The Chemistry Of Life And Sustainability: A Call For Care, Wisdom, Gratitude, And Awe

Molecular, DNA and atom model in science research lab setting in studio.
Molecular, DNA and atom model in science research lab setting in studio.

When I was a child of seven, growing up in a home of thoughtful religious skeptics who, while nominally Baptist-Methodist, were more accurately somewhere on the spectrum between agnostic and atheist, my grandfather's passing triggered me to become alarmed - actually, downright terrified - at the prospect that death was inevitable for me, and for everyone I knew or did not know, and that if I wanted to live a life of meaning and purpose, something that would outlast my ephemeral form, I'd better get a move on.

The early awareness of one's own mortality, and the overwhelming fear and sadness that accompanies that, must be the most powerful motivating force on the planet. Even as a very young person, I questioned constantly why nature or God could have conceived of such a flawed plan for life - to create an experience so sweet, painful, and exquisite, and then take it away, often brutally, in one final act of undeserved violence, followed by unending nothingness. It seemed so unfair, so wrong, so tragic.
It wasn't until I was 24, sitting in my stark home office in Sacramento, on another late night in my role as a crusading environmentalist seeking to save humanity from self-annihilation - if I couldn't live on, then at least my species could - that I had an experience that, for me, was my epiphany, and my religious conversion. I came to feel, see, and experience clearly that my life was more of a chapter than a book; a singular and limited expression of an underlying whole life that stretched back and forward as far as I could possibly conceive, and more. I became smaller at that moment, at least in self-concept, but my long-time sense of personal power and potential, seared into me by my sense of mortality, remained. I became as committed as ever to protecting and extending the experience of life, but now more as its agent, rather than as a single individual with a defined beginning and end.

While, like Woody Allen, I had worried neurotically at the process of entropy that seemed to upend my efforts daily, and at a larger level guarantee the ultimate futility of life in any form anywhere, I began to notice a parallel process that was more creative rather than destructive: synergy, the emergence of new qualities as matter takes ever more complex living forms.

Every science reveals the power of synergy. As matter moves through dynamics of physics, chemistry, biology, physiology, psychology, and the political, social, religious, and moral sciences, driven by process that extend from the forces at work in stars to the cultural creations of civilization, we see at every level the emergence of new qualities that help create, sustain, and deepen the qualities of life and expand our potential experience of it.

Seared together in stars that are themselves the consequence of these processes, particles join to form atoms, and matter emerges - the 118 elements of the periodic table, each with unique qualities. Atoms join to form molecules, in millions of potential forms, each with qualities that appear seemingly out of nowhere, but reflect an underlying potential. Molecules join to form cells, and enable life, fungal and plant life that is able to replicate, adapt, and evolve into myriad forms, each again distinctive in the qualities that emerge. Simple cells join together to unleash conscious life - thought and self-awareness, at which point matter gains the capacity to look back on itself and assume an individual identity. Individuals, born to one another, join together to form communities - families, tribes, villages, states, nations, and even whole worlds, at each level inventing new forms of ever more complex social organization, each of which unveils intellectual, technical, and moral insights that lead us toward higher forms of enlightenment, and new understandings of our interconnectedness. Life is a creative force that somehow, against all odds, persists in tunneling its way from its latent forms deep within and between super-microscopic subatomic particles, through atomic, chemical, biological, and thoughtful systems, all the way to fuller expression in each of us as living beings, both individual and connected. In the vast expanse of the universe, life seems to be rare in material terms, yet so persistent in the face of unending time as to be practically inevitable. And we are still evolving. Who knows what may be next?

Chemistry is the science where this synergy is perhaps most instantly and obviously evident. Join together two elements with the capacity to bond, and they complete a puzzle, forming a union from which emerge whole new qualities, new forms of power, unlike any in the component parts. From the combination of oxygen and hydrogen to create water, to the hydrocarbons and carbohydrates that fuel our vehicles and us, this capacity to create something that is more and different than what was consumed is the foundation of sustainability. It is the essential counterforce to entropy, the expenditure of energy, which enables life to grow richer even in the face of material constraints.

Chemistry is a powerful capacity. The Hittites discovered it around 1200 BC, beginning the Iron Age, and ever since we have explored its potential while never fully comprehending its full purpose and power. The benefits of chemistry have been broad and vast. The costs, so far, have been mostly local and only occasionally catastrophic, though their impact is now planetary, and we must be careful. We know now that we need to approach chemistry with respect, understanding that the range of capacities available to us is as close to infinite as we need, but that our discovery of them must be guided by both curiosity and caution, with awareness of both the direct and indirect consequences of our exploration. It is our nature and perhaps destiny to discover more of the capacities of chemistry, but it is both a practical and a moral imperative that we do so with care, wisdom, gratitude, and awe.