The Long View

is a writer living in Ashland, Oregon, USA. Various concerns include permaculture, natural human movement, evolutionary nutrition, and the benefits of a good wandering day..

Our planet is not fragile at its own time scale, and we, pitiful latecomers in the last microsecond of our planetary year, are stewards of nothing in the long run.

– Stephen Jay Gould

A childhood in the part of New Mexico where I grew up is marked more by what is not there than what is there. There is simply no place to go.

There are two seasons — hot and windy. There are no natural sources of water like rivers or lakes that draw you in with their gravity. Trees are few and far between. It makes sense, then, that there are few animals beyond a few birds and lizards. During my last visit, a thick malaise settled around me there, and I spent some time thinking about it. It occurred to me that should the grid go down, this town would no longer exist. Poof. In three days’ time, everyone would have to leave because there would simply be no way to continue without the trucks bringing supplies, electricity pumping water from aquifers deep in the ground, and gasoline enabling cars to get from one manmade object to another.

And yet, it wasn’t until I had been away for some time that I finally realised what it offered. What I saw as wasteland was actually the bed of an extinct ocean and barrier reef. Layers of sediment show signs of life with fossils bearing witness. Deposits of salt, potash, and gypsum are what remain of the shallow sea that once lapped ashore against the ancestors of today’s Rocky Mountains. There are places where erosion and tectonic uplift display the strata of millions of years of geologic development. A school field trip included a visit to an active archaeological dig where a mammoth’s remains were painstakingly revealed with small chisels, hammers, and brushes. Nearby, spearheads and stone tools were discovered dating to about 11,000 years ago.

This was a land of clues. As sure as I once stood there, staring up into a sky full of meteor showers, so had people before and so will they after I’m gone. Species once lived here that predate humans, and something we can’t fathom may replace us. For all of our science, religion, and philosophy, our origins remain mysterious, but our distant future appears to involve being engulfed by the very sun that nurtures us as it increases in size toward red giant status. That’s right. This planet we emerged from, that sustains us, and that we bellyache about destroying, will someday no longer exist.

As Stephen Jay Gould put it in his prologue to Bully for Brontosaurus:

[N]ature is so massively indifferent to us and our suffering. Perhaps this indifference, this majesty of years in uncaring billions (before we made a belated appearance), marks her true glory… she exists neither for nor because of us, and possesses a staying power that all our nuclear arsenals cannot threaten… We should be so powerful! Nothing within our power can come close to conditions and catastrophes that the earth has often passed through and beyond… We certainly cannot wipe out bacteria… I doubt that we can wreak much permanent havoc upon insects… [b]ut we can surely eliminate our fragile selves — and our well-buffered earth might then breathe a metaphorical sigh of relief at the ultimate failure of an interesting but dangerous experiment in consciousness.

That experiment in consciousness has an interesting side effect — the ego. By its very nature, ego isn’t good at seeing the big picture. It sees me, now. It calculates, second by second, what my needs and desires are to maintain a steady state of comfort. When that comfort is challenged, it rebels until comfort is again achieved. And on it goes.

Entering nature is a surefire way to invite the ego to loosen its grip. There’s the immediate experience — bird calls, wind through branches, waves on sand, the stillness of chilled air — but if we pay attention long enough, we begin to get a sense that its timeframe and its logic are different than ours:
The soil created from the decay of organic material and aided by organisms like worms and lichens;
The lack of corners;
The rocks and stones, their cleverly disguised impermanence. They haven’t always been in that place and they will be moved again or shattered;
Today’s ‘invasive species’ become tomorrow’s natives;
What we call erosion is really the birth of a mountain elsewhere.

This is why so much of the modern ‘Green’ movement misses the mark, our ego is superimposed on everything we see. We mistake our desires for Mother Nature’s, forgetting that she indeed has none. It’s all one big experiment, with no goals and few rules.

This is not a carte blanche to wreak havoc, and Gould agrees. I hope everyone is sufficiently depressed to know that there are beaches in the world where one must dig over six inches deep to find sand free of plastic particles — plastic that will outlive us all for generations to come. Yes, Earth can absorb what we throw at it, that does not mean we should abuse the privilege. We must all conduct ourselves as we see fit in our lifetimes, and what that looks like will vary from person to person. The ego may force a selfish perspective, but it also helps us navigate an increasingly complex and demanding culture. Its pattern-making behaviour helps maintain a sense of sanity in the chaos.

But we need a wider lens. One that considers all life and respects our interconnectedness, our shared origins. You, sitting there, are the product of an unbroken chain of reproduction stretching back to the first one-celled organisms on Earth — billions of years! All your ancestors survived long enough to ensure your existence.

What is there left to do when we zoom out and understand there is no such thing as a legacy, that nothing we create will ultimately survive (even the plastics will incinerate in the sun)? The problem is, our culture asks us to cover the sounds of our inner yearnings — for connection, joy, purpose, clarity — to participate in the spectacle around us. There’s evidence that the entities in charge of the maelstrom use these human desires against us for advertising, marketing, politics, and food processing. They set the standard, such that when one questions it, you find yourself outside it and defined by its terms.

So be it. We have our lifespan, however long or short that may be, this infinitesimal slice of timeline. And yet, it is all we have. What is of value, then? Because as sure as you read this, there will be a day when you can read nothing. And if we take deathbed confessionals as our guide, it’s easy to see that no-one regrets time spent with the people they care about or sharing stories, foraging for berries, dancing too much, laughing until it hurts, skinny dipping. So how is it that we get distracted from this?

It takes practice to stay here, in the charged moment. It takes experience to know when our attentions are being drawn away to an emotional dead-end, to that place where obligation, powerlessness, and depression reside. Replace it with purpose — this is a choice! Eventually, if you listen, you will notice it. Train your inner ear as delicately as you would listening for bird calls in the forest. In our recognition of that tipping point, we can begin to give it space, to relax around it, invite our peripheral vision for a larger view, expand. We can take our place in the immense timeline of Earth, with a wide open broken-heartedness at the fragility of it all. We can set celebratory fire to all the papers asking to be pushed across our desks, chanting to the night sky and its stars, our smoke signals for a new understanding. Yes. The journey of a billion years begins now.

  1. The “long view” certainly puts one’s own situation into perspective . . . Giving us a few moments of respite from our concerns and anxieties in the present. Nothing really matters in the “long view”, because everything, even the epitome of permanence, the mountains, pass away.

    My amazing body and its abilities, not the gift of some capricious God, but of countless ancestors, through whose lives, sufferings and deaths it evolved. But I can’t think back even just 1000 years, to my medieval ancestors, without my mind beginning to boggle, let alone 10, 20, 100 500 thousand, or millions of years . .

    I used to be fearful of what I couldn’t understand, of thoughts, such as these (and “infinity”), which boggled my mind, but now I take comfort in them. I didn’t drown in them, as initially feared, but floated. They are, if you can allow them to be, a comfort. All that really matters is the present.

    On the other hand, a life without concerns would be a life without purpose, which would hardly be worth living.

    Sorry if I’m being a bore, but your essay inspired me to these philosophical musings.

  2. “. . . our well-buffered earth might then breathe a metaphorical sigh of relief at the ultimate failure of an interesting but dangerous experiment in consciousness.”

    What a SAD thought.

    But just a minute: this experiment isn’t over YET, and we’ve yet to become aware of or to agree on what it is about.

    And we are not helped by Abrahamic religion, which in the beautifully symbolic story of Adam and Eve explains what really distinguishes us from other animals – the spark of consciousness and self-awareness – but then goes on to curse them/us for it.

    Why would God curse us for desiring and acquiring knowledge and self-awareness?

    This particular god was the creation of an ancient priesthood, which, like all priesthoods, wanted people to obey it, i.e. the God it claimed to represent, rather than to think and take responsibility for themselves.

    The Abrahamic God and his priesthood no longer have the authority and power they once did, since most of us no longer believe in him, but a new, more secular priesthood has arisen in its place, which secures its power by still demonising us when we attempt to feel and think for ourselves, rather than observing its taboos and dictates.

    If we want to understand our situation and the “experiment” with human consciousness, we must break these taboos and view it from a human-evolutionary, i.e. Darwinian, perspective.

    Initial attempts at taking a Darwinian view of the human situation went horribly wrong – as first attempts at difficult challenges often do – giving rise to what is now generally known, demonised and dismissed as “social Darwinism”.

    Admitting that our situation is Darwinian does NOT compel us to engage in a ruthless and brutal struggle for our own, or our own group’s (i.e. tribe’s, nation’s, race’s) survival and advantage, as official anti-Darwinian ideology would have us believe, based on the narrow and unscientific view of “nature being red in tooth and claw”. It can be, of course, but certainly isn’t always, with countless examples of cooperation and symbiosis to prove it.

    And this is where human consciousness (which God, i.e. his priesthood, cursed us for acquiring) has a new and vital role to play. We are now in a position to consciously decide HOW we want to pursue our struggle for survival. The Nazis chose to be ruthless and brutal, and we know where that got them. We can choose instead, as I suggest we do, to take a more rational and humane approach to ensuring our survival.

    Our secular (along with remnants of our religious) priesthood would have us believe that this is what, under THEIR imposed guidance, we are now doing, but it is not true. Instead, they deny the very existence of our Darwinian situation, which they make a great moral virtue and imperative of doing.

    I have written an introduction to a human-evolutionary view of or situation, which reveals its perverted Darwinian nature: The Perverted Darwinian Nature of Civilisation.

  3. This post and the quote from Gould, resonate strongly with the lesson that I try so hard to teach my students…that environmentalism is not about saving “the earth” but about saving humanity and the species humans value.

    There is another response to that impulse that such insignificance then gives us “carte blanche to wreak havoc,” and that is that even if we cannot in the long run make much of a dent in Earth, we have no right to destroy salong with ourself the millions of non-complicit and unconsenting other species that also require the current delicate balance of climate and resources that humans do.

  4. Here might be a good place to paraphrase Jeremy Bentham:

    The question is not whether the earth has desires or purposes, but does it suffer?

  5. This from an environmental historian, whose just published book gives us the “really long view”:

    “The fundamental question facing the world today is the simple question of sustainability: How far into the future can we sustain modern populations and standards of living? What is clear is thaat – natural conditions being reasonably favorable – organic societies in preindustrial times were reasonably sustainable, if not all that pleasant to live in: short individual life spans were matched by long societal chronologies. By contrast we have to wonder whether – revising the standard reading of Malthus – . industrial societies have reversed this equation, in which improved conditions of health and increased life expectancy have been exchanged for an unsustainable global economy and ecology, putting the future course of our “social chronology” into some doubt. Deniers, pessimists and pragmatists now debate this question in a global public sphere. The outcome of this debate is a matter of the greatest consequence for humanity and for the earth system. As we contemplate our uncertain collective future, it may be of some consolation to know that the entire history of humanity in the earth system has been a rough journey, and we have acquired considerable skills in navigation and trave, if only we are willing to use them.”

    From: Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey”>, by John L. Brooke (Cambridge University Press, 1914), p. 11.

    Click and “Look Inside!” for more.


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