What can climate activists learn from quantum mechanics?

Text and photos by Havu Pellikka

The camp has been up and running for four full days already, and its inhabitans have been way too busy to blog. The days have been packed with various activities such as games, learning about group dynamics and collective decision-making, sorting out practical matters, getting to know each other and the island, learning about the role of forests in the Finnish economy and culture, miming the principles of permaculture, studying tree rings, sharing feelings and emotions surrounding the climate crisis, swimming in the chilly sea, and crowded evening saunas, among others.

Group discussions in Vallisaari

One of my personal favourites in the program was the lecture on quantum mechanics on the second evening by Hanna Vehkamäki, professor in computational aerosol physics at the University of Helsinki.

Quantum mechanics has revealed that instead of the deterministic laws of classical physics, our world operates in a very quirky manner. In the very small scale, the only information available to us is in the form of probabilities.

If we send electrons towards a wall with two narrow holes (the so-called  double-slit window experiment), it is impossible to predict the route of a single particle or its final position on the screen behind the window. According to Hanna Vehkamäki, it is wrong thinking to even talk about the route or location of a single particle. The electrons arrive on the screen randomly, it is only with a sufficient number of particles when we begin to see the underlying, unexpected probabilistic pattern. But when do we see a pattern forming from the random observations?

Hanna Vehkamäki lecturing on quantum mechanics

Likewise, we can think, the state of the world consists of an indefinite number of local events. Only by looking at things with sufficient distance (both in space and time) it is possible to see patterns and narratives forming out of this chaotic web of happenings.

Climate activists and theoretical physicists both need to live with the unsatisfaction – and fascination – of not understanding, not being able to predict, not knowing the outcome in our world which is incredibly complex and deeply rooted in uncertainty.

Aino and Tarleena during the permaculture excercise
Bird cherry (Prunus padus) flowering
Our camp and the morning circle
Summer unfolding
Tree rings reveal a rich archive of past climate variations

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