Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Which Way To Heaven?

The religious sensibilities I’ve been discussing in recent posts here on The Archdruid Report have an interesting property: they’re hard to define with any degree of precision, but remarkably easy to recognize in practice. It’s a little like the old joke about how you know that an elephant’s gotten into your refrigerator; like the telltale footprints in the butter dish, the traces left by a given religious sensibility are hard to miss.
The sensibility that seized the imagination of the western world after 600 BCE, and has begun to lose its grip only in our time, is no exception to this rule. I’ve already talked about its distinctive central theme, the passionate insistence that human beings deserve more than nature, history, and the human condition are prepared to give them, and that there must be some way to escape from the trammels of humanity’s ordinary existence and break free into infinity and eternity. There are plenty of other tracks in the butter dish of western culture, for that matter, but the one I want to discuss this week is as simple as it is revealing: the spatial direction in which, according to the sensibility we’re discussing, the way out of the human condition is most likely to be found

To the cultures of the modern west, it seems self-evident that the only possible location for heaven is “up there,” and plenty of people assume that that’s universal among human beings. It isn’t, not by a long shot. To the ancient Greeks, for example, the gods and goddesses lived in various corners of the world—some of them lived on Mount Olympus, a midsized mountain in Thessaly, but Poseidon was normally to be found in the ocean, Pan in the woodlands of Arcadia, Hades in the underworld, and so on; when Zeus wanted to hold a council, he had to send a god or goddess around to summon them all to Olympus. In Shinto, the polytheist religion of Japan, some of the kami—the divine powers of Shinto—live in Takama no Hara, the Plain of High Heaven, but others dwell on earth, and every year in the month corresponding to October, they all travel to the Izumo shrine in  western Japan and are not to be found elsewhere.  The old Irish paradise, Tir na nOg, was on the sea floor of the Atlantic somewhere off west of Ireland—well, I could go on for quite some time with comparable examples.

Within the sensibility that’s now fading out across the western world, by contrast, the route to heaven was by definition a line pointing straight up from the Earth’s surface. I want to stress here that this is part of the religious sensibility of an age—that is, a pattern of emotions and images in the collective imagination—rather than a necessary part of the theist and civil religions that existed in that setting and thus were shaped by that sensibility. It’s not too hard, in fact, to find ways in which the teachings of these religions were manhandled, sometimes very roughly, to make room in them for the images and emotions that the sensibility of the age demanded.

Here’s an example. In the New Testament, the two gospels that describe what later came to be called the Ascension of Jesus describe the event in very simple terms; Mark says “he was received up into heaven” (Mark 16:19), and Luke says “he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51). Those Christian friends of mine who know their way around theology assure me that heaven is a wholly spiritual state or condition of being, which is no more above the earth than it is, say, northeast of Las Vegas. The pressure exerted by the religious sensibility of the last two millennia, though, was such that the Ascension has nearly always been portrayed in art as an exercise in levitation.

This has not uncommonly been taken in a very literal manner. It so happens, for example, that Christian symbolism plays a central role in some of the higher degrees of Freemasonry, and members of one of those degrees thus celebrate an Ascension Day service annually. Here at the Cumberland Masonic lodge, there’s an extraordinary early 20th century trompe l’oeil painting, which is hidden away behind another piece of symbolic art, and uncovered for the Ascension Day service and certain other functions. It’s a landscape view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives; the Temple is below, with the rest of the city around it, and the Judean landscape reaching away into the distance. The foreground scene on the Mount of Olives is painted on a piece of metal, a little in front of the canvas background, and there are clouds handled the same way at the top of the painting.

There in front, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus stands among his disciples. At the right moment of the ceremony, one of the brethren pulls on a hidden string, and the figure of Jesus rises up from the circle of disciples and soars slowly into the air, rising straight up until he’s lost to sight behind the clouds. It’s a remarkably powerful image, you can hardly help imagining the disciples staring openmouthed at the miracle, and people down below in the streets of Jerusalem catching a glimpse of the sight and thinking, good heavens, that looks like a man rising up into the sky!

I don’t know of a better example of the way the collective imagination of the modern world shifted gears when Sputnik I broke free of the atmosphere and opened the Space Age. Until then, the top of the atmosphere might as well have been a sheet of iron, as the Egyptians thought it was. (Their logic was impeccable: polished iron is blue, and so is the sky; iron is strong and heatproof, and the sky would need to be both in order to support the boat named Millions of Years on which Ra the sun god does his daily commute; besides, the only iron they knew came from meteorites, which they sensibly interpreted as stray chunks of sky that had fallen to earth. Many of our theories about nature will likely seem much less reasonable from the perspective of the far future.)

It’s an extraordinary experience to go back and read what sensible people in the first half of the 20th century thought of the claims then being retailed by the small minority who dreamed of going to the Moon and the other planets. Outer space—take a moment to think about the implications of that conventional phrase!—was to most people an abstraction, not a place, and when the Moon and Mars weren’t just lights in the sky, they served as convenient new labels for fairyland. Equally, the idea that human machines or human beings, might someday pop through the atmosphere into that “space outside” was raw material for fairy tales.

Nor were the fairy tales slow to appear. An earlier post here explored the extraordinary role that science fiction played in shaping the collective imagination of our age, even when it was considered the last word in lowbrow reading.  The civil religion of progress, as I suggested in last week’s post, needed a mythic image of salvation from nature, history, and the human condition before it could break loose from the competition and become the established religion of our time; science fiction provided that, and in the process underwent a massive transformation of its own. Until the early 1940s, science fiction was still what it had been in the time of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, a literature that explored the whole gamut of imaginable technological advances; thereafter, it fixated more and more precisely on one specific suite of imagined technologies and the central image around which they clustered.

The close similarity between this image and the one shown earlier in this post, I’d like to suggest, is no accident. As pointed out in an earlier post in this sequence, civil religions derive their core imagery and emotional tone from the theist religions they replace, and the image of man’s ascension into space took on the same role in the religion of progress that Jesus’ ascension into heaven has in Christianity. What SF writer Arthur C. Clarke called, in the title of a hugely popular nonfiction book of his, The Promise of Space was the precise equivalent—or as precise an equivalent as a materialist and anthropolatrous civil religion could manage—to the promise of salvation at the heart of Christian faith.

Listen to those of today’s cornucopian true believers who don’t simply put their faith in the endless prolongation of business as usual, and it’s rarely difficult to hear the ringing voice of the Christian evangelist coming through the verbiage about limitless energy sources, new worlds for mankind, and the rest of it. How many times, dear reader, have you heard the great leap upward into space described as humanity’s mission, its destiny, even its sole excuse for existing in the first place? How many times have you read enthusiastic claims about space-based manufacturing, orbital colonies and the like that assume as a matter of course that benefits will outweigh costs and difficulties will inevitably be overcome, because, well, going into space is humanity’s mission, its destiny, etc.? Let’s just say that if you write a blog that asks hard questions about the mythology of progress, you can count on fielding outraged comments along these lines several times a week from now until star date fill-in-the-blank.

Now it so happens that there’s a very good reason to doubt these claims, and in particular to challenge the notion that orbital colonies, settlements on Mars, and the rest of it will inevitably prosper if we just find the quadrillions of dollars necessary to pay for them and the infrastructure necessary to build them in the first place. In an article published in Nature in 1997, a team of economists headed by Robert Costanza set out to calculate how much value is contributed to the global economy by the Earth’s natural systems; their midrange estimates works out to an annual contribution roughly three times the size of the world’s gross domestic product. Put another way, of every dollar’s worth of goods and services consumed by human beings each year, around 75 cents are provided free of charge by nature, and only 25 cents have to be paid for by human economic activity.

That immense contribution to human well-being—call it the “biosphere dividend”—isn’t available anywhere else in the solar system. (Even if Titan, say, has a biosphere of its own, its version of that dividend will apply only to life forms who enjoy sipping liquid methane and gazing at the bright orange sky on a balmy —290°F. afternoon, not to human beings.) Here on Earth, human beings get air to breathe, water to drink, shelter from radiation, topsoil in which to grow crops, and a dizzying array of other goods and services at no charge from the planetary system; anywhere else, all these things have to be provided by human labor, and require constant inputs of resources that human beings must also provide. That burden somehow gets left out of the sort of glowing rhetoric so often circulated among true believers in progress—one of many examples of the remarkable blindness to the economics of complex technology I’ve discussed here in several posts already.

Such arguments have little impact on those who believe. Still, civil religions are considerably more vulnerable to disproof than the theist religions they supplant, in that they belong wholly to the world of ordinary experience, and are far more difficult to uphold in the face of ordinary experience than their theist cousins. When advances in rocket science made it impossible to ignore the fact that what was up there above the clouds had nothing in common with heaven, Christians all over the industrial world recalled that most schools of Christian theology define heaven, as already noted, as a spiritual state or condition rather than a physical place at high altitude. Long-established habits of thought had to be changed, to be sure, but those habits didn’t touch the core commitments of the faith.

The civil religion of progress didn’t have the same advantage, since its core commitments were supposed to manifest in the world of ordinary experience, not in a spiritual condition inaccessible to any eyes but those of faith. Once the religion of progress embraced the fairy-tale logic of science fiction and set out, like Jack climbing the beanstalk, to find the giant’s palace of its dreams somewhere up there in the sky, it was vulnerable to catastrophic disproof—and catastrophic disproof is what it got, too, though I’m not at all sure the believers have yet noticed just what it was that hit them.

The vulnerability here was precisely its dependence on borrowed imagery from the theist faiths it supplanted. Decades of science fiction primed the collective imagination of the western world to see the ascent from earth to space as an ascension from earth to heaven, a passage out of ordinary reality into something wholly other—even if that “wholly other” too often consisted of nothing better than the sort of tacky adventure-fantasy so many SF authors splashed across a galaxy of forgettable imaginary worlds.  The torrent of propaganda and pageantry the United States invested in the Space Race against Russia helped feed the sense of expectancy, and brought it to a climax that summer day in 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped down a spidery ladder onto the surface of the Moon.

After the speeches and the TV specials and the ticker-tape parades were done with, though, something very different began to whisper through the crawlspaces of the industrial world’s collective imagination—something that could be summed up fairly neatly as “Was that all?” We went to the Moon, not once but repeatedly, and every trip made it harder to ignore the fact that the Moon wasn’t wholly other at all. It wasn’t fairyland. It was monotonous gray desert without air, water or life, and the only thing you could see there that was of interest to anybody but a handful of scientists was the extraordinary blue-and-white sphere of Earth hanging motionless in the black and starless sky.
To make matters worse, that’s more or less what orbiters and landers found everywhere else in the solar system, too. Mars, the scene of countless fantasies since the dawn of science fiction, turned out to have a remarkable resemblance to the less interesting corners of Nevada, without even the rattlesnakes and poisonous scorpions to lend a bit of human interest.  Every world in the solar system that human spacecraft reached offered the same less than overwhelming spectacle: sand, scattered rocks, and basically nothing else. Even if Mars had turned out to have some analogue of blue-green algae huddled on the underside of the occasional damp rock, even if the Huygens lander on Titan had spotted unmistakably biological growths basking in the dim glow from the distant sun, a few space missions and a few more National Geographic specials later, the same reaction would inevitably have followed, because the emotions and fantasies that gathered around the promise of space had nothing to do with what was actually out there in the solar system, and everything to do with images and ideas of salvation and transcendence that had been surreptitiously borrowed from older theist religions.

The drawback to that borrowed imagery is that you can’t actually transcend nature, history and the human condition by riding a rocket to the Moon, to Mars, or even to some hypothetical exoplanet circling Proxima Centauri, any more than you can do it by riding a cross-country bus to Nevada.  Ironically, a close reading of science fiction could have warned of that well in advance; the sense of wonder and exaltation that came to early readers of the genre as they read of voyages to the Moon soon palled, and had to be rekindled with ever more elaborate journeys to ever more distant worlds, until finally characters in SF novels were voyaging across multiple universes in an effort to give readers the same rush they got in Verne’s time from a simple trip in a balloon. That’s what happens when you try to make a quantitative difference fill in for a qualitative one, and use mere distance or size as a surrogate for a change in the essential character of existence.

To return to an image introduced earlier in this essay, it’s rather as though some misguidedly materialist believer in the Ascension had convinced himself that heaven really was somewhere up there in the upper atmosphere, and worked out some way to copy those artistic depictions and levitate straight up into the air from the Mount of Olives. His disciples would no doubt have stared with equal awe as he rose into the clouds, and there might well have been people down below on the streets of Jerusalem who caught a glimpse of the sight and thought, good heavens, there goes another one!

It’s what follows, though, that makes the difference. According to Christian tradition, the Ascension ended with Jesus being received into heaven and taking his throne on the right hand of God the Father. For our imaginary imitator, of course, no such welcome would await. Somewhere above 8,000 feet, altitude sickness would cut in; somewhere above that, depending on the weather, frostbite; above 26,000 feet, the oxygen content of the air is too low to support human life, and death from anoxia would follow if hypothermia hadn’t gotten there first. If nothing interrupted the ascent, the planet’s already substantial collection of orbiting space junk would shortly thereafter be enriched by the addition of a neatly freeze-dried corpse.

All metaphors aside, it’s rarely if ever a good idea to try to take a vision of transcendence and enact it in the world of matter.  That effort is the stock in trade of civil religions, which tend to emerge in ages that have lost the capacity to believe in transcendence but still have the emotional needs once met by the theist religions of their cultures, and it accounts for the way civil religions have of failing catastrophically when their efforts to act out simulacra of transcendence collide with the awkward realities of the world as it is.  The implosion of the civil religion of Communism thus promptly followed the collision between fantasies of the Worker’s Paradise and the bleak bureaucratic reality of the Eastern Bloc nations; the implosion of the civil religion of Americanism is taking place right now as a consequence of the collision between what America thinks it stands for and what it’s all too plainly become; and the implosion of the civil religion of progress is arguably not too far off, as the gaudy dream of infinite knowledge and power through technology slams face first into the hard limits of a finite planet and a solar system uninterested in fueling human fantasies.

In the historical vision of Oswald Spengler, after the failure of each high culture’s great age of rationalism comes the Second Religiosity, the resurgence of theist religion as a core institution and organizing principle of society. The Second Religiosity is not the same as the First, and not uncommonly rises out of a different religious sensibility than its predecessor. How that might work out over the decades and centuries ahead is a complex question; we’ll begin discussing it next week.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Life Preservers for Mermaids

The new religious sensibility I began to sketch out in last week’s Archdruid Report post is a subtle thing, and easy to misunderstand. It was thus inevitable that a number of commenters over the last week misunderstood it, or what I was saying about it. Typical of this response were those who thought that the new sensibility I was talking about was simply a matter of ecological concern, and pointed to a variety of existing religious and irreligious traditions that embody ecological concern as a way of suggesting that the new sensibility wasn’t anything new.
Just now, the state of the world being what it is, the presence of ecological concern in any tradition of human thought is something to celebrate. Still, the new religious sensibility I have in mind isn’t simply a matter of caring about the environment. It implies certain things about the relation between humanity and the rest of nature, to be sure, and some of these things are radically different from the implications of the older sensibility that’s shaped the religious thought of the western world for the last couple of millennia. Still, it’s possible to care profoundly about the environment from within the old sensibility, and it’s no doubt possible to ignore humanity’s dependence on the natural world from within the new one, though I admit I haven’t yet been able to figure out how.

To grasp what’s actually involved in the new religious sensibility, we can begin with Ugo Bardi’s thoughtful response to my post of two weeks ago, The Next Ten Billion Years. In his post, Bardi noted the difference between those visions of the future that see history as repeating endlessly—the eastern vision, in his phrasing—and those visions, more common in the western world, that see history as passing through a single arc from beginning to end. He pointed out, and correctly, that the distinction between these two visions rests on fundamental presuppositions about existence, and arguments between them end up circling endlessly without resolution because the common understandings that would allow agreement simply aren’t there.

It’s a valid point. Still, our visions don’t fall as cleanly on either side of that line as a casual reading of Bardi’s post might suggest. Both our portrayals of the future incorporate the inevitable death of the Earth’s biosphere due to the steadily increasing heat of the Sun—Bardi used an estimate of when this will take place that differs from the one that guided my narrative, but it’s not as though anyone alive today knows exactly when the thing will happen, and either story could be made to fit the other estimate with a modest change in dates. Both presuppose that the Earth will be changed profoundly by its history and the presence of intelligent life, and that these changes will affect whatever future civilizations may rise on this planet. Bardi’s “good future” ends, for that matter, with a far more dramatic circling around to the beginning than mine did, with his artificial intelligence taking on God’s role in Genesis 1:1 et seq. and saying “Let there be light” to a new creation.

Those parallels aren’t accidental. Partly, of course, they’re a product of the fact that both narratives are set in the same universe, governed by the same facts of stellar, planetary, and biological evolution, and partly they’re a product of the fact that I deliberately modeled my future history on Bardi’s. I could have done so even more exactly, avoiding all references to historical cycles, and my narrative would still have gotten the fascinating split response I fielded last week. The core issue that distinguishes my narrative from Bardi’s isn’t that mine is cyclical while his is linear.  It’s that in his “good future,” history has a direction—the direction of cumulative technological progress toward cyber-godhood—while in his “bad future,” and in my narrative, it has none. 

That’s the fault line that my narrative was intended to demonstrate—or, from the point of view of devout believers in the religion of progress, the sore toe on which it was designed to stomp. Certainly those of my readers who found the narrative infuriating, depressing, or both, zeroed in on that point with commendable precision. To borrow a turn of phrase from one of the more evidently anguished of my readers, if I’m right, we’re stuck on this rock—“this rock” meaning, of course, what those of a different sensibility would call the living Earth in all its vastness and wonder, the unimaginably rich and complex whole system of which Homo sapiens is one small and decidedly temporary part.

It’s interesting to note the wholly abstract nature of that that passionate desire to leave “this rock” somewhere back there in the interstellar dust. Neither the reader from whose comment I borrowed that phrase, nor any of the others who expressed similar sentiments, showed any particular concern about the fact that they themselves were unlikely ever to have the chance to board a starship and go zooming off toward infinity. In Bardi’s narrative, for that matter, no human being will ever get that chance. To believers in progress, none of that matters. What matters is that Man, or Life, or Mind, or some other capitalized abstraction—in the traditional folk mythology of progress, the initial capital is what tells you that an abstract concept has suddenly morphed into a mythic hero—is going to do the thing.

To the believer in progress, history must have a direction, and it has to make cumulative progress in that direction. That’s specifically the thing I went out of the way to exclude from my narrative, while including nearly everything else that the mythology of progress normally includes. My portrayal of the future, after all, allots to human civilizations of the future a time span around 2200 times the length of all recorded history to date; it assumes that future human societies will accomplish impressive things that we haven’t—the aerostat towns and floating cities of a million years from now were meant to whet that particular appetite; it even assumes that relics of one of our species’ proudest achievements, the Apollo moon landings, will still be around to impress the stuffing out of a future intelligent species a hundred million years from now. To believers in progress, though, long life, stupendous achievements, and a legacy reaching into the far future aren’t enough; there has to be something more.

We’ll get to the nature of that “something more” later on. For the moment, I want to refocus on just how much time and possibility my narrative allows for human beings. One of the subtle traps hidden in the extraordinary human invention of abstract number is the bad habit of thinking that because we can slap a number on something, we can understand it. We talk about millions of years as though we’re counting apples, and lose track of the fact that “a million years” is a symbolic label for a period that’s quite literally too huge for the human mind to begin to grasp.

A human generation is the average period between when a child is born and when it fathers or bears children of its own. Over the course of most of human history, that’s averaged around twenty years. Those of my readers who have had children, or who have reached or passed the age when having a first child is common, might want to take a moment to think back over that interval in their own lives. There have been just under twelve generations—twelve periods as long as it took you to grow from infancy to adulthood—since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, seventy-seven since the fall of Rome, around two hundred fifty since the beginning of recorded history, and 12,500 or so since Homo sapiens evolved out of its hominid ancestors. By contrast, over the period my narrative allots to the human future, there’s room for 550,000 more—that is, well over half a million further generations of humankind—and most of them will experience the cultural and practical benefits of one or another of the 8,638 global civilizations to come.

The point I’m hoping to make here can be sharpened even further if we imagine that my narrative had included, say, the successful human colonization of Mars, or even the establishment of human colonies on hypothetical Earthlike planets around Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, during the course of that eleven million year span. In that case, we would have gotten off this rock, and onto a few others, with a few orbital colonies or moonbases thrown in for good measure. Would that have satisfied those of my readers who were angered or depressed by the narrative? To judge by previous experiences, not if those colonies don’t spawn colonies in their turn, and so on out to infinity. To believers in the civil religion of progress, anything short of limitless cumulative extension just won’t cut it.

It’s in this context that the intrusion of religious imagery at the end of Bardi’s narrative is so revealing—yes, it was just as revealing in its original setting, in the Isaac Asimov short story from which Bardi borrowed it. Such things are astonishingly common in progress-centered visions of the future. I’ve talked more than once about the contemporary faith in the Singularity, that supposedly soon-to-arrive event—Ray Kurzweil’s prophecy puts it in 2045—when every detail of modern Protestant Rapture theology is supposed to appear in science-fiction drag, with superhuman artificial intelligences filling the role of Jesus, outer space that of heaven, robot bodies that of the glorified bodies of the elect, and so on through the list. More generally, from Olaf Stapledon right through to the present, attempts to project the curve of progress into the future reliably end up borrowing imagery and ideas from the mythic vocabulary of the western world’s theist religions, and the further they go into the future, the more extensive the borrowings become.

An earlier post in this sequence pointed out that civil religions like the modern faith in progress are derivative from, even parasitic on, the older theist religions that they replace. Partly that’s because theist religions inevitably get there first, and make extensive use of whatever superlatives their culture happens to prefer, so the civil religions that come afterwards end up borrowing images and ideas already shaped by centuries of theology.  I suggest, though, that there’s more to it than that.  Many of the people who dropped Christianity for a belief in the future triumph of science, progress, and human reason in a godless cosmos, for example, still had the emotional needs that were once met by Christianity, and inevitably sought fulfillment of those needs from their new belief system.

Those needs, in turn, aren’t universal to all human beings everywhere; they’re functions of a particular religious sensibility that began to emerge, as I described last week, in the western half of Eurasia around 600 BCE.  That sensibility shaped a variety of older and newly minted religious traditions in at least as diverse a range of ways, but the core theme with which all of them contended was a profound distaste for nature, history, and the human condition, and the conviction that there had to be an escape hatch through which the chosen few could leap straight out of the “black iron prison” of the world, into the infinity and eternity that was supposed to be humankind’s true home.

Exactly where to find the escape hatch and how to get through it was a matter of fierce and constant disagreement. From one perspective, the hatch would only fit one person at a time, and could be passed through by rigorous spiritual discipline. From another, the unique qualities of a prophet or savior had opened the escape hatch wide, so that everyone who embraced the true faith wholeheartedly and kept some set of moral or behavioral precepts could expect to leap through at some point after physical death. From still another, the hatch would someday soon be opened so wide that the whole world and everyone on it would slip through, in an apocalyptic transformation that would abolish nature, history, time and change all at once. Much of the complexity of the last two thousand years or so of Eurasian religious history comes from the fact that devout believers in any faith you care to name embraced each of these options, and blended them together in a dizzying assortment of ways.

As western civilization moved through the same historical transformations as its predecessors, and the rise of rationalism drove the replacement of traditional theist religions with civil religions, the same quest for an escape hatch from nature, history, and the human condition expressed itself in different ways. The discussion of civil religions earlier in this sequence of posts explored some of the ways that civil religions borrowed the rhetoric and imagery of their theist predecessors.

The civil religion of progress was arguably the most successful of all in coopting the forms of older religions. It had an abundance of saints, martyrs, and heroes, and a willingness to twist history to  manufacture others as needed; the development of technology, buoyed by a flood of cheap abundant energy from fossil fuels, allowed it to supplant the miracle stories of the older faiths with secular miracles of its own; the rise of scientific and engineering professions with their own passionate subcultures of commitment to the myth of progress gave it the equivalent of a priesthood, complete with ceremonial vestments in the form of the iconic white lab coat; the spread of materialist atheism as the default belief system among most scientists and engineers gave it a dogmatic creed that could be used, and in many circles is being used, as a litmus test for loyalty to the faith and a justification for warfare—so far, at least, merely verbal—against an assortment of unbelievers and heretics. 
What the civil religion of progress didn’t have, at least in its early stages, was the escape hatch from nature, history, and the human condition that the religious sensibility of the age demanded. This may well be why belief in progress remained a minority faith for so long. The nationalist religions of the 18th century, of which Americanism is a survivor, and the social religions of the 19th, of which Communism was the last man standing, both managed the trick far earlier—nationalism by calling the faithful to ecstatic identification with the supposedly immortal spirit of the national community and the eternal ideals for which it was believed to stand, such as liberty and justice for all; social religions such as Communism by offering believers the promise of a Utopian world “come the revolution” hovering somewhere in the tantalizingly near future.

It was science fiction that finally provided the civil religion of progress with the necessary promise of salvation from the human condition. The conceptual sleight of hand with which this was done deserves a discussion of its own, and I intend to discuss it in next week’s post. Yet one consistent result of the way it was done has been a reliance on overtly theistic imagery far more open and direct than anything in the other civil religions we’ve discussed. From H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods straight through to the latest geek-pope pontifications about the Singularity, the idea that humanity will attain some close approximation to godhood, or at least give metaphorical birth to artificial intelligences that will accomplish that feat, pervades the more imaginative end of the literature of progress—just as the less blatantly theological ambition to banish poverty, want, illness, and death from the realm of human experience has played a central role in the rhetoric of progress all along.

There are, as it happens, at least two serious problems with the project of perching humanity on some approximation of a divine throne in heaven. The first, as discussed here at length, is that the project isn’t exactly performing to spec at the moment. Three hundred years of accelerating drawdown of the Earth’s irreplaceable natural resources, and the three hundred years of accelerating damage to the Earth’s biosphere made inevitable by that process, have exempted a rather small fraction of our species from the more serious kinds of poverty and the more readily curable diseases, and handed out an assortment of technological toys that allow them to play at being demigods now and then, when circumstances permit.  As nonrenewable resources run short and the impacts of ecological blowback mount, it’s becoming increasingly clear that only drastic efforts are likely to preserve any of these advantages into the future—and those drastic efforts are not happening.

Talk, as Zen masters are fond of saying, does not cook the rice, and enthusiastic chatter about artificial intelligence and space manufacturing does nothing to keep contemporary industrial society from stumbling down the same ragged trajectory toward history’s compost heap as all those dead civilizations that came before it. If anything, the easy assumption that the onward march of progress is unstoppable, and the artificial intelligences and orbital factories are therefore guaranteed to pop into being in due time, has become one of the major obstacles to constructive action at a time when constructive action is desperately needed. The use of emotionally appealing fantasies as a source of soothing mental pablum for those who, for good reason, are worried about the future is wildly popular these days, to be sure, but it’s hardly helpful.

Yet it’s at this point that the new religious sensibility I discussed in last week’s post throws a wild card into the game. It’s been my repeated experience that for those who already feel the new sensibility, the old promises haven’t just lost their plausibility; they’ve lost their emotional appeal. It’s one thing to proclaim salvation from nature, history, and the human condition to those who want that salvation but no longer believe that the ideology you’re offering can provide it. It’s quite another to do the same thing to people who no longer want the salvation you’re offering—people for whom nature, history, and the human condition aren’t a trap to escape, as they have been for most people in the western world for the last two millennia, but a reality to embrace in delight and wonder.

That’s the unexpected void that’s opening up beneath the feet of civil and theist religions alike at this turn of history’s wheel. In order to appeal to societies in which most people embraced the older religious sensibility, with its desperate craving for escape from the world of ordinary experience, religious traditions of both kinds have come to picture their role as that of lifeguards throwing life preservers to clumsy swimmers at risk of drowning in the waters of existence. What are they to do when a growing number of the swimmers in question ignore the flotation devices and, diving back into the depths of the water, show mermaid’s tails?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Sense of Homecoming

Last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report was, as some of my readers grasped, more than an attempt to imagine the far future without reference to the contemporary folk mythologies of progress and apocalypse—though it was also that, of course. In particular, I hoped to evoke from my readers a specific response or, rather, two precisely opposite responses: the two sides of a fault line along which the tectonic pressures of the collective imagination are pressing toward crisis.

The results were as good as I could have hoped. Some of those who read last week’s account of a future without limitless progress, to be sure, found the prospect unbearably dismal. The most vocal spokesperson for that point of view was, unexpectedly enough, SF writer David Brin, who contributed a fine thumping tirade—helpfully posted to his own blog as well as this one—full of the sort of “if you disagree with me, you’re just being negative” rhetoric most often used these days to market Ponzi schemes and perpetual-motion devices. Still, he also took the time to characterize the narrative as an infuriatingly gloomy “paean to despair.” Though nobody else seems to have felt quite the same need to bluster about it, a number of other readers expressed similar reactions.

What makes this fascinating to me is that a rather larger number of my readers had the opposite reaction. A vision of a future in which civilizations, species and worlds follow life cycles like those of all other natural things didn’t leave them furious or depressed. Their comments instead featured such words as  “comforted,” “delighted,” and “awed.” It’s easy, and also common, to mischaracterize such feelings as simple schadenfreude at the failure of humanity’s overinflated ambitions, but there’s something rather more significant going on here. Not one of the readers who made these comments made gloating remarks about the fate of humanity or the Earth. Rather, what comforted, delighted, and awed them was the imagery of Nature’s enduring order and continuity that I wove throughout the narrative, and brought to the tightest focus I could manage in the last two paragraphs.

This division is one I’ve been observing for quite some time now. It so happens that my unpaid day job as the head of a contemporary Druid order brings me into contact with a tolerably large number of people who fall more generally on the latter side of the division I’ve just traced: whose sense of wonder and instinct for reverence are far more readily roused by the order of Nature, and their own necessary participation in that order, than it is by the overturning of natural order that plays so crucial a role in the theist and civil religions of mainstream Western culture. It so happens, for that matter, that I find myself consistently on that side of the division I’ve just traced. Reflecting on my own sense of alienation from the conventional religiosity of our time, and on what I’ve learned from the many other people who experience a similar alienation for similar reasons, I’ve come to believe that what’s going on is the emergence, for the first time in more than two thousand years, of a genuinely new religious sensibility in the western world.

A religious sensibility isn’t a religion. It’s the substructure of perceptions, emotions and intuitions on which religions are built, and to which religions owe both the deep similarities that link them to other faiths of the same general age and historical origin, and the equally deep divides that separate them from faiths of different ages and origins. Between the tendency of modern religions to insist loudly on  their uniqueness, on the one hand, and the opposed tendency of modern irreligion to run all religions together into a formless blur, on the other, the concept of distinct religious sensibilities is a difficult one for many people nowadays to grasp; the best way to make sense of it is to glance back over the emergence of the religious sensibility that currently dominates the western world.

If you had the chance to survey the religious landscape of the western half of Eurasia and North Africa two or three millennia ago, unless you happened to be looking in some very obscure corners, you would find very few similarities to the religious institutions, practices, and ideas of today. People didn’t belong to congregations that met regularly inside buildings to pray together; questions concerning life after death weren’t a big deal for most people, and nobody wasted time waiting for the end of the world; sacred scriptures in the modern sense were distinctly rare, next to nobody claimed that a god had created the universe, and even the most devout believers in one deity freely conceded that other deities existed and deserved the reverence of their own worshippers.

The core religious institution of that era was the temple, a house for the deity rather than a meeting place for worshippers—rituals in the old temple cults took place out in front in the open air, not inside—and the core ceremony was sacrifice, in which worshippers invited the presence of a deity for a feast and quite literally “killed the fatted calf” to supply the main course for divine and human participants alike. (Food storage technology being what it was at that time, that was the way you provided meat for any honored guest.) The status of priests varied from one part of the western world to another, but in most places they were elected or hereditary officials set apart from the laity only in the most pro forma sense, and you didn’t have to be a priest to perform a sacrifice.

Behind all the richness and diversity of the religious life of the time was a distinctive sensibility, one that saw the cosmos as a community to which gods and men both belonged. The modern notion of equality had no more place in their cosmos than it did in any other ancient community, but the sharp differences in rights and responsibilities didn’t prevent every member of the community from having a share in its collective life and benefits. That sensibility once had the force of revelation; the Jews, for example, were late adopters of the temple cult, and the awe and wonder palpable in Solomon’s prayer at the consecration of the temple of Jerusalem (II Chronicles 6) conveys something of the power of a religious vision in which gods could “in very deed dwell with men on the earth.” It was by way of that emotional power that the sensibility of the temple cults superseded a still older sensibility whose traces can just be made out in the oldest strata of Western religious traditions.

Still, by 600 BCE or so, the initial power of that vision had long since settled into a comfortable routine of thought and practice, and by 600 BCE or so, in turn, the first stirrings of a new and very different religious sensibility were starting to appear.  Orphism in the Greek-speaking communities of the Mediterranean basin and the earliest forms of Buddhism in India rejected the celebration of life’s good things in the community of gods and men, and offered in its place a radically different vision—a vision of salvation from the natural world and the human condition itself, available to an elite few willing to embrace a life of radical austerity and spiritual practice. 

Then and long thereafter, this was a fringe phenomenon that appealed only to a tiny minority of intellectuals.  Most people either believed and practiced as their great-grandparents had, or settled into fashionably up-to-date materialist philosophies that discarded belief in gods without stirring the smallest fraction of a cubit from the religious sensibility that underlay the traditional faiths. Still, the new sensibility spread into popular culture as the years passed.

You can track its spread by the way that robust traditional celebrations of human sexuality gave way to shamefaced discomfort with the facts of reproduction. Many Greek religious processions, for example, carried large wooden penises as emblems of the gods’ gifts of fertility and delight; by the time Greek philosophy was a going concern, intellectuals were muttering excuses about symbols of the abstract progenitive power of the divine principles to justify to themselves a tradition with which they were obviously uncomfortable.  Attitudes toward sexuality of the sort that we now call “Victorian” found an increasingly public voice as the new sensibility spread, though here again most people simply rolled their eyes and did what they and their great-great-grandparents had always done.

The great breakthrough of the new religious sensibility took place over the half-millennium after 200 CE, as three great religious movements—Christianity, Islam, and Mahayana Buddhism—democratized the older vision of salvation for an elite, by proclaiming faith in a uniquely holy person and his doctrine as a valid substitute for the lifelong austerities and spiritual disciplines of the older tradition. The shift was never total; ordinary members of all three movements were expected to take up certain practices and austerities, of the sort that could be pursued alongside an ordinary lifestyle, and all three also evolved roles for those who aspired to the total immersion of the older tradition (monks and nuns in Christianity and Buddhism, Sufis in Islam). By that time the new sensibility had become sufficiently widespread that throwing open the doors of salvation to all and sundry got an enthusiastic response.

It’s indicative of how deeply the new sensibility had percolated through the society of the age that by the time Christianity began its final rise to power in the Roman world, its Pagan rivals were as deeply committed to the idea of salvation from the human condition as their Christian rivals. The writings of late Pagan intellectuals such as Iamblichus and the Emperor Julian show as much discomfort with sexuality and physical embodiment as those of their Christian contemporaries; what differentiated the two was simply that the Pagan writers defended the older, elitist conception of salvation for those who earned it by austerity and spiritual practice, against the new vision of salvation by faith, and made common cause with what was left of the old temple cults because those had long been a focus of Christian animosity. Their rearguard action failed, though its literary remains became a lasting resource for those who never did fit in with the new sensibility—or, more to the point, with the specific institutional forms that the new sensibility took in its cultural and historical contexts.

A religious sensibility, after all, is not a monolithic thing, and its expressions are even less so.  In Europe and the European diaspora, the division between more elitist and more democratic visions of salvation became an enduring fault line, to be joined by the divide between centralized and collective concepts of spiritual authority, on the one hand, and between more this-worldly and more otherworldly concepts of salvation on the other.  Fault lines of comparable importance, though radically different nature, ran through the older religious sensibility as well, and can be traced in the very different religious sensibilities of regions outside western Eurasia and the Mediterranean basin.

For that matter, older religious sensibilities and their institutional forms can quite often find a way to survive in the interstices of the new; consider the way that Shinto, a temple-centered polytheism of the classic kind, has been able to hold its own for more than fifteen centuries in Japan side by side with Mahayana Buddhism. The repeated revivals of Pagan worship in the western world from the late Middle Ages to the present suggests that the same thing could as well have happened in Europe and the European diaspora, if violent intolerance along religious lines had been less of an issue there. The point that needs making here is that the dominance of a religious sensibility is never total; even when a great majority of people take the presuppositions of a given sensibility for granted as unchallengeable truths, there are always those who don’t fit in, whose personal sense of the sacred pulls them in directions outside the accepted religious sensibility of their age: some toward sensibilities that have been dominant in the past, others toward sensibilities that may potentially play the same role in the future.

It’s important, it seems to me, not to impose the traditional folk mythology of progress onto these shifts from one religious sensibility to another.  Of course it’s been a rhetorical strategy common to many modern religions to do exactly this, and to portray the replacement of the old temple cults by the new religions of salvation as a great leap forward in human progress. Still, that strategy runs serious risks. There’s always the danger that some more recently minted theist religion will play the same card, and argue that just as Paganism was replaced by Christianity, say, Christianity ought to be replaced by the latest, hottest, newest revelation, whatever that happens to be. There’s also the considerably greater danger that atheists will make exactly the same argument. This latter has been a valuable weapon in the atheist arsenal for centuries now, and it gets much of its power by drawing on the same arguments monotheist religions used against their polytheist predecessors. As an edged joke common in Neopagan circles these days puts it, when you’ve already disbelieved in all the other gods, what’s one more?

Still, the contemporary quarrels between atheists and theists, like the equally fierce quarrels between the different theist religions of salvation, take place within a shared sensibility. It’s indicative, for example, that theists and atheists agree on the vast importance of what individuals believe about basic religious questions such as the existence of God; it’s just that to the theists, having the right beliefs brings salvation from eternal hellfire, while to the atheists, having the right beliefs brings salvation from the ignorant and superstitious past that fills the place of eternal damnation in their mythos. That obsession with individual belief is one of the distinctive features of the current western religious sensibility; in the heyday of the old temple cults, while acts of impiety toward sacred objects or ceremonies would earn a messy death in short order, nobody cared about what opinions individuals might have about details of religious doctrine, and thinkers could redefine the gods any way they wished so long as they continued to show proper respect for holy things and holy seasons.

The hostilities between Christianity and contemporary atheism, like those between Christianity and Islam, are thus expressions of something like sibling rivalry. Salvation from the natural world and the human condition remains the core premise (and thus also the most important promise) of all these faiths, whether that salvation takes the supernatural form of resurrection followed by eternal life in heaven, on the one hand, or the allegedly more natural form of limitless progress, the conquest of poverty, illness, and death, and the great leap outwards to an endless future among the stars. It’s precisely the absence of those common assumptions, in turn, that makes communication so difficult across the boundary between one religious sensibility and another. The gap in understanding that reduced an intelligent man like David Brin to spluttering fury at the suggestion that salvation might not be waiting for humanity out there among the stars is exactly parallel to the one that drove normally tolerant Roman thinkers to denounce the early Christians as “enemies of the human race.”

Still, the fact remains that to a growing number of people nowadays, promises of salvation from the natural world and the human condition—whether that salvation takes the more traditional form of eternal life in a supernatural realm or a more contemporary form decked out with spaceships and jetpacks—fail to evoke the emotional responses they get from participants in the older religious sensibility. It’s not merely that these promises no longer ring true, though in many cases that’s also an issue; it’s that they no longer have any appeal. What stirs awe and wonder in these people, rather, is a sense of belonging and of participation in the great cycles of Nature, an awareness of oneness with life that does not shrink in terror from life’s natural completion in death.  What inspires them is not the hope of a final separation from the realities of nature, life, history and time, but a conscious and delighted participation in these realities—not the promise of salvation, but the reality of homecoming.

The emergence of this new religious sensibility has been, as such things always are, a gradual process. Historian of religions Catherine Albanese in her useful 1990 study Nature Religion in America has traced it back in American religious life to colonial times, and its roots in older European cultures go back considerably further still. That said, it seems to me that the last few decades have seen the new religious sensibility approach something like a critical mass.  It’s become much more common than it once was for me to encounter other people who, as I do, find more cause for reverence in the curve of a grass blade in the wind or the dance of energies through an ecosystem than in the dubious claims of past miracles offered by theist religions or the equally dubious promises of future miracles made so freely by the civil religion of progress.

If I’m right, and the new religious sensibility I’ve outlined in this essay will play a significant role in the religious imagination of the western world in the decades, centuries, and millennia to come, a case could be made that its emergence is timely. More than any other single factor, the civil religion of progress helped to drive the weird astigmatism of the collective imagination that makes blind faith in vaporware seem like a reasonable response to the converging crises of our age, and convinces so many people that the only possible thing to do in a blind alley is to keep stomping on the accelerator in the vain hope that the brick wall in front of them must surely give way. 

More generally, as ecologist Lynn White pointed out many years ago in a famous essay, the origins of our environmental crisis are deeply entangled with the religious sensibility of salvation and the beliefs and institutional forms that emerged from that sensibility. Understanding that entanglement, and how a different religious sensibility might help to unravel it, can offer some useful insights into how we got into our current mess and how we might get out of it; we’ll discuss that next week.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The Next Ten Billion Years

Earlier this week, I was trying to think of ways to talk about the gap between notions about the future we’ve all absorbed from the last three hundred years of fossil-fueled progress, on the one hand, and the ways of thinking about what’s ahead that might actually help us make sense of our predicament and the postpetroleum, post-progress world ahead, on the other. While I was in the middle of these reflections, a correspondent reminded me of a post from last year by peak oil blogger Ugo Bardi, which set out to place the crises of our time in the context of the next ten billion years.

It’s an ambitious project, and by no means badly carried out. The only criticism that comes to mind is that it only makes sense if you happen to be a true believer in the civil religion of progress, the faith whose rise and impending fall has been a central theme here in recent months. As a sermon delivered to the faithful of that religion, it’s hard to beat; it’s even got the classic structure of evangelical rhetoric—the awful fate that will soon fall upon those who won’t change their wicked ways, the glorious salvation awaiting those who get right with Progress, and all the rest of it.

Of course the implied comparison with Christianity can only be taken so far. Christians are generally expected to humble themselves before their God, while believers in progress like to imagine that humanity will become God or, as in this case, be able to pat God fondly on the head and say, “That’s my kid.” More broadly, those of my readers who were paying attention last week will notice that the horrible fate that awaits the sinful is simply that nature will be allowed to go her own way, while the salvation awaiting the righteous is more or less the ability to browbeat nature into doing what they think she ought to do—or rather, what Bardi’s hypothesized New Intelligence, whose interests are assumed to be compatible with those of humanity, thinks she ought to do.

There’s plenty that could be said about the biophobia—the stark shivering dread of life’s normal and healthy ripening toward death—that pervades this kind of thinking, but that’s a subject for another post. Here I’d like to take another path.  Once the notions of perpetual progress and imminent apocalypse are seen as industrial society’s traditional folk mythologies, rather than meaningful resources for making predictions about the future, and known details about ecology, evolution, and astrophysics are used in their place to fill out the story, the next ten billion years looks very different from either of Bardi’s scenarios. Here’s my version or, if you will, my vision.

Ten years from now:

Business as usual continues; the human population peaks at 8.5 billion, liquid fuels production remains more or less level by the simple expedient of consuming an ever larger fraction of the world’s total energy output, and the annual cost of weather-related disasters continues to rise. Politicians and the media insist loudly that better times are just around the corner, as times get steadily worse. Among those who recognize that something’s wrong, one widely accepted viewpoint holds that fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration will shortly solve all our problems, and therefore we don’t have to change the way we live.  Another, equally popular, insists that total human extinction is scarcely a decade away, and therefore we don’t have to change the way we live. Most people who worry about the future accept one or the other claim, while the last chance for meaningful systemic change slips silently away.

A hundred years from now:

It has been a difficult century. After more than a dozen major wars, three bad pandemics, widespread famines, and steep worldwide declines in public health and civil order, human population is down to 3 billion and falling. Sea level is up ten meters and rising fast as the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps disintegrate; fossil fuel production ground to a halt decades earlier as the last economically producible reserves were exhausted, and most proposed alternatives turned out to be unaffordable in the absence of the sort of cheap, abundant, highly concentrated energy only fossil fuels can provide. Cornucopians still insist that fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration will save us any day now, and their opponents still insist that human extinction is imminent, but most people are too busy trying to survive to listen to either group.

A thousand years from now:

The Earth is without ice caps and glaciers for the first time in twenty million years or so, and sea level has gone up more than a hundred meters worldwide; much of the world has a tropical climate, as it did 50 million years earlier. Human population is 100 million, up from half that figure at the bottom of the bitter dark age now passing into memory. Only a few scholars have any idea what the words “fusion power,” “artificial intelligence,” and “interstellar migration” once meant, and though there are still people insisting that the end of the world will arrive any day now, their arguments now generally rely more overtly on theology than before. New civilizations are rising in various corners of the world, combining legacy technologies with their own unique cultural forms. The one thing they all have in common is that the technological society of a millennium before is their idea of evil incarnate.

Ten thousand years from now:

The rise in global temperature has shut down the thermohaline circulation and launched an oceanic anoxic event, the planet’s normal negative feedback process when carbon dioxide levels get out of hand. Today’s industrial civilization is a dim memory from the mostly forgotten past, as far removed from this time as the Neolithic Revolution is from ours; believers in most traditional religions declare piously that the climate changes of the last ten millennia are the results of human misbehavior, while rationalists insist that this is all superstition and the climate changes have perfectly natural causes. As the anoxic oceans draw carbon out of the biosphere and entomb it in sediments on the sea floor, the climate begins a gradual cooling—a process which helps push humanity’s sixth global civilization into its terminal decline.

A hundred thousand years from now: 

Carbon dioxide levels drop below preindustrial levels as the oceanic anoxic event finishes its work, and the complex feedback loops that govern Earth’s climate shift again: the thermohaline circulation restarts, triggering another round of climatic changes. Humanity’s seventy-ninth global civilization flourishes and begins its slow decline as the disruptions set in motion by a long-forgotten industrial age are drowned out by an older climatic cycle. The scholars of that civilization are thrilled by the notions of fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration; they have no idea that we dreamed the same dreams before them, being further in our future than the Neanderthals are in our past, but they will have no more luck achieving those dreams than we did.

A million years from now:

The Earth is in an ice age; great ice sheets cover much of the northern hemisphere and spread from mountain ranges all over the world, and sea level is 150 meters lower than today. To the people living at this time, who have never known anything else, this seems perfectly normal. Metals have become rare geological specimens—for millennia now, most human societies have used renewable ceramic-bioplastic composites instead—and the very existence of fossil fuels has long since been forgotten. The 664th global human civilization is at its peak, lofting aerostat towns into the skies and building great floating cities on the seas; its long afternoon will eventually draw to an end after scores of generations, and when it falls, other civilizations will rise in its place.

Ten million years from now: 

The long glacial epoch that began in the Pleistocene has finally ended, and the Earth is returning to its more usual status as a steamy jungle planet. This latest set of changes proves to be just that little bit too much for humanity. No fewer than 8,639 global civilizations have risen and fallen over the last ten million years, each with its own unique sciences, technologies, arts, literatures, philosophies, and ways of thinking about the cosmos; the shortest-lived lasted for less than a century before blowing itself to smithereens, while the longest-lasting endured for eight millennia before finally winding down.

All that is over now. There are still relict populations of human beings in Antarctica and a few island chains, and another million years will pass before cascading climatic and ecological changes finally push the last of them over the brink into extinction. Meanwhile, in the tropical forests of what is now southern Siberia, the descendants of raccoons who crossed the Bering land bridge during the last great ice age are proliferating rapidly, expanding into empty ecological niches once filled by the larger primates. In another thirty million years or so, their descendants will come down from the trees.

One hundred million years from now:

Retro-rockets fire and fall silent as the ungainly craft settles down on the surface of the Moon. After feverish final checks, the hatch is opened, and two figures descend onto the lunar surface. They are bipeds, but not even remotely human; instead, they belong to Earth’s third intelligent species. They are distantly descended from the crows of our time, though they look no more like crows than you look like the tree shrews of the middle Cretaceous. Since you have a larynx rather than a syrinx, you can’t even begin to pronounce what they call themselves, so we’ll call them corvins.

Earth’s second intelligent species, whom we’ll call cyons after their raccoon ancestors, are long gone. They lasted a little more than eight million years before the changes of an unstable planet sent them down the long road to extinction; they never got that deeply into technology, though their political institutions made the most sophisticated human equivalents look embarrassingly crude. The corvins are another matter. Some twist of inherited psychology left them with a passion for heights and upward movement; they worked out the basic principles of the hot air balloon before they got around to inventing the wheel, and balloons, gliders, and corvin-carrying kites play much the same roles in their earliest epic literature that horses and chariots play in ours. 

As corvin societies evolved more complex technologies, eyes gazed upwards from soaring tower-cities at the moon, the perch of perches set high above the world. All that was needed to make those dreams a reality was petroleum, and a hundred million years is more than enough time for the Earth to restock her petroleum reserves—especially if that period starts off with an oceanic anoxic event that stashes gigatons of carbon in marine sediments. Thus it was inevitable that, sooner or later, the strongest of the great corvin kith-assemblies would devote its talents and wealth to the task of reaching the moon.

The universe has a surprise in store for the corvins, though. Their first moon landing included among its goals the investigation of some odd surface features, too small to be seen clearly by Earth-based equipment. That first lander thus set down on a flat lunar plain that, a very long time ago, was called the Sea of Tranquillity, and so it was that the stunned corvin astronauts found themselves facing the unmistakable remains of a spacecraft that arrived on the moon in the unimaginably distant past.

A few equivocal traces buried in terrestrial sediments had suggested already to corvin loremasters that another intelligent species might have lived on the Earth before them, though the theory was dismissed by most as wild speculation. The scattered remnants on the Moon confirmed them, and made it hard for even the most optimistic corvins to embrace the notion that some providence guaranteed the survival of intelligent species. The curious markings on some of the remains, which some loremasters suggested might be a mode of visual communication, resisted all attempts at decipherment, and very little was ever learnt for certain about the enigmatic ancient species that left its mark on the Moon.

Even so, it will be suggested long afterwards that the stark warning embodied in those long-abandoned spacecraft played an important role in convincing corvin societies to rein in the extravagant use of petroleum and other nonrenewable resources, though it also inspired hugely expensive and ultimately futile attempts to achieve interstellar migration—for some reason the corbins never got into the quest for fusion power or artificial intelligence. One way or another, though, the corvins turned out to be the most enduring of Earth’s intelligent species, and more than 28 million years passed before their day finally ended.

One billion years from now:

The Earth is old and mostly desert, and a significant fraction of its total crust is made up of the remains of bygone civilizations. The increasing heat of the Sun as it proceeds through its own life cycle, and the ongoing loss of volatile molecules from the upper atmosphere into space, have reduced the seas to scattered, salty basins amid great sandy wastes. Only near the north and south poles does vegetation flourish, and with it the corbicules, Earth’s eleventh and last intelligent species. Their ancestors in our time are an invasive species of freshwater clam. (Don’t laugh; a billion years ago your ancestors were still trying to work out the details of multicellularity.)

The corbicules have the same highly practical limb structure as the rest of their subphylum: six stumpy podicles for walking, two muscular dorsal tentacles for gross manipulations and two slender buccal tentacles by the mouth for fine manipulations. They spend most of their time in sprawling underground city-complexes, venturing to the surface to harvest vegetation to feed the subterranean metafungal gardens that provide them with nourishment. By some combination of luck and a broad general tendency toward cephalization common to many evolutionary lineages, Earth’s last intelligent species is also its most intellectually gifted; hatchlings barely out of creche are given fun little logic problems such as Fermat’s last theorem for their amusement, and a large majority of adult corbicules are involved in one or another field of intellectual endeavor. Being patient, long-lived, and not greatly addicted to collective stupidities, they have gone very far indeed.

Some eight thousand years back, a circle of radical young corbicule thinkers proposed the project of working out all the physical laws of the cosmos, starting from first principles. So unprecedented a suggestion sparked countless debates, publications, ceremonial dances, and professional duels in which elderly scholars killed themselves in order to cast unbearable opprobrium on their rivals. Still, it was far too delectable an intellectual challenge to be left unanswered, and the work has proceeded ever since. In the course of their researches, without placing any great importance on the fact, the best minds among the corbicules have proved conclusively that nuclear fusion, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration were never practical options in the first place.

Being patient, long-lived, and not greatly addicted to collective stupidities, the corbicules have long since understood and accepted their eventual fate.  In another six million years, as the Sun expands and the Earth’s surface temperature rises, the last surface vegetation will perish and the corbicules will go extinct; in another ninety million years, the last multicellular life forms will die out; in another two hundred million years, the last seas will boil, and Earth’s biosphere, nearing the end of its long, long life, will nestle down into the deepest crevices of its ancient, rocky world and drift into a final sleep.

Ten billion years from now:

Earth is gone. It had a splendid funeral; its body plunged into stellar fire as the Sun reached its red giant stage and expanded out to the orbit of Mars, and its ashes were flung outwards into interstellar space with the first great helium flash that marked the beginning of the Sun’s descent toward its destiny. Two billion years later, the gas- and dust-rich shockwave from that flash plowed into a mass of interstellar dust dozens of light-years away from the Sun’s pale corpse, and kickstarted one of the great transformative processes of the cosmos.

Billions more years have passed since that collision. A yellow-orange K-2 star burns cheerily in the midst of six planets and two asteroid belts. The second planet has a surface temperature between the freezing and boiling points of water, and a sufficiently rich assortment of elements to set another of the great transformative processes of the cosmos into motion. Now, in one spot on the surface of this world, rising up past bulbous purplish things that don’t look anything like trees but fill the same broad ecological function, there is a crag of black rock. On top of that crag, a creature sits looking at the stars, fanning its lunules with its sagittal crest and waving its pedipalps meditatively back and forth. It is one of the first members of its world’s first intelligent species, and it is—for the first time ever on that world—considering the stars and wondering if other beings might live out there among them.

The creature’s biochemistry, structure, and life cycle have nothing in common with yours, dear reader. Its world, its sensory organs, its mind and its feelings would be utterly alien to you, even if ten billion years didn’t separate you. Nonetheless, it so happens that a few atoms that are currently part of your brain, as you read these words, will also be part of the brain-analogue of the creature on the crag on that distant, not-yet-existing world. Does that fact horrify you, intrigue you, console you, leave you cold? We’ll discuss the implications of that choice next week.