Tuesday, November 12, 2013

For every action

When I was a teenager, I took a class in physics. I loved physics because it gave me a way to describe with great accuracy, things that I see every day. As a young adult I played pool and for me, the pool table is the lab. I can experiment with spin, angles of incidence and speed to get the desired result when I shoot.

I also apply physics to life. Sir Isaac Newton is famous for his observation that, "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction". While this seems obvious with material objects, it is not so obvious with people. I've seen it myself. When I apply force to a situation, I am met with an equal if not greater force to counter my demands. Go ahead, try it out. Try to force something on someone else and watch what happens.

My observations of the effects of what happens when people apply force to each other, has given rise to a simple saying, a sort of principle: If you push really, really hard on the universe, be prepared to duck.

Let's take domestic affairs as an example. If a man and his wife engage in an argument, both sides will think the other is wrong. Both sides may be tempted to start to yell, to slam doors, to break things around the house. If either side gives in to the temptation to use more force, the other side will reciprocate. It will be loud and scary. God help any children around who have to deal with that.

On the streets, we see similar effects. Street gangs will fight over territory and mark it with spray paint. If there is a fight and one side wins, the other side will marshal their forces and use greater force to overwhelm the winner in the last round, often resulting in more injury, maybe more deaths than before. Bystanders are powerless to stop them and the police must be called in to stop the bloodshed.

Here is a more subtle observation about our environment. For more than a century, we've been putting tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. We've been burning coal, natural gas and gasoline, all of it, putting millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Not really a big deal, right? Plants breathe CO2 so we only need to grow more plants.

But what we've been learning is that the oceans are warming up and absorbing the CO2, killing corals and other sea life essential to the ecosystem. The atmosphere has been warming up, with year after year of record temperatures. More than 60 million trees in the western US have died due to global warming. When Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines it did so with with sustained winds of 147mph, with gusts of 170 mph and waves as high as 45ft. In some places, as much as 15.75 inches of rain fell. Some towns were more than 80% submerged. Some observers are saying this is the largest, most powerful storm on record.

We can see over the past two decades, greater and greater calamities, each with more damage than before. From tsunamis, to hurricanes to record snowfalls, we've been taking a beating from the Earth. I attribute this to the force we have applied against the planet to get our way.

How often we forget that the planet is much bigger than us and doesn't really need us. The planet will get along just fine without humans. Perhaps we should get really serious about making our peace with the Earth before the Earth brushes us off. Perhaps Carl Sagan was right when he said, "Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception."

So the next time you think that applying more force to a situation is necessary to get your way, remember one thing about the adversary. They might be giants.
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