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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

4.6B Years in Review
distributed 12/29/17 - ©2017

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The end of December is a perfect time to ponder humanity's place in the whole creation.

All of the "year in review" 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. 2017 certainly was a tumultuous year, but a focus on the top news stories of just the last 52 weeks -- often named without much context or analysis -- is myopic. A much bigger picture is needed to keep things in perspective.

Most of us 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. In one short video, biologist Richard Dawkins lays out the timeline on a piano keyboard. Many science educators use calendar analogies to visualize the billions of years -- 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. (An astronomer friend notes that starting with Earth's emergence "ignores about two-thirds of cosmic time!")

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 very small 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.

It is not until mid-August that 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 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 of the year we find the explosive growth of the human population, the rise of complex technologies, and what we might call a globalized human culture. In these 2 seconds, industrial society begins burn through a huge amount of the sequestered carbon that took 2 days to form as coal and oil, starting a surge of carbon into the atmosphere.

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 taking 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."

If we imagine our compressed race through global history moving into the future, by the time we have finished shouting "Happy New Year!" we are already 2 centuries beyond now.

If we insist on trying to maintain our current way of life, the available supplies of fossil fuels will have been exhausted, and the effects of global climate change will have taken dramatic hold. 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 -- from the dawn of agriculture to global collapse -- will fill not much more than a single minute. The affluent, energy-guzzling society that seems so normal to us lasts less than a second.

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When we consider the 4.6 billion years of Earth, we see that humans are involved with just a tiny slice of that long story. It is a humbling perspective.

There are other ways of considering life on Earth that lead us to very different conclusions -- including accounts from the Judeo-Christian faith tradition.

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 entire history of Earth, it is easy to think that our human story is ultimately important. It is easy to think that our impacts on Earth's biosphere are fairly benign.

If we take an even shorter view, if a telling of our culture's important stories only looks back a few decades to a period of American "greatness", then we'll be incapable of understanding how we fit into the long flow of time, and how our actions now can have profound implications.

This New Year's Eve, I challenge you to pause for a moment. That evening -- on your own, or as you gather with friends -- read again through the analogy of a single year for all of Earth's 4.6 billion year history. 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.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Similar themes were developed in end-of-the-year Notes in 2003, 2010 and 2013.


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