When I was a kid, I loved to think about how things work. I distinctly recall being at book fairs and being unequivocally drawn to books about systems. In a way, the kinds of things I learn and write about here would probably have made child me very proud. I'd ask for books about how weather works, why volcanoes erupt, what causes earthquakes, and how to measure rainfall and wind speed. I, for whatever reason, really wanted to know how the world functioned, and enjoyed trying to understand some of the most complex topics I could get my hands on.
What's interesting about that mindset for kid me, though, is that I'd often learn what I wanted to learn and get immediately interested in the next question I could think to ask myself. Which, honestly, isn't all that surprising thinking that I wanted to learn all this stuff as a kid. It's like wanting the new shiny toy, but what I wanted was new shiny knowledge. The result is that I built up a lot a shallow knowledge about how things worked, effectively making myself a bit of a walking encyclopedia. It was fun to demonstrate that to people, but I found that I was essentially learning a ton of stuff, but never really applying it to anything.
Little did I know, this was the beginning of a narrative for my life up until now. One that guided how I liked to learn things and shaped my view of the world. I'd say I'm at the end of my story, but I'm certain my thinking will continue to evolve as time goes on. It always does. But I wanted to share this trajectory with you. After all, I have a feeling my thinking is not unique, and you might see yourself at various points of this journey yourself.
So, let's dive in!
The Stuff of Stars
Beyond childhood, I really liked an idea popularized by science communicator Carl Sagan:
Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.
Granted, the origin of this phrase spans further back than Sagan's quote from The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, but his use of the phrase is what ended up reaching me, and undoubtedly many others. This is the thought that all matter that comprises our planet and generally the universe around us was thrust into play by the death of stars. Massive supernovas going off like fireworks in the constant night of space, amassing themselves to form planets, some of which forming enough intricate systems to move those minerals around forming the life we have on Earth today.
I liked extrapolating this thought a bit further, though I'm not the only one to wax poetic in this way. If we're all made from the materials jettisoned throughout the universe and we were born with the vision to observe all of these phenomena, it's almost like we're the universe's eyes. Until life like that found on Earth exists, everything simply is. There's nothing around to witness the amazing things that happen in the universe. Life to the extent of humanity is seemingly a rarity, one that might have a purpose. To observe the universe's systems and attempt to make sense of them.
This thought made me feel particularly powerful as a teenager. Not necessarily in the sense of strength, I was never one to fantasize the kind of power to wield over others. Rather, the power to see things and find patterns. To explain the recurring happenings of the world in a way that lets everyone after me know it faster so they can build upon that to understand the concept further. I felt like a chronicler, an archivist, and a storyteller. Building an understanding of the world as I knew it to share with others. Collectively, as a species, we're a storyteller that transcends time. Humanity has the potential to document the secrets of the universe for other life that may follow. And that's certainly a thing of power. The kind of power we fantasize aliens gifting to us in a bunch of science fiction.
I liked learning about our place in the universe, fancying myself storyteller of some great purpose in the larger organism that is humanity.
A World Where We See So Much
Humanity can generally be grouped into eras or generations. I think we wrongfully do this when trying to understand the general personality of individuals based on some arbitrary time span, but I do find it somewhat valuable as a tool for understanding what existing during that time span meant from an environment perspective. And not necessarily a natural environment perspective, but in the sense of the things and ideas that surrounded people during those times. Particularly, I find some value seeing what was a given for the people growing up during those times.
When I was growing up, the thing I and people around my age had to contend with was the internet. The weird thing about the internet when I was growing up is that it was pretty new. It technically existed before I was born, but its usage would grow to reflect what it currently is while I was in high school and college. While it was new to everyone who existed, it's particularly interesting growing up with it, having the capacity to embed yourself in it. For my parents' humanity time slice, this was a new tool, one that didn't necessarily need to be used to fill the niches they'd grown into filling. For the people following, the internet is something they never went without. It was always there, the whole of collective human thoughts and ideas.
I recognize this is not pristinely defined by time. Being in households or parts of the world without access to the internet means that there are still swathes of humanity adjusting to this new way of interacting with the vast sums of data humanity has collected. I want to emphasize that growing up with this change is an interesting thing.
I like recalling what it was like playing video games when I was younger. Prior to the ubiquitous internet, learning about how to beat a certain level or find a cool secret was done in one of three ways: you become an expert in that game and share it with others, you hear an expert in that game share that knowledge, or you hear a rumor of something talking with other people who play that game. That community group is pretty small, though. You're interacting with these people generally when you are physically together, and the key way rumors circulate are from people in the community with subscriptions to magazines (video games were not mainstream enough for television for the most part).
So you're either spending a lot of time becoming an expert, being a part of a community that has one of these experts, or being a part of a community with access to magazine subscriptions with rumors, tips, and tricks for things to try out on your own. This process is long, but is generally followed with a big feeling of satisfaction afterward. It was not uncommon to spend days or weeks trying to attain and spread factual knowledge in this ecosystem.
Until the internet happened.
What's neat, in retrospect, is that the core ways of finding and distilling information hasn't really changed. The community size has just exponentially exploded. Suddenly, you're drowning in the information it used to take weeks to attain. What's more, you're not just exposed to the information you were looking for, but all of the information adjacent to what you were looking for, and the adjacent information's adjacent information all the way down. We entered a time in human history where every meaningful and meaningless observation collide. A world those before me never knew, and a world those after me can't imagine without.
It's a micro-era I feel I absorbed a lot of information from, but ultimately one of idle ingestion. We're in the world of the content machine.
In the moment, however, it didn't feel particularly bad. After all, it was like doing what I was doing all my life at light speed. I'm an encyclopedia bursting with knowledge I don't know what to do with. Other than being somewhat proud that as a member of the larger humanity, I can serve as a repository of information to share with others should they need it. A book to open when I'm the book that's needed. Like a wizard locked away in time waiting for those who come after to ask for the knowledge of ages. It looked that cool in my head, at least!
The thing about learning, though, is that knowledge is meant to be applied somehow. In this world of constant ingestion of data, I grew content on simply knowing things. The act of gathering all this information and having thoughts and opinions on those things was an excruciating amount of effort in its own right. It's exhausting, and I feel I'm not necessarily alone there. But I'd eventually find an outlet to help with this feeling of content exhaustion. Of idle observation.
When I started volunteering with restoration and conservation projects, I found myself learning in the way I used to learn again. There's a handful of factors that play into this. I can imagine I learned more by listening because I'd be working in areas without good connection to the internet. I can imagine I learned through oral tradition because I was physically surrounded by knowledgeable people. I can imagine I could concentrate on a singular focus because I was actively working on a task. And it felt like I wasn't learning anything at first. I'd grown used to the pace of the internet, and it was difficult to rely on that speed here. Years into these projects, and I'm someone pointing out things to new volunteers and sharing information about how things work. And, importantly, I was applying what I'd been learning essentially in time with my learning.
This hit home especially working in prairie restoration. For a quick refresher, the prairie of the Midwestern United States is not something that forms when the Earth runs its own course. Native American populations would routinely burn the landscape in cycles to guide wildlife to graze in areas they would be living in for a span of time. See, when vegetation is left to its own devices, they want to become a forest, to grow as densely as possible. This ecosystem-level evolution is called succession. For those who don't know, prairies are defined as having less than 10% of canopy cover per acre, or having very few trees. How does something like that happen?
Not on its own, it turns out. Prairies are the result of a sustainable relationship between people and planet. This isn't to say the entire planet could sustain itself as a giant prairie, but for the Midwestern United States, using the Earth's resources in this manner led to the creation of an ecosystem that became a thriving environment for a huge range of plants and animals that otherwise might not survive.
When I'm volunteering with restoring these ecosystems, I'm doing much the same work that Native Americans would do to sustain these environments hundred of years ago. This is the power of knowledge beyond observation. And it felt really good. Though I didn't find a great way to describe it until this year.
In a strangely tangential turn of events (and some proof the speed of information enabled by the internet isn't all bad), an author I follow on YouTube named John Green was sharing a bit about a book he was writing, or rather finishing writing since the book was being finalized for publication at the time. The book is called The Anthropocene Reviewed and is, at face value, a collection of deep reviews of things and concepts adjacent to the human experience. In one of his videos where he talks about the conception of the idea for the book, he recounts sending drafts of initial reviews to his wife, Sarah. After reading them, she thought they had a lot of potential, but were missing an integral part: himself.
She used the phrase:
In the Anthropocene, there are no disinterested observers, only participants.
Sarah Urist Green
The larger thought here being that reviews are, at their core, recollections of not just the thing you're reviewing, but of your particular interaction with that thing. And that hit John in a way that had him revisit what he had written, and the writing to come, not to exclude his own thoughts and feelings of topic he was recounting. The book, in its final form, despite being offered in the form of reviews, reads as a memoir of John's experiences with the things and concepts he conveys. It's honestly a brilliant means of not just sharing information, but embracing the nuance that is the human experience.
And this simple phrase connected a few things for me. I now had the words I was searching for when trying to convey my experience with restoring a tallgrass prairie. When I'm volunteering in this capacity, I grow beyond a repository of knowledge waiting to be accessed by someone who needs it. I'm more than a collection of facts, thoughts, and opinions on a topic I don't know what to do with. I'm a participant in a tradition of human storytelling that birthed an ecosystem that the Earth has a hard time producing on its own. With the knowledge and application therein, I'm not the wizard at the end of time whose inaction is an action of itself, I'm a willing contributor to the change that enables something really cool to exist.
And the tallgrass prairie is just a very on-the-nose example of this mentality. I'm of the belief that this can apply to most things. It's true and fascinating that humans have built a repository of astounding information, but the gathering and retention of this information is not what we as individuals are neither best at or designed to do. In our era, we have an immense tool in the amalgamation of observations we've collectively amassed, but that's not any individual's responsibility. In the Anthropocene, it's more than simply there's no such thing as idle observers, but that our individual, nuanced selves are at their best as willing and active participants.
~ And, as always, don't forget to keep wondering ~
John's YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ir1YXtdhRPg
Sagan, C., 2000. Carl Sagan's Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Prismatic Planet wants to get excited for the planet, raise awareness of its inhabitants, and get smarter about Earth.