Saturday, October 3, 2020

Rebooting with a mass extinction

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There have been five mass extinction events in Planet Earth's history. The most intense among these was called the Great Dying. No, this wasn't the one that killed all the dinosaurs. The Great Dying occurred approximately 250 million years ago. When atmospheric conditions were quite similar to today and the planet was home to a single super continent that we know as Pangaea.
Before we explore the causes of the Great Dying, let's acknowledge the toll it took over the next 100,000 years. 96% of marine species and almost an equal number of plant species became extinct. This marked the end of the Permian era and the beginning of the Triassic era, which is why this event is called the Permian-Triassic extinction.
Here are the theories proposed to explain the harsh transition between the Permian and the Triassic:

  1. A few super volcanos located in today's Siberia went berserk. Over a period of time, this caused a global warming, with ocean temperatures rising by around 10 deg C. As temperatures rose and the metabolism of marine animals sped up, the warmer waters could not hold enough oxygen for them to survive.The asphyxiating effect was accentuated by the high acidity of the water as well as metal and sulfide poisoning. This is, as of now, the most widely-accepted theory.
  2. An asteroid hit the earth, creating noxious gases, a long-lasting blockage of the sun, a drop in temperature and corrosive acid snow and rain. Even after the clouds cleared, carbon-dioxide from fires and decaying matter led to global warming that lasted for millions of years.
  3. Perhaps the lack of ice caps during the late Permian led to a stagnation of oceanic currents. Without convective currents, anoxic water (anoxia means the lack of oxygen) could have built up. Usually, anoxic water would have remained in the deepest parts of the ocean, but now, it spilled up into shallow water. Even as marine life got smothered, the sea level rose.
    • The lack of oceanic currents might have had another corollary effect. When oceanic bacteria eat organic matter, they expel bicarbonate. Without currents, this collection of bicarbonate grew. Bicarbonate-laden water rose from below, depressurized and dissolved bicarbonate escaped as CO2. The oceans bubbled like a mug of beer.

Each theory is as vivid as it is horrifying. As a complete novice to paleontology, oceanography and evolution, I am proud to parrot the wisdom of scientists operating those realms. And my foray into the past was to attempt to understand our present and make peace with our role in shaping it.

For the first time in Earth's history, it hosts a species that is capable of creating and accelerating chaos. Humans are capable of making materials and products that don't decay, but must be dumped on the planet's surface and oceans. We also have shown remarkable finesse in accelerating the era of global warming, which would have lasted tens of thousands of years, and bringing the planet to the brink of being inhospitable right here, right now. 

If we continue to be foolish and press the nuke button on Mother Nature's forehead, well, we will deserve to perish. But it is heartwarming to know that this planet has seen worse in the past and has recovered without many scars. Perhaps this time around, Nature will evolve species that feed on plastic, concrete and metal alloys just to accelerate the obliteration of our presence. But soon enough - perhaps in a few million years - our devastating presence will become undetectable to the naked eye. Earth will recover. We won't matter. Thank Earth for that.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

7 great blessings of the pandemic

It is with reservations that I bring together the words "pandemic" and "blessings" in the title of this piece. I am aware of the great toll it has taken on the most disenfranchised people around the world. It has also claimed many, many lives and robbed us of time. Clearly, if one is to even begin seeing a blessing in the pandemic, one must necessarily look at future impacts of today's events. That's what I will do in this piece.
Let me also clarify that this is not an ode to gratitude. It will not ask you to stop feeling one way and start feeling another way. It would not remind you that happiness comes from within. Instead, it will attempt to collate facts and extrapolate them with objectivity.
Out there, in real space and real time, the world has improved in some ways. Let's see how.

1. The world is literally greener

The Himalayas are now visible from the plains of Uttar Pradesh! As early as April, reports began coming in that Indian rivers are becoming much cleaner, although the situation is not as optimistic as indicated in early reports.I myself witnessed sparrows returning to my neighbourhood in Ulsoor, which is at the heart of Bangalore.
As our industries and vehicles fume less, we are beginning to breathe easy. Last winter, Delhi was barely more habitable than Mars, but during the lockdown, the city's air quality increased by a whopping 79%. And according to a NASA finding (as shown in the image above), the air quality of the entire country stands at a 20-year high.
It is one thing to talk about how we could all strive to create a greener and cleaner world. It is another thing altogether to see this happening in front of us. Surely this is inspiring us to rethink the way we live? Surely we are beginning to see that, without a great deal of sacrifice and effort, we can live in a manner that benefits us as well as our ecosystems?

2. Moving from nation to species

European colonization eventually led to a rise in nationalism all around the world. As indigenous peoples fought for their freedom, they developed distinct nationalistic identities. Nationalism also got promoted by other global events including the two World Wars, countless internecine regional conflicts, and a Cold War that lasted for decades. Over time, we became rather adept at separating ourselves into nation-states. That's why we didn't have a clue about what to do next when faced with a conflict that affected us as a species. Even with its limited mandate, the UN attempted to bring all nations together to discuss the challenge posed by global climate change. The discussion quickly turned into debates that were hijacked and derailed by powerful nations. At one point, the debate was nothing more than a shrill exchange of angst between the developed and developing nations.
Even when we seemed to make progress (like with the Kyoto Protocol), it took an interminable amount of time for us to take the next step - the Paris Accord. And that small gain was summarily dismissed by Trump - a nationalist who, additionally, denies climate change.
Meanwhile, the other powerful idea that promised to bring us together - globalization - merely displaced jobs and prosperity while also increasing the gap between the haves and have-nots. Global trade, as it turned out, made companies richer and nations poorer. It was perhaps inevitable that globalization would eventually lead to an increase in nationalism.
Barring climate change, there seemed to be no issue that could potentially bring us together. And then came the pandemic. A challenge that, like climate change, affected us all. But unlike climate change, materialistic people could deny neither its presence nor its urgency. The pandemic is ideally suited to show us the limitations of the nation-state model of civilization. Viruses and rising oceans have one thing in common - they don't stay confined within borders. They don't care about your flag and anthem.
We are currently not seeing the pandemic create solidarity in the world because nationalists are still holding fort in major power centres. But when they are relegated to the dustbin of history, a new generation of leaders will operate with awareness that we are on this planet together. We will sink or swim together.
Perhaps an era of greater cooperation is just around the corner.

3. If we find the will, we will find a way

Ever since scientists raised their bugles to announce global climate change many decades ago, market fundamentalists have tried to negate the message."What are we supposed to do?" they ask. "Stop consumption, turn the clock, live like peasants? Do you know what will happen to the global economy if all of us limited our lifestyles? Can you imagine the loss of employment and the erosion of the economy?"
Well, in the past many months, hundreds of millions of jobs have been lost. Consumption has been force-cut. People have, willingly or unwillingly, cut back.
We make less, have less, do less. And contrary to predictions, we haven't perished. The idea that what is good for nature will be disastrous for civilization can now be challenged. Granted, we have to find solutions to big problems like employment, healthcare etc. But we can approach those problems while resorting to sustainability. We don't have to choose between Nature and Civilization. We can choose both.
Once the pandemic ends, the markets will take over again and a majority of people, starved of entertainment and freedom, will return to a life of excess. But it is comforting to know that, 15 years from now, when global climate change will become enormously undeniable, we have the ability to hit the brakes and bring down consumption overnight, if that's what it takes. It has been done and it can be done again.

4. A boost to sustainable living

A great majority of us are waiting for the pandemic to end so that we can re-enter a life of excess. Even in this majority, many will reconsider their consumption patterns. They might travel less frequently, make do with fewer material possessions... the extravagant might choose to make do with mere luxury, the luxurious might settle for comfort and so on... One hopes.At the same time, a minority will want to continue living a simple life of few pleasures and many connections.
The overall reduction in consumption might give our species a little more time before we reach the point of irreversible climate change.

5. Millennials and delayed gratification

"They have been fed everything on a golden spoon. The spoon was there, at the right place, when they needed it. They don't feel grateful and they can't delay the pleasures for which they will remain ungrateful."
Millennials have had to endure this unflattering generalization made by older generations. It is not their fault that they were born in an era of enormous social change and technological overhaul. They never had to wait a week to watch the next episode of their favourite television programs. How, pray, did we expect them to embody the stoicism of older generations?
But now, once the pandemic claimed their innumerable outdoor pleasures (leaving them with the solace of only online streaming platforms), millennials are showing us that they are not as fragile as we accused them of being. Many of them have led lonely lives, with few meaningful connections in the real world. But these connections are being fully harnessed and there is a greater acceptance of our shared evolving reality. I have seen this as a counselor and I have heard from my colleagues and friends how they have been pleasantly surprised by millennials.
We rely on millennials to solve our most pressing problems. They have less of the scarcity mindset and they are less obsessed with thoughts of their own families. They actually want to think in broader terms - about community, society, the world... therefore, their resilience is crucial.

6. Relationship arc accelerated

Relationship expert Esther Perel, known for her insightful TED talks, has noticed that the pandemic has created an excess of (or the complete absence of) alone time. These extremes are compounded by thoughts of mortality. All relationships are, therefore, fast-tracked to where they would be a few years down the line. We are witnessing more pregnancies, breakups, separations and divorces.
Those in relationships with strong foundations are using the situation to empathise, adapt and come closer. Those in relationships that never got a solid footing are being splintered in quick time.
Perel reminds us that we, citizens of the modern world, expect meaning, belonging and community from our most important relationships. Those who find these precious elements in relationships are able to stay grounded and optimistic.
Her talk with Trevor Noah helps get a gist of what is happening around the world. As a counselor sitting in a small cove in Bangalore, I have myself counseled 7 couples in the past two months. And I endorse Perel's assessment that all relationships are being accelerated to their futures.

7. Self development & health

Dusty violin cases have been removed from attics. The forgotten Kindle has returned to the bedside table. Flabby tummies are bouncing in waves in badminton courts and lakeside trails. The mid-morning twitter of birds is now enriched by middle-aged vocal chords finding a new lease of life. Yoga videos on YouTube are now as popular as Taylor Swift's new album.
Those of us who are not spiraling into debt or depression are finding new lungs for old passions. We have always complained of not having enough time or energy to cultivate ourselves. Now, all we have to do is convert our commute time to self-development time (that's 3 hours for the average Bangalorean). On cue, the training industry is offering workshops and programs at huge discounted prices.
There has also been a drop in the number of smokers. Smoking, like any addiction, retains its patrons due to the fact that its perils are in the unforeseeable future while its pleasures are right here, right now. But people forced to face their mortality in Covid times are more likely to pay attention to the perils. This is what the Smoker and the Gun thought experiment says.
Keep a gun on a smoker's temple and tell him that he will be shot if he takes another puff. If he is convinced that the bullet will be fired, the smoker will not dare take that puff. The pandemic has become the virtual gun on the temple.
Hopefully, those who have kicked this (and other) addictions will not revert to them.

A final word

50 years from now, those of us who will be alive will look at the pandemic as one of the greatest challenges in their lives. Will they also see it as the moment in history where humankind took a U-turn to live a saner, more holistic and sustainable life?

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Toxic Binary

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As a counselor, I am noticing a huge increase in black-and-white thinking, also called Polarized/Dichotomous thinking.
This is a cognitive distortion in which a person feels they have only two options to choose from. For example, with a mushrooming of polarizing political leaders, a lot of us feel like we must either love this leader or hate him. We cannot see a third choice.
Sample this: a wife feels de-stressed when she goes on a walk by herself. But her husband has begun insisting on joining her. She has told him she wants to go by herself, and that has not worked. She begins to think: I can either go by myself and be selfish. Or I can allow him to accompany me and be sacrificing.
Can you see that there is no victory in either choice? She wants to be neither selfish nor sacrificing. But her mind is not presenting her a third choice. This is the Toxic Binary.
Can you think of win-win solutions for this woman?

In a starker example, a middle-aged man is feeling suicidal. He is ashamed about a particular behaviour he has exhibited in the past. Now, he feels he has only two choices: he could either continue to live and force his family to share his shame. Or he could die and spare them the agony of feeling that shame. 

It stands to reason that the hold of Toxic Binary thinking over our minds is the greatest when our emotions are at their peak of intensity. We will not be able to see a third choice and that makes us despair. At this juncture, we need somebody who can help us differentiate between fact and perception.

When I feel this and other cognitive distortions, I reach out to a list of people who can help me. Whom do you reach out to when your mind becomes your enemy?

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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Shall we invade now?

Sitting in front of his thought-driven console, Captain Zeen was getting impatient.
"Where's Arrgh? I must know the truth about these life forms in this suburban blue-green planet. Ah, there you are."
"Hail Captain!" said Arrgh. "My report is ready. I apologize it took so long. But these life forms are indecipherable."
"That's an understatement, isn't it? Look at them. They have millions of vessels that can fly, yet so few of them are up in the air. They have a billion vessels that crawl fast, and most of these are kept stationary next to their homes. They have pathways that can take them from one end of the continent to another, but the life forms stay indoors, as if they don't care. I am reminded of our ancient Emperor who created a kingdom of gold, but spent his lifetime on the balcony of the palace, wondering about the sun and the moon. Our folklore tells us that the Emperor was a fool. Can the same be said about these life forms?"
"I cannot say for sure," replied Arrgh.
"You are my expert analyst of alien civilizations," snapped Zeen. "Say something useful."
"I don't know if you consider this useful, Captain, but I have three possible explanations for what we see."
"Let's hear them."
"The first explanation is that these life forms believe in the supremacy of inner exploration. They perceive that to be more important than exploring their world. They reached a threshold point in their civilization where they realized that no amount of success and wealth can make them happy. So they have created a culture of finding happiness within themselves. They venture out only to carry food back to their homes. They probably consume very little."
"I remember conquering one such civilization in the seventh galaxy from home," said Zeen. "But they were spartan life forms. The surface of that planet showed no signs of ambition. These life forms, on the other hand... our scanners detected high-grade chemical weapons. Why are they armed to the teeth if they are all about inner exploration?"
"That is a great question. I confess to not knowing the answer. Would you like to hear the second possible explanation?"
"Only if it is better than the first."
"Well, our scanners show that these life forms harvested, manufactured and burnt chemicals in stella-tons till very recently. They polluted their water bodies, made their air toxic and bathed the food they ate with chemicals. They seem to have organized themselves into nations of varying sizes and when one nation didn't like another, they hurled chemicals at each other. At some recent point in their civilization, they must have realized that they were doing nothing more than killing each other while killing themselves. So they decided to mend their ways and honour their water, their air and their earth."
"This is even more of a ridiculous idea than the first," said Zeen. "Didn't we conquer a poisoned planet one stella-year ago? Was it in the ninth or tenth galaxy we visited? Ninth, I think. Those life forms knew that they were poisoning their precious water, air and earth. Did they stop? NO. When the water could no longer be drunk, they drank blood straight from each other's freshly-cleaved chests. After a point, life forms opt to become savages, not saints. Water, air and earth get poisoned in a thousand stella-years. Life forms except for us cannot think beyond a couple of stella-years. That's why we have been such successful conquerors."
"I agree," said Arrgh. "The third explanation is the most possible. Sometime in the recent past, these life forms faced a new enemy. An enemy that even our scanners cannot detect. So they were forced to abandon their glorious vessels and their glorious paths and take sanctuary in their own homes. This enemy has united them. Look, this small peninsula here is called North Korea. It seems to be the land of megalomaniacs. But the behaviour of life forms here is no different from the behaviour of life forms in this other nation here... Denmark. Something drastic must have happened for this warring planet to become so homogeneous and resort to a life of quiet reflection and severe caution."
"You make sense finally, Arrgh. If what you say is true, our visit is well-timed. We can stamp our authority on them when they are weak. They will surrender to our will in no time."
"I wouldn't be so sure, Captain Zeen. If what I say is true, then these life forms must have been disorganized from the beginning of time. And now they are united in the way they live and the way they acknowledge their interconnectedness with each other. They are weakened, but they are not weak. Let me remind you of the high-grade chemical weapons. Unlike in other planets, we will have to fight all of them together in order to win. Do you fancy our chances?"
Captain Zeen fell into deep thought, clicking his three forefingers together in enviable synchronicity. Finally, he said:
"Do you think they will stay united? Should we wait?"