Imagine that the age of the universe, 13.82 billion years, is compressed into only one year. Carl Sagan explains this idea (using 15 billion years as his example) in a clip from his 1980 television series, Cosmos: A Personal Journey.
Down here, the first humans made their debut around 10:30 p.m. on December 31st. And with the passing of every cosmic minute — each minute 30,000 years long — we began the arduous journey towards understanding where we live and who we are.
11:46 – only 14 minutes ago, humans have tamed fire.
11:59:20 – the evening of the last day of the cosmic year — the 11th hour, the 59th minute, the 20th second — the domestication of plants and animals began, an application of the human talent for making tools.
11:59:35 – settled agricultural communities evolved into the first cities.
We humans appear on the cosmic calendar so recently that using this one year time frame our recorded history occupies only the last few seconds of the last minute of December 31st. In the vast ocean of time which this calendar represents, all our memories are confined to this small square.
Every person we’ve ever heard of lived somewhere in there. All those kings and battles, migrations and inventions, wars and romances. Everything in the history books happens here, in the last 10 seconds of the cosmic calendar.
Time and the Human Mind
The human brain has not evolved to evaluate something like climate change. Our brains are made to process information and are not especially adept at remembering. Consider that we are using a brain that was originally confronted with another earlier challenge: survival in a harsh unforgiving landscape where we competed for the very basics, food and shelter.
According to Roger Bohn of the University of California San Diego (UCSD), in the modern world we consume about 34 gigabytes of information on an average day. This result is overload and the not surprising result that the future is not a high priority in our world view. When we do think about the future something weird happens to our consciousness: “It stops acting as if you’re thinking about yourself. Instead, it starts acting as if you’re thinking about a completely different person.” To make matters worse, the further out in time we think, the less concerned we are about someone we hardly know. Incongruously, having children does not increase future thinking.3
It is not surprising then, that humans traditionally have had a hard time imagining a world quite different than the one in which they live. With the advent of world-wide media, though, this perception is changing. People living in the less-developed parts of the world are now aware of a better life to which they can aspire. The problem is that they seek a life grounded in the unsustainable mode of the developed world. On the other hand, those privileged with that wealthy lifestyle cannot imagine giving it up. These expectations relate directly to our ability to address climate change and the loss of the biosphere. Few are aware that these choices about lifestyle may not be theirs to make in the not too distant future.
Time Is Getting Faster
As civilization has evolved over the last 500 years, there have been several stages. Each of the transitions throughout this period has occurred more quickly than the previous one. Since the Columbian Exchange the western world has passed from a primarily agrarian mode to a form of hyper-capitalism. World population is estimated to have been about 500 million in 1500; now at 7.5 billion, by mid-century it is estimated to be approaching 10 billion.
Resource use has grown in a commensurate fashion, with what is termed Earth Overshoot Day falling on August 1 in 2018. On Overshoot Day humanity has consumed more natural resources than can be renewed in an entire year.
Fueled by the energy from fossil fuels, the last 150 years has seen an extraordinary explosion of growth and consumption of natural resources. If we consider that 150 years represents only the last few seconds of the 24 hour clock shown here, the potent impact of a species unchained by temporal considerations explains, in part, our inability to understand the peril we face.
The Great Acceleration
The graphs presented above are famous. Originally published in 2004 as part of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGGP) to show the change in Socio-economic and Earth system trends since 1750, they were updated to 2010 data and have been a significant element in the discussion about the concept of a new geologic era, the Anthropocene. To see details about each graph go to:
The intent was to assess the trajectory of the “human enterprise” and at the same time evaluate the structure and functioning of the Earth System.
The authors expected to see the impact of humans on the earth and its systems, but what they did not expect was the dramatic increase in the rate of change of all systems after WWII. As they put it, “The second half of the twentieth century is unique in the entire history of human existence on earth…The last 50 years have without doubt seen the most rapid transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of humankind.”4
Examples: three-quarters of the carbon dioxide humans have contributed to the atmosphere has accumulated since World War II ended, and the number of people on Earth has nearly tripled. It is only necessary to look at the shape of the curves post 1950 to understand that we are indeed living in an unprecedented era.
On May 6, 2018, a landmark report from the United Nations IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the most comprehensive ever produced, documented the disastrous consequences for the environment during the Great Acceleration.5 This report is explored in more detail in the section on Biodiversity.
We Need to Slow Down
As Virginia Woolf said, “Think we must.” Living in a world without “elders,” and without deliberation, we are proceeding helter-skelter through the course of history as though we live on a planet without limits. Since World War II, we have been living in a toxic paradigm, divorced from the natural world, but destroying it in the process. We are very likely going to experience global warming of 3 to 4 degrees Celsius this century. Civilization as we know it is being transformed as we annihilate the ecosystem upon which we depend for our continued existence.