Get busy living, or get busy dying
— Tim Robbins, in the movie The Shawshank Redemption
You can only shit in your nest for so long; then you're nesting in your own shit
— origin unknown
Yesterday's post Contemporary Eschatology raises issues about time which need to be addressed. Toward that end, you need to consider the standard time scales (or time frames) and a few others I've put in for completeness.
- the cosmological time scale — current measurements based on the background radiation, which is an artifact of the Big Bang, put the age of the Universe at 13.7 billion years.
- the geological time scale — current measurements based on various isotopic dating methods put the age of the Earth at 4.567 billion years.
- the complex life time scale — here I refer to the non-standard time frame in which complex (metazoan) life has existed on Earth. The fossil record indicates that visible metazoans enter the fossil record about 580 million years ago. Most of this period is called the Phanerozoic Eon, as opposed to the Proterozoic Eon which proceeded it, which begins with the "Cambrian Explosion" 543 million years ago.
- the paleoanthropological time scale — here I refer to the non-standard time frame in which the human lineage (hominins) diverged from some branch of the apes (genus Hominoidea). The best estimates put the split at about 6-7 million years ago. The genus Homo arose about 2.1 million years ago at the beginning of, or shortly before, the start of the Pleistocene Epoch (measurements vary). The first crude stone tools appear in the fossil record about 2.5 million years ago. Anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) appear in the fossil record 200,000 years ago.
- the historical time scale — we might put the beginning of human history at about 5,000 years ago, when the first written records appear. Our knowledge of history prior to that is based on paleontological, anthropological or genetic research. This time scale typically deals with arbitrary cultural (or political) periods spanning many decades or hundreds of years.
- the human time scale — the span of a single human life, measured in years or decades. The upper bound (which is rarely exceeded) is about 100 years. Longevity has increased in the last few centuries. Human lifetimes used to be much shorter (more like 50 years).
Although these definitions and descriptions are much too brief, they are good enough for our purposes here.
Yesterday I described and criticized those whom I call Doomers for their repeated, sometimes hysterical calls for the collapse of human industrial civilizations any day (or month or year) now. It seemed to some readers that I was open to the same critique. Aren't I a Doomer too? Haven't I also said that human civilizations have no future?
I made an effort to distinguish myself (or scientists like Jeremy Jackson) from Doomers yesterday, but those distinctions were apparently too difficult for some readers to understand, no doubt because emotional responses preclude a reasoned consideration of such distinctions.
My expanded answer begins with a consideration of time. I have never claimed that industrial civilizations are on the verge of collapse this year, next year or within a decade. (Doomers are slippery, so the predicted time of collapse keeps shifting.) I have said that I expect that humankind will face insurmountable resource and environmental problems by the end of the 21st century. What's the difference timewise?
Straightforwardly, the difference is approximately 40 to 90 years. All of this discussion takes place on the human or historical time scales as defined above. However, if we consider the geological time scale, or the complex life time scale, or even the paleoanthropological time scale, then we can readily see that humankind's overshoot on planet Earth might as well be invisible because it is happening so quickly. The exploitation of fossil fuels began a mere 250 years ago, which seems like a lot of time on the human or historical time scales. Therefore my critics are right (in this narrow sense) if we view the events of the last few centuries in the context of unimaginably long time frames.
However, there are real differences to consider on the human or historical time scales. The differences emerge when we consider what Jeremy Jackson called shifting baselines. (Watch the video.)
Humans typically think and behave as though the world began on the day they are born. If there has been a gradual deterioration in economic conditions, or in the Earth's biosphere, people view those changes within the perspective of a single human lifetime—theirs. People seem to be blithely unaware that the deterioration they've seen over their lifetimes began long before they were born (on the human or historical time scales). Thus you get a shifting baseline. Each new generation of humans "resets the clock" to zero in this sense.
However, and this is very important, the deterioration of marine ecosystems, as Jeremy Jackson points out, began hundreds (if not thousands) of years ago. For climate, the situation is similar. Dave Keeling first measured CO2 in the atmosphere in the 1950s. The level of CO2 began rising (swiftly) when humans first started burning fossil fuels about 250 years ago. The actual baseline that scientists use is the CO2 level as it was during the Ice Ages (on the paleoanthropological time scale). If you look at that baseline, you readily see that human impacts began a very long time ago.
You should now be able to see that we humans are in the middle of a multi-stage decline in environmental conditions that began a long time ago (measured in human or historical time). On DOTE I am simply describing where we are and where we are going with respect to this decline. That human-caused decline is accelerating. Therefore, I say that human life has no future if those trends continue unabated as the 21st century goes on. Therefore, I am not a Doomer (as described yesterday) in any sense except that informed by very long time scales (e.g. geological time). Even then, I am merely extrapolating trends which are long-established.
Let me give you an illustration to bring this home to you. Suppose I could tell you with considerable certainty that these trends will come to their expected conclusion in 50 years. Would you buy gold or canned goods or whatever all that time, waiting for the end? Is that how you want to live your life? I think that's crazy. Get busy living, or get busy dying.
I think it's a shame that humans are destroying their Earthly habitat. I really do. I'm sorry it's happening.
The bottom line is that you are in the middle of a process which began long ago and seems to be playing out to its inevitable conclusion. That's the Great Truth of the 21st century, and repeated calls for some kind of "end of the world" next week, next month, next year or whatever only serve to obscure it.