Sunday, October 23, 2011

What time is it?

 West Brook, Gros Morne National Park
 On the set of Random Passage
What struck me most forcefully in reading paleoecologist Curt Stager’s Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth was his emphasis on our skewed perceptions of time. My example of what he’s talking about is this: if continental drift occurs at an average speed of one centimetre per year, then the final separation of Newfoundland from Labrador took place approximately three million years ago, assuming that the ferry crossing over the Strait of Belle Isle is 30 kilometres at present . . . and increasing by one centimetre per year. (For those of you who don’t think metric very often, a centimetre is the approximate width of a fingernail.)
               It’s little wonder that we can’t feel the earth move beneath us as it does in our imaginations, except when the continental plates grind against each other and earthquakes result.
               Stager's examples relate to the effect of human-activity-driven global warming on, for instance, the inundation of low-lying areas of earth. Florida will gradually disappear, but it will be so slow that people will not have to rush to higher ground. There will be plenty of time—possibly a few centuries—for the population to adapt to the slowly rising waters. The burning question becomes: “If it’s that far away, does it really matter?”
               And, as Hamlet says, “there’s the rub.” Our lives are such a short blip in the story of human life on earth and so fragile that we seldom sense our kinship with people who lived through the last ice age and the people thousands of years from now who will live on an earth shaped—in part—by our activities. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof (Matthew 6:34).” Stager would likely wish that Jesus would take this almost-epicurean aphorism back. When we talk about conservation these days, we hope for a good life for us, our children and grandchildren, and that’s about as far as we seem able or willing to think.
               Three things I can think of this morning prevent us from being responsible parents to future humanity:
1)      Our Politics: those who govern us have trouble thinking beyond the next election. There is little personal reward for a politician who advocates conservation now in the interest of the deep future.
2)      Our religions: a consciousness that assumes the end of everything is near is not likely to concern itself very much with a deep future.
3)      Our ignorance: we need to understand our lives in a bigger context than at present—both in time and space. Reading Stager’s Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth, Jeff Rubin’s Why Your World is about to get a Whole Lot Smaller or The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow have helped me gain new perspectives recently.
There may be an even bigger impediment to the awakening of a new vision for the human race, something to do with an overarching awareness of our kinship and an end to racial, ethnic and class differences that hamstring the chances for joint endeavour.
               Therein lies another “rub.” And it's a big one.

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