a life in deep time

A documentary about continental drift (found by paging randomly through streaming service options) described how it is projected to change the structure of land on earth in the next 250 million years. Current science suggests that if they haven’t already disappeared long before for other reasons, the last ruins of the major cities of today’s civilization will be buried under hundreds of miles of rock as continents collide.

For some reason, after watching it I thought of a man I know, who desperately wants to make his mark in the “alternative energy” business, and at 83, after many imperfectly realized attempts, is despairing of doing so in a system of finance that cannot think past the next quarter of a year. While the age–old biosphere that created and sustains us is becoming more hostile and chaotic as a result of our degradation of it, and the writing of the inevitable end of the current energy regime is already long on the wall.

This man exuberantly and somewhat carelessly rode the wave of a generation that unleashed a sense of unlimited individual possibility never before seen in human history, racked up many sexual conquests while engendering a large number of children from different partners, and acted as if it were all a great game: politics, human relations, and finance. But he thought finance had the most power to shape reality, and ultimately he cast his lot there.

And then I think of how he is more emotionally invested in his attempts to leave a lasting legacy in enterprise (admittedly of a sort with a putative social value) than in the fact that he abandoned his first children and as a result is now hopelessly estranged from a sad and troubled middle-aged daughter, a friend whom I know was once his favorite, and that he may well die without ever seeing her again.

And then I wonder: what is the value of a human life? Of what does its real quality consist? And I try to believe that it matters if we dedicate our little match-flare to acts of connection, affirmation, and respect towards our fellow beings and to these beautiful and complex systems that gave us life.

Still – deep beneath the skin of the earth we skitter around on with escalating frenzy, the massive and implacable ground is always shifting. And in a few million years – a cosmic heartbeat – there may be no sign left for any intelligence to find that any of us – Jesus, Shakespeare, or whoever, and whatever we thought, sang, wrote, built, loved, birthed, did, or didn’t do – ever walked this earth.

It’s not a new question, but it’s been given a new cast by scientific knowledge: In the silence of the eons, will our species have been just a momentary dissonance, the whole arc of our existence elided to a single shriek of hubris? Or will we leave our chaos-generating ways behind and become something worthy of our unique and fantastical home world, at least for a while before we’re gone?

And if the chaos we are producing now alters our home beyond recognition first, what chance will we have to adapt ourselves to the new paradigm? What is it that we will find to live in harmony with?