weekly challenge: A CLOCKWORK GREEN

lloyd clock2

Harold Lloyd in “Safety First!” (1923)

 

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.

No pressure!

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.

– Brendan

 

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.

hello earth!

Image: StockSnap

 

Welcome to earthweal, a poetry forum dedicated to global witness of a changing  Earth. Here is a place to report that news in the language closest to the dream, that we may more deeply appreciate the magnitude of those events. It is intended as a place for all related emotions—love and rage, grief and hope, myth and magic, laughter and ghost whistles—and belongs to the entire community of Earth as mediated by its human advocates.

Every Monday a climate-related challenge will post, and participants will have most of the week to mull over and fashion their own contributions. Responses should address the challenge in the form of new poetry, but if there is something more suitable in your archives, that’s OK too. 

Friday will kick off a weekend-long open link forum; post whatever you like from your present or past work. Look for the open link weekend to kick off this Friday, Jan. 3, at 4 PM Eastern Standard Time.

* * *

The word weal has a complex etymology. In one sense, weal is wealth, riches, boon, benefit, a happy community. It derives from Old English wela “wealth, well-being” and Middle English wele. Weal as well, that which is best for something. Weal imagines the healthy and prosperous state of the commonwealth.

All good, but the context of commonwealth fairness and equity usually refers only to the local human community. Earthweal suggest a global community, not only of humans but animals, plants, bacteria, minerals, water, air. For a sense of scale, the recent Australian brushfires have resulted in the loss of homes and several human lives, but some 450 million animals have perished as well.  

Earthweal is a place where the whole Earth community can share context and purpose.

To survive, commonwealths depend on ordering principles. (For an example, see the charter of The Commonwealth, a global organization of 53 countries devoted to democracy and peace.) One sense of the Middle English root wale is a planking which holds a structure together, gunwales are the outer planking of a ship, as are chainwales, from which the word channel arrives. Strength comes from limit; members of a community sacrifice some measure of personal freedom for the whole. Earthweal has a defined purpose, a center of gravity which belongs to the planet. It takes many planks to define that boundary; hopefully, poems from around the world submitted here will suggest the magnitude(s) of that world.

But achieving the “complicate amassing harmony” (which Wallace Stevens called the ultimate end of poetry) in global terms—and where it is most essential—is exceptionally difficult. I’ve noted how international voices inform poetry forums like Poets United, D’Verse Poets and Imaginary Garden With Real Toads, albeit limited to the language of English. That is a quality earthweal takes a step further, its ecosystem of verse dependent upon global voices.

And while the forums mentioned above do exceptional work, there is no place specifically dedicated to a changing Earth.  Now that climate change is beginning to wreak havoc around the world and is expected to intensify for centuries, local indices of that change appeal to a collective loom where the entire tapestry can be seen.  A second etymology weal comes from the obsolete root wheal meaning “suppurate”: a raised, longitudinal wound, usually purple, on the surface of flesh caused by a stroke of a rod or a whip. It is also landscape feature; Old English walu, “ridge, bank; rib, comb; the metal ridge on top of a helmet; a raised rib in a knit of fabric.”

We cannot write of the Earth these days without bearing witness to its great Anthropocene wounding. The only way to the greater community embraced by earthweal is through its wounds. By those stripes may our changing world be found.

If that seems like a cruel task, let us remember Wendell Berry’s clarity in his poem “Work Song”:  “This is no paradisal dream. / Its hardship is its possibility.”

The root weal is also sonically related to three other favorite words, and they too can be applied to the handle: EarthWheel for turning, EarthWell for depth, and EarthWhale for deep aquaean harmonies to the more evident terran birdsong.

Many planks for one song: your local news is important. How is climate change affecting your neighborhood?  I can write abstractly about wildfires in California or the Amazon or Australia or Indonesia, but my local experience is with hurricanes bearing down on Florida ever larger and wider and wilder. Hurricanes develop slowly and take days to march across the ocean, increasing local anxiety as they near; there are runs on groceries and storm supplies at the food markets and big box hardware stores; there are more days as the storm’s track changes somewhat, the center moving over a different proximity. Many times the worst passes, hammering coasts elsewhere, flooding someone else’s streets; and yet it is a shared experience, gathering hurricane supplies for our houses, wondering if the generator will crank and how long it will be before power is restored.  There are not small anxieties any more as hurricanes whip up to Category 5 strength or, with Dorian this year, even worse. Carbon emissions pump unabated, the oceans are heating and becoming storm-smiths of awful magnitudes.  

Monday challenges will center on one or another aspect of climate change: wildfire, draught, heat, cold, the jet stream, the ocean currents, animal extinction, sea level rise, etc. Each of these changing conditions has a local story, and earthweal challenges aim to give voice to them all.

The timing of Earthweal’s launch is important for several reasons. Climate events are multiplying and magnifying, yearly, seasonally, daily, and there needs to be location for poets around the world to register these events in their timely collective voice. Second, a vacancy has opened with the end of Imaginary Garden With Real Toads, the magical and imaginative forum hosted by Kerry O’Connor, and earthweal hopes to help fill that void. And finally, launching earthweal on the first day of a new decade is a good way embark on a journey which will take us through many things we don’t understand and can’t anticipate any more.

A word about me. For years I have posted under the screen name of Brendan MacOdrum at the blog Oran’s Well. I am named after the Irish navigator and an old figure from Scottish myth, a seal-man haunting the shores of Iona. I can’t decide whether to switch to a more local handle, like Porky or Swamp Thang, or go with my real name of David. We’ll see; for now Brendan sails this ship.

As earthweal grows, others will be invited to carry some of the load or submit occasional challenges. Tasking Florida alone to the crow’s nest makes for a solitary view, hardly the intent of this blog.

As earthweal begins, I quote Wendell Berry’s poem in full here as the hope I plant in its foundation:

          Work Song, 2: A Vision

If we will have the wisdom to survive, 
to stand like slow growing trees 
in a ruined place, renewing, enriching it… 
then a long time after we are dead 
the lives our lives prepare will live 
here, their houses strongly placed 
upon the valley sides… 
The river will run 
clear, as we will never know it… 
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down 
the old forest, an old forest will stand, 
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots. 
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened. 
Families will be singing in the fields… 
Memory, 
native to this valley, will spread over it 
like a grove, and memory will grow 
into legend, legend into song, song 
into sacrament. The abundance of this place, 
the songs of its people and its birds, 
will be health and wisdom and indwelling 
light. This is no paradisal dream. 
Its hardship is its reality. 

(from Clearing, 1977)

See you this weekend!

— Brendan