This New Year’s reflection is reprinted from Eco-justice Ministries. It perfectly captures the challenges we face as a young species on planet Earth and is worth thinking about as we start the new year. May 2014 be filled with successes that bring us closer to a sustainable civilization–one that lasts more than just a few seconds in geological time.
The end of December is a perfect time to ponder humanity’s place in the whole creation.
As we live our daily lives in this human-dominated world, our experience and routine awareness let us think that “this is the way it has always been.” All of the news summaries that we’ll see in coming days focus our attention on events of the last 12 months, truncating even a minimal sense of history.
Of course, we know about the scientific cosmology that tells of a vast sweep of time. We know that modern humans occupy just a tiny sliver of that long historical record. But we hold that knowledge in our heads, not our guts. The vast 4.6 billion year history of the Earth is way too big for us to grasp in a meaningful or personal way.
And so I have often been touched by narratives that condense the history of the Earth into a more manageable time frame. There are many variations — some do it in a week, others in a single year. Some start the story with “the big bang” while others begin with the formation of the Earth as a recognizable planet.
These days leading up to New Year’s Eve are a wonderful occasion to feel the long story of the Earth, and to appreciate our part in that narrative. In the last days of a calendar year, it is easy to connect with the “one year” image. And so, as we come to the end of December, I invite you to feel a condensed time frame for the Earth’s story …
January 1st marks the origin of Earth. By the end of February, the first simple cells appear. All the way through the spring and early summer, simple plants enrich the atmosphere with oxygen.
Around mid-August, complex cells emerge, and coral appears in the ocean. Beginning in mid-November, the oceans fill with multicellular life-forms. In the last few days of November, freshwater fish appear, and the first vascular plants begin to grow on land.
About December 1st, amphibians venture onto dry land. The great swamps that formed today’s rich coal beds existed between December 5th and 7th. On December 12th the largest of the Earth’s mass extinctions wipes out 95% of all species.
Life bounces back, and dinosaurs evolve on December 13th. Flowering plants come on the scene on December 20th. In another great extinction, the dinosaurs disappear shortly before midnight on December 26th, opening a space for modern mammals to emerge on the 27th.
On the evening of December 31st — about when you might gather with friends for the New Year’s Eve celebration — the first hominids evolve in East Africa.
At 10 minutes to midnight on December 31st — about when all the party-goers are really starting to watch the clock — Neanderthals spread throughout Europe.
At one minute to midnight, agriculture is invented. Toward the end of that last minute, the Roman Empire fills 5 seconds. It collapses at 11:59:50 — the moment in our compressed year when New Year’s celebrants begin their 10-second countdown.
In the last 2 seconds before midnight, we enter the modern industrial era. In those last two seconds we find the explosive growth of the human population, the rise of complex technologies, and what we might call a globalized human culture.
The entire history of the United States fits into the last second of this narrative. The “petroleum era” of cheap and plentiful energy is crammed into the last half of a second, as we’re holding a deep breath, ready to shout our start-of-a-new-year greetings.
The fireworks start as our dash through Earth’s long history brings us to the current moment, and as we move into the future.
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Sierra Club founder David Brower often told such a condensed history of the Earth. He ended the account by saying, “We are surrounded with people who think that what we have been doing for [the two seconds since the Industrial Revolution began] can go on indefinitely. They are considered normal, but they are stark, raving mad.”
As our compressed race through global history moves into the future, by the time we have finished shouting “Happy New Year!” we are already 2 centuries beyond now. The available supplies of oil will have been exhausted, and the effects of global climate change will have taken dramatic hold. If our current way of life continues, a huge percentage of Earth’s species — both plant and animal — will have been driven into extinction. By the time you take your first deep breath in the next year, Earth’s climate and biology will have been forever altered by the human influences of the previous year’s last moments.
In this compressed history, the Age of the Dinosaurs lasted almost two weeks. Unless we change our ways dramatically, the Age of the Humans may only last 15 or 20 minutes, and the span of human civilization will fill not much more than a single minute.
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The biblical narrative begins with two beautiful and meaningful creation stories. In both of those accounts, people are part of the Earth’s history from the very beginning of time. If we think that people pretty much like us have been key actors in the Earth’s entire history, it is easy to think that our story is ultimately important.
This New Year’s Eve, I challenge you to pause for a moment. Remember how brief our human span on Earth really is, and reflect on the scope of our planetary impact. May that broadened perception help motivate us in our work toward a more sustainable way of life.
Reverend Peter Sawtell
Executive Director, Eco-Justice Ministries