Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Deep Future

by Jerry Lame

(I feel this essay is kind of fumbling around a point I haven’t yet quite fully grasped. It may change in the future. Comments are welcome.)

I've been thinking about this recently. I don't think I've seen this thought expressed before, at least not quite in this way, though I wouldn't be surprised if it has been, and it is already, as context/underlying assumption, powerfully shaping many people's values, concerns and actions:

Very briefly, the idea is that, given our current scientific understanding of our place in the history of life – namely that we have, relatively speaking, only just appeared (the earth’s past is deep, ours is not) – that we should regard ourselves as at very near the beginning of an extremely long stay on this planet, of possibly many millions of years. That’s thousands of times longer than recorded history. And this has moral implications. The deep future is a rational, objective prospect which should rival, in our assessments of what is required of us, the role that eternity has formerly played. I would argue that the (dubious) promise of individual eternal life should pale in comparison to the ‘near eternity’, so to speak, of future generations who will inherit this planet from us, though of course the ideas are not mutually exclusive. Mark Twain pointed out that the imagination quickly numbs at the prospect of heavenly hymning to Jehovah. An eternity of these nameless joys is difficult to attach any meaning to. But the prospect of thousands and millions or even billions of years of future biological life on this planet, including human life, though awe-inspiring, is at least somewhat comprehensible, because we know that the past too is deep. The human race is extremely young, civilization new-born. We have a long and valuable life as a species ahead of us. Our choices now will shape that life. Harm we do the planet– say by diminishing the biological diversity it has taken eons to evolve, or by pushing the climate into an entirely new regime – will be paid for by our descendants for eons to come.

I was brought to think of this again while reading reactions by conservatives like Bill Muehlenberg to Charles Krauthammer’s column Carbon Chastity: The First Commandment of the Church of the Environment. (See my critique of Krauthammer's column in my "Letter to a Global Warming Skeptic".) It seems to me that what has happened is that, as people have begun to awaken to the stakes of habitat destruction and climate change, many Christians have tried to put the new situation in a familiar and effective moral context by incorporating insights, that follow from the deep future, into their religion. Others have tried to orient themselves by inventing a new religion, or “spirituality”, of nature worship. All these people, I presume, quite apart from these religious expressions, have perceived the objective situation, and the urgent need for action in order to mitigate the damage to the environment we’re causing, and have tried to express these insights in religious/spiritual terms because this is their traditional way of expressing values, and because they believe, rightly, that religion is an effective motivator of people in this society. However, what they overlook is that differences in religion have historically been extremely divisive. Changing Christianity to respond to the new world view, or inventing new religions to express it, are both bound to elicit conservative religious reaction. Environmentalism, to the extent it is styled a false religion, can be rejected by the religious right on that basis alone, without even considering the factual basis of its claims. That is the thrust of Krauthammer’s column. Of course, the right can call anything it wants a religion in order to discredit it. That is exactly the tactic creationism has taken against evolution.

Perhaps it would be best to avoid giving them ammunition by keeping science-based claims well clear of religion of all sorts. Unfortunately, that is probably not possible. Every religionist anxious to lead people by speaking to them with the authority of God is bound to twist his religion to fit his new vision. With the best of intentions – the hope of a new, more responsive religious vision – they are bound to turn an environmental crisis into a religious war. Perhaps in the long run they will succeed in reforming their religion. But can we afford the delay created by unnecessary religious conflict? Do we really need to turn everything into religion in order to act sensibly and with appropriate fervor?

On the other hand, perhaps there’s no harm done, because the religious right in America is devoted to premillenial dispensationalism, expecting to be raptured away from the earth at any moment. Even if they could recognize the deep future as a purely secular view, they would have to deny it, since Jesus believed the end of the world was at hand, and so do they. Perhaps, if we are lucky, they will be raptured up, and we can get on with preserving the earth.

Of course there are caveats to the idea of a deep human future: 1) assuming we don’t destroy ourselves, 2) assuming we aren’t destroyed by some global natural cataclysm (it’s a good bet; they’re very rare) or divine intervention (ditto) 3) we can expect biological change in our species, but can’t foresee its nature, so when I say “we” I mean our descendants, whom we can consider human in some, perhaps extended, sense.

Some Historical Context

We know about deep time, in the sense of the discovery, first of the ancient history of the earth, second of the ancient history of the universe: the fossil record was gradually understood, the numbers of years into the past that these creatures lived gradually extending from thousands into millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions, finally (the very oldest) billions of years. Darwin needing deep time for the slow shaping of species by natural selection. Lord Kelvin denying it to him, by his calculations of the cooling of the earth and burning of the sun. Then the discovery of radioactivity, which has heated the earth, knocking Kelvin's calculations into a cocked hat. Darwin vindicated. The invention of dating by nuclear decay, allowing the direct measurement of the age of fossils, and the age of the earth eventually at 4.54 billion years. The understanding of nuclear fusion, and the physics and life-cycles of stars, the creation of heavy elements in supernovae, and the recycling of the resulting stardust into new planetary systems like ours. The discovery of the universe's expansion, the big bang, and the search for the age of the universe, now estimated at around 14 billion years. The past, we have discovered, is deep. The imagination falters over such vast stretches of time. Nevertheless, this is time in the concrete historical sense, with a fixed number of zeroes, not the fancifully huge numbers that Indian story tellers so delighted in spinning out, their myriads of myriads of ages. There was a beginning, of everything observable, 13,700,000,000 years ago, or thereabouts.

In the other direction, back in the nineteenth century, with the discovery of thermodynamics, people got the idea that the universe, according to the known laws of physics, must be running down, and will eventually, in the far distant future, die a "heat death". (Lord Kelvin again). Big bang cosmology also gives us possible scenarios of cosmic evolution into the far distant future. And of course science fiction has given us many visions of near and far distant possible futures. But the idea I’ve been trying to express, of … our possibly having a deep future, is a matter of a stance we take now toward our responsibility for what is to come. What would it be like to live as if the human future far outweighed its past? How would we proceed? Would it make a difference?

At one time, people lived in a world they thought of as static and eternal. They had creation myths, but these occurred in a kind of mythic time, or they believed in an eternal recurrence. (Mircea Eliade used to talk about this. It's been years since I read him.) Then the Hebrews incorporated their creation myth into their national history, in a supposed historical past connected with their own time by lists of ancestors (all those 'begots'), with the middling ones semi-mythical (legendary) living centuries, and the latest ones of historical memory more realistic, practically merging with current events (those of the writers.) The age of the world became short, though all those lists of generations must have seemed awe inspiring enough. They lived in a much smaller world. The beginning was nearer, the sky was nearer, the stars hung in a firmament barely beyond the sun and moon, wheeling around a flat and stable earth – practically cozy, compared to the modern immensity. The end was nearer too. Prophets foretold an end, not of the world, but of things as they were, a new age, someday, but once again in historical time. Then, in Jesus’ troubled era, a new urgency, expectations of the imminent appearance of the messiah. Jesus himself seems to have believed the end of the world was near. Paul too. (I’m no bible expert. This is what I’ve gathered.)

Some half-baked thoughts on Christianity and the deep future

It’s extraordinary, isn’t it, how the Christian heightened sense of meaning seems to be parasitic on a delusion of imminent apocalypse? Not on a deep future, but one cut short. In nearly every age, there have been Christians who fervently believed that Jesus was about to return. Dates are predicted. The dates pass. A new date is predicted. They’re waiting now. They are certain. They never learn. Why? Because preaching fear and hope of immediate violent change transfixes people, recruits followers? Perhaps. Probably also because many believe that, even if the expectation is illusory, if we live as if the world could end at any moment, this will motivate people to live rightly, to obey the religion, in order to be ready. It’s a stand-in for death, which may also strike at any moment.

But this makes Christianity singularly unsuited to guide a race endowed with a deep future. No church that was in touch with our historical circumstances could oppose artificial birth control while accepting modern medicine and hygiene, thus dooming the population to double, then double again, until only starvation or environmental catastrophe, or some other self-produced calamity limits what we are unwilling to limit by exercise of our reason, our science, our capacity for foresight, and our concern for future generations. It only makes sense if you don’t expect to need this planet long, or you feel comfortable blaming the evil results of your teaching on the devil.

But the entire Christian story is wrong. Humanity didn’t fall from a state of perfection a few short millennia ago. We arose from lower forms of life over vast stretches of time. Natural evils – death, disease, storms and earthquakes – cannot be blamed on us. Death is not the wages of sin. But the future of the planet is our responsibility. It will not be miraculously transformed into Eden. We will not be beamed up before having to face any mess we are foolish enough to make of it. If we don’t blow it, and possibly even if we do, we are here for the duration. “The end is near” is not what we need to hear. The end is very very very far off. Fix your eyes on that, and act accordingly.

Well, I seem to have picked a fight with conservative Christianity, which I just scolded New Age environmentalists and liberal Christians for doing. So I should at least emphasize that you don’t have to buy into my anti-religious rhetoric to accept the facts about the history of life on earth, our place in it, and the human role in climate change and stresses on the environment. Those facts didn’t come out of a religious or an anti-religious point of view. They came out of scientific investigation. If you need to reconcile your religion to the facts before you can accept them and deal with them, then I say, go to it. Or if you need to compartmentalize, with a religion of personal salvation on the one hand, and earth stewardship on the other, that’s ok with me too. The important thing is to deal with the current crisis, and to give up on denial.

I’m riding two hobby horses here. I think the world would be better if we took care of it, and if God and Jesus went the way of Zeus and Hera. Both issues are important to me. I’ve tried to describe some ways that anti-environmentalism may be related to conservative Christianity. But one thing I would definitely deny is that environmentalism is a fundamentally religious point of view. It may be in conflict with certain versions of certain religions, but that’s a different thing. If science discovers that the moon is made of rocks, that may conflict with a religion of moon worship. But that’s not because science was anti-moonist. It’s because, if two disciplines claim to be about the truth, and seek it by their own methods, and their claims conflict, one must be in error.

The deep future not a religion

My comparison of the deep future with the Christian promise of eternal life may bring to mind some ideas expressed by Carl Becker in his famous attack on the Enlightenment in The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers. Becker claimed that, in the late eighteenth century,

“…the doctrine of progress, of perfectibility, became an essential article of faith in the new religion of humanity…. [T]he utopian dream of perfection, that necessary compensation for the limitations and frustrations of the present state, having been long identified with the golden age or the Garden of Eden or life eternal in the Heavenly City of God, and then by the sophisticated transferred to remote or imagined lands (the moon or Atlantis or Nowhere...), was at last projected into the life of man on earth and identified with the desired and hoped-for regeneration of society.” (p.139)

Posterity, Becker claimed, was looked to for the equivalent of religious vindication, “reverently addressed as a divinity, and invoked in the accents of prayer.” (p. 142)

But none of this is implied by the idea of the deep future. I am not invoking perfectibility, or even progress. I am not seeking vindication from posterity, or subordinating the values of our lives to theirs. What I am saying is that, if we try to take a large perspective, and view the situation objectively, the future of humanity, although we can barely foresee its nature, is real and is likely to be long and to depend on the health and wealth of this planet, so that, out of a sense of fairness, if nothing else, we should consider the interests of the real people who will populate that real future when we make decisions today.

Frankly, it shocks me that some on the religious (and not so religious) right do not seem to comprehend the seriousness of the values being invoked by those concerned with the future of the earth. They mock them, as some kind of weird idolatry. I don't pretend to understand the source of this blindness. Is it really religion? That shouldn't surprise me, but it does.

No comments: