THE BLOG
11/14/2014 10:45 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

Charles Darwin and the SunMine

What do evolution and a determined citizenry in a little city you've never heard of have to do with the future of civilization?

('Scientists') fear is that it's increasingly likely that the Earth's climate will warm by at least 4°C. Two degrees of warming, which the world's leaders have accepted as the supposedly safe 'upper limit', is bad enough. But according to one of the world's most influential climate scientists, John Schellnhuber, 'the difference between two and four degrees is human civilisation.'

Among other unpleasantries, this means that by 2074, two-thirds of the world's major cities will be under water, and it won't happen on New Years Day '74. This sobering bit of forecasting appears in the London Review of Books in a review examining books by George Marshall (Don't Even Think about It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change) and Naomi Klein (This Changes Everything: Capitalism v. The Climate). Ultimately, the reviewer despairs of either approach to saving our future...one approach psychological and the other political.

The problem seems to be that all three (reviewer included) adopt an essentially Newtonian perspective: discover the problem(s); figure out how to fix the problem(s); implement the solution(s). Mostly it's the implementation part which is the obstacle. Too many people benefit from the status quo, so our (human) response is too little, too late. Adios civilization.

For years, theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman* has argued that we canNOT predict where the process we call evolution will go. Though there are several books behind his thinking, the short course is that our evolutionary future is not predictable because our universe is not fully algorithmic. We are unable to "finitely pre-state" all the things that might happen. This is particularly the case when agency (AKA life) is tossed into the mix.

So, what does this have to do with the future of civilization and our role in it? Try this: substitute Darwinian engagement for Newtonian analysis. Here's one small and potentially very significant example.

In 2001, after more than a century, one of the richest mines in the world closed down. The British Columbia town which had existed and thrived because of this mine had a serious problem. The closing wasn't a surprise, so the town had prepared for the closing by developing world-class golf courses and a ski resort. Tourism jobs, however, are a poor substitutes for high-paying (unionized) work at the mine. The survival of the town (the local variant of civilization) is threatened.

Though they cannot control their future, the good citizens of Kimberley can influence that future. The city is on course to activate the largest solar generation facility west of Ontario in January. They call it the SunMine.

We first learned about the idea (more a dream at the time) of the SunMine in June,2009. Through luck, implausible (unpredictable) circumstances, innovative partnerships (about which we'll have more to say another day), tough negotiations, years of hard work and a full dose of goodwill, the first phase of the project is coming to fruition. This is how the city's Mayor characterizes the venture during its construction:

[transcript is below**]

From his studies, Dr. Kauffman has concluded that the most reliable criterion for determining our actions is this:

All you can do is do your best. You can never predict the outcome.

Despite a very plausible business case, there is no guarantee that the SunMine will succeed. Climate change may itself affect its economic viability. Still, the citizens of Kimberley, and their partners, have engaged their future...to the tune of a 2 million dollar bond issue supported by 70% of the voters. They have provided a toehold for civilization.

• • •

*--We are deeply grateful to Dr. Kauffman. In late night conversations, in his books and in the programs we've produced with him, he's helped us see how central evolution is to understanding our universe and ourselves.

**--transcript: Mayor Ron McRae (at the SunMine, in a snowstorm):

This project would not have happened if the City of Kimberley and the residents of Kimberley didn't have the resolve to see it come to reality.

(B)uilding capacity within community, that takes time. It doesn't happen overnight. There aren't any silver bullets out there any more. So what you have to do is be very methodical, very thorough, but you must remain committed to what you want to achieve.

(O)ne of the beauties of the SunMine is that the actual name itself. So no longer are we mining the ground, no longer are we depleting mother nature, and what mother nature has given us. We're now mining a renewable resource.

(T)here's not just one key to our success. There's many many keys, and that's the huge success of that telling Kimberley's story that we are seeing the results of. SunMine, is, again, one part of that telling Kimberley's story, so here's another example of Kimberley being involved in the activities that builds capacity, builds resiliency and sets the stage for future opportunities.

(T)hat's one of those words that definitely we need to use with respect to this project and projects that have come before because they are inspirational. You know, when I talked with people about the solar project, the SunMine and once you give them kind of the perspective on the SunMine and how it fits in to the bigger picture, you can see that inspiration, you can kind of see that glint in their eye that says, hey! This is really cool! You know, so if we could do this, there's got to -- there are many other things we can do and we can achieve.

Paula Gordon:

Yes, it snows. And that's what the ski resort and the cross-country trails are all about ... plus, 300 days a year the sun shines.