2. Deep Time

I just can’t believe that the situation is as dire as some people say it is. Don’t you think climate change is overhyped?

One does have to go back to the Cuban Missile Crisis or to the Europe of the Black Death to recall a time in human history when it really seemed possible for the world to end, so few of us have a lived frame of reference for the threat that climate watchers are warning us about. This doesn’t mean that the threat doesn’t exist. Joanna Macy, an ecological activist and Buddhist philosopher, urges those of us for whom the 1960s feel like ancient history to take a “deep” view of time so that the real stakes of this drama come into focus: Let’s scale the entire lifespan of the planet Earth to a twenty-four-hour period, such that each minute of this conceptual “day” represents three million years of actual time. In this “day,” beginning with our planet’s birth four and a half billion years ago, life evolved slowly over the course of twenty-three hours; the mass extinction of the dinosaurs and other forms of life happened at 10:40 PM; and “the entire history of our species, from its early origins in Africa, is contained in the last five seconds before midnight” (Active Hope 152-3). 

Now let’s take those five seconds and scale them upward so that they, too, can be represented as a twenty-four-hour “day,” beginning with the emergence of apelike ancestors experimenting with stone tools and fire. We only turned to agriculture as a species at ten to eleven PM and the first recorded city, Jericho, arose a few minutes later. Stonehenge was constructed at half past eleven. Jesus was born at about ten to midnight, and industrialization began eight minutes later. Macy notes that “in the last minute, the world population rose from just over a billion to seven billion. In the last twenty seconds (that is, since 1950), we have used up more resources and fuel than in all human history before this” (Macy 155).

It’s good to let that last line settle in. If it seems we could never die out as a species because we’ve been around for so long and nothing like this has ever happened, think again. In the lifetime of the planet, our existence has been just one event among many others, elapsing in the blink of an eye, and our extinction, like others that have preceded it, could happen in a heartbeat and barely register a blip in this cosmic history. 

Nothing guarantees we’ll survive. Climate science tells us there’s a good chance we won’t. Klein quotes climatologist Lonnie G. Thompson as saying, “Climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group. We are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before Congressional committees. Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization” (Klein 15). 

Read on for more.