The Role of the Observer

posted Dec 17, 2020, 8:04 AM by Sam Avery   [ updated Dec 17, 2020, 8:06 AM ]

Dec 17, 2020

            The enigmas of quantum mechanics: tunneling, the uncertainty principle, collapse of the wave function, etc., all involve space and time dimensions and all involve the role of the observer.  The enigmas of special and general relativity also involve space, time, and mass, and the role of the observer.  The place to look for a deeper understanding of what modern physics is trying to tell us would be, therefore, in the relation between dimensions and conscious experience.  Where we have always assumed that consciousness exists inside the body, inside the brain, and therefore inside of space and time, it will be interesting to see what happens when dimensions are considered to exist within consciousness.  What happens to the enigmas of modern physics if space and time, rather than physical structures of an external universe, become physical structures of consciousness itself?

             So radical a role reversal can come only after serious challenges to the external existence of dimensions.  In the last century we saw that space, time, and mass could not be distinguished in the momentum of subatomic particles, the spatial location and momentum of subatomic particles cannot be determined at the same time, the “act of observation” causes collapse of the wave function, dilations in space, time, and mass occur between observers when they are moving at high relative velocities,[i] and the speed of light remains constant in relation to all observers, regardless of their velocity relative to each other.  It is plain that dimensions no longer constitute a rigid external structure independent of conscious experience, and it is time to consider an alternative relation between dimensions and consciousness.

            I am reminded at this point of the metaphysical challenges faced by Nicolaus Copernicus nearly 500 years ago.  The enigma of his time – retrograde motion of the planets – was simpler than our own enigmas, but the metaphysical barriers he faced were far greater.[ii]  Anyone could go outside and see with their own eyes that the Earth was at the center of the universe, and that anything a few feet above or below the Earth’s surface was beyond the scope of human concern.  Everyone knew instinctively that if the Earth were to move, all of the buildings would fall down, and that if the Earth were truly coursing through the heavens, we would have heard about it in the Bible.  The centerpiece of God’s creation could only be the center of everything.  Copernicus had to confront all of this metaphysical certainty when he lifted the Earth up into the sky with the other planets, up where dwelt only God and the angels, moving through the heavens where mere humans had no right to be.  He had to consider this enormous metaphysical expense for the mere benefit of a better explanation for planetary motion.  The entire universe was turned on its head for the sake of a few tiny points of light in the night sky.  The heliocentric theory plunged the learned world into a metaphysical tailspin for over a century, but was so convincing ultimately that, once it broke through the hardened barriers of the medieval mind, it brought the modern mind into a much larger understanding of who we are and where we are.[iii]  

            But before we jump back into the metaphysical wilderness for the sake of quantum physics and relativity theory, there is another enigma to mention, a macroscopic enigma that is common experience to everyone – inertial mass.  Inertial mass is so familiar a part of our everyday lives that we no longer ask to have it explained.  It’s just there.  For some reason (physical science has never explained how) massive objects resist acceleration.  They take their time going from zero to sixty miles per hour, or from sixty to a hundred.  They resist stopping or slowing; they resist turning right or left or up or down.  They drag their feet whenever there is a change in the direction or magnitude of velocity.  This would not be surprising if points in space were fixed and absolute.  But they are not; points in space are only relative to other points in space.  Since the ether experiments of Michelson and Morley[iv] in the late 1800s, we have known that there is no absolute space and that velocity of objects (uniform motion through space) is only relative to other objects.  But non-uniform motion (acceleration) is not relative; it’s absolute.  Space impedes the motion of physical objects under acceleration (meters per second per second) but not velocity (meters per second).  Massive objects seem to extend their claws into space when it comes to changing velocity but have no attachment to space when moving uniformly.  What sort of space are they digging into?  How can empty space be relative for uniform motion and absolute for non-uniform motion, and how can it tell the difference?  And it gets worse.  We cannot feel velocity, but we do feel acceleration.  You can be in a train or a airplane or a space ship traveling uniformly at a million miles per hour and feel like you are standing still.  But as soon as you speed up, slow down, turn or go over a bump – even slightly – you feel acceleration throughout your body.  You do not feel meters per second; but do you feel meters per second per second.  You feel the additional per second.  Physics has never explained this.

            The enigma of inertial mass is a clue to what I will say next as we take the plunge into metaphysics.  But before we jump, I feel a need to say that, though I will pass through what science would consider “subjective” territory, I will not stray into any aspect of consciousness that is not experienced by everyone on a regular basis.  I will speak of the qualia of direct perception (the actual, in front of your face experience of seeing, feeling, etc.), but only of what you, or I, or anyone else can experience for themselves at any time: no loose opinions, no dogma, no conspiracy theories.  I have done this already in speaking of the acceleration that you or I feel.  Such sensations are construed as subjective because they are difficult or impossible to measure objectively.  Their presence cannot be proven or disproven by the scientific method, even though there is general consensus that these sensations are experienced universally.  I will keep to this sort of “subjective” in what follows.  As far as metaphysics as a whole is concerned, I will challenge the assumption of a space-time universe external to consciousness, but will not challenge the concept of a physical universe subject to scientific analysis within a dimensionally structured consciousness.   

            Once we take the leap and are surrounded on all sides by the wilderness of metaphysical speculation, we find that anything goes.  We can think anything and question anything at all.  Why does the physical world seem to be external to consciousness?  Why do scientists think they need the concept of matter to do science? And, why does consciousness appear to be inside of observers?  The wilderness is not a good place for answers, but a wonderful place for questions.  Copernicus must have spent some time here, questioning the obvious.  It will be the quality of the questions we consider here that will determine their viability upon re-emergence into everyday life.

            Two considerations I have brought home from the wilderness are:


1:  mass as a dimension

2:  space, time, and mass dimensions as channels of sensory information


            Let us see if they survive the transit to the physical world.

            Mass, as we have already seen, is an enigma even in everyday life.  We think of it as a measure of “material substance,” but it may work better as a dimension, along with space and time.  We measure mass in terms of force (kg – m/sec2) or acceleration (m/sec2), both of which show an additional time value.  Mass is already expressed mathematically the same way time is expressed.  It works as a dimension mathematically, though it remains difficult to see at “right angles” to space-time.  Mass is difficult to feel ourselves in, the way we think of ourselves in space and time.  Inertial mass manifests not as an orthogonal space dimension, but as a second time dimension foreshortened in the first.  Acceleration appears wedged into the first time dimension the way the third space dimension is foreshortened into the first two space dimensions on a two-dimensional surface, such as a photograph.  In the General Theory of Relativity, space-time as a whole is curved in the vicinity of gravitational mass.  But into what is it “curved?”  A two-dimensional surface (such as that of the Earth) can be curved, but this implies the existence of an additional dimension into which the curvature takes place.  As far as feeling “in” mass is concerned, we feel the second time dimension whenever accelerated to another magnitude or direction of velocity.[v]  The “g” force is always proportional to the additional “per second” of non-uniform motion.

            It may seem unusual to bring something as unlikely as a mass dimension home from the wilderness: I justify it only to the extent that it helps explain the enigmas of modern physics.  If mass is a dimension along with three space and one time dimension, we have five physical dimensions, one of them foreshortened in four-dimensional space-time.  We also have five sensory realms of consciousness, one of which is clearly identified with the tactile realm, or the body.  Do the other four sensory realms also correspond with dimensions?  This consideration – the identity of dimensions and realms of perceptual consciousness – is more metaphysically disturbing than mass as a dimension; we will have to see if it proves viable on both the macroscopic and quantum levels of experience, thereby exceeding the more common sense view of dimensions as external to consciousness.

            Information is an actual within a potential.  It is something known or experienced that could be something else: a yes that could be a no, a dot that could be a dash, or an order of alphabetic letters that could be some other order.  The potential brings meaning to the actual; we have to know the two possibilities of a yes or a no, a dot or a dash, or the 26 possibilities of the alphabet before the meaning of an actual arrangement emerges from the wire or from the page.  Sensory information is no exception.  An information potential most suitable for a living organism would be one infinite in range, with more important actuals displayed more prominently, overlapping smaller, less important actuals – something like a dimension.  Actual information would remain distinct in each perceptual realm, but the potentials would be inter-coordinated into a single space-time-mass universe.  

            On the macroscopic level, a physical object actually perceived at any location in space-time would be potentially perceived at the same location in every other realm.  What an object looks like or smells like has nothing to do with what it actually sounds or feels like, but where and when it is seen or smelled is where and when it is potentially heard or touched.  It is this inter-coordination of potentials that creates a sense of independent existence of the object.  As I look out across the room I know that I can touch the things I see right where I see them, as if they are waiting for me in space-time.  If I close my eyes or leave the room, I can come back and they remain potentially perceivable, as if they are there whether or not I am looking.   

            Space-time-mass forms a four-dimensional plus one “screen,” analogous to the pixel screen of a television or computer, encompassing the five realms of perceptual consciousness.  On the macroscopic level, the screen appears perfectly smooth and continuous; space, time, and mass appear infinitely divisible.  But on the quantum level the pixels begin to show.  Individual bits of information poke through the larger patterns of which they are a part.  The dimensional structure of space-time-mass unravels on the quantum level due to the tactile reduction of photons.  

            Photons in their aggregate, wave state constitute visual consciousness on the macroscopic level, but they are also minute tactile sensations in their particle state on the quantum level.  A visual object is a macroscopic pattern of photons arranged in space-time.  The pattern is seen, while the momentum of each photon is felt.  As the size of the pattern becomes smaller and smaller, approaching the size of individual photons, the pattern appears quantized, or “grainy.”  The pattern cannot be smaller than the quanta of which it consists; a subatomic particle is so small it no longer fits in space.  As the particle nature of light emerges, the momentum, or “touch” of individual photons replaces the “vision” of aggregate photons.  It is precisely at this point – where visual consciousness merges into tactile, that space, time, and mass dimensions merge into one another.  There are no separate realms of perception at this level and no separate dimensions.  Subatomic particles seem to “tunnel” through the space between one observed location and another because the space-time-mass context in which they are observed breaks down on the quantum level.

            Biological structure is another way to understand the structure of perceptual consciousness and the enigmas of quantum mechanics.  As multicellular organisms are composites of cells, so multicellular perception is a composite of cellular perception.  We experience what our cells experience.  Or, more precisely, what we experience on the multicellular level is reducible to cellular experience. “Packets” of information are received from individual cells and arranged into composite patterns in space-time that the organism as a whole perceives.  Visual, auditory, and olfactory information, in particular, consist of individual cellular experiences arranged into dimensional patterns that the cells themselves are incapable of experiencing.  We see, hear, and smell; our cells do not.  (Cells experience the chemical and tactile realms.)  Seeing, for instance, is “nothing but” an arrangement of the tactile experience of retinal cells, but the dimensional order of the arrangement creates a level of perceptual consciousness over and above that of individual cells.  Visual objects are the macroscopic, multicellular experience of the retina as a whole, as assembled and interpreted by the central nervous system.  On the quantum level, the dimensional structure of multicellular perception is deconstructed into unicellular perception.

            Space dimensions are built from time: one second of time is “c” meters of space.  “C” is expressed in terms of meters per second, as are velocities, but “c” is the structural relation of space to time and not a velocity as such.  Light does not exist in or travel through space.  Light is visual consciousness; space-time is in it.  Physicists have spent centuries trying to find light “in” space and time, but it is not there.

            This brings us to a final question: if the physical world is in consciousness as I am suggesting, whose consciousness is it in?  Yours?  Mine?  Somebody else’s?  How do we ensure the objective quality of scientific investigation if it cannot escape the subjectivity of somebody’s consciousness?  It seems we may not have emerged entirely from the metaphysical wilderness.  Or have we?

            If consciousness is the same as self, the world must be me (or you or whoever else claims to be conscious).  This view holds a certain logic in the depths of the wilderness, but is far too complicated a notion to survive in the physical world.  In the Western tradition we assume that consciousness is contained by the body and that each observer “has” its own separate consciousness, while other traditions are more thoroughly versed in this problem.  Rather than exploring the problem further here, suffice it to say that self is not the same as consciousness.  The more relevant problem for the discussion at hand is the difference between individual and collective consciousness.  The scientific tradition and the Western tradition as a whole would suggest that collective consciousness is reducible to individual – that it is no more than the sum of individual consciousnesses.  But there is a more nuanced way to resolve the problem that preserves the objective integrity of science and is consistent with other considerations I have proposed here: observation is an additional realm of consciousness.

            Perception is five sensory realms structured in five physical dimensions.  Observation is an additional realm of consciousness in relation to the whole of perceptual consciousness and defined as potential perception.  To be observational, a phenomenon must be perceivable to any observer under the same conditions.  (This is the essence of the scientific method.)  But it need not be perceived.  Most of what we know from observers we do not perceived directly – we do not see for ourselves that there are craters on Mars and forty-six chromosomes in a human cell – but we know that we would see them if we looked where the observers who reported them looked.  That is what is meant by potential perception.  We are observationally conscious through information reduced to the perceptual realms – through seeing and hearing – but we do not see or hear the objects of observation; we experience them not in the perceptual realms but in a separate realm of consciousness potentially experienced by all observers.  It is the order inherent in the information – in the sounds of language, the letters of the alphabet, etc. – that creates observational from perceptual experience. The observational world we know reaches far beyond that of direct perception and continues to grow as more discoveries are made in science.  The potential for observational information is entropy – the entropy of the universe as a whole, the “arrow of time.”  Actual observational information is order against the background of universal entropy.  This order is displayed only by living observers, and serves as a physical definition of life.

            But is there a dimension that serves as the potential for observational information? Calling entropy a dimension takes us further yet from the familiarity of space and time, but foreshortened in space-time (in addition to mass) is a potential for order against the background of universal entropy – non-uniform acceleration.  Uniform velocity is expressed in meters per second, and non-uniform velocity (acceleration) in meters per second per second.  Non-uniform acceleration is the additional dimension-like potential for observation.  (Though it is quantifiable only in terms of probability.)  This is the arrow of time to which all physical objects in the universe are subject.  The behavior of living organisms, or observers, in the form of language, work, or communication, is orderly non-uniform acceleration.  Only observers create localized order in the ever-increasing entropy of the universe.

            Collective consciousness is not an arithmetical sum of individual consciousnesses; it is a separate realm created by observational information, that is, information from observers that is perceivable by any and all observers.  Science is the systematic construction of this realm of consciousness.  Science does not reveal an independent physical world waiting to be observed; instead it establishes, through the scientific method, criteria for determining what is potentially perceived by all observers and what is not. 

            When Copernicus looked up at the sky at night, he saw the same planets we see today and that the Babylonians saw thousands of years before.  The difference was where he saw them from.  When we look around the room today, we see the same tables and chairs we saw yesterday and will see tomorrow.  The difference is the world we see them in.





[i] Observers do not experience dimensional dilations within their own reference frames; they see them in the reference frames of other observers.  Space contracts, time slows, and mass increases when observers look at the meter sticks, clocks, and scales moving that pass them at high velocities.

[ii] I am indebted in this discussion to Thomas S. Kuhn, especially in his well-known book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1996.

[iii] Though generally accepted by 1700, the Heliocentric Theory remained unproven for many astronomers for nearly 300 years after Copernicus.  The positions of nearby stars were not seen to shift in relation to more distant stars when viewed from different positions in the Earth’s orbit around the sun.  This stellar parallax was finally proven in 1838 with the help of a telescope by detecting a slight shift in the position of a nearby star in relation to a more distant star after a six-month change in the Earth’s orbit. 

[iv] As ocean waves and sound waves require a medium such as water or air in which to be propagated, it was assumed in the late 1800s that there must be a medium for the propagation of light waves: the ether.  Such a medium would establish a basis for absolute space.  Michelson and Morley ran a series of experiments attempting to measure the Earth’s motion relative to the ether by comparing the speed of light in the direction of the Earth’s motion around the sun and at right angles to that direction.  No ether was ever detected, and the concept of absolute space thereby abandoned, setting up ground work for Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.

[v] Interestingly, it is through acceleration that dilations in space, time, and mass begin to appear in an observer’s reference frame.  If two observers are traveling uniformly, for instance, each reports time slowing in the other’s reference frame and not in his own.  Neither is shown to be “right” in any absolute sense until the first observer decelerates (a form of acceleration) to the reference frame of the second observer, and they compare notes.  Time will have passed more slowly for the first observer, because it was he that experienced the absolute motion of deceleration.  We might say that his space-time axes were temporarily “tilted into” the mass dimension.

The Size of the World

posted May 27, 2020, 7:56 AM by Sam Avery


Presentation: November 16, 2017

Elizabethtown Community and Technical College.



            As scientific knowledge presents an expanding universe of human interaction with nature, America retreats to a shrinking world of national prejudice and economic materialism.  When will we begin to live in the larger world?  Why does compassion and active concern for natural systems among some people produce its opposite among others?

            Sam Avery is a professional solar installer, author, and former history instructor at Elizabethtown Community College.




The Size of the World



            Why are some people passionately concerned about global heating and others adamantly committed to ignoring it?  Why, as we approach the tipping point of irreversible climate damage, do we continue to extract, refine, and consume the carbon fuels that are causing the problem?  Why do some think that more coal, more petroleum, and more natural gas is moving backward, while others see it as moving forward?


            The answer lies in the size of the world we live in.  The familiar world we have always known – the world of cars and shopping centers, electric lights and central heating, gas stations and monthly utility bills – the world we live in, is not big enough for climate change.  It is not big enough to accommodate higher temperatures, stronger storms, drier droughts, and melting ice caps.  Nothing like this has ever happened before.  It does not fit anywhere in our understanding of who we are and what we do.  There is a vague sense that the new climate threatens our way of life, but we don’t know how, or why, or what can be done.  There are no traditions or accumulated wisdom to fall back on.  For many, because climate change does not fit into the world, it cannot be real.  It cannot exist because there is no place for it to exist. 


            By the world I do not mean the physical universe of space, time, and matter.  I do not mean objective reality.  I mean the psychic-spiritual world in which we see ourselves participating in everyday life, the world we wake up to every morning and step into when we go out the door.  I mean the everyday world of friends and family, where we do things, think things, and talk about things, the world in which we imagine a future pretty much like the present.  This is the world that is too small for climate change.  It is a world divided by geography, ethnicity, language, and religion, a world where compassion, concern, loyalty, and effective action ends at the national boundary.  But it is not the whole world; there are people out there beyond the borders, people who do not look like us.  Being human in this divided world is not as important as being a type of human.  Nationality comes before humanity.  This world is too small.  It is not wrong; it is not bad; it is only too small for what is coming our way.


            But there is a hole in this world – a small opening in the sky through which you can see a much larger world.  The hole is a simple fact, a number that is growing larger over the years.  It’s a number that can be measured objectively anytime, anywhere, a number that changes everything about being human in the twenty-first century.  It is a fact that is not an opinion.  The number – the hole in the sky – is 403: 403 parts per million carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere.  Of every million molecules in the atmosphere right now, 403 of them are carbon dioxide, or CO2.  That’s less than one half of one percent of the total mix, but it’s huge.  It’s huge because it is much bigger than it used to be and it is getting bigger every year.  The number was 280 parts per million before people started burning fossil fuels.  403 is a 44% increase.  44% more carbon!!!   That’s not a marginal increase.  That’s not 2% or 5%, it’s nearly half again as much!  And the number goes up about 2 ppm every year.  (You can keep track of it at CO2.Earth on the internet.)  The number varies from season to season due to photosynthesis.  Right now, after a summer of plants absorbing CO2, the number is actually lower than it was last spring, when it was about 410.  This coming spring it will go back over 410 to around 412.  CO2 is different from other pollutants because it’s not just in dirty air around smoke stacks and urban areas; it’s evenly spread throughout the entire planetary system.  We have changed the chemistry of the whole biosphere.  Every cubic inch of the Earth’s atmosphere has more carbon than it used to, and that what is changing how the planetary system works.  That additional carbon dioxide absorbs more energy from the sun, heats the atmosphere, and changes global weather patterns. 


            Have you noticed any changes in weather patterns recently?


            Global heating is a fact, a scientific fact.  Not everybody believes it; but the good thing about science is that you don’t have to believe it, and it’s still true!


             This little hole in the world – this little 403 ppm - is not a big yet.  Not many people even know about it.  But it’s big enough to let the air out of the world we think we are in.  This number is the first truly global problem humanity has ever faced.  If we ignore it, there will be more storms, floods, and droughts, more infrastructure destruction, less agricultural production with more population, and the real possibility of mass extinction.    If you take the time to look through this little hole, what you will see is a whole new world of living relationship with every other human being on Earth.  Not just your friends, your family, your country, but with everyone in the world.  You see not see independence; you will see interdependence.  You will see that you depend on all people, and they depend on you.  You see a humanity that, for the first time ever, has to act as a whole.  We cannot deal with climate chaos as separate individuals or separate nations.  Carbon dioxide molecules do not care who emits them or what country they come from.  They do not care if you, as an individual, have cut back of fossil fuels, or waste them recklessly; if your nation has passed laws reducing emissions, or continues to extract and burn them.  No matter who you are, you and your people are in the same boat with everyone else.  Each CO2 molecule mixes into the extent of the atmosphere and stays there for hundreds of years.  Each country cannot protect “its own” atmosphere; people as a whole have to care for the Earth as a whole.  This is a totally new angle, and an existential crisis.  Civilization will live or die by how it responds.  Climate is not just another issue in the world; it is an issue that changes the world itself.    


            This does not mean you have to believe in climate change.  It does not mean you have to be in favor of it or against it.  That’s the wrong question.  You don’t have to want to see the familiar world change.  I, for one, would as soon keep things pretty much as they are.  But it doesn’t matter what I want or what I think.  The physical properties of the Earth’s atmosphere do not respond to human preference.  Thermometers measure temperature, not opinion poles.  The best we can do is to look at the world the way it is and make the best of it. 


            The best of it, if we are lucky – and smart – may not be so bad.  The transition will be painful, but the new, larger world may be better than we think.  Looking closely through the hole in the sky you may see a world where humanity has the scientific knowledge, the practical vision, and the political tools to act as a whole.  There may be fair, equitable, and coordinated ways for all people to reduce or eliminate carbon fuels for the good of all people everywhere.  In fact, there has to be exactly that.  Global heating is a unified threat to the health, the physical infrastructure, and the food supply of human civilization everywhere.  It is happening throughout all parts of the planet.  The transition to renewable energy will hurt at first, but may, in the long run, become the unification that makes human life possible in the global age.  A unified approach to global heating may bring about transcendence of international division on other issues.


            The political crisis of 2017 is a struggle between two worlds: the old, comfortable, familiar world we are used to, and the new, unfamiliar world that seems to be forcing itself on us.  Which do we choose?  Do we stick with what we know and fight the oncoming tide, or cave in to the inevitable?


            That, I think, is a bad question, the wrong question.  We should not choose one world or the other.  We should not defend one against the other.  We should concentrate on what we actually see going all around us and not on attacking people on “the other side.”


            Let’s take a closer look at the world we live in now, here in America.  Its values, generally speaking, are individual initiative, family, church, self-reliance, fiscal responsibility, limited government, and private enterprise.  It rewards bravery, hard work, honesty, patriotism, and personal freedom.  (I’m rounding off some corners here.) These are not conservative values, they are core American values; they date back to the founding of this country on a new continent.  These are the values that have gotten us where we are today.  They have made America the most powerful society on earth.  They have made America great.  But they did not start out conservative.  They became conservative only as America entered a new world of global trade, international terrorism, space travel, intercontinental weaponry, and global climate chaos.  Americans are no longer rugged individuals, carving a living out of the wilderness.  The forests are no longer unlimited; we see where they begin and end.  The atmosphere is no longer infinite; we know it is but a thin layer over the land.  The oceans are no longer endless over the horizon; they are only so deep and so wide.  We all live and breathe within a planetary enclosure; despoiling any part of it can no longer be an individual freedom.  You can no longer treat the natural world any way you want.  Where American society came of age in a world of boundless horizons and unlimited resources, it finds itself now in a closed biospheric system that demands conscious attention to resource use and waste production.  The frontier is gone.  There is no out.  Waste products, chemicals, spent uranium, or carbon dioxide can no longer be thrown out; they can only be thrown in.  We live in what we produce, in what we consume, and in what we waste.  A healthy, vibrate society still depends on personal initiative, individual responsibility, and free enterprise, but it depends also on a healthy, vibrant biosphere.  Human life is a form of life, and must exist within the limits of life itself.  


            Yes, there is conflict here.  There is a difference between the world of rugged individualism and the world of diversity, ecology, tolerance, and international cooperation.  But to choose between them is a mistake.  The situation is far too complex to declare allegiance to one side and deny the other, yet that is what we seem to be doing.  We seem to be more interested in finding fault with the other side than in looking at the world the way it really is.  It is natural to divide down the middle and declare one side good and the other bad: natural, but not smart, not sophisticated.  We have to be smarter than that.  We have to accept complexity.  As one world passes into another, we have to accept a conflict of values.  


            Here’s why: We have to accept complexity because that is how the world works.  People aren’t bad or good.  Carbon isn’t bad or good.  I found this out the hard way.  A few years back, while researching a book on the Keystone XL pipeline, I interviewed a farmer in rural Nebraska.  He had heard about tree huggers like me getting all excited about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 


            “Look over there,” he said, pointing over endless rows of dark green leaves waving in the wind.  “What do you see?”

            “Corn.”  I replied.

            “And what’s making it grow?  Carbon!  Carbon is fertilizer, not a pollution!”    


            He was right, of course.  Life on Earth, or anywhere else, would be impossible without carbon.  Carbon is really good stuff.  I tried to say something about balance, about too much and not enough, but he was on to something else by then.  He had scored his point. 


            The other reason to avoid the good–bad simplicity is to avoid political manipulation.  In a democracy, if voters think there are only good guys and bad guys, they make themselves easy to convince and easy to buy. Money in political campaigns is most effective when tearing the other guy down.  Painting your own candidate as good, intelligent, honest, and competent takes too long.  Complex scenarios can be boiled down to single issues. If you have only thirty seconds, it’s easier to scare voters with nasty “facts” about how bad, stupid, corrupt, and incompetent the other guy is.  Complexity has no place on bumper stickers and paid political advertisements.  But complexity is how the real world works.  Vision, wisdom, and practical knowhow – the qualities we need in leadership – are based in a multidimensional understanding of what is real.  If democracy is going to work in the world we are moving into, voters have to see more than good and bad.


            Let me be more specific.  Looking through the hole in the sky – looking at 403 ppm  becoming 450. 500, and 600 – it is natural to look for someone to blame.  Who is doing this?  Who is the bad guy?  Who is destroying the atmosphere that all life depends on?  Of course!  It’s the oil companies!  The coal companies!  The frackers!  They’re making billions of dollars selling the fossil fuels that are causing all the damage!  This is the “natural” reaction.  But it is not the smart reaction.  If we look past our own noses, it is plain to see that fossil fuel companies only sell what we buy.  They would not drill wells, lay pipelines, and blow up mountains if we didn’t buy petroleum, natural gas, and coal.  If we didn’t burn carbon in cars and furnaces and factories, there would be no excess carbon in the air.  The oil companies are doing exactly what our dollars are telling them to do.  These are not bad people!


            We can’t even blame the fuels.  Fossil fuels are wonderful!  They’re compact, they’re portable, and they provide highly concentrated energy for every human need.  Coal, oil, and natural gas provide us with transportation, heating, cooling, lighting, entertainment, communications, fertilizer, and refrigeration.  Without them we would be immobile, cold, hot, dark, dull, out of touch, and hungry.  They are the very lifeblood of modern civilization.  We depend on them absolutely.  We should not blame them for the carbon they produce, or blame ourselves for using them.  We should not think of them as bad.  It is much smarter – more sophisticated – to think of them as transitory.  They have not been around for long, and will not be around much longer.  They have brought us from the horse-and-buggy days to the wonders of modern living.  What we have to realize now is that they will bring us no further.  It may be human nature to blame fossil fuels for climate destruction, but it serves no human purpose.  We should forget the blame game, thank fossil fuels for the ride, excuse ourselves politely, and move on.


            Moving on – that’s what we should be using our smarts for.  Instead of blaming other people, inanimate products, and ourselves for addiction to carbon fuels, we should be figuring out how to get off them.  How are we going to do that?  If we are dependent on carbon fuels for everything from getting to work, to keeping warm, to eating food, how are we going to live without them?  Even if there were no climate problem, we would still have to stop using fossil fuels because they are finite.  There is only so much in the ground.  We will run out eventually and the fossil fuel age will end no matter what we do.  This means, in no uncertain terms, that the future of humanity depends entirely on renewable energy:  solar, wind, geothermal, cellulosic biofuels, and anything else we may discover along the way.  These sources are miniscule in their importance now, but the human future depends on them absolutely.


            I used to think, along with many others, that the way to break the fossil fuels habit would be to run out of them; to use them up.  There’s only so much coal and oil and gas in the ground.  As the supply goes down; the price goes up, and as the price goes up; renewables become more competitive in the marketplace.  The transition would happen, I thought, through natural market forces.  We won’t have to change how we live; we’ll just pay a little more at the pump.  I wish that were true.  I wish we could just let the market lead us away from the damage we are causing to the atmosphere.  But it’s not going to happen that way because there is way too much fossil fuel available – five times too much!  If we burn just a fifth of all the fossil fuel in proven reserves around the world, we would raise global temperatures 2 degrees centigrade (3.6 Fahrenheit), which everyone agrees would be too much.  And there’s probably a lot more fuel out there that we have not discovered.  If we let the marketplace run its course, oversupply will keep the price of fossil fuel cheap, and we will keep buying it for a long time – way past the time when sea levels rise, world agricultural production declines, and large-scale extinctions begin.  We cannot let the market destroy the living world in the name of free enterprise.  We have to stop using fossil fuel consciously and deliberately.  This is a survival test – we have to know what is happening and do what we have to do as if our lives depended on it.  We will adapt to new realities or we will fail to adapt.  Humanity has to watch that little hole in the sky as it grows bigger and develop a coordinated worldwide response to the crisis.  We have never done anything like this before, but we can do it.  If we fail, we do not deserve our place as the dominant species on this planet.   


            That’s my thinking on the subject.  I might be wrong, I might be overlooking something, and there are a hundred other ways to construe the same information.  But I think that 403 is a hole in the world we live in today.  It’s not so bad yet – it’s still a small hole – but it’s getting bigger all the time.  You can watch it grow, every day – every year.  When it gets up to around 450 in a few years, it will open up the sky.  Everyone will see it.  What I present to you now in a college classroom will be common knowledge everywhere.  We will be looking at an entirely new world that will change who we think we are and what we think we are doing here. There will be new ways to heat houses, to keep the lights on, to keep cool in the summer, to have computers and telephones, to drive cars, and to have food.  How will we do it?  Questions that seem political and economic today will become spiritual questions tomorrow:


“What is really important?” 

“Is economic growth what human life is about?”

“Is there a world bigger than America?”

“Do we need guiding principles bigger than politics and economics?”

“Can religion point toward the present and future as well as the past?”

“Can we love other forms of life as we love ourselves?”


            We should ask these questions, but I do not think we should answer them too quickly.  The world, after all, the new world we are moving into, grows larger with questions, not answers.  That is what a world should be: a place to wonder, to look, to study, to ask: 


“As carbon levels rise, what will happen to plants, to animals, to people?”

“Where will food production increase?  Where decrease?  What will be the overall affect?”

“What will rising ocean temperatures do to marine life?”

“What will rising sea levels do to coastal cities?”

“What other forms of economic growth might there be, besides more money and more stuff?”


            These are interesting questions that make the world interesting.  They invite us to learn more about other forms of life, about complex natural systems, and about our own history and development.  They challenge us to overcome assumptions about what we need to survive, to be happy, and to live well.


            The world we see around us now is not the culmination of human history.  This is a transitional period.  This is not all there is.  The only way to deal with climate change successfully is to approach it from a global and not a national perspective.  This is new. This is the first truly global crisis; we have to see as it is and act as a world.  I do not mean this in an idealistic sense.  I do not mean that we will all live in peace and harmony or that we should deny ongoing international tensions and conflict; but I do mean that we have to resolve international conflicts peaceably.  This, interestingly, is not new.  We know how to resolve conflicts peaceably within nations – it’s called law.  We need only develop the same practice between nations.  This will come to pass as the size of the world expands to include all people everywhere.


            This new reality is unsettling to many.  But I do not fear the future.  If we approach climate change successfully, we will develop the tools we need to approach other global problems successfully.   Every major problem confronting humanity is global and not national: environment, trade, economic development, disease, disaster relief, population, and war.  All must be faced as a world, a united world, a real world, a practical world with real solutions to real problems, a world unafraid to create itself.  The new world will be one of balance, collective self-awareness, and creation care.  We see it even now, through that little hole in the sky, and begin to envision ourselves living there.


            But why the opposition?  Why are so many people turning the other way?  Why, in the last year, do we see within our own country massive new fossil fuel development: pipelines, coal terminals, coalmines, tar sands, and fracking wells?  Why are newly appointed government officials climate deniers, gas developers, and former oil company executives?  Why are public lands and national monuments opening up to oil and gas development?  Why did the US government just sign an agreement with China to build $73 billion worth for chemical and fossil fuel infrastructure in West Virginia?  Why is the new world such a threat to the old?


            Government policy in the current year, both federal and state, is not just business as usual.  It is an in-your-face denial of the future.  It is a deliberate rolling back of recent policies based on a growing awareness of climate disaster.  That gives me hope.  Hope, because what we are seeing is reaction.  It is pushing back against what is happening, which is a tacit recognition that it is, in fact, happening.  Denial is a form of recognition.   What we see happening around us this year is undoing what has been done, which means that something very real and recognizable has been done.  Policy so distinctly anti-climate and anti-environment is a clear admission that people are paying more attention to climate and environment.  This new awareness among some is a threat to the established order.  Any limitation on carbon emission is seen as a threat to unlimited economic growth; any worldwide policy is perceived as a threat to nationalism; and any threat to corporate freedom is construed as a threat to personal freedom.  (Corporations, in this country, are still understood to be persons.)  From the standpoint of the old world, the new world must be stopped, and stopped now, before it goes any further.  This gives me hope, because there is no other way for the new world to emerge from the old.  There has to be a reaction, there has to be denial, there has to be thesis and antithesis – the yin and the yang – and that is what we are seeing.  We are seeing the complexity that means something is happening.  We are seeing the birth of the new world.


            People don’t change worlds easily, and they shouldn’t.  The old values of individual responsibility and self-reliance should be treasured and perpetuated into the future.  They are no longer the whole world, but there is room for them in the new world.  The larger world we see through the hole in the sky is one in which every human being, however industrious, self-motivated, and enterprising, will live interdependently with every other human being, and with the living world as a whole.  There will be a place for self-reliance, a place for the old world within the new, but we will never again be rugged individuals carving a living from the wilderness. 


            America is great, and will be great in the future, but America will not go backward.  America will never be great again, in the old sense of the word. 

Driving on Sunshine

posted Aug 1, 2014, 7:10 AM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:54 PM by Lauren Avery ]

July 31, 2014

 Driving on Sunshine

The pieces finally came together: I bought a plug-in hybrid car (Chevy Volt) and installed a new set of solar panels on the garage roof.

I’m driving on sunshine!

         The Volt looks and drives like any other car, just quieter, and it costs about what a new car ought to cost.  With a full charge, the first 40 to 45 miles are all electric.  After that, a gasoline engine kicks in and I get about 39 miles per gallon.  If I lived in town I would probably use no gas at all.

          The car is great – I love it – but it’s not the final answer.  For any kind of road trip it turns into the same old fossil dinosaur we’re trying to get away from.  The range just isn’t enough, and I still end up burning gas.  But I think we’ve turned a corner.  The hybrid technology will get better – batteries will improve and range will get up over the hundred-mile mark, maybe way over.  More charging stations will show up and charging times will diminish.  It will take a while for the infrastructure to come into place, and a while before we can get away from the gasoline backup, but this is a technology that we can trust.  It works.  I can go anywhere in this car.

           We’ve turned a corner with this technology because not only can we trust it, we can afford it.  Electric motors are much cheaper to operate and maintain than gasoline engines.  Only five moving parts: the drive shaft and four wheels.  No belts, carburetors, valves, pistons, pumps, distributors, or spark plugs.  No transmission.  Even the gas engine of a plug-in hybrid is simpler: all it does is charge the battery.  It’s not connected to the drive train so it doesn’t have to operate at a wide range of rpms like a conventional automobile engine.  It just kicks in – seamlessly – when the car is already moving.  Because electric motors are so much more efficient, the cost of the electricity itself is much cheaper than gas, even without solar.  If I charge up at a friend’s house, a full “tank” of electricity costs a little over a dollar – that’s less than 3 cents a mile!  You’re probably paying five times that much for gas. 

            That’s the part that scares me.  The electric car is going to happen because it’s cheaper.  Market forces will steer us in this direction.  But the plug-in car is only half the way toward driving on sunshine.  If we go electric without going solar we will end up burning less gasoline but more coal and natural gas to make the electricity.  That would be a little better because the efficiency factor would still be there – we would need less coal and natural gas to get the same mileage – but we would still be burning fossil fuel to run our cars.  We would still be in the hole we’re trying to get out of, only digging it deeper at a slightly lower rate. That’s not good enough.  To survive the climate crisis we are will have to make changes that do not save us money.  We will have to choose life whether or not it is cheaper than the alternative.

 We will have to choose solar no matter how expensive it is. If we have to pour billions into research and development for cheaper, more efficient, and more universally applicable systems of collecting and storing solar energy, we will do it.  If it costs the hundreds of billions of dollars that we are now investing, as a society, in fossil fuel infrastructure, we will do it.  If we have to put solar collectors in low-Earth orbit, we will do that, too.  If civilization continues to use energy beyond muscle power we will have to go solar in a big way – a really big way.  There are other sources of renewable energy, but the big one is the sun.

We will have to go solar no matter what, but it will turn out to be easier than we thought.  There’s going to be a convergence of survival and economic interests.  The new solar panels I put on my garage roof cost about a fifth as much as the ones I put on my house seven years ago.  The inverter is a little cheaper, too.  It harvests more energy than the old one and has an emergency power outlet that I can switch on in a black out.  (Until this year, grid-tied inverters would automatically shut off when the grid went down.)  Solar technology is becoming better and less expensive even as it becomes more essential to human civilization.  It may be cheaper, after all, to choose life. That part doesn’t scare me a bit.

I’m only getting the first 40 miles or so on sunshine, and I don’t yet see many charging stations at the stores and restaurants I go to, but I think we’re over the hump.  I think it’s going to happen.  Soon we will all be driving cars without any carbon fuel at all.  It’s going to boom.  We can do this thing.


What is the Connection Between Consciousness and Activism?

posted Jun 20, 2014, 7:19 AM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:55 PM by Lauren Avery ]

June 20, 2014

Samuel Avery



Consciousness and Activism



            What is the connection between consciousness and activism?


            I am an activist.   I speak out.  I take to the streets.  I am content in my personal life, am not oppressed, and have no gripe against society, but I believe humanity is a danger to itself and to others.  In community with others I demonstrate to create awareness of the situation we are all in.  The objective is less to change what we are looking at than where we are looking from – to change consciousness of ourselves in relation to the world.


Population, war, climate, pollution, disease – each is enough.  Two or more in combination is more than enough to bring us to an end, and to bring other forms of life with us.  Each is global in scope.  Each involves humanity as a whole, yet there is no body to speak or act for humanity as a whole.  There is no doer of what must be done. 


Humanity is not going in the wrong direction; it is going in all directions at once.  It has no sense of wholeness, no self-identity.  Flags and idols divide it into pieces larger than the whole.  People do not understand themselves as a form of life in relation to the atmosphere, the oceans, the forests, or the Earth.  There is no concept of what to do because there is no concept of who we are.  If there were a clear path before us, we would take it.  We would summon our courage and meet the challenge.  But there is no path, and we are all walking in cross directions.  We are distressed not for having too much to do, but for seeing nowhere to go.  We are helpless. 


But helplessness cannot be accepted, no matter how real it may be.  The future is never a simple extrapolation of the present, and consciousness does not confine itself to physical reality.  The human future, because it is human, will proceed from imagination beyond the limits of current conditions.  We will create consciousness that does not now exist and become what we cannot now foresee.


            That is what public demonstrations should do.  They should not tell people what to think – they should make people look at what is there.  “You!  You, walking by on your way somewhere else – you, who have something else on your mind – you have to look!  Look at this war!  Look at this injustice!  Look at what we are doing to the Earth!  You are part of this!”   Peacefulness, non-violence, composure, and dignity draw witnesses towards identification with demonstrators.  “Hey!  That’s me sitting at the lunch counter.  That’s me arrested for what I believe in.”  Good demonstrations do not change people’s opinions – they change who people are. 


            Civil rights demonstrations of the fifties and sixties changed what it meant to be American.  White people came to see the world the way black people saw it.  America became a larger consciousness that included more kinds of people.  Demonstrations in the twenty-first century will change what it means to be human.  People will come to see themselves as a united presence on the Earth.  Each person will come to see the life of all things living as the life within.  Heartbeat will be that of all animals, breath, that of all plants.  Rock will be in our bones, and the oceans will flow through our veins.  We will resolve our quarrels peaceably.  We will modify our numbers.  We will care for the Earth in ways it did not need until now.  We will become what we imagine ourselves to be.


            Or, we will become something entirely different.  Humanity united in relation to the natural world is a not the vision of all people.  We may instead become what other imaginers imagine us to be: a stronger, resurgent America, or Russia, or China, or Germany: a nation above other nations – a religion above all others.  The heavens may open and bring about the end of time.  We may grow the economy to untold levels of personal wealth, devoting life force to consumption over all other things.  How, then, can those of us who imagine a united humanity know that our vision is true?  How is it any truer than other visions?


Truth unfolds in time.  Generations of the future will see in their time what is true in ours.  They will know if global warming, nuclear weapons, and overpopulation are true crises, or transitory distractions.  They will know if some of us are overreacting.  They will know that our vision was wrong or right, that we did or did not need to become a unitary form of life capable of taking a common direction.  They will see a truth not yet revealed to us.  But it will be too late for them to act.  If it is true that humanity is changing the climate, we should act before the climate is changed.  If it is true that nuclear weapons will destroy a divided humanity, we should unite humanity beforehand.  We cannot wait for the truth to take effect in the physical world.  Consciousness is seeing where we are headed before we get there. 


If the success of humanity depends on seeing truth before it becomes physical reality, public demonstrations should concentrate on bringing truth to the surface before it fully reveals itself.  The public should be forced to see what is coming before it comes.  The use of force is essential– not violence, not coercion, but force - truth force, or satyagraha.  Truth force is not opinion; it is not interpretation; it is not what demonstrators think or say; it is what those who witness the demonstration see for themselves.  It is an opening in the sky through the fog of prejudice and indifference.  Demonstrators create a force that parts the clouds, but they do not own the sky they reveal.  The truth may be other than their intention.  Demonstrators must, therefore, risk the difference between opinion and truth.


Activists must not only risk this difference; they must embrace it.  Those of us who sense that civilization cannot continue as it is now constituted, who envision a united humanity in relation to nature, must welcome the difference between projections of belief and that which actually comes to pass.  In this difference lies the full breadth of global vision.  In accepting all people, we acknowledge their belief along side our own.  We need not judge it – truth will do that for us.  Let us be neighbors then, if not friends.  Let us risk the imperfections of our own vision, acting for what we believe in, leaving space for what we do not.  Let us greet others over the fence, sharing the ground we do not hold in common.  Let us be polite, as we force each other to look at what the truth may be, creating ourselves as we go. 


There are no enemies.  There is no one who is not us.


            The creation of consciousness is the highest form of activism.


What is the Connection Between Physics and Consciousness?

posted Jun 19, 2014, 1:13 AM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:55 PM by Lauren Avery ]

June 19, 2014                                                                         

Samuel Avery




What is the Connection Between

Physics and Consciousness?




            At first glance, the two are polar opposites: one is the external, objective, material world, while the other is the interior, subjective world of direct experience.   Physics is matter in motion, the concrete and the measurable, while consciousness is the private being of self.  Each could exist, seemingly, without the other.


            But old assumptions are wearing thin.  Physics has undermined its own metaphysical foundation, and now must take consciousness into account.  There is a revolutionary shift underway in the relation between physical dimensions and “the role of the observer,” i.e. consciousness.  The old assumption of conventional physics (and of everyday life) is that consciousness is to be found somewhere inside of space and time, inside peoples’ heads (and other living organisms) that are themselves inside of the dimensions.  In my work, I turn this around to suggest that space and time are to be found inside of consciousness. 


            A model for the conventional view is what I call The Box.  Everything “real” is inside the Box: galaxies, planets, tables and chairs, atoms and quarks.  The joists and beams of the Box are space and time dimensions. This universe exists, it is assumed, whether or not anyone is looking at it.  It is outside of conscious experience.  Consciousness exists within some of the objects floating about in the Box – within people and within some animals.  Life evolved inside the Box, and there are lots of consciousnesses in there, all looking at the same physical universe. 


            The Box makes good common sense.  It provides a solid metaphysical basis for science, especially for physics.  It worked without a flaw until, in the early twentieth century, quantum mechanics and relativity theory came along to disturb it.  In the light of these developments, I attempt to improve upon the Box with a model I call The Screen. 


            The Screen reverses the relation between consciousness and the dimensions.  Space and time exist within consciousness, as fundamental structures of a perceptual screen, much like a TV or computer screen, except that there are three dimensions of space instead of two.  A holograph might be a better model.  Everything perceived is on the Screen: all physical objects seen, heard, tasted, smelled, or touched.  Empty space is empty perceptual consciousness.  But the Screen is only part of consciousness; non-perceptual experiences that are not on the Screen include thought, emotion, dreams, imagination, and spiritual experience.  This “non-dimensional” experience is as “real” as perceptual experience on the Screen.  


            Everything – physical and otherwise – is within consciousness.  Experience is more fundamental than matter.  You can’t have planets and galaxies, tables and chairs, or atoms and quarks unless somebody is looking at them.  They are images on the
Screen.  There is no such thing as “matter” existing independently of perception.


            The big problem with this view, interestingly, is not matter.  We can do science – and go about our everyday lives – as well without the concept of matter as with it.  The big problem is; “Whose consciousness is this?  Yours or Mine?  The Western tradition within which science originally took hold does not understand consciousness well.  We have not studied it in a disciplined manner the way we have the physical world.  The scientific tradition assumes, as does everyday common sense, that consciousness and self are the same thing.  But they are not.  The Eastern tradition can be of assistance in knowing the distinction. 


            At this point, I should apologize to the practical, hard-headed, no-nonsense scientists out there who have little patience for the ramblings of philosophy.  I am sorry to have mixed their solid, concrete science of physics with the mushy speculations of metaphysics.  But this is not my fault.  Physics has led itself into this conceptual quagmire by way of its own scientific discoveries.  Before the twentieth century, space was everywhere rigid and unchangeable, and time always passed at the same rate no matter what.  But now, modern physics is telling us that:


1.         For objects moving near the speed of light, space contracts (in the direction of motion), time slows down, and mass increases.


2.         Light travels at the same speed relative to all objects, no matter how fast they may be moving relative to each other.


3.         Light can be a particle or a wave, but never both at the same time.


4.         Time slows down in a gravitational field.


5.         Energy is not infinitely divisible into smaller and smaller parts; it comes in discrete bundles, or quanta.


6.         The dimensional components of energy (space, time, and mass) become indistinguishable at extremely small values.


7.         The behavior of “material” particles is affected by the “act of observation.”


8.         Mass, supposedly the measure of material substance, is equivalent to energy, an immaterial substance, by a factor of the speed of light, squared.  It is in this equivalence that the Screen is created from minute tactile sensations.  When mass becomes energy, four new dimensions of space and time are created from nothing.


These enigmas are too small to affect everyday life in the middle latitudes of space and time.  That is why we did not notice them until fairly recently.  But they do show up in a big way at dimensional extremes – in the realm of the extremely small, the extremely fast, or extremely large, massive, or distant.  They are very real and tell us what we could not know previously about the physical world.   All of the enigmas have to do with dimensions.  All have to do with observation, that is, with consciousness.  All have to do with light.  All distort the space-time Box to the point where it no longer serves as a meaningful model of physical reality.


The Screen becomes a more viable model once we realize:


1.         Light is not in space-time; space-time is in light.


2.         Light is visual consciousness.


3.         The structure of the Screen is the structure of light.  One second of time is equal to 300,000,000 meters of space.  Objects traveling across the Screen near the speed of light become distorted because they strain the space-time structure of the Screen itself.


4.         Where and when you see an object on the Screen is where and when you will hear, taste, smell, and touch it.  It is this coordination of the senses in space and time that gives the illusion of matter independent of perception.


5.         The concept of material substance is unnecessary to science.  The supposed material content of a physical object can be understood as a location in the mass dimension.  This additional dimension is revealed as a second time dimension: the per second per second that you feel under acceleration.


The progress of science is a continuing refinement in the understanding of experience.  A physical world external to experience has never been experienced, and never will be.  The concept of matter, therefore, stands in the way of scientific progress.


The Box does not allow for a meaningful connection between physics and consciousness.  The Screen unites them as a single whole: physics and consciousness become one and the same.  There is no absolute proof or disproof of either model; the only question is “Which better describes what we actually know?” 

Sierra Club Presentation on Solar Energy: Closing Statement

posted Jun 18, 2014, 3:28 PM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:55 PM by Lauren Avery ]

June 18, 2014

Sierra Club Presentation on Solar Energy




            2 ½ billion years ago a little single-celled bacterium invented the solar collector.   At the time, there were no plants and no animals on the Earth.   An ocean of solar energy was falling on the ground every second of every day, as it does now, but life did not know how to use it.  Life, however, does not stand still.  It always finds new ways to live.  If one way does not work, it finds a way that does.

That little bacterium with its blue-green solar collectors learned how to use energy from the sun to make energy for life.  Later, it was engulfed by larger cells and became the chloroplasts in every living plant cell on Earth.  Through the foliage of plants it has provided food and free oxygen for the evolution of animals and people. 

            The Life you see around you – the plants and trees and birds and insects – are all here because of these little bacteria and their solar collectors that became parts of plant cells.  The grass beneath your feet is a structural support for little solar collectors.  You are standing on solar collectors.

            The energy you feel in the muscles of your body is from the sun.  The breath you take is from the sun.  The sun that shines over our heads now was shining billions of years ago when the force of life rose from the Earth and opened its foliage to the light.  The same force of life stirs within us now, in the current hour, to reach out and harvest the sun’s energy – to evolve new ways for people to live on the Earth. 

Direct solar energy is not the same as fossil fuel energy.  It is not compact and explosive like coal or petroleum.  Bringing it into our lives is not just a matter of tax credits and fluorescent light bulbs.  To adapt to it we will have to change the way we understand ourselves.  But that is what life does.  Life that lives is life that perceives what is real and makes the changes that have to be made.  Life has to have a vision of itself in this world.

The tall buildings in our great cities – they are mere trunks and branches.  We want to see them with leaves and foliage.  We want to see them with solar collectors growing out of their walls and rooftops.  We want a vision, today, that will become real, a vision that will bring us into harmony with the rest of the living world.

That is why we have assembled today.  We are here not merely to protest the destructive habits of the present, but to create new visions of who we are and where we must go.  We are life.  Let us proclaim it.  Let us create new awareness of how we must live with every other being on the planet.

Climate and the Keystone XL Pipeline

posted Feb 10, 2014, 4:42 PM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:55 PM by Lauren Avery ]

Here's a video of some words I shared about climate and the pipeline at the Festival of Faiths in Louisville:

There Are No Enemies

posted Nov 20, 2013, 4:39 AM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:56 PM by Lauren Avery ]

There Are No Enemies


November 19, 2013

Samuel Avery


            Climate chaos is the first crisis in human history that is truly planetary in scale.  It involves all people everywhere in relation to the natural world. 

Within the Earth’s atmosphere humanity exists as a single entity in relation to plants and animals.  There are no divisions of nationality, class, party or ideology – no good people or bad.  Enemies have served as focal points for revolutions, campaigns, and social movements in the past but there can be no such luxury in the current crisis.  What humanity does within the atmosphere it does as a whole.  There are no enemies. 

Those who own or work for oil companies, those who build pipelines and fracking wells, those who gauge the Earth for tar sand or blow tops off mountains for coal – these are not bad people.  There is no evil here.  These people do what we want them to do.  They fill the demand we create by our continued use of fossil fuel.  They sell only what we buy.  There is no us and them.  The fuel they extract heats our houses, powers our telephones and computers, turns our lights on, and drives our cars.  It feeds the Earth’s 7 billion people in the form of tractor fuel, refrigeration, and nitrogen fertilizer.  It is the moving force of modern civilization and we should appreciate what it does for us.  We should be thankful for it

The mistake is not in seeing the utility of fossil fuel; the mistake is in seeing its permanence.  Coal, oil, and natural gas are transient fuels: they have not been with us for long and will not be with us for long into the future.  This is a stage we are going through.  This is not the culmination of human history.  Fossil fuels have brought us from the horse-and-buggy days to the present, and will deliver us on into the renewable energy future, if we keep moving.  The vision, then, is of humanity as a whole in relation to the natural world, moving through this particular stage in our development.  We need not hate the people who meet our needs, nor hate ourselves for continued dependence; we need only see ourselves in transition, and do what must be done to keep the movement moving.  There are no enemies.

It is true, however, that many will not see the vision.  There will be opponents – people who do not understand and will not be convinced.  We will respect and honor them as neighbors, but we will stand before them.  We will use force – truth force – what Gandhi called Satyagraha.  We will understand that we do not own truth.  Our ideas have no more direct access to truth than those of our opponents and the truth we reveal may be other than we imagine.  Our actions, therefore, must direct attention away from ourselves and toward the world beyond, toward what is actually happening around us in the oceans and forests and land and atmosphere.  We must direct attention to the truth, whatever it may be, and what little of it we may see.

True comes out in time.  It is seen clearly only after the events that reveal it.  But there is little time.  We cannot wait until everyone sees what is happening.  We must bring truth to the surface now before it is too late.  We must risk the difference between what we see and what is really there.

If there is truth in the vision of a united humanity, it is not in what we think, but in what everybody everywhere will see – in time – with his or her own eyes.

The Right Question

posted Jul 9, 2013, 5:51 AM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:56 PM by Lauren Avery ]



We all heard Obama say he would turn down the Keystone XL pipeline if it causes carbon emissions to be “significantly” worse.  We also know that the Canadian tar sands constitute the second largest carbon sink on the planet, and that burning billions of barrels of this crudest of crude oils will “significantly” increase the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. So we won, right? 

But wait… what was the question?

Well, we don’t know.  The question we are asking ourselves is whether or not we should be tapping into a new gigaton source of carbon fuel in the form of the tar sands. That’s the real question, the one that will determine the future of Planet Earth.  The answer is obvious.  But Obama’s own State Department avoided that question entirely last spring in its preliminary environmental impact statement on the pipeline by asking a much simpler question: “Would the pipeline be more environmentally friendly than rail transport?”  The answer to that one is also obvious: of course it would!  Both answers are easy; the difficulty (and the fate of the Earth) lies in asking the right question. 

So, is Obama thinking about the overall effect of billions of tons of new carbon in the atmosphere or merely comparing different ways of getting it there?   By manipulating the question he can get the answer he wants. 

I know what the answer is, I just don’t know the question yet.

Two Degrees: The Fuel Supply

posted Jul 1, 2013, 6:04 AM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:56 PM by Lauren Avery ]


  How much more fossil fuel can we burn before we get to the two-degree limit?

            Recent studies show that we can burn between 565 billion and 900 billion additional tons of carbon before the average global temperature rises above two degrees Celsius.  That sounds like quite a bit, and it is, but the same studies show that proven reserves of fossil fuels around the world amount to over 2700 billion tons of carbon.  That’s 3 to 5 times as much as would get us into a run-away climate. 

  3 to 5 times as much!

            That changes what it means to be a human being.  We all used to think that fossil fuel was running out.  As supplies got low, prices would rise, and there would be a natural shift to renewable forms of energy.  Market forces would create a gradual transition in the right direction.  But that’s not going to happen.  Instead of investing in solar, wind, biofuels, and geothermal, energy companies have invested in huge new sources of unconventional fossil fuels, like tar sands and shale oil, and unconventional technologies like fracking.  That’s where the quick money is.  The result is an enormous new supply of carbon-based fuel and a future of cheap, climate-busting energy.  This updated scenario puts giddy smiles on the faces of the “drill, baby, drill” crowd, but points us dead center at global disaster a few years down the road.

            This is where the word paradigm comes in.  “Paradigm” is a fancy, somewhat overused word for a worldview based on unquestioned and largely unconscious assumptions.  The economic paradigm that I discuss in my book is the prevailing paradigm of our time.  It is based on the assumption that economic growth is the primary purpose of human society and that market forces will lead us where we should go.  But the economic paradigm does not, and cannot, value life.  When it looks at a tree, it sees two-by-fours; when it looks at a river, its sees a sewer; when it looks at a mountaintop, it sees a coal mine.  Non-human life has no value and no meaning.  How much is a polar bear worth in dollars, or a tropical frog, an icecap, or a climate?  Climate change does not fit into the paradigm, so we don’t know how to deal with it.  Denial becomes the easiest response for many: if it is not in the worldview, it must not be in the world.

            But as evidence accumulates that there is something going on in the world beyond the worldview, the paradigm begins to shift.  Old assumptions die and new ones arise.  The ecologic paradigm emerges, based on the assumption that life is more valuable than economic growth.  It does not put an end to the economy; it puts the economy within the ecology.  Human activities take place in relation to the forests, the oceans, and the atmosphere.  Rather than blindly gorging on resources because that’s where the money is, the proper role of society becomes shaping economic activity to fit the carrying capacity of the Earth.

            A paradigm shift is a change not in what we are looking at, but in where we are looking from.  It is a change in who we are.  This might sound like so much word play, but there really are 2700 billion tons of carbon at our finger tips, and we really do have to decide whether or not to burn them.  If all we are is an economy, we will use them all.  If we are a form of life in relation to other forms of life, we will leave 2000 of them in the ground. 

It won’t be easy.  Those carbon tons are worth somewhere around a quadrillion dollars.  To live into the future, we will have to value life even more than that.

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