It’s going to be all right

I have always found history fascinating, perhaps because I thought I had so little of it personally. My favorite writers growing up were Shelby Foote and Stephen Ambrose, and even in fiction, I preferred novelists like Michener and Uris. I read Bradbury, but I think he was as much a historical writer as the rest in his own way, despite his genre. Throw in a bit of Mickey Spillane and Ellery Queen just for fun, and you’ve got the picture.

Discounting military service, virtually all my adult life has been spent as an archaeologist. In short, you might say I’ve been obsessed with the past. I’ve seen it all come and go: war and peace, wealth and poverty, nations rising and falling, cultures great and profane, cemeteries full of lives cut short, of crises forgotten or remembered, but either way, good for nothing better than allegory now. Through it all, one thing stands out, clear and cold.

It’s going to be all right. Not in the sense of world peace, the brotherhood of man, and all that, but it is going to be all right. In time, no one will remember any of the this. What we’re going through is serious, yes, and will cause a great deal of pain to people who deserve better. The same was true of whatever it was those people in the cemeteries of the world were enduring, those things we either can’t remember or experience only as intellectual abstractions today. The same will be true of whatever traumas and crises future generations will face, if there are any future generations.

Nor will anyone remember all the joy, the love and human companionship we are also experiencing, the intensity of compassion and purpose that fill the struggle against all the adversity I mention above, but that too, will continue beyond us, as it has these millennia.

You know the old joke: an optimist is one who believes this is the best of all possible worlds, and a pessimist is one who’s afraid that’s true.

One way or the other, this is the world we’ve got, and we are the humanity we’ve got. It could be that we have broken the earth as a habitable place for us beyond repair, and it could be the death of us, of our species. If that happens, the earth will continue to spin on its axis and hurl itself around the sun; other living things will thrive, and possibly evolve to wonder about the remains we leave behind.

We’ll be just one more of the billions of species to disappear, just one more bag of remains in the vast cemetery we live on.

It’s going to be all right.

Time and the swelling tide

I was just out walking in the town I live in.  An unseasonably nice day, warm and breezy, like the best days of early fall.  Then it hit me: my generation may very well be the last to experience habitable climates on most of Earth.

It is almost certainly too late to adopt enough changes to avoid disaster.  As for our social preoccupations, they are vexing, for sure, but not nearly on an order of magnitude comparable to environmental issues.  No matter how our current crises play out, how sordid or how sublime our responses to the xenophobia raging across the planet, it will all take its place in history, alongside all the ages, dark, golden, or forgotten.

If there still is history.  If the effluent we keep pumping into the air leaves us with a future, let alone history.

In a way, it’s a self-correcting problem.  Either we correct our course, which seems increasingly unlikely, or we render our planet inhospitable.  In either case, our cultures will change, and our sheer numbers will decrease, in the former case by intelligent design, in the latter by brute force.  The earth will return to its inanthropic cycles, none the worse for wear, to whatever state counts as normal.

We are far too young a species to grasp what that is.  Earth has passed through phases as diverse as completely covered with ice, an atmosphere poisonous to virtually any life, and desiccation more severe and universal than anything since we crawled out from our ancestral apes into the brave new world.  Through most of it, life had yet to occur, much less evolve, and even when it had, it clung tenuously to existence.  At least five times since it’s emergence, life has been almost wiped out.  Even our own species was squeezed through a fine and narrow filter some 60,000 years ago, when genetics point to a breeding population of Homo sapiens of less than 2,000.  Some scholars speculate that it was during this period that our evolving intelligence was given a swift kick to accelerate it, in response to the demographic crisis.

Given how that is turning out, I’m not very optimistic.  I hope I’m wrong.

Apocalypse how?

The guy down the street is talking about militias.  He sees the signs of the coming anarchy everywhere.  Especially, I’m thinking, on Fox News.  But even without Fox’s fear mongering, it would be easy to become discouraged about the future of the world.  Every day, the inescapable images of Jihad bombard us, new school shootings, carried out or just threatened, besiege us, and random acts of carnage seem to surround us.  The moral fabric of humanity appears threadbare, on the verge of ripping apart.

It has happened before.  I’ve just been reading Barbara Tuchman’s remarkable study of the 14th century, A Distant Mirror.  A combination of the Black Death, which wiped out as much as 40% of the population of Europe, and endemic corruption in the Church and aristocracy, made people despair of anything good coming of the human race.  They were convinced that, somehow, they had so revolted God that he resorted to torturing them willy-nilly, without regard for who was righteous and who was not. It was not God, of course, but themselves to blame, but in a way, that just makes it worse.  In comparison with those troubled times, ISIS seems just a dim reflection.

But we were beyond all that barbarism, weren’t we?  Or, at least, we thought we were.  Taking a realistic look back at the 20th century, the standard by which we seem to be measuring the 21st, maybe not.  The two world wars alone accounted for nearly 70 million official deaths, and who knows how many more were missed by the official tallies.  Stalin was reportedly responsible for 50 million deaths all by himself.  Add all the sideshows, and you might add half again as many.  We forget the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, I suspect, mostly because they didn’t behead Europeans and Americans on TV.

All of that notwithstanding, as Stephen Pinker demonstrates in his book The Better Angels of our Nature, the world is less violent now than at any point in our history.  Yet you wouldn’t know it from the daily news, and therein lies the answer.  A combination of our all-news-all-the-time media and direct threats made from distant places by religious fanatics creates the impression of impending doom; reality is undoubtedly not as horrendous as it seems.

But don’t take that deep breath just yet.  The other day, I noticed my internet connection having trouble, and a couple of IOT things had to be reprogrammed.  It happened that this coincided with a rather lusty blast of solar radiation.  A few years ago, a stronger one messed with GPS and caused all kinds of problems, but the worst instance was in 1859, something called the Carrington event.  Telegraph wires were so electrified that the service was completely shut down; one operator was reportedly killed by a surge coming down the line.  People could read, it was said, by the light of unusually bright Northern Lights.

More troubling from our standpoint was solar storm that occurred in March of 1989.  That one fried the electrical grid of Quebec and caused a massive blackout, and it was a fraction of the estimated strength of the Carrington event.  It is a certainty that something of the intensity of 1859 will happen again, sooner or later.  It’s probable that even stronger solar storms have occurred before the world was wired, and they could very well return with a vengeance now that we’re virtually (pun intended) dependent on little electrons behaving the way we want them to.  In short, it is possible that not only could our electrical grid get fried, but all of the data we have stored magnetically could be erased permanently.  Computers, which now inhabit everything from nuclear weapons to cars to toasters would be, well, toast.  I leave the full consequences to your imagination.

On the bright side, however, we will probably be done in by climate change long before any of that happens.  Cheer up!

Save the Earth?

We do not need to save the Earth, it will be fine without us.  We cannot preserve the ecosystem because there are many, and they are constantly changing.  There has never been a time or a condition of the planet that has been inherently superior to any other.  There is nothing particularly superior about organisms that have been here for centuries, over ones that have just arrived from Asia in cargo holds.  All existing species are successful invasive species.  We are fairly successful, but far less so than cockroaches.  Most of the organisms that have ever been alive are dead, and their kind extinct.

We need to get rid of sanctimonious claims that Earth is our mother and we must nurture her.  Earth does not care whether we die out or not; it would be just fine as an iceball again.  Mars is not dead, and does not need to be revived.

The only entities to whom our continued existence as a species matters are ourselves, and possibly our dogs.  Certainly not our cats, still less our goldfish.

We need to get over the idea that we are harming nature.  We are nature.  Everything we do is natural, even if it leads to results unfavorable to ourselves.  We need to stop thinking in terms of preserving a sacred other, and realize that what we must do is keep the Earth suitable for ourselves to continue to live on.  That’s it, no holy quest, just pure self interest.  It’s something we’re rather good at.

Even then, if we are wildly successful, our species will no longer exist in a few million years, just as our Australopithecine ancestors no longer exist as a species.

Moral imperatives can be successfully refuted by mere denial; solid arguments based on evidence of our pure self interest are much more difficult to refute.  That’s just the way things are.

An open letter to God, Esq.

Dear Sir (or Whatever),

As you know, I don’t usually write you open letters, but these days, things have piled up.

First off, why did you have to make my hard drive crash?  Don’t go all innocent; every day I hear people say how you’re in total control, and it’s all according to your plan, etc., etc.  Besides, don’t think I haven’t noticed that everything computer lately is in the cloud.  That’s where you live; hard to believe you’d allow a setup like that unbeknownst.  Sure, lots of people say it’s just the computer companies trying to get more and more control and money off their customers, but I can’t believe you’d let your space be used that way – doesn’t seem like you.  I am also aware I’ve been rude lately, maybe even blasphemous, but a hard drive crash seems a bit much.  How about just one of those migraines, wouldn’t that have been more appropriate?

And then there’s the matter of your people down here – you seriously need to get a grip on them.  They’re always yammering about peace and love, and the whole time they’ve got their hands around your throat and in your pocket.  I like the new guy, Frank, at the Vatican, but frankly, I’m worried for him.  I saw what happened to John Paul I.  Was that you, or some of your Vatican enforcers?  Either way, things seem out of control, and not just in your Mideast franchises.  Here in the US, your people have gotten really crazy.  Look, I know that those you would destroy, you first drive mad, but did you ever consider that the rest of us have to live through that, too?  Didn’t you learn anything from that whole Job experience?

And the weather.  Don’t get me started on the weather.  Yes, we’ve screwed it up ourselves, but, again, it’s your people who have worked the hardest to keep us from fixing things.  We’ve got preachers down here positively gloating about Tribulations and Rapture and what-not.  If you’re not coming back right away, I’d just as soon you fix the weather thing and leave us alone for awhile.  Don’t give me that business that you can’t do anything about it; people ask you all the time to reverse those laws you set up so long ago, just so they can win a big football game, for Christ’s sake.  You could just wave your hand, or whatever it is you’ve got, and Bob’s your uncle.

Well, I know Bob’s not really your uncle.  I won’t even ask you about that triangle thing you’ve got going with Jesus and the Holy Ghost.  Not my business really.

Sincerely,
You-know-who

A fable

Crusty Paul sat in his apartment, water lapping at his feet, when there was an insistent knock at his door.  He sighed and got up to answer it, knowing full well it was Larry, his annoying neighbor from downstairs.  He opened the door, and sure enough, there was Loopy Larry, a look of stern admonition on his insipidly righteous face.

“There’s water dripping on my head again, Paul,” he said.

“Well, I’ve told you before, just get used to it.”

Loopy Larry sighed.  “Have you let the bath run over again?”

A flush rose to Paul’s face.  “So what?  It’s just your stupid theory that that’s what’s making water drip on your head.”

“It’s not just a theory.  Every time it happens, I come up here and you’ve let the bath water run over.  Look at your floor, for chrissake, it’s covered with water!”

Paul looked at him with an expression of someone explaining some simple fact to a rather dense child, for the hundredth time.

“If you look at the past, you’ll see there are lots of times when water just falls out of the sky, for no reason.  How can you say my bathwater causes your problem, when we know that happens naturally, all the time?”