I have been invited to participate in a (virtual) panel discussion at Ian Edwards’s Art-Science-Climate Broto conference scheduled for May 16-17 in Provincetown. The topic is “Deep Time and Climate Change.” In other words, as I understand it, how our current relationship to the environment will be seen hundreds or thousands of years from now.
On the face of it, the question is absurd. Deep Time, geologic time, will most certainly leave us and our civilization, with all its paltry buildings and monuments (but apparently not our plastic), in the dust. We can no more imagine the distant future than we can the distant past. Eons stretch before us as far forward, perhaps farther forward, than those that stretch behind us. I can no more comprehend a million years — in either direction — than my dog can appreciate a Mozart sonata.
And on an experiential level, on an existential level, the distant past and the distant future do not really exist. If you know the names of your four grandparents, good for you. How about your eight great-grandparents? How about one step further? And we haven’t even gone back a couple of hundred years. Similarly, can you even imagine, would you even recognize, could you even relate to, your eventual descendants a couple of hundred years from now? So, the point is: what do we owe these people? On one level, not a thing.
What about the Earth? Do we have an obligation to its future? Again, on one level, the answer is no. This may sound strange coming from an environmentalist, but the Earth is going to be just fine. The best scientific estimates are that our planet has another five billion years (can you imagine that?) to party before the Sun gives out. The Earth has undergone paroxysms of environmental catastrophe repeatedly over the last five billion years. Fire and ice, as Robert Frost wrote. The Earth will go on.
This does not mean the oceans and the atmosphere will be the same. It does not mean that there will be striped bass or lobsters or right whales or chickadees or coyotes. Or people. Or town meetings or the internet.
These changes are so inevitable that they tempt us into lethargy, complacency, inaction. What is the point of resistance? What is the point of mitigation, of remediation? Why should we care?
For me, Deep Time is now. Thoreau talked of standing “on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment….” Now is all we have. Our lives are all we have. This day is all we have. Carpe diem —seize the day! (The Roman poet Horace wrote that in 23 B.C.)
I would argue that the reason to save the whales, to fight climate change and sea level rise, and for that matter, the reason to fight for social justice and the end to income inequality and racism and homophobia and cruelty to animals and other societal ills, is to save ourselves. The reason to “live deliberately” (Thoreau again) is to get the full value of your Self. To stand for something. To leave the world a better place, at least for the next generation or two. To look at the day you have just lived through and know that you have shown someone love, made them laugh, or at least not made them cry. To help someone. To create something, to make the world more beautiful. To not be a bystander. To act.
I hope the generations that follow will do the same. After all, the only lasting good we do is by example.
I have read that the buried nuclear waste out in some Western state (close by some Native American community, no doubt) presents the technicians there with a dilemma: how to place a warning about its danger for whatever beings will come upon it thousands or millions of years from now. Isn’t that rich?
What about us? What about the here and now?