The Library of the Great Silence

“Founded on the principle that knowledge about catastrophic risks and strategies of survival are of universal interest – and that all beings throughout the cosmos want to thrive for as long as possible – the Library of the Great Silence will invite beings throughout the universe to collaboratively research planetary futures. At the core of this new research center, managed in partnership with the SETI Institute at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, will be an archive of transformations presented in the most accessible form possible: Instead of texts, the library will collect objects associated with transformational moments, including natural disturbances (instantiated in materials such as lava and meteorites and fossils of extinct species), and human impact (instantiated in artifacts ranging from handaxes and money to trinitite and plastiglomerate). The library will also provide an open space to explore relationships between collected items, enabling representation of phenomena ranging from chance to complexity to overreach. An open invitation to contribute information and ideas will be broadcast throughout the cosmos.”

The Library of the Great Silence

The obvious conclusion is that anyone in a position to contribute will likely have already seen a standard set of transformational moments and survived them. The work is probably best focused on those that didn’t survive edge cases, which is the work of archeology.

The Great Filter: Civilization’s Lifetime

“Several of the scientists I spoke with proposed global warming as the solution to Fermi’s famous paradox, which asks, If the universe is so big, then why haven’t we encountered any other intelligent life in it? The answer, they suggested, is that the natural life span of a civilization may be only several thousand years, and the life span of an industrial civilization perhaps only several hundred. In a universe that is many billions of years old, with star systems separated as much by time as by space, civilizations might emerge and develop and burn themselves up simply too fast to ever find one another.”

—David Wallace Wells. “The Uninhabitable Earth.” New York Magazine. July 9, 2017.

After Atlas, Malthus Shrugged

“In 2014 I was visiting a university in Alaska, and happened to sit in on a lecture by the Norwegian policy expert Willy Ostreng about the new geopolitics of the Arctic. After talking about climate change in the Arctic and the increased accessibility to oil and gas, he embarked on a detailed elucidation of the various stakeholders, rivalries, potential for conflict, and developments for exploration. The hall was filled with political science majors, obediently writing down everything, and I kept waiting for some bright-eyed undergraduate to ask how it was possible that the forces that had caused the destabilization of the Arctic were now considering destabilizing it further. But the questions were only about the political and economic details of the situation. Finally, unable to bear it any longer, I raised my hand. Citing the increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere and the dire predictions of climate scientists, I asked how it was even possible that nations and corporations were considering the commercialization of the Arctic Ocean. Surely our energies would be better spent actively resisting such policies. The audience looked at me as though I had three heads. Ostreng was silent for a moment, then he said: “We will regret it. We will regret it, but this is reality.”

These are some of the most chilling words I’ve ever heard, rivaled only by the obedient silence of the students. One problem with our collective silence on the subject of climate change is that while we pretend life is going to go on as usual, there are others who are deliberately planning for control of a climate-changed world. Imagine a highly militarized, totalitarian, automation-based, habitat-destroying, water-starved future of perpetual war within and among nations, with captive populations ground down by scarcity and failing infrastructure, held in thrall by contrived loyalties and addictions peddled by mass media, where mass extinctions and the deaths of millions of refugees are barely noted except with a Malthusian shrug of the shoulders—while the super-rich live in fortified, climate-protected luxury bunkers or occupy a greening Antarctica and fly to the corporate-owned moon for vacation. It sounds like a bad science fictional dystopia. But some of the steps along that path have already been taken.”

—Vandana Singh, “The Unthinkability of Climate Change: Thoughts on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement.” Strange Horizons. September 11, 2017.

Quite possibly the best book review I’ve ever read.

Ergot on Rye

tl;dr: Ergot is a forgotten plague that teaches a lesson about the cost of ignorance, and perhaps, offers another one on the price of sanity and the value of a little madness. (1,620 words)

“An old cautionary tale has it that there once was a kingdom in which all the grain crop one exceptional year somehow became poisoned, causing anyone who ate its products to go insane. That posed a terrible dilemma for the king and his advisors, for the stores of grain from previous years were very modest, not nearly enough to feed the entire population of the land, and there was no way to procure food from without. The kingdom would face either widespread famine and starvation, if the harvest was destroyed, or widespread madness and chaos. After much deliberation, the king reluctantly decided to have the people go ahead and eat the grain, hoping its effects would be temporary, that at the very least human lives would be preserved. ‘But,’ he added, ‘we must at the same time keep a few people apart and feed them an unpoisoned diet of the grain from previous years. That way there will at least be a few among us who will remember that the rest of us are insane.'”
—Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale

This is a cautionary tale about ergot. Ergot is a fungi of the genus Claviceps that is a parasite of grains — primarily rye, but also triticale, wheat, barley, sorghum, pearl millet and rarely, oats. It has two major effects: (1) hallucinations, often with convulsions or epileptic symptoms, and (2) constriction of the blood vessels in the extremities that lead to gangrene and/or death. Generally, it is one or the other, which predominates likely depends on ergot genetics and the alkalinity of soil in which it grows. Other symptoms include strong uterine contractions (making it an effective abortifacient), nausea, seizures, high fever, vomiting, loss of muscle strength and unconsciousness. Its active ingredient is lysergic acid, a precursor to lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD. Historically, tens of thousands of people have died, been disfigured, or gone mad from ergot poisoning. Today, it is controlled and very rarely effects anyone.

Historians have speculated that lysergic acid in ergot may have been converted into ergine by boiling ergot-infected rye for an extended period of time. This process matches historical recipes for kykeon, which was the drink culminating a religious fast in the Eleusinian Mystery cults and perhaps used in other mystery cults as well. While there is some archeological evidence for the existence of rye after the Bronze Age, it did not become a widespread food staple until the Middle Ages.

Rye is a grain that grows on marginal lands. During the High Middle Ages (1000-1250 C.E.), there was a population boom and expansion that put pressure on the food supply, and as a result, rye was seeded in the winter to provide a bonus and/or nurse crop for more extensive agriculture. With the increased eating of rye by the population, the effects of ergot became more widespread and notable. For example, possibly the first example of a dancing plague in the historical record is a 1021 C.E. incident in the German town of Kölbigk:

“On Christmas Eve in 1021, 18 people gathered outside a church in the German town of Kölbigk and danced with wild abandon. The priest, unable to perform Mass because of the irreverent din from outside, ordered them to stop. Ignoring him, they held hands and danced a ‘ring dance of sin’, clapping, leaping, and chanting in unison. The enraged priest, recorded a local chronicler, cursed them to dance for an entire year as a punishment for their outrageous levity. It worked. Not until the following Christmas did the dancers regain control of their limbs. Exhausted and repentant, they fell into a deep sleep. Some of them never awoke.”
—John Waller, A forgotten plague: making sense of dancing mania

Except for the apocryphal year punishment, these outbreaks of dancing mania closely match the descriptions of the Eleusinian Mystery rites after consumption of kykeon, which suggests a reaction to a hallucinogenic variety or ergot. Perhaps, the psychological effects lasted for a year because that’s how long it took the population to eat through their store of rye grain for that year? Whether this story is an accurate depiction of events or has apocryphal elements, it is clear that a widespread mania is preferable to gangrenous ergotism. The first major documented case of gangrenous ergotism happened in the Rhine Valley, in 857 A.D., but it recieved it’s common name of “St. Anthony’s Fire” during the 1039 C.E. outbreak in Dauphiné, France. The cause of ergotism, at that time, was unknown. It’s not hard to imagine that those inflected with madness from ergot would be seen as being possessed by the Devil and the gangrenous form as punishment for sin. To speculate, perhaps ergot had a role to play in religious purity movements such as the strict vegetarian Carthars and the subsequent Catholic crusades and inquisitions that were in response to it.

It wasn’t until the physician Denis Dodart, in 1676 C.E., has the insight that “St Anthony’s Fire” did not behave like other infectious diseases with which he was familiar that a formal connection between ergot on rye and the disease was articulated. But, informally, this was already well known:

“Millers in the Middle Ages frequently kept clean rye flour for the affluent, selling flour made from ‘spurred rye’ — that infected with Ergot — to poorer customers.”
—Richard Evans Schultes, Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers

Millers understood the difference in the flours and why some rye was ‘spurred’ long before Denis Dodart. People also understood the connection, because the ‘spurred rye’ was eaten last, when all the other stores of food were gone and the spring crops had not reached the point of harvest, a period once referred to as “the starving time”. It wasn’t until the famine in continential Europe in the 1770s that an alternative food source, i.e., the potato, was adopted that food security became important to nations and famine in Europe was brought under control. With an alternative, there was less need for the poor population to eat ‘spurred rye’. Even then, as late as the 1800s, there were some documented epidemics where up to 40% of a population dependent on ergot contaminated rye for food would die from the disease, which were presumably better odds than surviving a famine without eating it.

Knowing the context beyond “somehow became poisoned” changes the way we understand the king’s situation. On one level, it’s a cautionary tale on ignorance. Ergot is a completely preventable disease. Before milling, the rye grain needs to be soaked in a saline solution which seperates the ergot from the grain. Ergot spores live in the first inch of soil and only live for a year, which means that deep tilling and crop rotation can be effective in eliminating it. But, you cannot address a problem, if you don’t understand it. It is why that there were waves of ergot poisioning decimating urban populations every few years for centuries. This cautionary tale was a fact of life for community leaders in a previous time.

On another level, it invites us to revisit our notions of madness and the role of hallucinogenics in society and for individuals. If it is true that in a time when everyone is mad from ergot that it is important that a king “keep a few people apart and feed them an unpoisoned diet of the grain from previous years”, perhaps it is equally as important to keep a few mad people that will remember what it’s like to not be strapped to the yoke of sanity. Our literature is filled with stories of shamen, oracles and seers that can see beyond the social framework of the sane. There are spiritual traditions — mostly among aboriginal communities but also within civilized society, such as the Eleusinian Mystery cults — where a ritualized experience of madness is a valuable vehicle for personal and social transformation and bonding. Perhaps in a world where ergot poisioning has been eradicated, some hallucinogenic ergot should be kept aside for those that would choose it. Why would anyone choose it?

“The third possibility is the one that really intrigues me. A 2011 study found that a single dose of psilocybin could permanently increase the personality dimension of Openness To Experience. I’m emphasizing that because personality is otherwise pretty stable after adulthood; nothing should be able to do this. But magic mushrooms apparently have this effect, and not subtly either; participants who had a mystical experience on psilocybin had Openness increase up to half a standard deviation compared to placebo, and the change was stable sixteen months later. This is really scary. I mean, I like Openness To Experience, but something that can produce large, permanent personality changes is so far beyond anything else we have in psychiatry that it’s kind of terrifying…There seems to me at least a moderate chance that they will make you more interesting without your consent – whether that is a good or a bad thing depends on exactly how interesting you want to be.”
—Scott Alexander, WHY WERE EARLY PSYCHEDELICISTS SO WEIRD?

The current trends of LSD microdosing suggest that trying to be a little more interesting might pay real dividends in our society. One is left to imagine the power of a communal approach to expanding openness, such as in a context like O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, where hallucinogenics are taken as part of a religious experience.