Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 19-28)
Back in ’99, I went to a mini-retreat with a small group of people in Santa Cruz. Y2K possibilities were much feared then, and over lunch outdoors at a Moroccan restaurant one of us laid out levels of concern along two axes: social disruption on one and technical disruption on the other — low and high in both directions. We were asked to place our bets in four quadrants. As I recall, I was the only one who expected close to zero, both ways. (Mostly I thought Y2K would poop the biggest New Years party in a thousand years. And, to the absent degree it mattered, I was right.)
Now I have been asked, on one of the lists I inhabit, to contemplate similar scenarios for the fate of humankind in a time of global warming. This time I’m going the other way and betting on a high degrees of badness. But my angle on the future is not one biased toward preservation of our species — or even a high degree of concern for it.
Species tend to last a couple million years, give or take. (Horseshoe crabs and other relics from the Paleozoic are rare exceptions.) On the geological scale of the Earth’s own maturation, two million years isn’t much. The genus homo has been around longer, but our current human model has only been around for a couple hundred thousand years, give or take. So who knows.
Still, humans have long been a threat many life forms, including their own, plus a number of elements in the periodic table. (Helium, for example.) It’s not for nothing that geologists are seriously considering renaming the Holocene epoch (the latest slice of the Quarternary period) the Antropocene — for the simple reason that human agency is all over it.
Any species risks ruining its ecosystem without other forces to keep it in check. Our species, however, has mostly eliminated those forces, especially disease. Thus our natural rapacity toward other species, and toward the Earth and all its exhaustible resources, goes unchecked, while our numbers steadily increase. Our only natural enemy, it seems, is ourselves, and not just because we grow in number toward a statistical cliff. We also have a boundless capacity to rationalize killing countless numbers of our own. Our intelligence and ingenuity, in service to our own needs, in oblivity to negative outcomes, have made us the ecological equivalent of Agent Smith: a rogue program proliferating itself on the Earth’s operating system like a self-replicating virus.
The more I study geology, especially from altitude, the more I see the history of the Earth in four dimensions, and the evanescence of our present geologic time.
- Here’s Kettle Point in Ontario, on the south shore of Lake Huron. From above you can see old shorelines written in rows of trees in forests that first grew beside retreating beaches. These rows march away from the shoreline as the land below rebounds from the relieved weight of a glacier that melted, leaving Huron as a puddle, not long before humans began building pyramids. You see the same rebound along the shores of Hudson Bay.
- Here are the San Gabriel Mountains, Los Angeles’ own alps, raised in the last few million years by the crumpling of the Pacific Plate against the North American one along the San Andreas Fault. Note the empty reservoirs at the bases of ravines in the mountain front. The reservoirs are are there to catch “debris flows” and boulders that frequently break loose, like ice calving off a glacier, and roll toward the suburbs below. Few geologies short of volcanoes are more active than these mountains, which are wasting down almost as fast as they are rising up, one catastrophic lurch after another.
- Here is the Long Valley Caldera, which I shot while skiing on Mammoth Mountain (an active lava dome with hot and toxic vents that occasionally claim a wayward snowboarder). The Caldera was produced by a “super-volcanic” eruption many times the size of Krakatoa, in the late Pleistocene. It is still active, and stars as one of the US Geological Survey’s roster of volcanic hazards.
- Here is the seaside community of La Conchita, between Santa Barbara and Ventura, on the South Coast of California, a few days after a mudslide killed ten people there. (You can see the slide clearly in the photo.) The whole town sits on a beach below an unstable mass of land that has clearly slid before and will surely slide again — soon.
While human agency contributes to global warming in the Anthropocene, what makes the Quarternary special is its rhythmic series of glaciations. Our current warm period is an interglacial one. Ice caps will likely grow again, whether we’re here or not. The Quarternary ice age (which we are still in) is the fifth known one, and likely the last, because the Sun is heating up. A billion years from now, the Sun will have boiled off Earth’s water. But the planet will already be too hot for life in less than half that time. A half-billion years is about age of the Manhattan schist I see out my window here in New York.
At 4.568 billion years old, our solar system is about a third the age of the Universe, which has been producing and reproducing galaxies and stars at a rapid rate and with unimaginable degrees of violence. That we’re in such a relatively quiet corner of the cosmos owes to the Sun’s rank as an ordinary star. All the named stars in the night sky are bigger than the Sun, and most are much younger as well.
We should consider ourselves fortunate to enjoy a few moments late in the life of a remarkably durable set of little spheres out in a rural arm of the Milky Way. Just being here, now, is an amazing grace. But it’s going to get harder, whether we fight the inevitable or not.
My main hope toward humanity waking up and doing what it can to stop shitting up the planet is the Internet: a grace designed (at the protocol level where its means are organized) to put each of us at zero functional distance from everybody and everything else, and at zero cost. The Net is a new platform for living, thinking, talking and inventing — without having to raid the world of irreplaceable goods in the process. And I hope we make the most of it.
“In the long run we are all dead,” Keynes said. And, if “we” includes every living thing that ever walked, swam or oozed around on Earth, death has already proven to be hugely productive, as well as abundant.
It is the job of the living, in their brief hours upon the stage, to do more than strut, fret, and be heard from no more. In the long run every thing will be nothing. But we don’t need to signify that in the meantime.