The earth abideth forever, but human beings not so much


I recently bought James Lovelock’s most recent book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia. Lovelock’s body of work revolves around the concept he calls the Gaia Hypothesis, which goes something like this (scientists in the crowd, please forgive me):

 

The earth as a whole behaves in the manner of a living organism. This is largely (if not totally) because of the existence of life on earth. Living creatures are the reason that there’s a constant and consistent percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere; they’re also the reason that the earth’s overall temperature is maintained within certain boundaries which are optimal for life.

 

And this means that everything has consequences.

 

Anytime the balance changes, the entire system needs to be rebalanced. This can happen in many ways: temperature fluctuations, extinctions, epidemics.

 

Life on earth will go on. Human beings may or may not be part of it.

 

Lovelock is now ninety-one years old. He has been beating the drum for Gaia for decades; he has been written off as a hippie, a do-gooder, a tree-hugger, a mystic. Slowly, however, his theories have become mainstream. There’s little doubt now that he is largely correct about the large-scale consequences of small-scale changes in life on earth.

 

But, according to his latest book, it’s too late. We are doomed now to watch and wait – batten down the hatches and wait for the deluge. Lovelock says that, if there were a hundred million people on earth, it wouldn’t matter one way or the other how we lived; there wouldn’t be enough of us to make a real difference. But there are now seven billion of us, and we are living beyond our means. The ice is melting. The sea levels are rising. The storms are getting worse. The weather is far more unpredictable.

 

Lovelock loses some of his spark when he turns from climate science to predictive futurology. Some of us will survive, he says, and I tend to agree. But then he becomes more fanciful. He sees mass migrations to the more habitable parts of the world, and draconian governmental changes.

 

These recommendations and predictions may or may not be worth listening to.

 

But they won’t be.

 

As I’ve said before in this space, I have at most twenty or thirty more years on earth at most, so I will probably be spared the worst of it; according to most climate scientists, the worst won’t happen for another fifty years or more.

 

I make no predictions, because I’m far too gloomy about the general outlook, and I don’t want to put a jinx on the whole affair.  But I hope at least a few people survive. We can be really lovely at times, when we really want to be.

 

Sometimes even despite ourselves.

 


 

This crazy weather we’ve been having


It’s late November. And there are rhododendrons and magnolias, and lilies, and roses, blooming in our neighborhood. In New England.

 

I really didn’t notice until about a week ago, when I noticed a few rhododendron blossoms here and there. Then I noticed the magnolia trees on the Brown campus were budding out, just the way they usually do in March and April, with those huge obscene buds. And what do you know? They popped.

 

It’s colder and rainy today, and it will probably freeze tonight. So the trees have wasted a lot of energy for nothing.

 

This isn’t really new. Two years or so ago, I was in downtown Providence around this time of year, and the cherry trees by Kennedy Plaza were in bloom.

 

In New England!

 

I first arrived in Rhode Island in 1978, six months after the big blizzard of that year. The winter of 1978/9 was snowy and bitterly cold; I got frostbite on my knuckles from carrying a suitcase down the street for twenty minutes without gloves on. Two years later, there was another bitterly cold winter, with wind chills down around twenty below.

 

Those days are past, however. We still get cold winters, but the timings are all off. The plants are confused. They’re blooming in the wrong seasons, at the wrong times. Cold weather is followed by unexpected warm spells, and the plants go into panic mode, I think.

 

I’m no botanist, and I’m obviously no climate scientist. But things are changing, becoming more volatile. More than volatile: unpredictable.

 

And there’s nothing to be done about it. Whether (as seems obvious to me) it’s human interference, or whether it’s simply part of some larger ice-age / pluvial-age / sunspot cycle, it’s already begun, and nothing can stop it.

 

This is the grim thing about writing a blog called “FutureWorld.” I don’t think the future is going to be a very nice place for the people who come after us. I don’t think they’ll have much to thank us for. I suspect they’ll think of us pretty nastily; they’ll know we did exactly what we felt like doing, and we left the place in a mess.

 

I’m so sorry, and I wish I could tell them so. I’m doing the stupid little bits and pieces than I can, to keep my footprint small and light. But I know that my contribution probably won’t make a hell of a lot of difference.

 

I hope they forgive us.

 

This is Ursula LeGuin, in a poem written from the point of view of our descendants:

 

In your ending when the words were forgotten,

in your ending when the fires burned out,

in your ending when the walls fell down,

we were among you:

the children,

your children,

dying your dying to come closer,

to come into our world, to be born.

We were the sands of your sea-coasts,

the stones of your hearths. You did not know us.

We were the words you had no language for.

O our fathers and mothers!

We were always your children.

From the beginning, from the beginning,

we are your children.

 


Three futures

 

 


 

It is deadly to write about the future.  It’s just so easy to be wrong about it.

 

Most of the Biblical “prophets” didn’t write about the future at all; they just commented on their own times, with lots of moralizing. When they did go out on a limb and talk about the future, they dressed it up with multiheaded monsters and glowing cities and horses’ bells with HOLINESS UNTO THE LORD on them. They threw in an occasional invasion or overthrow, but those are pretty safe; sooner or later, someone’s bound to invade and/overthrow someone else. Voila! Prediction fulfilled.

 

The best futurologist I know, Alexis de Tocqueville, didn’t set out write about the future; he looked at the present, unflinchingly, with great precision and insight, and wrote about it. Reading “Democracy in America,” written over 150 years ago, is like reading today’s newspaper.

 

I can think of three main ways in which the future can unfold:

 

The Happy Future. This is the idea that things will get better and better as time passes. People will get smarter, and also wiser. Bad things will happen less often.

 

Variations:

 

  • The neverending road upward. Things just get better and better and better without end. Think of the end of the Narnia books. Also Teilhard de Chardin, though (speaking as a backslidden Catholic) I have a hard time with him.

  • The apocalyptic eucatastrophe. The ultimate happy ending, usually preceded by an Armageddon-type disaster. Also usually preceded and accompanied by lots of religious foofaraw. Usually also accompanied with the final destruction of your enemies and the salvation of your friends / co-religionists.

  • The mellow nirvana. Everything just sort of fades into a groovy fog. (I like this one myself.)

 

The Sad Future. Things get worse and worse. Stuff blows up. Stars go out. Things die.

 

Variations:

 

 

The Steady State Future. Nothing really changes. There are ups and downs, but no real progress, either upward or downward. There’s no end. The universe just keeps going on and on and on.

 

Variations:

 

  • The non-recurrent steady state. Best defined as “stuff happens.” A little of this, and a little of that, but none of it makes any real difference. Yawn.

  • The recurrent steady state. A sort of variation of the Steady State Future, except that everything just happens over and over again. Think “Groundhog Day.” This one seems okay, until you really think about it. Then it gets screamingly awful. You know how the Buddhists talk about getting off the Wheel of Life? This is what they’re talking about. You really don’t want to get caught in this future. It’s pretty dreadful.

 

I think I know which future I’d prefer.

 

But I’m just afraid that’s not how it works.

 

 


 

 

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