“May you live in interesting times” – a curse commonly attributed to the Chinese.
In August, 1969, a group of friends and I piled into a car in Delaware and headed towards New York. We were going to the Woodstock Festival. Despite the protestations of one of us (not me) about preparation, the rest of us overruled and we headed out in the middle of night with no food, no water, and little camping gear. We began to realize how special the event was going to be on the Jersey Turnpike when we began to pass other vehicles packed with people hanging peace signs out the windows of their cars. On arrival, we found a wonderful chaos but little water or food and in the next days all of us went through a very special experience of mutual support, survival, and great music.
Many of us believed that we and the country had turned a corner. Nothing was to stop the coming Utopia. We were too big to stop. In the years that followed all of this mostly collapsed. People went various directions. I met Left Wing Radicals seriously believing there would be an armed revolution in this country and others heading back to the land anticipating the demise of civilization. Many of the truly disillusioned ones – perhaps the ones who expected too much – went on to work on Wall Street and now are Republicans. Yippies became Yuppies. A little over ten years later, we elected Ronald Reagan President of the United States and the eighties became the Decade of Greed.
There were some who kept the spirit of Woodstock. Most of us compromised to a greater or lesser extent. Many of us were disappointed and all of us who were there are now undoubtedly wiser and more realistic in our expectations.
Today, perhaps in every generation and in every time, there are those who believe in the uniqueness of our Time, that we as a country or a world are on the verge of massive transformation for good or for bad. Is it our personal sense of mortality that drives us to think our own Time must be unique and special? Or, is our Time really what some feel it to be – a Time of great change?
We seem to live in interesting times. As human beings we have come an enormous distance in a few thousand years. Ten thousand years ago we lived primarily in small tribes as hunters and gatherers. Today we span the planet with a technology that has taken us to the moon and may be on the verge of destroying the environment and possibly ourselves with it. Small wonder the pace of change has invoked a feeling of apocalyptic dread not just in some of the religiously minded but also in others of a more rational bent. We have Christians expecting Armageddon, Muslims expecting the appearance of the Mahdi as the final Muslim Caliph, scientists predicting catastrophic global warming and ecological disasters, and New Age believers quite sure something will happen in 2012 but not exactly knowing what.
It would be easy to take an overly extreme pessimistic or optimistic view of human prospects in this atmosphere or to combine both pessimism and optimism at once with catastrophe followed by redemption, but all extreme views are afflicted with a sort of historical narrative fallacy – a tendency to interpret the past as being in some way exceptional, as having led us to this one critical point in time where everything changes dramatically for good or ill.
The odds really are against such a view. The “Doomsday Argument” (or “Carter Catastrophe”) applies simple probabilistic logic to show not only that is it highly likely we are not facing our imminent demise or ascendance but more likely we could be around as a species for quite a while longer much as we are. First proposed by Brandon Carter and subsequently independently discovered by J. Richard Gott and Holger Bech Nielsen, the argument begins with the assumption that there is nothing particularly unique about the time we are living in just as there is nothing particularly unique about the part of the universe we are living in. As a species, Homo sapiens has existed already for about 200,000 years. The assumption we are somewhere in the middle of the total lifespan of Homo sapiens can be expressed as a probability. We can be 95% certain that we are not in the first or last 2.5% part of the human lifespan. If we are now at exactly the 97.5% point of human lifespan, we will continue to exist another 5,100 years. On the other hand, if we are at the 2.5% point of human lifespan, we will continue to exist for another 7.8 million years. If we apply a 60% level of confidence, we are likely to be around another 40,000 to 1 million years. Homo erectus existed about 1.6 million years while Homo neanderthalensis lasted about 300,000 years.
Of course, we might really be living in a unique time. An asteroid could come from the depths of space and destroy Earth, a super nova could explode and release a gamma ray burst that kills almost all life on Earth – any number of physical catastrophic events could occur with dire consequences for human life. Yet even in the case of many of these horrific events, human life would stand a good chance of surviving. We have spread ourselves so widely over so many parts of the Earth and can survive in so many different ecological niches probably only the most extreme events could destroy the entire human population.
Whether such an extreme and random event happens is not within our control; it is in the realm of chance or cause so far out of our control that we might consider it chance. I do not believe in the supernatural; what we call supernatural is only nature incompletely understood. That leaves us with events largely under our control as humans even though they may be complex and poorly understood by us at this time. It is these choices, the ones we do control, that are the important things.
Among the things we can control, even though we may not know exactly how, we are left with war, terrorism, ecological disaster, and with it economic collapse as the obvious things. Those are things we can easily foresee happening even if we do not think them likely to happen or think them likely but do not see any easy way to avoid them. None of those things are likely to threaten the extinction of humanity. They could result in the death of millions and a virtually complete destruction of technological civilization. Yet even so humans at this time in our history would likely survive in outlying pockets of the world far from that civilization that brought the catastrophe about.
Then there are the other things we may be doing that appear in no way threatening, things that mask themselves in a cloak of benevolence., but bring with them a host of side effects whose import is not completely understood at the time they first appear. These things may be like Trojan horses appearing as gifts yet harboring inside them the means of our destruction.
Many of these are necessarily unknown, but certainly we can see from the examples of historical precedent. how our technology as it becomes more powerful might be able to bring about unforeseen effects The Green Revolution and modern medicine brought rapid population growth to the developing world that is threatening sustainability. Automobiles and electricity brought about a rise in greenhouse gases which may be affecting our climate for centuries to come. Even such seemingly minor things as the fluorocarbons used in refrigeration could have had a devastating effect on the ozone if their effects had not been finally understood.
We cannot easily reverse many of these things. The technologies have become so embedded in our lives that we cannot give them up without causing a cascade of negative consequences. We are on a technological treadmill that we cannot turn off and our only choices are to keep running or be thrown off. We can adapt and patch, create new technologies to fix the problems of the old ones, and hope we can keep up.
All of this has come around in an amazingly short period of time when we consider this on a geological scale.
What lies now on the horizon? What are the Trojan horses deceiving us at this time? I fear some of them may be more devastating than anything we have yet seen and yet appear so much more innocuous.
Are there mysterious forces guiding our history and transforming us as some 2012 believers think? It is doubtful and the more we believe there are such things the less consciousness and control we have over our fate.
To say that things are changing is a truism. Things are always changing. Just because things are changing rapidly now, however, is not sufficient justification to draw the inference that our time is especially unique. Almost every culture with a linear view of history likes to believe it is living in a critical time. For many, this fosters beliefs in End Times and impending disaster for humanity. From evangelical Christian belief in the rapture to the “scientific” apocalypse of global warming, we are drawn to the visions of doom in spite of the fact that every previous prediction of doom has proved to be false.
Of course, we as humanity are changing. Nothing stands still. Evolution did not stop for us when Homo sapiens emerged. Species are but temporary points of relative stability in a transition to something else either a new species or extinction. We are unique but unexceptional creatures. Our time is unique but not extraordinary. Our future will bring good and bad and we will continue to survive, even while we are changing, most likely for a while longer.
We need to maintain a sense of history and perspective and prepare for the long haul. If something happens sooner, so much the better but we must be prepared that it might not. And when Utopia does arrive, let’s make sure we have food, water, and maybe, if necessary, some camping gear.