Essay of the Month — Lifetime

A Northwest rainforest is a good place to think about lifetime. I can lean on a Douglas fir that has been standing for four to five hundred years and I can lean over, rearrange some leaf cover, and find a creature whose life might only be a few weeks or days. I stand somewhere in the middle of that time range. At sixty years old I may have a few more decades or a few more hours as the unpredictable nature of our existence dictates.

The richness and density of life in the rain forest is astounding. Everywhere you look there is layer upon layer upon layer of life. The beauty of the complex interdependence of life, whether measured in hours or centuries is breathtaking. In varying degrees this complexity exists throughout our world, but here it is so brilliantly displayed. I am certainly one more element in this colossal sandwich of life, and on and within me are many life forms that we rarely choose to contemplate. The shortness of our time within this system is also something that many people would like to ignore, but our time is brief indeed. Brief compared to the great Douglas firs and cedars around me, briefer still compared to the moss covered stones that carry dozens of types of life on their backs. If one thinks of our 70 or 80 odd years compared with cosmic time it is not a heartbeat, but in those terms either is lifetime of our planet.

In spite of this obvious knowledge many human beings live as if all time is wrapped up within them. This simply expresses the level of awareness and consciousness that humanity has evolved to – it is a kind of survival impulse gone astray. Many people are focused on THEIR lifetime, and a few on their children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes. To think in terms of centuries and millennium is simply out of their desires and maybe abilities. With the growing awareness of human impact on climate change, more people are trying to develop a longer vision that goes beyond their time on this planet.

This brings me back to the rain forest. When the sun occasionally makes its way through the dense canopy and strikes the wet surfaces below, the forest steams. I came upon a rotting cedar stump that was in full sunlight and it appeared to be burning the steam was so densely pouring from the surface.  It seemed to me a foreshadowing of what was to come for this North Cascades rainforest. Once the glaciers have melted (as they rapidly are) and the weather patterns change, the forest will dry, lightning will come, the rain forest will burn and billions of lives will perish. Some will survive, such as the massive Douglas firs with their deeply furrowed bark that channels the flames, and with time the forest will regrow, but it will be a different forest with plants and creatures more suited to the new more arid climate. This will happen all around the planet, and has happened many times before when climate change reshaped life on earth. Some people say that this time it different, this time it is unnatural because we were a leading cause in the change. I don’t believe that is true because we are natural. We are simply another piece of that sandwich of life. We may be the most destructive species in the vast system, but we are nevertheless a piece of it. We have probably caused the extinction of more of our fellow species than any other species in the history of earth, but millions more have gone extinct on their own. And there is no reason why our species should not also go extinct sooner or later (sooner might save many other species). Species have a lifetime – some short and some long. Ours may be a short one due to our success in survival, our multiplication to the point of upsetting the climate of the world. Some see our species gaining the ability of infesting other planets and therefore continuing beyond the life of our planet whose eventual baking and explosion will end even the most long-lived of species. I greatly doubt our ability to last long enough to develop such skills. There is the more immediate concern of surviving the rapidly approaching climate change of the next several centuries.

There are countless scenarios of how our species will fare in the climate change – probably all wrong.  We may have leap of consciousness and drastically reduce our population and form a harmonious balance with the new world of post-climate change. Population may be reduced through massive starvation and warfare and we may end with a surreal, barbarous humanity. And there are a thousand steps in between and beyond.

One thing is for sure, the future and the lifetime of humanity are very different than I had envisioned as a boy, a young man, and even a middle-aged man. The sixty short years I have been around has seen tremendous change in what is in store for our species. As a boy in the 50’s all was peaches and cream and humanity would continue to “progress” infinitely. The 60’s and 70’s saw my utopian dreams set aside for the realities of the American culture. The 80’s and 90’s did make me fear for the future of our species, but the fear was of nuclear weapons and near psychotic nationalism. But with the turn of the millennium the mist that had covered the true danger to our future lifted and the future is now more uncertain than possibly anytime since the competition between early hominids. What we need now is what Homo sapiens managed all those years ago; we need to be able to think in new ways. We certainly have the capacity for such change. The intelligence and creativity of our species are our most remarkable traits. The problem is how to direct these qualities on a large scale and in a relatively short time away from self orientation to species survival. Many wonderful homo sapien minds are working on this problem. I doubt if I will see a great deal of success or failure in this direction in the short years my lifetime yet holds for me. My children will see more and grandchildren will undoubtedly live with the consequences of progress on this quest for survival. My love for them and for all the good things that humanity has produced guides my prayers.