Here are some of my favorite quotations from authors that have influenced my view of life & Earth.  All but the first two are from texts used in Ermah Ge seminars & courses.


“It’s my conviction that slight shifts in imagination have
more impact on living than major efforts at change.”

Thomas Moore, SoulMates:
Honoring the Mysteries of Love & Relationships


“Any people not willing to reconsider old ideas as they step into new contexts may be doomed to live in a fatal cultural dead end.”

Paul Bohannan, How Culture Works


“A sober look at the radical uncertainty of the human future … gives reason for real fear, the kind of primal fear that drives to the bone. But fear can be, must be, faced down rather than repressed or denied. The times are too dangerous to do otherwise.”

Diane Dumanoski, The End of the Long Summer:
Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth


“To state the obvious, learning is a process by which we come to know something that we didn’t know before. But what may not be as obvious is the fact that when we learn something new, that learning also changes the way we know everything else that we knew before. Learning not only changes the sum total of our knowledge, it changes the frame of all our knowledge. It alters our understanding of the world. And the person who learned is not the same as the person who set out to learn.”

“The stock market is another example of a self-organizing system. It’s made up of a lot of individual agents – people – each of whom is bound by simple rules: you can buy or you can sell. That’s really all you can do. Yet the results are remarkable. Like the sand pile, the stock market is beset by seismic events, booms and busts, that no one can predict. Even when there is no large event, no one can predict the fluctuations in price of a given stock or the system as a whole. Nevertheless, there are fluctuations of every size, and they follow a pattern much like that of avalanches. You can predict the frequency with which each size of avalanche will occur, even if you can’t pinpoint when any given one will happen. The events and structure that arise in such a system are sometimes referred to as ’emergent’, because they simply  emerge without any know cause.  Anytime the stock market crashes and you read an explanation of why it crashed, you can be sure of only one thing: the explanation is incomplete at best and probably dead wrong. Events like stock market crashes happen at all scales – big and small – and, frankly, no one knows why. Does everyone at the New York Stock Exchange, on a prearranged signal, send a text message to everyone else and say, ‘Sell your  stocks now!” No, I don’t think so. The crash isn’t caused by an event. It’s a characteristic of the system.”

Lawrence Gonzales, Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things


“Nature is fragile, environmentalists often tell us. But the lesson of this book is that is not so. The truth is far more worrying. Nature is strong & packs a serious counterpunch … Global warming will very probably unleash unstoppable planetary forces. And they will not be gradual. The history of our planet’s climate shows that it does not do gradual change. Under pressure, whether from sunspots or orbital wobbles or the depredations of humans, it lurches – virtually overnight.”

Fred Pearce, With Speed & Violence:
Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change


“I speak as a planetary physician whose patient, the living Earth, complains of fever; I see the Earth’s declining health as our most important concern, our very lives depending upon a healthy Earth. Our concern for it must come first, because the welfare of the burgeoning masses of humanity demands a healthy planet .

“Our understanding of the Earth system is not much better than a nineteenth-century physician’s understanding of a patient. But we are sufficiently aware of the physiology of the Earth to realize the severity of its illness…We are now approaching one of those tipping points, and our future is like that of the passengers on a small pleasure boat sailing quietly above the Niagara Falls, not knowing that the engines are about to fail.”

James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia:
Earth’s Climate Crisis & the Fate of Humanity


“This book is not about biology, biochemistry or any other finished and finite discipline, but about life. Life seems to me the supreme marvel of the universe – familiar, thoroughly material, probably ubiquitous, yet elusive and ultimately mysterious. My purpose is to assess how far we have come toward a scientific understanding of the phenomenon of life. A physics that has no place for life is as impoverished as would be a biology not informed by chemistry. The study of life as a natural phenomenon, a fundamental feature of the universe, must not be allowed to slip into the black hole of departmental tribalism. Let me enlarge…on the latter point, for herein lies much of the motivation for writing this book.

“This is actually a genuine philosophical puzzle, one version of the question whether biology can ultimately be ‘reduced’ to chemistry & physics or is an autonomous science with principles of its own …. there is more to life than just molecular mechanisms. From the chemistry of macromolecules and the reactions that they catalyze, little can be inferred regarding their articulation into physiological functions at the cellular level, & nothing whatever can be said regarding the form of development of those cells. It therefore seems to me self-evident that the quest for the nature of life cannot be conducted exclusively on the biochemist’s horizon. We must also inquire how molecules are organized into larger structures, how direction & function & form arise, & how parts are integrated into wholes.”

Franklin Harold, The Way of the Cell:
Molecules, Organisms & the Order of Life


“In retrospect, we can see that the several principles above reflect nature’s abhorrence of a gradient. Gradients can be of pressure, chemical concentration, temperature, or any work-related potential. As gradients move systems away from equilibrium [the point at which there is no gradient], the systems shift states so as to oppose the applied gradients. In general, as systems are pushed further from equilibrium, increasingly more energy is needed to keep them there. Some of the avenues available to counter the gradients include the development of highly organized structures and processes. Somewhat paradoxically, by internally organizing, the complex processes more effectively eliminate the gradients around them.”

Eric Schneider and Dorion Sagan, Into the Cool:
Energy Flow, Thermodynamics & Life


“Reductionism takes us from complex phenomena to more elementary properties of its components, giving us consistent explanations between descriptive levels. But rarely can we go from the properties of the constituent parts to a description of the whole. Understanding the properties of H and O does not allow us to predict the properties of H2O; understanding the molecular properties of H2O does not allow us to derive the Navier-Stokes equations; having the Navier-Stokes equations does not give us prediction & description of Benard cells. In fact, unanticipated consequences of the Navier-Stokes equations are being discovered all the time. Self-organizing behavior emerges unpredictably in systems at different levels. We make it intelligible by recognizing how it is consistent with lower level properties & by finding appropriate mathematical descriptors. But in doing this we don’t reduce a whole to the properties of its parts & their interactions. Although there are cases where this has been achieved, in general there is a causal gap between one level of description & the next, which is covered by a mathematical relationship producing consistency between levels. Emergent properties provide the recognition that nature can be creative while denying the occurrence of miracles or inconsistencies.”

“We believe that reductionism is inadequate as the primary explanatory framework of science. Progress in understanding natural phenomena requires more than a study of parts in interaction. It often involves grasping relevant aspects of whole systems & finding appropriate mathematical descriptors that capture these properties…[where] high level properties & properties of the parts are both incorporated…This aspect of scientific understanding, this continuous conversation between parts & wholes, between models & reality, is a major theme of this book.”

“One of the continuing enigmas in biology is how genes contribute to the process of embryonic development whereby a coherent, functional organism of specific type is produced.” The problem: genes are themselves participants in development & “do not occupy a privileged position in making decisions about alternative pathways of differentiation. Yet they clearly constrain the possibilities open to cells…How do genes act & interact within the context of the organism to generate coherent wholes…It is not genes that generate this coherence, for they can only function within the living cell, where their activities are highly sensitive to context. The answer has to lie in the principles of dynamic organization that are still far from clear, but that involve emergent properties that resolve the extreme complexity of genes & cellular activities into robust patterns of coherent order. These are the principles of organization of the living state. In this post-genomic era we can see, but do not understand, the coordinated changes in the activities of thousands of genes involved in developmental processes …The strategy of this chapter … is to examine a few instances of developmental processes to see how genes participate in, but do not control, these phenomena. No ‘comprehensive answer’ is presented because none yet exists.”

Ricard Sole and Brian Goodwin, Signs of Life:
How Complexity Pervades Biology


“The only certain thing about this coming century is its immense uncertainty. The great temptation of our time will be the impulse to flee from this uncertainty.  Given the black-and-white propensity of Western minds, it will take conscious effort to resist taking refuge either in despair – in the conviction that ‘it’s too late’ – or in the alternative, to bask in groundless, sunny optimism that ‘we’ll figure out something, because science always does.’  I have heard a great deal said about the importance of hope as the human prospect has grown darker, but hope will sustain us only if it is clear-eyed.  In reflecting about cultural traps that have made past societies incapable of meeting the challenge of changing  circumstances, the anthropologist Paul Bohannan asks, ‘Have they at least figured out some of the things they should not do? Or are they running on blind hope?  That kind of hope kills.’  I don’t think we have figured it out.   I fear blind hope as much as despair … In times of danger, bitter truths serve us better than sweet lies.”

— Diane Dumanoski  – The End of the Long Summer :
Why We Must Remake Civilization to Live on a Volatile Earth


“What, in this situation, needs to be done first?  This is a question about priorities.  And the key to it is perhaps clearest in the image that I used earlier of an ocean liner which is beginning to sink – only (as we explain) not at our end…. Of course it is understandable that we do not see the planetary danger.  Other, more immediate evils constantly demand our attention.  Conditions on the terrestrial ship are bad in a thousand ways and endless things need to be done about them.  But if the ship sinks, curing those evils will not be much help.  The message is not that we should value the health of the Earth above human needs.  It is that these are not alternatives.  Without a healthy Earth, humans cannot survive anyway.”

— Mary Midgley, Gaia: The Next Big Idea

5 Responses to Quotes

  1. James Burke says:

    When I consider the seriousness of our planetary illness, and the calls to try and make change, I am reminded of Yoda:

    “Try not… Do or do not… there is no try.”
    — Yoda

  2. Alder Stone says:

    I added a bunch of new quotes tonight.

  3. Philip M says:

    great photo…
    by the way, the secretary at the front desk at work said to me the other day, “so does climate change mean we’re all going to burn up?” i didn’t know what to say, so i just smiled. walking out the door she said, “we’re burning up aren’t we?” i shot back, “probably.” come on alder, what does one say in such a setting? no 5 second soundbite i could come up with.

    • Alder Stone says:

      Great question, Philip. I love the challenge of a 5-second sound byte. Thanks.

      I’m putting the final touches on a blog post to be posted later this afternoon. After that, I’ll come back here and address your question.

    • Alder Stone says:

      Philip, I’ve been thinking about that 5 sec sound byte. I don’t think I can do it in 5, but maybe 10. My response would probably be something like this:

      “Well, the planet is on fire; but smoldering, so far, not yet fully engaged, but will be by mid-century (metaphorically speaking). I recommend learning as much about what’s happening as you can.”

      Then give her the URL to this web site.

      OK, so that’s more like 15 seconds.
      Maybe if you talk fast, you can do it in 10.

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