileged to work with Michael Tobias for nearly 25 years. I have never known a more knowledgeable, decent, and compassionate person.  That he should be invited into this very rare circle of global citizens is an enduring testament to his truly exceptional life.

Here is a link to Michael Tobias' presentation at the January 2015 meeting of the Club of Budapest in Hungary.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Plastic Crap In The Oceans

The tawdry attitude we humans have about nature and the Earth is reflected in our penchant for dumping our plastic crap in the ocean. Eight million tons a year according the report below from the University of Georgia.

Have you ever heard of something called a mid-ocean gyre? They are places in the world's oceans where currents come together in gigantic swirls. They are huge. One in the North Pacific ocean is the size of the state of Texas. They are places where all the plastic we humans dump in the oceans come together. Imagine a toilet bowl clogged with plastic bits, from very large down to microscopic. This stuff does not occur naturally. Every last tiny piece of it amounts to human waste.

The fact that we allow our plastic crap to end up in the oceans in such massive volume says a lot about mankind's very poor record of stewardship toward the environment we all depend on. There is no excuse for it. We humans simply must do a better job of cleaning up after ourselves.


Magnitude of plastic waste going into the ocean calculated: 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans per year


The 192 countries with a coast bordering the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, Mediterranean and Black seas produced a total of 2.5 billion metric tons of solid waste. Of that, 275 million metric tons was plastic, and an estimated 8 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste entered the ocean in 2010.

Credit: Lindsay Robinson/UGA

A plastic grocery bag cartwheels down the beach until a gust of wind spins it into the ocean. In 192 coastal countries, this scenario plays out over and over again as discarded beverage bottles, food wrappers, toys and other bits of plastic make their way from estuaries, seashores and uncontrolled landfills to settle in the world's seas.

How much mismanaged plastic waste is making its way from land to ocean has been a decades-long guessing game. Now, the University of Georgia's Jenna Jambeck and her colleagues in the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis working group have put a number on the global problem.

Their study, reported in the Feb. 13 edition of the journal Science, found between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean in 2010 from people living within 50 kilometers of the coastline. That year, a total of 275 million metric tons of plastic waste was generated in those 192 coastal countries.

Jambeck, an assistant professor of environmental engineering in the UGA College of Engineering and the study's lead author, explains the amount of plastic moving from land to ocean each year using 8 million metric tons as the midpoint: "Eight million metric tons is the equivalent to finding five grocery bags full of plastic on every foot of coastline in the 192 countries we examined."

To determine the amount of plastic going into the ocean, Jambeck "started it off beautifully with a very grand model of all sources of marine debris," said study co-author Roland Geyer, an associate professor with the University of California, Santa Barbara's Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, who teamed with Jambeck and others to develop the estimates.

They began by looking at all debris entering the ocean from land, sea and other pathways. Their goal was to develop models for each of these sources. After gathering rough estimates, "it fairly quickly emerged that the mismanaged waste and solid waste dispersed was the biggest contributor of all of them," he said. From there, they focused on plastic.

"For the first time, we're estimating the amount of plastic that enters the oceans in a given year," said study co-author Kara Lavender Law, a research professor at the Massachusetts-based Sea Education Association. "Nobody has had a good sense of the size of that problem until now."

The framework the researchers developed isn't limited to calculating plastic inputs into the ocean.

"Jenna created a framework to analyze solid waste streams in countries around the world that can easily be adapted by anyone who is interested," she said. "Plus, it can be used to generate possible solution strategies."

Plastic pollution in the ocean was first reported in the scientific literature in the early 1970s. In the 40 years since, there were no rigorous estimates of the amount and origin of plastic debris making its way into the marine environment until Jambeck's current study.

Part of the issue is that plastic is a relatively new problem coupled with a relatively new waste solution. Plastic first appeared on the consumer market in the 1930s and '40s. Waste management didn't start developing its current infrastructure in the U.S., Europe and parts of Asia until the mid-1970s. Prior to that time, trash was dumped in unstructured landfills--Jambeck has vivid memories of growing up in rural Minnesota, dropping her family's garbage off at a small dump and watching bears wander through furniture, tires and debris as they looked for food.

"It is incredible how far we have come in environmental engineering, advancing recycling and waste management systems to protect human health and the environment, in a relatively short amount of time," she said. "However, these protections are unfortunately not available equally throughout the world."

Some of the 192 countries included in the model have no formal waste management systems, Jambeck said. Solid waste management is typically one of the last urban environmental engineering infrastructure components to be addressed during a country's development. Clean water and sewage treatment often come first.

"The human impact from not having clean drinking water is acute, with sewage treatment often coming next," she said. "Those first two needs are addressed before solid waste, because waste doesn't seem to have any immediate threat to humans. And then solid waste piles up in streets and yards and it's the thing that gets forgotten for a while."

As the gross national income increases in these countries, so does the use of plastic. In 2013, the most current numbers available, global plastic resin production reached 299 million tons, a 647 percent increase over numbers recorded in 1975. Plastic resin is used to make many one-use items like wrappers, beverage bottles and plastic bags.

With the mass increase in plastic production, the idea that waste can be contained in a few-acre landfill or dealt with later is no longer viable. That was the mindset before the onslaught of plastic, when most people piled their waste--glass, food scraps, broken pottery--on a corner of their land or burned or buried it. Now, the average American generates about 5 pounds of trash per day with 13% of that being plastic.

But knowing how much plastic is going into the ocean is just one part of the puzzle, Jambeck said. With between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons going in, researchers like Law are only finding between 6,350 and 245,000 metric tons floating on the ocean's surface.

"This paper gives us a sense of just how much we're missing," Law said, "how much we need to find in the ocean to get to the total. Right now, we're mainly collecting numbers on plastic that floats. There is a lot of plastic sitting on the bottom of the ocean and on beaches worldwide."

Jambeck forecasts that the cumulative impact to the oceans will equal 155 million metric tons by 2025. The planet is not predicted to reach global "peak waste" before 2100, according to World Bank calculations.

"We're being overwhelmed by our waste," she said. "But our framework allows us to also examine mitigation strategies like improving global solid waste management and reducing plastic in the waste stream. Potential solutions will need to coordinate local and global efforts."

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Georgia. The original article was written by Stephanie Schupska. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

1.     J. R. Jambeck, R. Geyer, C. Wilcox, T. R. Siegler, M. Perryman, A. Andrady, R. Narayan, K. L. Law. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science, 2015; 347 (6223): 768 DOI: 10.1126/science.1260352

Cite This Page:

University of Georgia. "Magnitude of plastic waste going into the ocean calculated: 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans per year." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 February 2015. <>.


The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

 Michael E. Mann is one of the world's leading atmospheric scientists.  He was a principle researcher in the process of creating a record of atmospheric temperature trends over the past millennia.  Using ice core samples and tree growth ring data, he and his colleagues were able to demonstrate that the last hundred years have been the warmest in well over a millennia.  The paleoclimatological record Mann and his colleagues were able to develop has been peer reviewed and confirmed by dozens of other climate scientists. Other scientists, employing alternate research pathways, have developed data sets that affirm the conclusion drawn by Mann and his colleagues. Global climate change linked directly to elevated levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse pollutants in the atmosphere has caused a substantial and measurable increase in average, leading to sea level rise, and more extreme weather, including draughts, flooding, wildfires, and more powerful hurricanes and tornados.

Our human addiction to fossil fuel energy like oil and coal is the primary cause of global warming.  That is the conclusion of  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an institution put together by the world's governments.  The science behind this conclusion has been proven beyond any doubt. It is

Well actually, if you are in the business of mining coal or pumping oil, survival depends on denial.  Oil is the most profitable business in the history of the world. The barons in charge of big oil, coal, and natural gas, faced the prospect of having their industries and profits killed by what should be an inevitable transition to clean, inexhaustible alternatives to dirty fossil fuels. 

With survival at stake, big fossil energy interests have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on disinformation campaigns, whose aim is to obfuscate and  deny any link between the burning of coal and oil and the pollution that drives climate change.

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, written by atmospheric scientist, Michael E. Mann, chronicles the way his research has been attacked by deniers, pretty much all of whom are being paid by big fossil energy.

The same hired guns and the same nefarious tactics that were employed by big tobacco to deny the link between cigarettes and cancer, are now focused on confusing the public about climate change and the link to our use of coal and oil. What this amounts to is putting the future of human civilization at substantial risk in order to protect the profitability of big coal and oil.

The story of Representative Joe Barton, (R-Tx), Chair of the Congressional Science and Technology Committee,  is particularly sordid. .  Barton, who gets massive amounts of campaign money from the fossil fuel industry, is an ardent climate denier. He has long  used his powerful position to undermine the overwhelming scientific record that links dirty fuels to climate change. The best words to describe Barton and others in the Congress that deny climate science are shameful, corrupt and contemptible.

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars offers an unimpeachable analysis of all that's wrong with American public policy where energy is concerned.  The book is well written and thoroughly researched. I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand why we are still fighting this battle.  Coal, oil, and natural gas are old news. There are plenty of clean energy options emerging. Many are already cost competitive with fossil fuels. The transition away from dirty energy is already underway.

Dishonest denial in support of coal and oil profit must not be allowed to obstruct the move to clean sources of energy for even a moment longer.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Hard Problem of Consciousness

To me, consciousness is 'the' great mystery of life. How is it possible for me to be aware of myself, to have memories, to learn and refine skills, to have opinions gleaned from knowledge, to have passions and prejudices. My personal consciousness, like every human person's consciousness, is tangible and highly individual in its manifestation.

Traditional neuroscience has no answer for this question. The assumption has always been that everything that defines each of us as a separate individual resides in the brain. Somehow, it is assumed, there are physical structures in our brains in which our memories and our intellect reside. The problem is no one has been able to identify any such structures.  Neuroscientists at universities around the world have focused on the consciousness problem for many decades. They have employed the most sophisticated tools to study the human brain, to image it down to the individual neuronal cell structure. What they have identified are locations in the brain and processes in the brain that are linked to various somatic and autonomic life processes. On that level, the brain is well understood. But consciousness... still a complete mystery, despite a massive effort by researchers to locate it in the brain, and to understand it.

The great British scientist and philosopher, J.S.B. Haldane (1892-1964)  once said "Life is not only stranger than we know, but stranger than we can know."   When he said that, he could easily have been talking about consciousness.

The celebrated physician and neuroscientist, Robert Lanza, and biologist, Rupert Sheldrake each have come up with very interesting ideas related to the nature of consciousness. I have written several blogs about their work.  

I pulled the article below from The Guardian webpage.


Why Can't the World's Greatest Minds Solve the Mystery of  Consciousness?

By Oliver Burkeman  (1/21/2015)

One spring morning in Tucson, Arizona, in 1994, an unknown philosopher named David Chalmers got up to give a talk on consciousness, by which he meant the feeling of being inside your head, looking out – or, to use the kind of language that might give a neuroscientist an aneurysm, of having a soul. Though he didn’t realise it at the time, the young Australian academic was about to ignite a war between philosophers and scientists, by drawing attention to a central mystery of human life – perhaps the central mystery of human life – and revealing how embarrassingly far they were from solving it.

The scholars gathered at the University of Arizona – for what would later go down as a landmark conference on the subject – knew they were doing something edgy: in many quarters, consciousness was still taboo, too weird and new agey to take seriously, and some of the scientists in the audience were risking their reputations by attending. Yet the first two talks that day, before Chalmers’s, hadn’t proved thrilling. “Quite honestly, they were totally unintelligible and boring – I had no idea what anyone was talking about,” recalled Stuart Hameroff, the Arizona professor responsible for the event. “As the organiser, I’m looking around, and people are falling asleep, or getting restless.” He grew worried. “But then the third talk, right before the coffee break – that was Dave.” With his long, straggly hair and fondness for all-body denim, the 27-year-old Chalmers looked like he’d got lost en route to a Metallica concert. “He comes on stage, hair down to his butt, he’s prancing around like Mick Jagger,” Hameroff said. “But then he speaks. And that’s when everyone wakes up.”

Philosophers and scientists have been at war for decades over the question of what makes human beings more than complex robots

The brain, Chalmers began by pointing out, poses all sorts of problems to keep scientists busy. How do we learn, store memories, or perceive things? How do you know to jerk your hand away from scalding water, or hear your name spoken across the room at a noisy party? But these were all “easy problems”, in the scheme of things: given enough time and money, experts would figure them out. There was only one truly hard problem of consciousness, Chalmers said. It was a puzzle so bewildering that, in the months after his talk, people started dignifying it with capital letters – the Hard Problem of Consciousness – and it’s this: why on earth should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside? Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life? And how does the brain manage it? How could the 1.4kg lump of moist, pinkish-beige tissue inside your skull give rise to something as mysterious as the experience of being that pinkish-beige lump, and the body to which it is attached?

What jolted Chalmers’s audience from their torpor was how he had framed the question. “At the coffee break, I went around like a playwright on opening night, eavesdropping,” Hameroff said. “And everyone was like: ‘Oh! The Hard Problem! The Hard Problem! That’s why we’re here!’” Philosophers had pondered the so-called “mind-body problem” for centuries. But Chalmers’s particular manner of reviving it “reached outside philosophy and galvanised everyone. It defined the field. It made us ask: what the hell is this that we’re dealing with here?”

Two decades later, we know an astonishing amount about the brain: you can’t follow the news for a week without encountering at least one more tale about scientists discovering the brain region associated with gambling, or laziness, or love at first sight, or regret – and that’s only the research that makes the headlines. Meanwhile, the field of artificial intelligence – which focuses on recreating the abilities of the human brain, rather than on what it feels like to be one – has advanced stupendously. But like an obnoxious relative who invites himself to stay for a week and then won’t leave, the Hard Problem remains. When I stubbed my toe on the leg of the dining table this morning, as any student of the brain could tell you, nerve fibres called “C-fibres” shot a message to my spinal cord, sending neurotransmitters to the part of my brain called the thalamus, which activated (among other things) my limbic system. Fine. But how come all that was accompanied by an agonising flash of pain? And what is pain, anyway?

Questions like these, which straddle the border between science and philosophy, make some experts openly angry. They have caused others to argue that conscious sensations, such as pain, don’t really exist, no matter what I felt as I hopped in anguish around the kitchen; or, alternatively, that plants and trees must also be conscious. The Hard Problem has prompted arguments in serious journals about what is going on in the mind of a zombie, or – to quote the title of a famous 1974 paper by the philosopher Thomas Nagel – the question “What is it like to be a bat?” Some argue that the problem marks the boundary not just of what we currently know, but of what science could ever explain. On the other hand, in recent years, a handful of neuroscientists have come to believe that it may finally be about to be solved – but only if we are willing to accept the profoundly unsettling conclusion that computers or the internet might soon become conscious, too.

Next week, the conundrum will move further into public awareness with the opening of Tom Stoppard’s new play, The Hard Problem, at the National Theatre – the first play Stoppard has written for the National since 2006, and the last that the theatre’s head, Nicholas Hytner, will direct before leaving his post in March. The 77-year-old playwright has revealed little about the play’s contents, except that it concerns the question of “what consciousness is and why it exists”, considered from the perspective of a young researcher played by Olivia Vinall. Speaking to the Daily Mail, Stoppard also clarified a potential misinterpretation of the title. “It’s not about erectile dysfunction,” he said.

Stoppard’s work has long focused on grand, existential themes, so the subject is fitting: when conversation turns to the Hard Problem, even the most stubborn rationalists lapse quickly into musings on the meaning of life. Christof Koch, the chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and a key player in the Obama administration’s multibillion-dollar initiative to map the human brain, is about as credible as neuroscientists get. But, he told me in December: “I think the earliest desire that drove me to study consciousness was that I wanted, secretly, to show myself that it couldn’t be explained scientifically. I was raised Roman Catholic, and I wanted to find a place where I could say: OK, here, God has intervened. God created souls, and put them into people.” Koch assured me that he had long ago abandoned such improbable notions. Then, not much later, and in all seriousness, he said that on the basis of his recent research he thought it wasn’t impossible that his iPhone might have feelings.

In all seriousness, Koch said he thought it wasn't impossible that his iPhone might have feelings

* * *

By the time Chalmers delivered his speech in Tucson, science had been vigorously attempting to ignore the problem of consciousness for a long time. The source of the animosity dates back to the 1600s, when René Descartes identified the dilemma that would tie scholars in knots for years to come. On the one hand, Descartes realised, nothing is more obvious and undeniable than the fact that you’re conscious. In theory, everything else you think you know about the world could be an elaborate illusion cooked up to deceive you – at this point, present-day writers invariably invoke The Matrix – but your consciousness itself can’t be illusory. On the other hand, this most certain and familiar of phenomena obeys none of the usual rules of science. It doesn’t seem to be physical. It can’t be observed, except from within, by the conscious person. It can’t even really be described. The mind, Descartes concluded, must be made of some special, immaterial stuff that didn’t abide by the laws of nature; it had been bequeathed to us by God.

This religious and rather hand-wavy position, known as Cartesian dualism, remained the governing assumption into the 18th century and the early days of modern brain study. But it was always bound to grow unacceptable to an increasingly secular scientific establishment that took physicalism – the position that only physical things exist – as its most basic principle. And yet, even as neuroscience gathered pace in the 20th century, no convincing alternative explanation was forthcoming. So little by little, the topic became taboo. Few people doubted that the brain and mind were very closely linked: if you question this, try stabbing your brain repeatedly with a kitchen knife, and see what happens to your consciousness. But how they were linked – or if they were somehow exactly the same thing – seemed a mystery best left to philosophers in their armchairs. As late as 1989, writing in the International Dictionary of Psychology, the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland could irascibly declare of consciousness that “it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it.”

It was only in 1990 that Francis Crick, the joint discoverer of the double helix, used his position of eminence to break ranks. Neuroscience was far enough along by now, he declared in a slightly tetchy paper co-written with Christof Koch, that consciousness could no longer be ignored. “It is remarkable,” they began, “that most of the work in both cognitive science and the neurosciences makes no reference to consciousness” – partly, they suspected, “because most workers in these areas cannot see any useful way of approaching the problem”. They presented their own “sketch of a theory”, arguing that certain neurons, firing at certain frequencies, might somehow be the cause of our inner awareness – though it was not clear how.

 “People thought I was crazy to be getting involved,” Koch recalled. “A senior colleague took me out to lunch and said, yes, he had the utmost respect for Francis, but Francis was a Nobel laureate and a half-god and he could do whatever he wanted, whereas I didn’t have tenure yet, so I should be incredibly careful. Stick to more mainstream science! These fringey things – why not leave them until retirement, when you’re coming close to death, and you can worry about the soul and stuff like that?”

It was around this time that David Chalmers started talking about zombies.

* * *

As a child, Chalmers was short-sighted in one eye, and he vividly recalls the day he was first fitted with glasses to rectify the problem. “Suddenly I had proper binocular vision,” he said. “And the world just popped out. It was three-dimensional to me in a way it hadn’t been.” He thought about that moment frequently as he grew older. Of course, you could tell a simple mechanical story about what was going on in the lens of his glasses, his eyeball, his retina, and his brain. “But how does that explain the way the world just pops out like that?” To a physicalist, the glasses-eyeball-retina story is the only story. But to a thinker of Chalmers’s persuasion, it was clear that it wasn’t enough: it told you what the machinery of the eye was doing, but it didn’t begin to explain that sudden, breathtaking experience of depth and clarity. Chalmers’s “zombie” thought experiment is his attempt to show why the mechanical account is not enough – why the mystery of conscious awareness goes deeper than a purely material science can explain.

“Look, I’m not a zombie, and I pray that you’re not a zombie,” Chalmers said, one Sunday before Christmas, “but the point is that evolution could have produced zombies instead of conscious creatures – and it didn’t!” We were drinking espressos in his faculty apartment at New York University, where he recently took up a full-time post at what is widely considered the leading philosophy department in the Anglophone world; boxes of his belongings, shipped over from Australia, lay unpacked around his living-room. Chalmers, now 48, recently cut his hair in a concession to academic respectability, and he wears less denim, but his ideas remain as heavy-metal as ever. The zombie scenario goes as follows: imagine that you have a doppelgänger. This person physically resembles you in every respect, and behaves identically to you; he or she holds conversations, eats and sleeps, looks happy or anxious precisely as you do. The sole difference is that the doppelgänger has no consciousness; this – as opposed to a groaning, blood-spattered walking corpse from a movie – is what philosophers mean by a “zombie”.

Such non-conscious humanoids don’t exist, of course. (Or perhaps it would be better to say that I know I’m not one, anyhow; I could never know for certain that you aren’t.) But the point is that, in principle, it feels as if they could. Evolution might have produced creatures that were atom-for-atom the same as humans, capable of everything humans can do, except with no spark of awareness inside. As Chalmers explained: “I’m talking to you now, and I can see how you’re behaving; I could do a brain scan, and find out exactly what’s going on in your brain – yet it seems it could be consistent with all that evidence that you have no consciousness at all.” If you were approached by me and my doppelgänger, not knowing which was which, not even the most powerful brain scanner in existence could tell us apart. And the fact that one can even imagine this scenario is sufficient to show that consciousness can’t just be made of ordinary physical atoms. So consciousness must, somehow, be something extra – an additional ingredient in nature.

Chalmers recently cut his hair and he wears less denim, but his ideas remain as heavy-metal as ever

It would be understating things a bit to say that this argument wasn’t universally well-received when Chalmers began to advance it, most prominently in his 1996 book The Conscious Mind. The withering tone of the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci sums up the thousands of words that have been written attacking the zombie notion: “Let’s relegate zombies to B-movies and try to be a little more serious about our philosophy, shall we?” Yes, it may be true that most of us, in our daily lives, think of consciousness as something over and above our physical being – as if your mind were “a chauffeur inside your own body”, to quote the spiritual author Alan Watts. But to accept this as a scientific principle would mean rewriting the laws of physics. Everything we know about the universe tells us that reality consists only of physical things: atoms and their component particles, busily colliding and combining. Above all, critics point out, if this non-physical mental stuff did exist, how could it cause physical things to happen – as when the feeling of pain causes me to jerk my fingers away from the saucepan’s edge?

Nonetheless, just occasionally, science has dropped tantalising hints that this spooky extra ingredient might be real. In the 1970s, at what was then the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London, the neurologist Lawrence Weiskrantz encountered a patient, known as “DB”, with a blind spot in his left visual field, caused by brain damage. Weiskrantz showed him patterns of striped lines, positioned so that they fell on his area of blindness, then asked him to say whether the stripes were vertical or horizontal. Naturally, DB protested that he could see no stripes at all. But Weiskrantz insisted that he guess the answers anyway – and DB got them right almost 90% of the time. Apparently, his brain was perceiving the stripes without his mind being conscious of them. One interpretation is that DB was a semi-zombie, with a brain like any other brain, but partially lacking the magical add-on of consciousness.

Chalmers knows how wildly improbable his ideas can seem, and takes this in his stride: at philosophy conferences, he is fond of clambering on stage to sing The Zombie Blues, a lament about the miseries of having no consciousness. (“I act like you act / I do what you do / But I don’t know / What it’s like to be you.”) “The conceit is: wouldn’t it be a drag to be a zombie? Consciousness is what makes life worth living, and I don’t even have that: I’ve got the zombie blues.” The song has improved since its debut more than a decade ago, when he used to try to hold a tune. “Now I’ve realised it sounds better if you just shout,” he said.

* * *

The consciousness debates have provoked more mudslinging and fury than most in modern philosophy, perhaps because of how baffling the problem is: opposing combatants tend not merely to disagree, but to find each other’s positions manifestly preposterous. An admittedly extreme example concerns the Canadian-born philosopher Ted Honderich, whose book On Consciousness was described, in an article by his fellow philosopher Colin McGinn in 2007, as “banal and pointless”, “excruciating”, “absurd”, running “the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad”. McGinn added, in a footnote: “The review that appears here is not as I originally wrote it. The editors asked me to ‘soften the tone’ of the original [and] I have done so.” (The attack may have been partly motivated by a passage in Honderich’s autobiography, in which he mentions “my small colleague Colin McGinn”; at the time, Honderich told this newspaper he’d enraged McGinn by referring to a girlfriend of his as “not as plain as the old one”.)

McGinn, to be fair, has made a career from such hatchet jobs. But strong feelings only slightly more politely expressed are commonplace. Not everybody agrees there is a Hard Problem to begin with – making the whole debate kickstarted by Chalmers an exercise in pointlessness. Daniel Dennett, the high-profile atheist and professor at Tufts University outside Boston, argues that consciousness, as we think of it, is an illusion: there just isn’t anything in addition to the spongy stuff of the brain, and that spongy stuff doesn’t actually give rise to something called consciousness. Common sense may tell us there’s a subjective world of inner experience – but then common sense told us that the sun orbits the Earth, and that the world was flat. Consciousness, according to Dennett’s theory, is like a conjuring trick: the normal functioning of the brain just makes it look as if there is something non-physical going on. To look for a real, substantive thing called consciousness, Dennett argues, is as silly as insisting that characters in novels, such as Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, must be made up of a peculiar substance named “fictoplasm”; the idea is absurd and unnecessary, since the characters do not exist to begin with. This is the point at which the debate tends to collapse into incredulous laughter and head-shaking: neither camp can quite believe what the other is saying. To Dennett’s opponents, he is simply denying the existence of something everyone knows for certain: their inner experience of sights, smells, emotions and the rest. (Chalmers has speculated, largely in jest, that Dennett himself might be a zombie.) It’s like asserting that cancer doesn’t exist, then claiming you’ve cured cancer; more than one critic of Dennett’s most famous book, Consciousness Explained, has joked that its title ought to be Consciousness Explained Away. Dennett’s reply is characteristically breezy: explaining things away, he insists, is exactly what scientists do. When physicists first concluded that the only difference between gold and silver was the number of subatomic particles in their atoms, he writes, people could have felt cheated, complaining that their special “goldness” and “silveriness” had been explained away. But everybody now accepts that goldness and silveriness are really just differences in atoms. However hard it feels to accept, we should concede that consciousness is just the physical brain, doing what brains do.

“The history of science is full of cases where people thought a phenomenon was utterly unique, that there couldn’t be any possible mechanism for it, that we might never solve it, that there was nothing in the universe like it,” said Patricia Churchland of the University of California, a self-described “neurophilosopher” and one of Chalmers’s most forthright critics. Churchland’s opinion of the Hard Problem, which she expresses in caustic vocal italics, is that it is nonsense, kept alive by philosophers who fear that science might be about to eliminate one of the puzzles that has kept them gainfully employed for years. Look at the precedents: in the 17th century, scholars were convinced that light couldn’t possibly be physical – that it had to be something occult, beyond the usual laws of nature. Or take life itself: early scientists were convinced that there had to be some magical spirit – the élan vital – that distinguished living beings from mere machines. But there wasn’t, of course. Light is electromagnetic radiation; life is just the label we give to certain kinds of objects that can grow and reproduce. Eventually, neuroscience will show that consciousness is just brain states. Churchland said: “The history of science really gives you perspective on how easy it is to talk ourselves into this sort of thinking – that if my big, wonderful brain can’t envisage the solution, then it must be a really, really hard problem!”

Solutions have regularly been floated: the literature is awash in references to “global workspace theory”, “ego tunnels”, “microtubules”, and speculation that quantum theory may provide a way forward. But the intractability of the arguments has caused some thinkers, such as Colin McGinn, to raise an intriguing if ultimately defeatist possibility: what if we’re just constitutionally incapable of ever solving the Hard Problem? After all, our brains evolved to help us solve down-to-earth problems of survival and reproduction; there is no particular reason to assume they should be capable of cracking every big philosophical puzzle we happen to throw at them. This stance has become known as “mysterianism” – after the 1960s Michigan rock’n’roll band ? and the Mysterians, who themselves borrowed the name from a work of Japanese sci-fi – but the essence of it is that there’s actually no mystery to why consciousness hasn’t been explained: it’s that humans aren’t up to the job. If we struggle to understand what it could possibly mean for the mind to be physical, maybe that’s because we are, to quote the American philosopher Josh Weisberg, in the position of “squirrels trying to understand quantum mechanics”. In other words: “It’s just not going to happen.”

* * *

Or maybe it is: in the last few years, several scientists and philosophers, Chalmers and Koch among them, have begun to look seriously again at a viewpoint so bizarre that it has been neglected for more than a century, except among followers of eastern spiritual traditions, or in the kookier corners of the new age. This is “panpsychism”, the dizzying notion that everything in the universe might be conscious, or at least potentially conscious, or conscious when put into certain configurations. Koch concedes that this sounds ridiculous: when he mentions panpsychism, he has written, “I often encounter blank stares of incomprehension.” But when it comes to grappling with the Hard Problem, crazy-sounding theories are an occupational hazard. Besides, panpsychism might help unravel an enigma that has attached to the study of consciousness from the start: if humans have it, and apes have it, and dogs and pigs probably have it, and maybe birds, too – well, where does it stop?

Growing up as the child of German-born Catholics, Koch had a dachshund named Purzel. According to the church, because he was a dog, that meant he didn’t have a soul. But he whined when anxious and yelped when injured – “he certainly gave every appearance of having a rich inner life”. These days we don’t much speak of souls, but it is widely assumed that many non-human brains are conscious – that a dog really does feel pain when he is hurt. The problem is that there seems to be no logical reason to draw the line at dogs, or sparrows or mice or insects, or, for that matter, trees or rocks. Since we don’t know how the brains of mammals create consciousness, we have no grounds for assuming it’s only the brains of mammals that do so – or even that consciousness requires a brain at all. Which is how Koch and Chalmers have both found themselves arguing, in the pages of the New York Review of Books, that an ordinary household thermostat or a photodiode, of the kind you might find in your smoke detector, might in principle be conscious.

The argument unfolds as follows: physicists have no problem accepting that certain fundamental aspects of reality – such as space, mass, or electrical charge – just do exist. They can’t be explained as being the result of anything else. Explanations have to stop somewhere. The panpsychist hunch is that consciousness could be like that, too – and that if it is, there is no particular reason to assume that it only occurs in certain kinds of matter.

Koch’s specific twist on this idea, developed with the neuroscientist and psychiatrist Giulio Tononi, is narrower and more precise than traditional panpsychism. It is the argument that anything at all could be conscious, providing that the information it contains is sufficiently interconnected and organised. The human brain certainly fits the bill; so do the brains of cats and dogs, though their consciousness probably doesn’t resemble ours. But in principle the same might apply to the internet, or a smartphone, or a thermostat. (The ethical implications are unsettling: might we owe the same care to conscious machines that we bestow on animals? Koch, for his part, tries to avoid stepping on insects as he walks.)

Unlike the vast majority of musings on the Hard Problem, moreover, Tononi and Koch’s “integrated information theory” has actually been tested. A team of researchers led by Tononi has designed a device that stimulates the brain with electrical voltage, to measure how interconnected and organised – how “integrated” – its neural circuits are. Sure enough, when people fall into a deep sleep, or receive an injection of anaesthetic, as they slip into unconsciousness, the device demonstrates that their brain integration declines, too. Among patients suffering “locked-in syndrome” – who are as conscious as the rest of us – levels of brain integration remain high; among patients in coma – who aren’t – it doesn’t. Gather enough of this kind of evidence, Koch argues and in theory you could take any device, measure the complexity of the information contained in it, then deduce whether or not it was conscious.

But even if one were willing to accept the perplexing claim that a smartphone could be conscious, could you ever know that it was true? Surely only the smartphone itself could ever know that? Koch shrugged. “It’s like black holes,” he said. “I’ve never been in a black hole. Personally, I have no experience of black holes. But the theory [that predicts black holes] seems always to be true, so I tend to accept it.”

It would be satisfying for multiple reasons if a theory like this were eventually to vanquish the Hard Problem. On the one hand, it wouldn’t require a belief in spooky mind-substances that reside inside brains; the laws of physics would escape largely unscathed. On the other hand, we wouldn’t need to accept the strange and soulless claim that consciousness doesn’t exist, when it’s so obvious that it does. On the contrary, panpsychism says, it’s everywhere. The universe is throbbing with it.

Last June, several of the most prominent combatants in the consciousness debates – including Chalmers, Churchland and Dennett – boarded a tall-masted yacht for a trip among the ice floes of Greenland. This conference-at-sea was funded by a Russian internet entrepreneur, Dmitry Volkov, the founder of the Moscow Centre for Consciousness Studies. About 30 academics and graduate students, plus crew, spent a week gliding through dark waters, past looming snow-topped mountains and glaciers, in a bracing chill conducive to focused thought, giving the problem of consciousness another shot. In the mornings, they visited islands to go hiking, or examine the ruins of ancient stone huts; in the afternoons, they held conference sessions on the boat. For Chalmers, the setting only sharpened the urgency of the mystery: how could you feel the Arctic wind on your face, take in the visual sweep of vivid greys and whites and greens, and still claim conscious experience was unreal, or that it was simply the result of ordinary physical stuff, behaving ordinarily?

The question was rhetorical. Dennett and Churchland were not converted; indeed, Chalmers has no particular confidence that a consensus will emerge in the next century. “Maybe there’ll be some amazing new development that leaves us all, now, looking like pre-Darwinians arguing about biology,” he said. “But it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if in 100 years, neuroscience is incredibly sophisticated, if we have a complete map of the brain – and yet some people are still saying, ‘Yes, but how does any of that give you consciousness?’ while others are saying ‘No, no, no – that just is the consciousness!’” The Greenland cruise concluded in collegial spirits, and mutual incomprehension.

It would be poetic – albeit deeply frustrating – were it ultimately to prove that the one thing the human mind is incapable of comprehending is itself. An answer must be out there somewhere. And finding it matters: indeed, one could argue that nothing else could ever matter more – since anything at all that matters, in life, only does so as a consequence of its impact on conscious brains. Yet there’s no reason to assume that our brains will be adequate vessels for the voyage towards that answer. Nor that, were we to stumble on a solution to the Hard Problem, on some distant shore where neuroscience meets philosophy, we would even recognize that we’d found it.