Thursday, November 29, 2007
When We've Been Here Ten Thousand Years
Historically, ten thousand years has been a popular frame of measurement. The Greeks called it the Great Year, the length of an era. It is roughly the length of time since the invention of settled agriculture, and thus civilization, where cities (fortified granaries) and their specialized hierarchies replaced the yeoman's ancestor, the hunter-gatherer. She was not "self-sufficient" but lived in a band whose unit of sufficiency was the whole extended family.
We live at the end of the Great Year, the end of the holocene period, its moment of harvest. Fittingly, there is interest in the next ten thousand years. In an interview with New Dimensions radio host Michael Toms, Gary Snyder laughed at the question about human maturity: will we mature fast enough to save the earth in time? Snyder said we were still an adolescent species, and that maybe we'd reach maturity in another ten thousand years. Meanwhile, Stewart Brand and friends are building The Clock of the Long Now, which will keep time without fancy electronic gadgetry for another ten thousand years. The premise is that if we slow down the frenzied now, and focus on the slow movement of time, we can brake the forces presently catapulting us into oblivion. If they succeed, they will have achieved another pragmatic, neolithic-style sculpture along the lines of the astronomical calendar at Stonehenge.
Whether a remnant of our species in ten thousand years will be around to reap maturity and read the clock is another question. In my childhood the kid who wanted to save Mobile, Alabama from the Soviet Bomb, worried about nuclear Armageddon - along with a whole bureaucracy that regularly herded us under our desks, lines of cars waiting to ferry us out to the swampy countryside to relative safety. Now human adolescence is armed not only with nuclear bombs, but we have also perfected a global capitalism that is frightfully efficient at transforming earth capital into affluent effluent. Whole ecosystems are going into rapid decline, even as the CO2 we have already pumped into the atmosphere has yet to produce its warming effects, due to the twenty-year lag caused by the time it takes for the released gas to work its way through the earth's magnificent system of buffers.
If we survive, we will certainly not number in the billions, and the scarcity of resources that has the capitalist wolves licking their chops for gold, oil, platinum, and uranium stocks will no longer be an asset. Commodities will necessarily be replaced by skill, knowledge, and (finally) wise use, and any high tech that remains will necessarily be appropriate tech. A diminished earth will be busy re-knitting a less diverse network of species, even as the sun burns hotter, hastening towards its own winter.
Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme (The Universe Story) bravely speak of the "Ecologic" era replacing the Cenozoic (less grandly, a period replacing the holocene, which is roughly the same as the neolithic). If this reaches fruition, its foundations must be laid quickly by an adolescent species with a mission. But usually such behavior results in mistakes greater than than the perceived problem. Maturity is a long process, and at the species level, in geologic time, the two and half million years since the emergence of homo habilis hardly even merits the term "adolescence." Whatever the future of the human experiment, now poised at the midpoint of crucial back-to-back Great Years, maturity has never been synonomous with growth - the term end-game capitalists throw around so casually. Unchecked, disordered growth in the biological realm reveals itself as cancer, and economics is necessarily a subset of ecology. If there is actually the higher purpose to human emergence testified in "Amazing Grace," the biggest die-off and largest shift in earth climate since the dinosaur extinction will leave our species still standing, or crouching in polar caves, awaiting another Phoenix rising.
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