Thinking on Three Time Scales

So, last week I wrote a bit about the inevitability of climate change, but anthropogenic and ‘natural,’ and how this bodes ill for inflexible species. We might be one of those species. I also noted that I can think of this change happening on three different time scales—the short, medium, and long terms. 

The short term encompasses my life, the life of my kids, the life of everyone I have known or ever will know. It has a certain appeal to me, because it is the default setting for what I care about. As it’s going, it doesn’t look great. Now, it looks better for me and my kids than it does for a lot of people—American, white, money, etc—but still, the next generation or two is going to see massive climate change, mass extinction, dramatic changes in where and how food can be produced, social strife, and overall will test the ability of humans to rapidly adapt a way of living that has been optimized for a certain world to the reality that the world always changes.

I care a lot about the short terms, despite everything that I have read to convince me I shouldn’t. Phenomenologically, the short term is my world. It is all I know, and all that my mind is equipped to think about. And that is why, in the face of an unspeakably depressing short terms, we must turn to philosophy. From the Stoics to Spinoza, the greatest philosophers have tried to wrench us away from narrow minded focus on the short terms try to see things from a more universal perspective.

But we cannot completely turn to philosophy in this way, because we have a duty to work to make the world better for all those beings—humans, especially, because of the deepness of our pain—who live with us in this short term. We just cannot think to surrender the long term future of the world to our short term desires, which is an all-too-human way of being in the world. Mortaging the future for short-term benefit is naturally human and also arguably worse than surrendering any hope of the present by thinking of some far off distant future. Neither lead to a good medium term. 

The medium term has to do with the future of humanity beyond, say, the next couple generations. It’s very difficult to predict what things are going to look like in the medium term. Ask someone on the brink of the agricultural revolution what they thought humanity would look like in a thousand years, and the answer probably wasn’t sicker, shorter, and sedentary. They would be surprised. Ditto for asking anyone at any time since we started making ‘progress.’ We cannot predict the medium term future.

I care about this timescale least. Outside of the few I know, I don’t particularly care for humans. We don’t have the elegance of most other animals, and what we do to each other (bad) seems to more than make up for anything pretty we produce. We are also the single most destructive species in the world. We waste our potential. So, frankly, civilizational die-off—the idea that humans just sort of go away—doesn’t bother me too much. I hope I don’t live to see it—or that we all go to Mars and colonize some place we can’t ruin first—but on the whole, when we look at the world the vast majority of the awful things are our fault. And yes, Motown is great, but it would take at least Motown, Stax-Volt, and three or four Blue Notes together to make up for the destruction of one coral reef, and we haven’t even started talking about the rainforest yet. 

The longest timescale is probably the easiest to predict, and the one that I care the least but also most about. Civilization will be buried. Humans will go extinct (probably—we are a confounding species). Most of the species alive right now will go extinct. Biodiversity, after plummeting severely (due to us, yay!) will rise again, but this is of course over the long term so none of us will live to see it and probably none of our descendants either. It’s a distinct possibility that in the long term, all life on Earth will have evolved from the rats and cockroaches that can survive the anthropogenic wasteland we are leaving behind.

And this, I have to say, makes me happy. Humans can do a lot, but I don’t think we can destroy life on the Earth. (Fun aside—if any billionaires are reading this, please, gather up a bunch of very hardy organisms, including some really weird underwater ones or nitrogen cave ones, and load them into rockets and shoot thousands of them off the Earth in every direction and know that when they hit something there is a nonzero chance that that object will start to evolve its own life forms. I’m talking to you, Elon). Life is awesome. In the original sense of awesome—awe inspiring. It’s happened, as far as we know, once. And, when we’re all gone, and despite our best efforts, it will still be here. And so even though I won’t be here, and you won’t be here, and no humans will be here, life will go on. And, sub specie aeternitatis, the impact of humans on the world will just be one horrible little blip in the history of life—a slow moving meteor leaving behind death, destruction, and the complete works of Marvin Gaye. Which almost make it all worth it. 

© Henry Gruber 2013