The stories we fashion about ourselves are heavily influenced by our short life spans during an age of unprecedented complexity. We humans, it would seem, are unfathomably complicated creatures who defy simple “just-so” characterizations. Animals, or humans tens of thousands of years ago are fair game for simple stories, but not so for transcendent modern humans.
Two major problems I have with this attitude are that 1) we are animals, and 2) we have exactly the same hardware (albeit with slightly smaller brains) as we had 100,000 years ago.
So allow me to pull back from our present age of baffling complexity to outline a simple story covering the broad sweep of the human saga. The result may be a little startling, and, for a number of readers, sure to be rejected by cultural antibodies as “not applicable” (see also my views of our civilization as a cult).
In order to make comprehensible the vast tract of human time on this planet—itself 5,000 times shorter than the age of the universe—I will compare the 2.5–3 million year presence of humans (genus Homo) on Earth to a 75 year human lifespan: a span that we can grasp intuitively. On this scale, we get the following analogous periods:
- First 70 years: various species of humans evolve and coexist (sustainably) on the planet;
- Last 5 years: the age of Homo Sapiens (about 200,000 yr; mostly sustainably);
- Last 15 weeks: the age of civilization (agriculture; then cities) (10,000 yr);
- Last 4 days: the age of science (400 yr);
- Last 36 hours: the age of fossil fuels (150 yr of increasingly significant use);
- Last 12 hours: the age of rapid global ecological devastation (50 yr).
On this lifetime scale, agriculture is a recent, unexpected hobby we picked up, and one that is still pretty new to us in the scheme of things…
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