Humanity is in a wild crucible where our everyday reality is increasingly irrupted by scales of time a billionfold older than our very existence.
It can make a person dizzy, cry, or change.
Time is a human invention; animals don’t have the same sense of it. Sure, circadian rhythms weave through nature; our cats know when it’s feeding time before we do. But only humans have a god for time — the Titan Cronus (from which we derive our wrist chronometers from), parting the yaw of Hadean eternity to delve forth the first reckonings of day and night, the seasons, the greater cycles of time. (Cronus was kicked out with the rest of the Titans to make for the more timely and modern Olympians.) Science came along eventually and calibrated things more intricately, but its sweep of the ages has faithful roots in human time.
For most of human history, time has moved slowly. After 2 million years of ape evolution, the first flint tools appeared, and the oldest rock art—signifying symbolic thought—dates back 70,000 years. Thanks to a warm and wan phase in the climate in the Holocene Epoch, agriculture began ten thousand years ago, ending hunter-gather prehistory. Tool in hand, human time accelerated. The first cities were founded 5,000 years ago, cuneiform writing appeared 2,500 years ago. The printing press appeared 500 years ago, the steam engine 200 years ago, the telegraph 125 years ago, radio and cars and airflight 100 years ago, television and atomic power 75 years ago, the Internet 30 years ago.
The spike in human development looks like this:
At some point in this accelerating story, human time began impacting geologic time. The time scales are vastly different—a geologic eras last tens of millions of years, while civilized development stamps its deep footprint over the past 500 years—but in short order, processes like ice sheet melt or the natural carbon cycle which used to take vast time scales to accomplish are now getting down in a geological instant—the past two hundred years, since coal-burning steam machines started chugging away.
As industrial and then electronic civilization has progressed (data farms burn a lot of electricity), the earth has heating up, slowly and then faster and faster, and especially over the past 30 years as countries like China and India increased industrialization and supporting a growing middle class with air conditioners and cars. The past 30 years has done more to melt the poles and push the Earth toward hothouse conditions than the past 3 million years of deep time, placing us in conditions not seen by our very oldest hominid ancestor.
We can conceive the global warming trend looking like this:
Look familiar? The two graphs make it clear that the human spike—the one we’re so dazzled by—is producing a correspondingly dangerous spike of change for all life on Earth.
The scale of changes now being observed around the world haven’t been seen for all of human existence, and they are unfolding in in real time. (Well, sort of: Whatever we are seeing today—the wildfires and floods and heatwaves and drought—is the result of warming from several decades ago, when there was 10 percent less carbon in the atmosphere than now.) Making it even stranger is that human civilization is evolving faster than our biology. If all of homo sapiens’ 300,000-year history were compressed to 24-hour clock, agriculture started a minute ago and the printing press appeared two seconds ago, and the internet a tenth of a second ago.
And if we put Earth’s history on a the same 24-hour clock, the arrival of homo sapiens itself has only been around for the last second. Geology’s time is calibrated by immense spans of time—millions and hundreds of millions of years—and yet the fair 12,000-year Holocene Epoch seems to have come to an end, caboosing the 66 million year Cenozic Era and crossing into unknown and unparalleled span of time now called the Anthropocene, an age in which conditions of the three billion-year old Earth is determined by the folks who got there a second ago.
When you look at the core of this growth—the cognitive clout of the human brain—the rate of change has gone from accretive to hyperdrive. The sum of information from the dawn of human time to the year 2003 was once calculated to be 5 exabytes (1 billion gigabytes). By 2010, that amount of information was calculated to double every two days. In 2009, the entire World Wide web was estimated to contain close to 500 exabytes. In 2013, it was around 4 zettabytes (4 trillion gigabytes). With the advent of what we once quaintly called The Internet of Things, the volume of human knowledge began doubling every six minutes. Ray Kurzweil says the rate of increase in our knowledge is so fast that the 21st century will see not 100 years but 20,000 years of progress within its span. By the year 2050, human knowledge will be a quadrillion (that’s one thousand million million) times more advanced than it is now. He also predicts we are headed for a Singularity where artificial intelligence — the mind capable of absorbing all of this information — will accelerate past all human comprehension.
Who wouldn’t feel disoriented, even left behind, by such quicksilver change? One very weird effect of this is that we may have outgrown time. Back in 2003, Douglas Coupland made this observation:
It’s now obvious to people who were around in the twentieth century that time not only seems to be moving more quickly, but is beginning to feel funny, too. There’s no more tolerance for waiting of any sort. We want all the facts and we want them now. To go without email for 48 hours can trigger a meltdown. You can’t slow down, even once, ever, without becoming irrelevant. Music has become more important because music is a constant. School reunions are beside the point because we already know what our old classmates have done. Children often spend more time in dreamland and cyberspace than in real life. Time is speeding up even faster.
Coupland called it “timesickness”:
People are now doing their deepest thinking and making their most emotionally charged connections with people around the planet at all times of the day. Geography has become irrelevant. Our online phantom world has become the new us. We create complex webs of information and people who support us, and yet they are so fleeting and tenuous.”
If you’re like me and find yourself rather helplessly a-cloud in digital media, the online experience is akin to playing poker in Vegas after midnight: there aren’t any clocks in the room, or they have no hands, or are spinning so fast you can’t read them. The only thing which exists is your engagement — the next poker hand’s possibilities and the money you might win — to explain your weariness and dwindling funds. You expect everything and nothing. Online is the fragmentation bomb you keep pulling the pin from, and you go about your online business in a maelstrom of infinite next things pulling at your tattered attention.
Something other is happening as well. Coupland once more:
The voice inside your head has become a different voice. It used to be “you.” Now your voice is that of a perpetual nomad drifting along a melting landscape, living day to day, expecting everything and nothing.
Weirdly, as time is vanishing, so too is our sense of home. Current housing stats bear this out. Kids coming of age now are either living on with their parents, or live around in temporary, fleeting engagements. Home ownership among millennials is about half the national overall rate, with many waiting much later to make their first purchase. Or they never settle down, living in a mobile, gig society, where home is where you currently hang your hat and no more.
Timesickness may result in homelessness, and both are very much in the heart of what’s wrong in the edgy fretful technoburb of contemporary lie. Home, Mercea Eliade once said, “is much more than shelter; home is our center of gravity.” Without a sense of the ground beneath our feet, what is gravity for, anyway? No wonder it’s so difficult to notice what’s happening to our world right when it’s changing so fast.
How much more carbon gets into the atmosphere depends mostly on actions taken by human beings. How many species go extinct—we’re in the middle of a Sixth Extinction event—is up to us. Until now, all of the major events affecting life on Earth have been caused by volcanoes or meteors or both and the billion-year sweep of deep time. Those events can still happen and there’s little we can do about it; but this is the first time in Earth’s history that a species of organic life controls not only its own destiny but also the fate of vast geologic time to come.
And it is here and now, in this present day and the next ten years—a mere nanosecond of celestial time—which will make all the difference in that story. What humans do or don’t over the next decade will decide the course of the next hundred thousand years, possibly much longer than that.
And if life turns out to be as rare a phenomenon in the colossally inanimate and dark realm of the universe, then, the organic experiment may be over, too.
So if you’re feeling betwitched and bothered by climate change, well, join the club.
On the plus side, maybe humanity is being forcefully awakened from its self-deluded dreamtime. Nostalgia for the good life in those happy days of 1950s is really a fast-track much further back to primordial conditions inhospitable to life—not Eden but hothouse Venus with its 200 mph winds and 800 degree temperature. Humans cannot live apart and hunkered down from the rest of living world without imperiling all. It may take decades, centuries even to waken from that dream, but what it points to is a greater merging of the human with the animate and inanimate orders. I, Thou, Bambi, oak, ooze, mountain, starstream, moment, infinity, presence, dark matter, we are all woven of the same fabric.
We might start braking our time-jets by wising up to radically new definitions of home. Humanity was never alone in this world, and the atomization of that separation in suburban mass comfort is largely at fault for climate change. If humanity is to survive, we have to restore a sustainable balance with the world; we have to make our home with our fellow animals, our inanimate Earth and its huge sweeping time scales. Right-sizing might mean conscious diminishment—shorter lives, fewer people, rejection of more tools and toys, stopping progress in its tracks somehow. Even choosing to die as a species before ending the Earth.
I named this challenge “A Clockwork Green” after Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel which Stanley Kubrick later parlayed to the screen. Both provide an utterly riveting and disturbing view of dystopia so prescient of the present moment. (Alex and his thug Droogies are matched today by the sartorial Proud Boys.) Burgess once explained the cryptic title as “the junction of the organic, the lively, the sweet – in other words, life, the orange – and the mechanical, the cold, the disciplined.” Life in the technological age.
I think we all have a pretty good idea how human life is faring in that matrix, but what about the confluence of Earth and human time in the present moment? That is the challenge of A Clockwork Green.
Here are some directions you could go in:
- Irrupt your dailiness with geologic time scales. What’s it like for, say, the beginning of a new romance or the puppyhood of a beloved pet to be on the same time scale of a melting glacier, or the experience a suddenly more violent and changeful seasons?
- Compare the sort of things which could occur in next decade of your personal life with the Earth’s fate for the next hundred thousand years.
- Speak for pangolins, who have been around for 80 million years, or sharks (450 million years), both hunted to the edge of extinction so humans can enjoy a few more years of life battening on their scales or fins.
- How could a poem speak in multiple time scales at once? How is a wildfire or a massive storm both human and geologic?
- If time is mostly a human concept, what is a day in animal imagining, or an era from the point of view of Earth or space?
- Is there a moral element to knowing how human time is affecting geological time? Say you’re a Greek of the classic era (600 BCE) who saw a business opportunity which would yield great immediate profit but would damage the world for centuries to come. Is there a moral responsibility for the outcome of human history? Is lack of action today climate change today a moral failure which defines the species? How would the ghost of Plato speak to that, or a dead gas company executive?
- What happened to time? Spin the clockfaces crazily and get a feel for a present both timesickness and solastalgic.
- if the human eye has been turning too much inward, how do we start naming and seeing the world outside? What myths turn us toward addressing earth symptoms?
- If you were a geologist examining the human strata which characterized the Anthropocene, what would you find in the dirt and air and compaction of remains a million years from now?
- Without time, what is life and living? Where does it step with the other foot and be dead?
OK, nuff said. (Yes, too much.) Get to work, go shake your metric booty, spook your muses and rattle the bones of the ages. Then bring your discoveries back to the earthweal theater in the green so that a good, weird, ghostly and possibly healing time may be had by all.
Link a poem relating to time scales using the Mr. Linky Widget above (include your location) and be sure to visit your fellow linkers’ contributions and comment. Open link weekend follows this Friday at 4 PM EST.