Wednesday, October 12, 2016

An Afternoon in Early Autumn

I think it was the late science writer Stephen Jay Gould who coined the term “deep time” for the vast panorama opened up to human eyes by the last three hundred years or so of discoveries in geology and astronomy. It’s a useful label for an even more useful concept. In our lives, we deal with time in days, seasons, years, decades at most; decades, centuries and millennia provide the yardsticks by which the life cycles of human societies—that is to say, history, in the usual sense of that word—are traced.

Both these, the time frame of individual lives and the time frame of societies, are anthropocentric, as indeed they should be; lives and societies are human things and require a human measure. When that old bamboozler Protagoras insisted that “man is the measure of all things,” though, he uttered a subtle truth wrapped in a bald-faced lie.* The subtle truth is that since we are what we are—that is to say, social primates whow have learned a few interesting tricks—our capacity to understand the cosmos is strictly limited by the perceptions that human nervous systems are capable of processing and the notions that human minds are capable of thinking. The bald-faced lie is the claim that everything in the cosmos must fit inside the perceptions human beings can process and the notions they can think.

(*No, none of this has to do with gender politics. The Greek language, unlike modern English, had a common gender-nonspecific noun for “human being,” anthropos, which was distinct from andros, “man,” and gyne, “woman.” The word Protagoras used was anthropos.)

It took the birth of modern geology to tear through the veil of human time and reveal the stunningly inhuman scale of time that measures the great cycles of the planet on which we live. Last week’s post sketched out part of the process by which people in Europe and the European diaspora, once they got around to noticing that the Book of Genesis is about the Rock of Ages rather than the age of rocks, struggled to come to terms with the immensities that geological strata revealed. To my mind, that was the single most important discovery our civilization has made—a discovery with which we’re still trying to come to terms, with limited success so far, and one that I hope we can somehow manage to hand down to our descendants in the far future.

The thing that makes deep time difficult for many people to cope with is that it makes self-evident nonsense out of any claim that human beings have any uniquely important place in the history of the cosmos. That wouldn’t be a difficulty at all, except that the religious beliefs most commonly held in Europe and the European diaspora make exactly that claim.

That last point deserves some expansion here, not least because a minority among the current crop of “angry atheists” have made a great deal of rhetorical hay by insisting that all religions, across the board, point for point, are identical to whichever specific religion they themselves hate the most—usually, though not always, whatever Christian denomination they rebelled against in their adolescent years. That insistence is a fertile source of nonsense, and never so much as when it turns to the religious implications of time.

The conflict between science and religion over the age of the Earth is a purely Western phenomenon.  Had the great geological discoveries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries taken place in Japan, say, or India, the local religious authorities wouldn’t have turned a hair. On the one hand, most Asian religious traditions juggle million-year intervals as effortlessly as any modern cosmologist; on the other, Asian religious traditions have by and large avoided the dubious conviction, enshrined in most (though not all) versions of Christianity, that the Earth and everything upon it exists solely as a stage on which the drama of humanity’s fall and redemption plays out over a human-scaled interval of time. The expansive Hindu cosmos with its vast ever-repeating cycles of time, the Shinto concept of Great Nature as a continuum within which every category of being has its rightful place, and other non-Western worldviews offer plenty of room for modern geology to find a home.

Ironically, though, the ongoing decline of mainstream Christianity as a cultural influence in the Western world hasn’t done much to lessen the difficulty most people in the industrial world feel when faced with the abysses of deep time. The reason here is simply that the ersatz religion that’s taken the place of Christianity in the Western imagination also tries to impose a rigid ideological scheme not only on the ebb and flow of human history, but on the great cycles of the nonhuman cosmos as well. Yes, that would be the religion of progress—the faith-based conviction that human history is, or at least ought to be, a straight line extending onward and upward from the caves to the stars.

You might think, dear reader, that a belief system whose followers like to wallow in self-praise for their rejection of the seven-day creation scheme of the Book of Genesis and their embrace of deep time in the past would have a bit of a hard time evading its implications for the future. Let me assure you that this seems to give most of them no trouble at all. From Ray Kurzweil’s pop-culture mythology of the Singularity—a straightforward rewrite of Christian faith in the Second Coming dolled up in science-fiction drag—straight through to the earnest space-travel advocates who insist that we’ve got to be ready to abandon the solar system when the sun turns into a red giant four billion years from now, a near-total aversion to thinking about the realities deep time ahead of us is astonishingly prevalent among those who think they’ve grasped the vastness of Earth’s history.

I’ve come to think that one of the things that feeds this curious quirk of collective thinking is a bit of trivia to be found in a great many books on geology and the like—the metaphor that turns the Earth’s entire history into a single year, starting on January 1 with the planet’s formation out of clouds of interstellar dust and ending at midnight on December 31, which is always right now.

That metaphor has been rehashed more often than the average sitcom plot. A quick check of the books in the study where I’m writing this essay finds three different versions, one written in the 1960s, one in the 1980s, and one a little more than a decade ago. The dates of various events dance around the calendar a bit as new discoveries rewrite this or that detail of the planet’s history, to be sure; when I was a dinosaur-crazed seven-year-old, the Earth was only three and a half billion years old and the dinosaurs died out seventy million years ago, while the latest research I know of revises those dates to 4.6 billion years and 65 million years respectively, moving the date of the end-Cretaceous extinction from December 24 to December 26—in either case, a wretched Christmas present for small boys. Such details aside, the basic metaphor remains all but unchanged.

There’s only one problem with it, but it’s a whopper. Ask yourself this: what has gotten left out of that otherwise helpful metaphor? The answer, of course, is the future.

Let’s imagine, by contrast, a metaphor that maps the entire history of life on earth, from the first living thing on this planet to the last, onto a single year. We don’t know exactly when life will go extinct on this planet, but then we don’t know exactly when it emerged, either; the most recent estimate I know of puts the origin of  terrestrial life somewhere a little more than 3.7 billion years ago, and the point at which the sun’s increasing heat will finally sterilize the planet somewhere a little more than 1.2 billion years from now. Adding in a bit of rounding error, we can set the lifespan of our planetary biosphere at a nice round five billion years. On that scale, a month of thirty days is 411 million years, a single day is 13.7 million years, an hour is around 571,000 years, a minute is around 9514 years, and a second is 158 years and change. Our genus, Homo,* evolved maybe two hours ago, and all of recorded human history so far has taken up a little less than 32 seconds.

(*Another gender-nonspecific word for “human being,” this one comes from Latin, and is equally distinct from vir, “man,” and femina, “woman.” English really does need to get its act together.)

That all corresponds closely to the standard metaphor. The difference comes in when you glance at the calendar and find out that the present moment in time falls not on December 31 or any other similarly momentous date, but on an ordinary, undistinguished day—by my back-of-the-envelope calculation, it would be September 26.

I like to imagine our time, along these lines, as an instant during an early autumn afternoon in the great year of Earth’s biosphere. Like many another late September day, it’s becoming uncomfortably hot, and billowing dark clouds stand on the horizon, heralds of an oncoming storm. We human mayflies, with a lifespan averaging maybe half a second, dart here and there, busy with our momentary occupations; a few of us now and then lift our gaze from our own affairs and try to imagine the cold bare fields of early spring, the sultry air of summer evenings, or the rigors of a late autumn none of us will ever see.

With that in mind, let’s put some other dates onto the calendar. While life began on January 1, multicellular life didn’t get started until sometime in the middle of August—for almost two-thirds of the history of life, Earth was a planet of bacteria and blue-green algae, and in terms of total biomass, it arguably still is.  The first primitive plants and invertebrate animals ventured onto the land around August 25; the terrible end-Permian extinction crisis, the worst the planet has yet experienced, hit on September 8; the dinosaurs perished in the small hours of September 22, and the last ice age ended just over a minute ago, having taken place over some twelve and a half minutes.

Now let’s turn and look in the other direction. The last ice age was part of a glacial era that began a little less than two hours ago and can be expected to continue through the morning of the 27th—on our time scale, they happen every two and a half weeks or so, and the intervals between them are warm periods when the Earth is a jungle planet and glaciers don’t exist. Our current idiotic habit of treating the atmosphere as a gaseous sewer will disrupt that cycle for only a very short time; our ability to dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will end in less than a second as readily accessible fossil fuel reserves are exhausted, and it will take rather less than a minute thereafter for natural processes to scrub the excess CO2 from the atmosphere and return the planet’s climate to its normal instability.

Certain other consequences of our brief moment of absurd extravagance will last longer.  On our timescale, the process of radioactive decay will take around half an hour (that is to say, a quarter million years or so) to reduce high-level nuclear waste all the way to harmlessness. It will take an interval of something like the same order of magnitude before all the dead satellites in high orbits have succumbed to the complex processes that will send them to a fiery fate in Earth’s atmosphere, and quite possibly longer for the constant rain of small meteorites onto the lunar surface to pound the Apollo landers and other space junk there to unrecognizable fragments. Given a few hours of the biosphere’s great year, though, everything we are and everything we’ve done will be long gone.

Beyond that, the great timekeeper of Earth’s biosphere is the Sun. Stars increase in their output of heat over most of their life cycle, and the Sun is no exception. The single-celled chemosynthetic organisms that crept out of undersea hot springs in February or March of the great year encountered a frozen world, lit by a pale white Sun whose rays gave far less heat than today; the oldest currently known ice age, the Cryogenian glaciation of the late Precambrian period, was apparently cold enough to freeze the oceans solid and wrap most of the planet in ice. By contrast, toward the middle of November in the distant Neozoic Era, the Sun will be warmer and yellower than it is today, and glacial eras will likely involve little more than the appearance of snow on a few high mountains normally covered in jungle.

Thus the Earth will gradually warm through October and November.  Temperatures will cycle up and down with the normal cycles of planetary climate, but each warm period will tend to be a little warmer than the last, and each cold period a little less frigid. Come December, most of a billion years from now, as the heat climbs past one threshold after another, more and more of the Earth’s water will evaporate and, as dissociated oxygen and hydrogen atoms, boil off into space; the Earth will become a desert world, with life clinging to existence at the poles and in fissures deep underground, until finally the last salt-crusted seas run dry and the last living things die out.

And humanity? The average large vertebrate genus lasts something like ten million years—in our scale, something over seventeen hours. As already noted, our genus has only been around for about two hours so far, so it’s statistically likely that we still have a good long run ahead of us. I’ve discussed in these essays several times already the hard physical facts that argue that we aren’t going to go to the stars, or even settle other planets in this solar system, but that’s nothing we have to worry about. Even if we have an improbably long period of human existence ahead of us—say, the fifty million years that bats of the modern type have been around, some three and a half days in our scale, or ten thousand times the length of all recorded human history to date—the Earth will be burgeoning with living things, and perfectly capable of supporting not only intelligent life but rich, complex, unimaginably diverse civilizations, long after we’ve all settled down to our new careers as fossils.

This does not mean, of course, that the Earth will be capable of supporting the kind of civilization we have today. It’s arguably not capable of supporting that kind of civilization now.  Certainly the direct and indirect consequences of trying to maintain the civilization we’ve got, even for the short time we’ve made that attempt so far, are setting off chains of consequences that don’t seem likely to leave much of it standing for long. That doesn’t mean we’re headed back to the caves, or for that matter, back to the Middle Ages—these being the two bogeymen that believers in progress like to use when they’re trying to insist that we have no alternative but to keep on stumbling blindly ahead on our current trajectory, no matter what.

What it means, instead, is that we’re headed toward something that’s different—genuinely, thoroughly, drastically different. It won’t just be different from what we have now; it’ll also be different from the rigidly straight-line extrapolations and deus ex machina fauxpocalypses that people in industrial society like to use to keep from thinking about the future we’re making for ourselves. Off beyond the dreary Star Trek fantasy of metastasizing across the galaxy, and the equally hackneyed Mad Max fantasy of pseudomedieval savagery, lies the astonishing diversity of the future before us: a future potentially many orders of magnitude longer than all of recorded history to date, in which human beings will live their lives and understand the world in ways we can’t even imagine today.

It’s tolerably common, when points like the one I’ve tried to make here get raised at all, for people to insist that paying attention to the ultimate fate of the Earth and of our species is a recipe for suicidal depression or the like. With all due respect, that claim seems silly to me. Each one of us, as we get out of bed in the morning, realizes at some level that the day just beginning will bring us one step closer to old age and death, and yet most of us deal with that reality without too much angst.

In the same way, I’d like to suggest that it’s past time for the inmates of modern industrial civilization to grow up, sprout some gonads—either kind, take your pick—and deal with the simple, necessary, and healthy realization that our species is not going to be around forever. Just as maturity in the individual arrives when it sinks in that human life is finite, collective maturity may just wait for a similar realization concerning the life of the species. That kind of maturity would be a valuable asset just now, not least because it might help us grasp some of the extraordinary possibilities that will open up as industrial civilization finishes its one-way trip down the chute marked “decline and fall” and the deindustrial future ahead of us begins to take shape.


1 – 200 of 234   Newer›   Newest»
Andy Brown said...

This mayfly moment is a nice complement to your sliver of strata piece from last week. I suppose one reason we're so bad at this is partly the convention that most of our future-thinking (and much of our thinking) is done through story-telling. And stories about unfathomable aliens or weird post-humans just don't make for riveting story telling (unless you have your human narrator toddling about being buffeted by it all). So our imagining is narrowed to the point of absurdity when we think about these things. (Stapleton's future men or Wells' sojourn with the End-crabs are the kinds of exceptions that prove the point, I think.)

Sven Eriksen said...

I'm definitely adding "fauxpocalypse" to my vocabulary...

Damaris Zehner said...

Wonderful insight, Mr. Greer. It's a shame that we find it so hard and uncomfortable to consider deep time past and present; the vastness is beautiful, and the perspective is salutary.

The beauty and perspective of deep time doesn't contradict genuine Christian faith, I find. Yes, God likes us, but there's no saying he doesn't like other parts of creation, too. One naturalist opined that he must be very fond of beetles, and who wouldn't be? God keeps his own counsels. He has revealed tiny bits of his relationship with us, but there's no saying that he doesn't have relationships with others. Why would he show us the otter or the clam bible? It's not our story, as Aslan would say. I disagree with people who think that God's favor to us involves our being able to do whatever we want with the otter's and the clam's bit of creation. That's a bit childish.

Anyway, I agree absolutely with your points here, but I just want to note that the loud voices shouldn't be allowed to define Christianity for the rest of us. The dithyramb toward the end of Lewis' Perelandra is a much better thing to meditate on than past and present broadsides on man's sovereignty. (And this time I mostly mean man, given the religious and social beliefs of those who espouse that concept.)

Let me add a shout-out to Frank Landis' book, Hot Earth Dreams, which I think I first heard of on this site. He also does a good job with deep time on a slightly smaller scale.

Thomas Mazanec said...

Here's a view of the world a couple of your "days" ago:

RogerCO said...

I can't remember if it was you or someone else who recently recommended EF Schmacher's Guide for the Perplexed. If you thanks for the tip, it is certainly relevant to the starting point of this essay.
I love the reframing of the hackneyed old all-history-in-a-year metaphor - excellent stuff. It requires a certain adaequatio to perceive things in that way, but very rewarding.

Repent said...

What did you have in mind for after were gone, Monoliths left on the moon or outer planets to find and prove that we existed. Holographic libraries of every major work and discovery we have ever made are send out floating in space to say WE WERE HERE.

In the new age movement, which last week you said has entered a death grip, the only moment is now. Everything occurs right now, and it is always NOW. The past and future do not exist; these are only the imagining of an overactive imagination.

What is the point

Patricia Mathews said...

English *had* it's act together for quite some time. "Mann" was "human being", as in "There was but one pair of men in the Garden of Eden." (Middle English.) Wer was male human being. Wif and maegd (Old English) were female human beings.

Then writers started equating "man" with "male" since it was self-evident that all jobs and all offices and all the virtues specific to "man" did not pertain to his appendage ... sometime in the Early Modern era? About the time of the Enlightenment? When the "age of reason, science, and man," carried distinctly masculine connotations in a time when one could say "Women are but children of a larger growth." ??

Ever since then, up until quite recently, English teachers had been trying to convince us that "policeman" actually meant law enforcement officers male and female and the like; and of course, common opinion scoffed at the English teachers because it was clearly self-evident that women, like Zootopia's rabbits, weren't cops, they were meter maids. While self-styled wits could define anthropology as "the study of man - embracing woman." (Actually rather funny until you deconstruct it.

And of course, there was no going back to Old and Middle English by the late 20th century; the meanings of any surviving terms had evolved all out of recognition. Language follows culture and culture shapes language like a kitten chasing her tail.

(No, I'm not a language geek. But two semesters of Old English - which *started* with linguistics - pounds some into the densest of heads.)

NomadicBeer said...

Thanks for the good summary. I agree with most of what you say but I think you are an optimist.
We can agree that the environment will be very different after the extinction pulse burning through the biosphere now. Combine that with the poverty of remaining ecosystems and we can assume a high rate of speciation. Normally, brainy animals have an advantage in changing environments, but brain uses a lot of energy. Some scientist consider our big brain the result of runaway sexual selection, like the peacock's tail.
According to the biologist Ernst Mayr, in a famous debate with Carl Sagan: "Intelligence is a lethal mutation" (
Either way, it seems that our species will be changed fast in geological terms and the daughter species will not have much use for big brains. That does not preclude future descendants from being smart - think about how much crows or octopuses can achieve with their smaller brains.
I would like to see though if intelligence arises again in the future how it would look like - if I can comprehend it at all.

David, by the lake said...


An excellent successor to your previous essay -- and disturbing, but in a good (and necessary) way. For me, the points you make, and the ones you close with in particular, underline why focusing our efforts in the personal and local spheres is so necessary, while investing energy in the cult of the emperor/empress du jour is manifestly not. It is helpful to be reminded of this, especially during times like these.

There is so much more to existence than humanity, and so much more to humanity than our present narrative.

temporaryreality (Wendy) said...

I love this.
in response to this sentiment, "It’s tolerably common, when points like the one I’ve tried to make here get raised at all, for people to insist that paying attention to the ultimate fate of the Earth and of our species is a recipe for suicidal depression or the like," I'd like to say that your bringing attention to it is a balm to my troubled inner-seven year old who, upon learning of the impending solar destruction did not feel suicidal depression or horror at the guaranteed end of my own life, or my species' life - it was sadness at the end of all life and the ending of future possibilities, on Earth, that I felt. I can recall the sense of finality that hit me that day at the Santa Barbara natural history museum.

But the thing about contemplating deep time and its corollary 'deep space' (distinct from Star Trek rhetoric, I mean simply: vastness) is that, as you point out - the universe is far more than our senses can make sense of. I, for one, retain a smidge of hope, a kind of 'fraternal-we're-in-this-together" kind of hope that life is somewhere else too. Living and dying and doing its thing.

I don't have a clue, but I like being reminded that there's far more to everything than what I have a clue about.
I feel a little better now. Thank you.

Tidlösa said...

Excellent article! I will put it under "favorites" on my PC. Your metaphor puts the thing in an entirely new perspective, unlike the December 31 metaphor. I also like the following unexpected twist:

>>>And humanity? The average large vertebrate genus lasts something like ten million years—in our scale, something over seventeen hours. As already noted, our genus has only been around for about two hours so far, so it’s statistically likely that we still have a good long run ahead of us.>>>

That also puts things in perspective - seventeen hours is a short period in biospheric terms, but long enough *for us* to put our acts together and become the most beautiful mayflies spawned on September 26.

Not a bad day, all things considered - I happen to like the autumn...

drhooves said...

An excellent use of the time scale metaphor to help demonstrate how puny we really are in relative terms to the rest of the universe. Mankind will have to come to grips with some of these facts, if we're to experience civility in the long descent, and retain the ability to live useful and joyful lives.

Unlike the past, there are a few factors which bring in the "this time it's different" argument. With nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, as well as the related hazards of pollution in an industrialized world, there's a slight chance that our species could end much sooner than your average vertebrate. Regardless, the corresponding decline in population will be difficult for many to deal with, since the drive to "go forth and multiply" is so deeply ingrained.

Justin said...

Fascinating perspective. A year is certainly a long time, and much better suited for this type of metaphor than the day that Carl Sagan made famous. It really is amazing just how incomprehensibly vast the universe is.

I recently read Revolt Against The Modern World, and although I think I need to read a couple other related texts by other authors, and then reread it to get it, it does seem to offer a good explanation of the past notion of cyclical time. It does seem like a truly novel way of thinking arose with the three Abrahamic religions. The concept of linear time on a scale exceeding a few human generations really wouldn't make a whole lot of sense, I suppose, if you live in exactly the same manner your great-grandparents did, and thought it absurd that your great-grandchildren wouldn't do the same. I do like that Evola isn't actually prescriptive, he's instead chosen to say 'You Are Here. Deal With It,' which I find pretty refreshing in an age of grandiose solutions.

Maybe we'll go from cyclical time, to linear time, to finite time?

Ynnothir Coll said...

I found this post quite exhilarating. The future is wide open once we get past the looming storm.

Speaking of time and cycles, I'd like to point out that the full moon we had on the night of the summer solstice this year marked the beginning of a Metonic cycle. That same alignment will happen again nineteen years from now.

It's not something that modern culture makes use of or even notices, but it is a celestial event that marks out human-sized chunks of time. Regular readers of this blog are aware of the challenges ahead and are planning and implementing their responses. Some of these responses will include long-term projects that can seem overwhelming. I'd like to suggest that, along with months and years, the Metonic cycle also be used while making plans and setting goals.

Here's to the future of our species. May we survive our adolescence.

Shane W said...

OMG, you're reading my mind again, JMG. I've been discussing with someone recently about why apocalyptic fantasies will not be coming true, why Revelation has less relevance than the Old Testament passages where God punishes the Israelites for their wickedness for 500 years...

Robert Tweedy said...

We might be able to watch the destruction of our stuff on the moon in real time:

donalfagan said...

OT, but related to the US election:

All my friends in PA and OH are seeing only Trumpence posters. Wife said today was the deadline and 300K more people registered to vote in PA.

I could see Trump winning the popular vote and losing the electoral college.

Gepetto Fresh said...

Fantastic post JMG! I was particularly struck with this passage:

"We human mayflies, with a lifespan averaging maybe half a second, dart here and there, busy with our momentary occupations; a few of us now and then lift our gaze from our own affairs and try to imagine the cold bare fields of early spring, the sultry air of summer evenings, or the rigors of a late autumn none of us will ever see."

A beautiful metaphor indeed... I'm also reminded of the thoughts I had as a child, upon learning that some insects had incredibly short lifespans, as to whether that meant that they experienced a hour or day so slowly that it felt like a year.

Joel Caris said...


This feels particularly resonant for me just now. I admit to feeling a bit of the "panic and flee" syndrome that Shane W mentioned in the comments to last week's post. As this election spirals out of control, some very bad times feel much closer indeed. I don't know that I've ever felt like this country is as close to civil war as it feels right now. Whatever happens on November 8th, I'm dreading how a good chunk of the country will feel and react to the results.

Meanwhile, I'm living my life, carrying on with projects, trying to understand how I may best be helpful, and attempting to keep this sense of dread from seeping too deep into my personal life. I can't say I'm striking the best balance right now, and sometimes I wonder how much effort I should be putting toward my attempts to improve the world around me (considering how feeble and questionable they sometimes feel) and how much time I should simply put into being present with the people I love.

I wish I had clearer answers.

Still, it's helpful to read something like this that reminds me of the incredible complexity of this world of ours and just how amazingly microscopic a part our trials and tribulations are of the greater tapestry. I think sometimes that my recent life changes have taken me too far away from regular immersions in the non-human world. I suppose there's still some balance I need to find.

Anyway, thank you for the metaphor. I've run into the "single day" concept multiple times, like you, but it never occurred to me to question our placement at the end of the year. Of course. I really appreciate you shifting us back to late September. I have always enjoyed that month.


P.S. I don't know what it's worth--especially considering my frame of mind after this post--but I started my Closed System Economics series of posts this week on the Litterfall blog. My aim is to lay out a set of organizing economic principles dramatically different than our current ones, with the intent of improving people's lives while reducing America's use of fossil fuels and physical resources. Perhaps some will find it helpful and thought provoking. With luck, it'll be the start of a way for me to make the tiniest bit of difference in my half second here.

Tower 440 said...

Greetings to the assembled Wizardren!
We in Northeast Ohio are following Melbourne’s example by holding well-advertised monthly meetings.
The monthly joint meeting of the Green Wizards’ Benevolent and Protective Association, Tower Number 440, and Ruinmen’s Guild, Local 440 will be held at 11:30 AM on Wednesday, December 21 2016. Our location is Ruko’s Family Restaurant, 9385 Mentor Avenue, Mentor, Ohio 44060, (440) 974-1914. Shining the Green Light! Public Welcome! Tables for Failed Scholars. Look for the table topper with the Green Wizard Hat.
Many thanks to John for the posting space on his blog.

Venkataraman Amarnath said...

Just like geological time scale would not have bothered Hindu belief system, evolution also would not made any dent. After all, Vishnu took avatars of fish, pig, half-human-half lion and finally full human.

Avery said...

As we may have learned recently, the Pope of the religion of progress is the President of the USA. He has advisors to listen to the mood of the public, teams of focus groups to give him creative advice or tell him which dreams work best. So I feel it must be noted here that Barack Obama, who I don't think is necessarily a bad person, offered us this dream of progress in Wired magazine today:

"I imagine the girls who discover a new fuel based on only sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide; the teenager who makes voting and civic activism as addictive as scrolling through your Twitter feed; the boy from Idaho who grows potatoes from a plot of soil brought back from our colony on Mars. And I imagine some future president strolling out on the South Lawn with a student who invented a new kind of telescope. As the president looks through the lens, the girl turns the telescope to a planet she just discovered, orbiting a faraway star at the very edge of our galaxy. Then she says she’s hard at work on another invention—one that will take us there someday."

Everyone, take note of this. The best Obama can do is a very weak version of the dreams of cheap energy, terraforming, and space travel that the 1960s were chock full of. (This is still supposed to be "20 or 50 years" away-- can we wait that long?) There is a reason people have moved on from the dreams of the 1960s, to more 2016-appropriate dreams like the grand conspiracy against Zero Point Energy, the flat earth, or the secret alien-Illuminati war. These are early examples of the kinds of "fauxpocalypse" that will do a good job distracting us for the next few decades.

John Crawford said...

In advancing age I find many who preface their comments with, "If I die..." followed by some comment or another. Yes, we are finite and our time is truly limited to a short span. Good reason to pass on our stories to the next generation and make every day count in our relationships.

Well done Mr. Greer.

John Roth said...

Very nice. I've seen that year metaphor a fair number of times and never noticed that it excludes a future. Any future.

One minor glitch: "Genus Homo" starts somewhere between 2 mya and 2.5 mya; the one million and change mark you mention is Homo Erectus. That doesn't, of course, change the force of the argument at all.

Graeme Bushell said...

Thanks for the analogy JMG, a dose of perspective is always appreciated and that one is a nice way of laying things out.

Your last paragraph hits an important point too, I think. Our modern industrial culture is like Peter Pan, refusing to grow up. Most of us are overgrown idealistic children or sullen teenagers. Lacking in collective wisdom, although no doubt we are clever. We've domesticated ourselves to a life of perpetual childhood, just as we've done to the wolves we domesticated.

This will all change as our cultures adapt to our new realities.


casamurphy said...

As a practicing Nichiren Buddhist with the SGI, this essay brings to mind Nichiren's letter ( ) about the rare good fortune to born human on earth, let alone to encounter the Lotus Sutra. If life and the universe is eternal as taught by Buddhism, then like you mentioned early in your essay referencing Asian religions, deep time is not only to be taken in stride, but also used as an inspiration. In the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha explains, when asked how many lifetimes ago it was when it was he first attained enlightenment, that it was countless lifetimes extending eons into the past expressed as the number of dust particles one would produce if you crushed countless galaxies into dust [and this 2000 years before Copernicus]. When asked where it was, he said that it was on a mundane world much like earth. When asked how, he said through a Buddha greater than he (meaning the eternally existent potential to express enlightenment inherent in all sentient beings). When I read your essay imagining the brief blooming and decay of human life on earth instead of depression I find a kind of beautiful joy imagining this cycle repeated endlessly throughout the eternal universe. To live with compassion and contribution in this mundane world is to live a valuable existence within that beautiful process. How wonderful it is to be alive on this earth! How wonderful still to be able to continue to build the good fortune necessary to repeat the process on other such wonderful worlds in the future! To deal with the problems facing our species we will indeed need to develop a deep appreciate for our good fortune to be human and build a new civilization based upon that appreciation.

Chris Smith said...

@ Repent:

"What did you have in mind for after were gone, Monoliths left on the moon or outer planets to find and prove that we existed. "

Only if those monoliths say "I am Ozymandias ..." the next dominant species will likely not get the joke, but the loss will be theirs. I'm partial to the Horace Smith version, which ends:

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

lessertruth said...

There's an even subtler point to Protagoras' subtle lie: It is extremely difficult to even realize that things do not have to fit our senses and prejudices. In a way, those senses work because they give us the impression they are independent, neutral. To actually realize there is a blind spot right there requires a lot of reading and some deep consideration. Which, i suppose, is part of what the post is trying to do.

Anyway, i wish you had lied about what day today would be in the factious year, swapping September 26 for October 12.

Neo Tuxedo said...

That old cornucopian Robert Anton Wilson made a similar attempt at teaching perspective to domesticated primates in his 1983 scientific shamanism workbook Prometheus Rising, although he had reference to a one-day, rather than one-year, model (p.237-8 of my Falcon Press copy):

"This model is misleading in that it assumes the present is an 'end,' which is highly unlikely. Even without Space Migration, the lifespan of Earth's biosphere is expected to be somewhere between 10 and 15 billion years more, before the Sun ceases to support life here. Taking the Sun's expected lifespan of about 20 billion years as our model to be mapped onto a single day, we find that it's now around eight in the morning. Life has been mostly unconscious until now -- operating on auto-pilot, as it were -- but in the last million years (the last few seconds on this model) signs of consciousness and Awakening are beginning to appear."

Neo Tuxedo said...

NomadicBeer wrote:

Some scientist consider our big brain the result of runaway sexual selection, like the peacock's tail.

The metaphor I use is not the peacock's tail, but antlers grown so huge that they drag down the buck's head or squeeze his brain.

According to the biologist Ernst Mayr, in a famous debate with Carl Sagan: "Intelligence is a lethal mutation"

I suspect it is this, or something like it, that really terrifies the believers in evolutionary teleology. If the thing that separates us from the (other) animals, the thing that was supposed to be our evolutionary advantage, has become a handicap... the philosophical horror writer Thomas Ligotti, one of the two thinkers who inspired my friend Philip Sandifer to write what became his recent Kickstarter project Neoreaction a Basilisk*, followed this thread, not all the way to the suicidal conclusion the cornucopians insist must follow, but to the intermediate step of proposing** that "Human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution".

(* The other is Alan Turing; in fact, it began as an essay called "Turing avec Ligotti" before Sandifer discovered Nick Land, Curtis "Mencius Moldbug" Yarvin, and Eliezer Yudkowsky, who displaced Turing and Ligotti as his central subjects. William Blake, on the other hand, retained an important role, surprising nobody familiar with Sandifer's work.
** In 2010's The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: a contrivance of horror.)

Jill N said...

Just an odd and unimportant point - the man in Old English or maybe Anglo-Saxon meant a person. The word woman was originally wifeman, the word wife indicating the feminine, and the word for a male person was somethingman. Unfortunately I have forgotten what the something was but it made so much sense at the time that I didn't feel the need to note it. Wonder if was wight?

Jill N said...

What a pity I didn't read Patricia Matthews before I commented.

JacGolf said...

Interesting take on this. I was thinking the message was to understand our place and be OK with it. Your perspective altered the second read. Thank you David

Joe Roberts said...

I love this too. Somehow I get a bit freaked out when I sit and ponder the immensity of the universe, its ungraspable size, but yet I find comfort in the enormity of deep time, and that we're stil only in early fall. Go figure.

One question: isn't "human being" (or "human") English's sensible description of a gender-neutral person? Is the issue that "human being" happens to be two words and not one? If we spelled it "humanbeing," would that be different? I feel I'm missing something.

Peregrine of Laurentia said...

One of your former interviewers, Michael Dowd, had a guest that drew a comparison between the hubris that spawned the 'Anthropocene' and Gilgamesh clearing an entire forest to make a name for himself. They then proposed renaming it the 'Sociopathocene' for self-evident reasons. Not quite the same ring to it...

As a long-time reader of your works, finding balance between two perspectives is a constant challenge: either being at peace with the transient nature of existence in this unraveling paradigm, or achieving the optimal niche from which to spread adaptive knowledge to civilizations of the far future.

You've inspired me to seek (or build) such a niche in would-be Upper Lakeland, to pick up a practical trade needed in a society undergoing energy descent, and to find communities -and lodges- that will abide through the times ahead. This particular niche is still elusive, however.

I may not have the privilege of steering a perfect course to it, but guidance and mentors that display the insights found on your blog (and its comment section) are in short supply here. My biggest barrier to deeply practicing green wizardry is my debt..

Realizing the hour grows late to make many preparations, do I rapidly repay it while awaiting an expected windfall inheritance in the near-term? Do I forgo the risk of stumbling on this stair-step decline and instead retire to a compassionate homestead in need of a young experienced farmhand? Braver still, do I scratch out a living with my partner in their native Norway? My risk tolerance varies greatly, but any wisdom offered would be a welcome sight to anchor me in this fog of uncertainty.

I remain determined to thrive, however this autumn afternoon unfolds.

Patricia Mathews said...

@Jill - and today to say "Wereman" would conjure up images of a wolf who became a male human being at the full moon. Whereas "werewolf" is a gender-neutral term in modern English.

Pat, chortling ...

Agent Provocateur said...


I'm not sure you are thinking far enough ahead. There's a much bigger picture than your preoccupation with our species you know ;]

I hear the smart money is betting on the cephalopods as the next dominant multi-cellular life form. This raises the difficult questions of how one collects on such a bet and in what currency.

Perhaps one should plan to reincarnate as a super sentient squid by placating the appropriate molluscan deva but not before laying by a cache of appropriate squid friendly high tech with sufficient energy and trans-species instructions to run it. Of course one would need to leave a map so one would find the cache. But how would one remember to find the map given how little memory survives the birth canal/egg sack?

But why stop there. Surely thinking in terms of the life on this little rock is just not thinking far enough into the future. One could plan to relocate elsewhere in the galaxy where there is intelligent life and a younger sun to avoid ending it all here. But sadly this is too limiting too. Our minor galaxy in our insignificant local cluster will eventually spiral into its own central black hole. Other species and younger planets is just not thinking far enough ahead! Perhaps another galaxy? And when the heat death or the Big Crunch of the universe occurs what then? Perhaps wait for the next one to bounce back into existence?

Maybe thinking this far ahead is not useful. Just too many variables. Can one really rely on a molluscan deva anyways?

Perhaps the only utility in this line of thought is that it raises the question of who is the "I" or "We" that lasts this brief life.

John Michael Greer said...

Andy, I beg to differ. Plenty of readers find stories about really different future societies utterly entrancing -- consider Cordwainer Smith's "Instrumentality of Mankind" stories, or on a different but equally lovely plane, John Crowley's Engine Summer. The difficulty is simply that over the last thirty years or so, science fiction -- our main source of future narratives just now -- has been stuck in a dreary rut, rehashing a potted future in which all the societies are just like ours, but with starships. With any luck, though, that will change.

Sven, delighted to hear it!

Damaris, that's why I noted in my post that the reduction of time to a human scale wasn't found in all versions of Christianity. Yes, I was thinking of Lewis's Deep Heaven trilogy among other things when I wrote that! I hope that more Christians realize that the heavens do an even better job of declaring the glory of God when it's realized just how vast and ancient they actually are...

Thomas, not at all -- it's an image of the future about two days in the future, and very nicely handled. Thanks for the link!

RogerCO, I certainly recommend it to all and sundry! You're right, of course, that a certain adaequatio is needed to make sense of deep time, but it's worth cultivating.

Repent, nah, I said it was entering a death spiral, not a death grip! What's good in it will be passed on to a future movement, the way that New Thought handed down its better achievements to the New Age -- and the way that our civilization might just manage to hand some useful things down to the civilizations that follow.

Patricia, it's really a pity that wer, cognate to Latin vir, dropped out of use. It would have cleared up a lot of nonsense.

NomadicBeer, of course I disagree. It's precisely because of our problem-solving abilities that human beings have been able to spread through so many diverse ecosystems and become the apex predator in most of them. We're a superbly adapted generalist species, right up there with the rat and the cockroach, and just about as difficult to exterminate; I expect we'll be around for a good long time to come.

David, exactly.

Wendy, you're welcome! I also find this sort of thing comforting in difficult times; it helps to know that in the grand scheme of things, the turmoil of today really doesn't matter that much.

Tidlösa, autumn is my favorite season, and long autumn afternoons have a special place in my memories, thus the choice of timing...

Drhooves, megafauna like us always run a risk of sudden extinction. Still, as I noted to NomadicBeer above, we're a tough, adaptable species, and even a 95% dieoff would leave a lot of breeding populations in place.

Justin, Evola's a very mixed bag, but if he's got you thinking about alternate ways of conceiving of time, I'm glad to hear it.

Doc Tim said...

I keep my sanity wrt such deep time ponderings by the thought that a rose may only bloom briefly but that doesn't make it less beautiful. Instead its brevity makes it more so.

ganv said...

Comprehending our place in cosmic history is indeed one of human kinds greatest achievements. You make a big assumption when you treat human as like any other species of vertebrate in the history of life. There is something different about creatures that figure out their place in cosmic history. It hasn't happened before as far as we know. We don't know what happens to that kind of creature. Maybe they self-destruct. There is lots of evidence to suggest that is likely in our case. But if they do not self-destruct or forget the main features of what they have learned, then their future is likely very different than other creatures. I know your objection...'why should it be different this time?'. But sometimes it actually is different. When the first reproducing organisms appeared on earth, they represented something different that has totally changed the planet. I personally suspect that intelligence is another such change. Maybe it will die out. But if it doesn't, I think it makes a permanent change as dramatic as life made when it appeared on earth.

John Michael Greer said...

Ynnothir, a good point! There are various ways to use natural cycles to sort out our experience of time into useful chunks, and Meton's cycle's a classic one.

Shane, great minds think alike, or something like that...;-)

Robert, I hope not. I'd like Tranquillity Base to still be there when I die.

Donalfagan, so far I've seen only one Clinton sign, and it was in Minneapolis. Here in western Maryland, Trump signs are becoming more common every day.

Gepetto, thank you.

Joel, it's always a challenge, and especially in times of turmoil like these. I don't know that anyone has an answer, other than "keep trying."

Venkataraman, thanks for the data point! My knowledge of Hindu tradition is limited, so I didn't happen to know that.

Avery, oog. That's just pathetic -- warmed-over daydreams from 1920s pulp magazines with the usual bland disregard to little things like the laws of thermodynamics.

John C., thank you. I hope when they say "If I die..." they're not seriously thinking that there's any question in the matter...

John R., hmm! Didn't know our genus had been pushed back that much further. Thanks for the evolutionary update.

Graeme, exactly. There's nothing so absurdly sad as an adult who's trying to pretend that he or she is still a child; the same rule applies to species.

Casamurphy, Nichiren was drawing on the very rich Buddhist tradition of cyclical time, which juggles vastnesses with perfect grace. I'm not sure why it is that India was so fertile a soil for such meditations, but the only other society I can think of off hand that managed the same thing was the ancient Maya. One way or another, deep time is worth meditating on...

Chris (if I may), where on earth is that verse from? I'm not at all familiar with Horace Smith, and obviously need to remedy that sooner rather than later.

Lessertruth, okay, now you've got me curious. Did you recommend October 12 because it's Columbus Day, Aleister Crowley's birthday, the anniversary of the death of Gen. Robert E. Lee, or what?

Neo Tuxedo, I must have read that, though I don't remember it at all. I wonder where he got the wildly inflated notion of the sun's lifespan, though.

Jill, don't worry about it. It's a relevant point.

James M. Jensen II said...

Another beautiful post. As I read it, I realized that pondering deep time puts our anxieties into dramatic, poignant perspective as the trivialities that they are in the grand scheme of things.

I will admit that with everything that happened this weekend with American political fauna I honestly expected another post on the election. I'm curious to get your perspective on the impact of having a major party turn against their own candidate, and having said candidate try to sabotage the party's Congressional races. You did say that it wasn't likely for both parties to make it out of this election, and I believe it now.

(As for the recent scandals, I'm guessing your view is that it's a last, desperate values-based offensive that will largely land flat. We already knew Trump was a horrible person; what does one more piece of evidence to that effect matter?)

Also, my guess is that Lessertruth recommended October 12 because it's today!

John Michael Greer said...

JacGolf, you're welcome!

Joe, "human being" is as good as we've got; it's kind of awkward for everyday use, though a few more centuries may round it off to "hyumben" or something like that.

Peregrine, what you should do depends on far more variables than I have any way of assessing, nor do I have any privileged access to what will happen in your specific end of the future, so the best advice I can give to you is to make your best guess and be ready to change course suddenly if circumstances require it.

Agent, funny. Since the only cephalopod deva I know about just now is Great Cthulhu, and he's the creation of a pulp writer, I think I'll take my chances!

Doc Tim, that's a useful realization to cultivate.

Ganv, we simply don't know whether other species have had, or currently have, the fitful capacity for thinking-about-thinking we call "intelligence." It does seem to be true that no previous species on this planet combined intelligence, effective manipulative organs, and the particular combination of chance and cleverness that gave us, however temporarily, the ability to leave traces that will be visible in the geological record. Meanwhile, the jury is still out as to whether our problem-solving skills will turn out to be a greater evolutionary advantage than our capacity for self-delusion is an evolutionary disadvantage...

James, there may be a few more posts having to do with the election, but there may not be -- like a lot of Americans, I'm mostly just eager to see the whole clown show over and done with. As for October 12, you know, that never occurred to me!

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, I've already fielded one saliva-spattered denunciation so overheated that the denouncer didn't even manage to find time to explain to me just what it was that I'm supposedly wrong, wrong, WRONG!!! about. With that in mind, I'd like to thank everyone who responded to this post in a thoughtful and civil fashion, whether or not they agreed with what I have to say.

Austin Levreault said...

Hey JMG, I was first exposed to the, year, metaphor through Carl Sagan's Cosmos and liked how you put it terms of how long life will be on Earth, given the constraints of the sun. You say we probably won't go to the stars, a notion I'm inclined to entertain.

But - I think there might be one way in which we could have the Star Trek style future - Hundreds of years ago it hundreds of years to build a cathedral like Notre-Dame. In other words it took many human lifetimes. If that sort of thinking could be bought back it might make the sliver of hope of going to the stars meaningful/possible all be it remotely. Weather or not a human culture could survive long enough in the de-industrial age to build a statistically meaningful number of such craft outlined bellow is another question. Sending up one module every 10 or 20 years it'd take maybe 200 years to build the ship.

Even if our technology is limited to what we have available now, or to be more realistic for the long term future say no more advanced than say the 1950s, if we took hundreds of years to build a really good/sturdy/self-suciffent/well-stocked mutligenerational spaceships in Earth orbit we could send them out on journeys that would take thousands of years. Nuclear Fission is a suitable energy source for getting a spacecraft to say 1/100 the speed of light. That snails pace would be enough. You wouldn't need a big crew on each ship because enough genetic diversity to start a community can fit in the palm of a hand, in the form of gametes. Those can be frozen for long periods of time.

Urban Harvester said...

Wow! Who knew that Rudolf Steiner was so PC?? :)

Well, this is a remarkably useful reframing of thinking about our Earth's timescale - I've often returned to think about your past posts when you've discussed what the expected lifespan of our species might be, and it is very helpful to have this framework to put it into - bravo! And thinking about our short 2 hours of existence compared to the 32 or so hours of the bat is... humbling... and quite... awesome. At the same time though... tragic: in considering this misanthropic extinction crisis. When I teach my son about geology and the story of life on this planet and our place in it, this is the picture I will paint for him. Thanks.

Joe Roberts said...

I think I'm comforted by deep time because it means that so much that I thought was forever lost can or wiil be again much as it was. A place of which I'm very fond, northern Wisconsin, is full of people hunting the relatively few bears that are left -- it's a place of loud ATVs and lawnmowers, plastic bags and dollar stores full of Chinese-made junk (und so weiter), a phantasm of the rich tapestry of wildlife and unmolested forests that were once there. It's tempting to think it will all only get worse and worse and worse, but you've helped me to realize that it's likely to look again as it once did (with a few variations). More people will find it less practical to live there -- still-abundant fossil fuels are the only reason it's feasible to live there now, with high heating costs and cars the only transportation mode -- and, after a few seconds of deep time, the natural world will, or at least quite possibly could, regain its footing. The year 2200 could look much like 1800 did there (apart from some ruined roads and the like), which frankly isn't something that had really occurred to me before,

Of course this presupposes that certain animals won't go totally extinct, which is a pretty safe bet in this particular example but not true the world over, More broadly, your post is a helpful reframing of the easy pessimism that comes with seeing how people are currently affecting the natural environment. It won't be like this forever; nature can heal itself; and forever, in the words of Prince, is a mighty long time indeed,

Yucca Glauca said...

Funnily enough, when I've heard these sorts of comparisons given by museum staff, I've noticed the odd phenomenon that they manage to twist it from an illustration of just how small we are into an illustration of just how FAST progress is moving. Look how long it took to progress from single celled organisms to multicellular organisms. Now look how much quicker it was to progress from horses to airplanes and spaceships! Now just imagine how fast we'll progress to that future where everything is whatever you want it to be!

On another note, for the last couple weeks, my meditations and scrying sessions and divinations seem to have decided to focus on busting up various manifestations of hubris in my life, so thank you for adding a bit more to that, Mr. Archdruid. It has been a major relief.

Unknown said...

"The thing that makes deep time difficult for many people to cope with is that it makes self-evident nonsense out of any claim that human beings have any uniquely important place in the history of the cosmos."

How does that follow? It seems to me a complete non sequitur, much less self-evident. I'm not sure why vast reaches of time, any more than vast reaches of space, are supposed to decide what is important. Size is irrelevant to such a consideration.

Adam Jarvis said...

Kia ora,

I've been reading your essays for a good while now, and while I don't always entirely agree with some of the subtler lines, they're always thought provoking, so thank you for your work.

I loved this piece today, and went so far as to draw a quick graphically timeline that is unfortunately not of sufficient quality to share here. No doubt something elegant and immediately impactful could be done by somebody with more talent than I.

What compels me to comment today is the season. I live in New Zealand, where we've been to coming out of a mild winter into a topsy-turvy spring. Bright days, rain, and unusually late snow falls. The increasing temperatures, a certain flowering of previously dormant things, the coming of the butterflies, and the changeable weather of September seem to me to be apt metaphors for the situation we find ourselves in (despite being the opposite of yours).

The contrasting seasons have always been curious to me. Colonialism brought with it the Northern Calendar, amongst other things, and it's always struck me as odd how we celebrate rebirth at midsummer, halloween in Spring, fertility in Autumn and so on. Further, astrology has always felt a bit wonky too. I can understand people born at different times being profoundly affected by their early environment in the world and womb, but I don't see how these effects would be at all similar to those born on the opposite side of the world. I suspect there's a lot of work that Paheka (settlers) need to do over the coming years and generations to come to terms with the profoundly different land they now find themselves in. That's a small part of the reason I feel truly respecting and uplifting the indigenous Maori is so important - their sense of connection to place and its natural rhythms is far in advance of our own, despite our sneers at the local legends. As somebody with ancestors from both sides, it's been an interesting journey.

Ngā mihi nui.

James M. Jensen II said...

Does anyone else have the urge to dub September 26 "Deep Time Day"?

Or perhaps we can just call it "World Day," with "world" taking the sense explored on the other blog. A day to remember that our world, the time of humanity, is not even a day in deep time.

Peter Wilson said...

I have a feeling that the horror that deep time, or perhaps, to coin a new phrase, the "deep future", generates in some people is the same fear that Lovecraft, and other authors, have tapped into. I think it's simply the horror of realising, that outside of the tricks of the ego, that we aren't in control of that much. Control is an illusion. Interestingly, there are plenty of humans, especially those who like to play and recreate outside, who revel in this.

lordyburd said...

Dear Mr. Greer, you assert that some Asian religions would have an easier time of understanding the Deep Time of cosmology and geology. From my reading of Spengler however, it seems that only the West with its notion of time and space reaching out to infinity could have come up with scientific notions of deep time. If this is the case, why this inability to digest it? Is it perhaps because unlike linear time, it's hard to put 'man' at the centre of a cyclical universe?

Purple Tortoise said...

Christianity located deep time in the being of God. For example, the first six verses of the 90th Psalm.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.

Allexis Weetman said...

I had a similar experience to previous commenters in that on learning of the suns eventual demise I cried (age 6, London planetarium). But a helpful adult explained to me what a billion was "Imagine all the kids in your school - that's about a hundred kids right, well imagine ten of them right and that's a thousand... etc" and that cheered me up, loads of time for stuff to happen, then they told me that I probably wouldn't live to be a hundred - more tears... I don't know what they expected considering they'd already taught me the christian take on things at church. Its true that Christianity is excessively in contradiction to modern science on basic points.

Seb Ze Frog said...

Good Morning.

I like when you tell this kind of stories... The story of Mam' Gaia is still in the top five of my favorite Archdruid Reports. Some kind of relaxing pleasant feeling of depth. But I am partial to deep time and deep space...

Anyway, reading this installment, I realized yet another way out of Fermi's paradox, and I don't think I have read it anywhere else, therefore I thought I might give it a try here.
"Intelligent species" as defined in Fermi's paradox are implicitly there for ever once they happen. It is the same fallacy you are exposing here: "Intelligence" never disappears. Therefore, the possibility of intersection of two intelligent species in an infinite (or very large) universe, is very large.

Now, if we account for the fact that we might not be eternal after all, intersecting with the existence of an other "intelligent life" that appears and disappears in a (deep-time) blink becomes much more difficult.

I think that we can now revert Fermi's paradox, factoring the fact that "intelligent life" has a finite lifespan and put a higher limit on this lifespan given the fact that we haven't gotten into contact with one yet.

Let me clear my plate of urgent things, and I'll try to run the calculation. That might be fun.


Spanish fly said...

I have a sign at home, over my bookshelf, written in nice capital letters.
It was one of my last birthday's presents (thank you sister).
I would translate it to English language somewhat like this:

"If somebody harm me, I won't get angry. I will think that every people are animals. If I notice that someone in my town, country or somewhere in the world has been evil, I won't let myself getting upset because I will think that every people are animals"

I have no idea who wrote this, maybe a Stoic philosophers? I don't know, but it makes a lot of sense, specially when you correlate that "human animality" with your "deep time"geological point of view.

Phil Knight said...

Nassim Taleb has created the concept of the Intellectual-Yet-Idiot to categorize the kind of modern TED-attending member of the intelligentsia who is simultaneously smart while also being wrong about almost everything. Kurzweil is definitely an IYI.

This concept applies to almost every post on The Archdruid Report these days, I think.

John Eriksson said...

This is a great take of one of your core themes, I believe, and I wholeheartedly agree with the final sentiment expressed regarding the necessity of embracing and fathoming one's finitude and eventual demise, both on an individual and a cultural level.

However, contrary to what you seem to imply, I believe that the inability to come to terms with these realities is a particularly modern phenomenon, related to the reification or even perversion of Judaeo-Christian eschatology, rather than a proper aspect thereof.

As an example, the conflict with regard to the age of the Earth which arose during the 19th century must be thought of as a specifically reductionist-empiricist religious reaction against a reductionist, non-theist mindset or ideology. This conflict would actually not have arisen within the pre-modern, Aristotelian-Thomist framework, since the reductive fundamentalist perspective on the Bible was not in place, and there would have been no need to problematize the notion of deep time (which indeed is not as much of a modern novelty of the West as one might think, something which is obvious if one considers e.g. the scholastics' musings on eternity, the writings of the Desert Fathers, or the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible which basically hammers the point of mankind's finitude and smallness, and the futility of our deeds and actions in the world). In brief, the conflict is not only a Western phenomenon, but a strictly modern one.

Thus, it is my contention that the inability to grasp eternity, death, and our own almost infinite smallness in the grand scheme of things, was in all likelihood not endemic to pre-modern Western culture, where death was all but sanitized and uncommon, and the Divine eternities a recurring theme of religious narratives, Christian as well as pre-Christian.

Also, with Damaris, I'd emphasize that the perspective of Deep Time, far from contradicting genuine Christian faith (not that you're at all claiming this) is actually an important aspect thereof, and that the self-aggrandizing perspective of modernity and ascription of immeasurable importance to ourselves and our society is indeed inimical to the core beliefs of Christianity. To be sure, mankind is indeed important in the eyes of God, but we cannot begin to imagine the meaning of this in our fallen state, other than through the revealed hints of our roles as stewards of creation and our calling to sacrifice and self-giving love. Indeed, our cities, armies, economies and civilizations are a mockery and a perversion of our stewardship - a common contention throughout the Bible as well as Church history.

On a related note, I'm apt to consider H.P. Lovecraft's particular theme of horror which you've previously discussed at length, as precisely the result of this internal, conceptual conflict between modernity's special form of hubristic exceptionalism and self-aggrandization, and a basic ontology that disavows transcendence and posits actual infinities of time and space. I think you've previously identified something similar.

The fundamental, nauseating clash between such an identity and such a worldview, seems to be at heart of many, if not most, of the cultural, ideological and political issues and neuroses of the contemporary late-modern era.

Brigyn said...

I love these posts about geological timescales. I really liked the one about civilization-building successor species to human beings as well - raccoons, crows and clams, if memory serves. I am not sure why I find these posts so soothing, but I do. Things go on their merry way, as they always have.

I've read most of Kurzweil's writings, and have read their forums in the past. Kurzweil is a clever man, and the things he writes are -technically- feasible to the best of contemporary scientific knowledge. They will just never happen. Even back then I never did understand how people so obsessed with science could be so poor at statistics and probabilities. Of course, now I understand that it was never about accurate predictions in the first place.

Imagine being completely responsible for running everything on the planet for the next billion years. What a grisly fate. Of course they feel their humanity is lacking, that they need to transcend their current biological limitations, when they feel obliged to take control of every aspect of existence on earth (and beyond) for the rest of eternity.

It sounds like a psychological disorder, worrying about things you cannot control, and forsaking the things you could affect positively in the process. I wonder if they find time to live their lives at all.

I'd like to see the world two hundred years from now, if only to see the little oak saplings I sprouted and planted all grown up. If offered the chance, I'd take it, but it's probably not going to happen in this life.
There's too much to being human to be explored in a single lifetime.

SMJ said...

Hello JMG

"The conflict between science and religion over the age of the Earth is a purely Western phenomenon."

I've been repeatedly wondering about this for the past two weeks, many thanks for providing the answer!

Does this also mean that Asian civilisations didn't have as much of a Dark Age as Europe?


Brigyn said...

Little Post-Scriptum:

Dutch has 'men' which is gender-neutral and means people in general, but usually not including yourself, 'man' (pronounced mahn) for males, 'vrouw' (vrahw) for female, and gender-neutral 'mens' which means human, but is also used to refer to mankind as the mythological singular entity (as in man landed on the moon), or used for mankind as a species. Mankind is the gender-neutral 'mensheid' here, but that basically just means we say humankind instead of mankind.

Not quite Latin, but very close to English, yet turned out very different.

Cortes said...

A beautiful essay: thank you.

As James M. Jensen II noted, Lessertruth seems to have been spot-on with October 12 as the date of posting of the essay. Nevertheless, the "imp of the perverse " as Poe referred to the creature exercised its malevolence by making me look at 26 September. With his discounting of the dreams of star voyages, might our learned host's choice of date not be a gentle nudge to remind us of a familiar set of marooned people?

1964 - "Gilligan's Island" premiered on CBS-TV. The show aired for the last time on September 4, 1967.

RetrovationSociety said...

The second instalment of the story - the girls arrive in their new home in kind of utopia future Dublin and notice that things are very different there.


Scotlyn said...

A very interesting corrective to the 24-hour-day metaphor. Some things are so obvious once they are pointed out! If we've an hour or two left, in which we might re-learn our place in the whole and weave our diverse threads back into the tapestry that is life on earth, it'll be a gift.

Scotlyn said...

Just one other thing... Multi-cellularity may come in more than one form, and in fact bacteria and archaea may have been practicing other forms of it prior to the form we now know as "multi-cellularity (tm)".

James Shapiro (author of "Evolution: A view from the 21st Century) throws light on bacterial multi-cellularity here:

Dylan said...

Last week's post gave so much to chew on that I spent a good couple of hours jawing about it with a friend. We then turned on Ronald Wright's 2004 Massey Lectures "A Short History of Progress" and had a listen to the first two segments. He really handles the depths of the human timescale well, and makes many of the same points you did last week. These two posts of yours offer a lot to think on.

The Ronald Wright lectures can be found online here, for anyone interested:

Gee said...

Neil deGrasse Tyson did a similar exercise in one of the episodes of the Cosmos series. Which I tried to watch but couldn't get through because of all the eco-utopian references.) He's an optimistic one, that Neil is. Sigh...

Scotlyn said...

As to the wrong, wrong, WRONGness of challenging the religion of progress (I'm guessing that may have been the matter at issue), the Will Steffen lecture posted by a commenter last week contained a statement something like: "Science always challenges human supremacy."

And I wonder at those who think that their fervent defense of human technologies such as GMO's, vaccinations, etc (which absolutely depend, for credibility, upon the reliability of human control) is identical to a defense of science, which, in practice, inexorably peels away the layers that compose the human delusion of control.

Patricia Mathews said...

@JMG - oh, "Were" didn't drop out of use. It now means "Anybody who goes furry and four-legged under whatever circumstances the fantasy writer has dreamed up for him or her. In one notable series, her, a late night talk show host named Kitty Norville who came out of the closet as a Were and took up advocacy. That's not the strangest mutation of words in English.

But back to geological time.....we decidedly need a popularized astronomically based future timeline that projects the rise and fall of civilizations and species onto "Stardate, 4,000,2016,1310.653" Pity Carl Sagan's not around to do it; I think he would have enjoyed it. And it would spare us a lot of "Support NASA so that when the sun turns red .....'

Throw in Ozymandius (thanks, Shelley). Or the Anglo-Saxon poet who looked at the Roman ruins and praised the builders with "Surely giants must have built this." And has actually been scoffed at in 20th century semi-scholarly print with "poor ignorant savage, to think...." Uh, no, Critic. Poet? Accustomed to metaphor etc?

They had a much better handle on that sort of thing in the days of Alfred the Great. They were living among the evidence.

Paulo said...

Lovely article. I have often pondered the concept(s) of deep time, then promptly get busy with life. At 61, and wondering once in awhile when the end of my life might be, I take solace in the fact that my kids are doing okay and looking strong enough to carry forward into their own lives and challenges. Our cycles of gardening and harvest, fish returns, and autumn storms tick/tock by; becoming all the more precious as I grasp there are a finite number I will ever experience.

Here, on the west coast of BC, we are supposed to experience 3-4 days of intense weather. Yesterday, I revamped the small generator we use to ensure the freezers have back up if the power goes out for days and days, (as it has done in the past). The flashlights are spread around, LED lanterns are placed where they are needed, and wood is piled outside both doors. The woodstove is crackling away while the rain pounds on the windows, and the sirius radio is playing "Someday Soon". (Go figure). I got up a few times last night to check on the weather, mainly to see if the wind had started to blow. The first time was around midnight. As I peered around at the trees an owl ghosted on by, heading through our clearing to the river. I could not see the species, but by its size it was probably a Great Horned. Anyway, a few hours later I repeated the effort and as I stepped out on the porch the owl flew back the other way. I asked myself if seeing the owl two times out of two was a good omen or a bad one, (if I believed in such things). I concluded the experience was pure magic and that I was lucky, very lucky to have seen it. That is how I am trying to view life these days. I don't want to miss anything. What I do see and experience, I am trying to take the time for gratitude and respect. I am also enjoying music from my past. As I close this response with another thanks for your efforts, Hank Williams is playing, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry". Ah, to be human is sometimes divine.

"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I'm so lonesome I could cry

I've never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind the clouds
To hide its face and cry

Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die?
Like me, he's lost the will to live
I'm so lonesome I could cry

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I'm so lonesome I could cry

Lawfish1964 said...

This post and last week's are pure brilliance. Your prose is second to none, and ability to think in entirely new ways is unparalleled.

I have often pondered on both the past and the future of our planet. In my younger days, I was an avid junior astronomer and follower of Carl Sagan. Some evidence in our solar system got me thinking about a new theory regarding the planets. Astronomers have often described Mars as being like a very old Earth and Venus being like a very young Earth. What would explain that phenomenon?

As the sun continues to convert mass to energy and spew particles out into space (the solar wind), it loses mass. As it loses mass, its gravitation decreases. Therefore, Kepler's theory that planets move in ellipses may be flawed. Perhaps planets move in elliptical spirals, gradually moving farther away from the sun. That would explain why Mars used to be more like Earth is now. Perhaps a billion years ago, it was much closer to the sun.

I realize that theory has nothing to do with the points made in your essay, but your trip through the geo-year reminded me of my old theory. Thank you again for another excellent thought-provoking post.

Yossi said...

Something that Bill Bryson wrote that you might like to meditate on.
"The way I see it, there are three reasons never to be unhappy.
First, you were born. This in itself is a remarkable achievement. Did you know that each time your father ejaculated (and frankly he did it quite a lot) he produce roughly twenty-five million spermatozoa – enough to repopulate Britain every two days or so? For you to have been born, not only did you have to be among the few batches of sperm that had even a theoretical chance of prospering – in itself quite a long shot – but you then had to win a race against 24,999,999 or so other wriggling contenders, all rushing to swim the English Channel of your mother’s vagina in order to be the first ashore at the fertile egg of Boulogne, as it were. Being born was easily the most remarkable achievement of your whole life. And think: you could just as easily have been a flatworm.
Second, you are alive. For the tiniest moment in the span of eternity you have the miraculous privilege to exist. For endless eons you were not. Soon you will cease to be once more. That you are able to sit here right now in this one never-to-be-repeated moment, reading this book, eating bon-bons, dreaming about hot sex with that scrumptious person from accounts, speculatively sniffing your armpits, doing whatever you are doing – just existing – is really wondrous beyond belief.
Third, you have plenty to eat, you live in a time of peace and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” will never be number one again. If you bear these things in mind, you will never be truly unhappy again – though in fairness I must point out that if you find yourself alone in Weston-super-Mare on a rainy Tuesday evening you may come close."

Jamie Mason said...


You should expand your horizons a little--if Stephen Hawking is correct there are likely infinite other universes we could consider, perhaps even one where the laws of physics allow for less hasty stars and black holes that don't consume their neighbors so rapidly as they do here!! ;)

I thought the Big Crunch theory was out of favor these days. Doesn't red shift suggest that the universe is accelerating its expansion?

David, by the lake said...


It is your blog, of course, and I am actually very grateful that you filter out those responses which are less conducive to reasoned and civil conversation, but I must admit that I am rather intrigued by the notion of someone being so worked up as you described. It might be worth seeing representations of the raw material in order to discuss and try to understand the basis for such reactions. You've touched on these topics many times, but it still amazes me to hear you describe some of your encounters (as well as those which other commenters have noted as well). Perhaps it is just because I haven't had to face anything quite like that (yet). But I can see, I suppose, how the idea that humanity isn't immortal after all might touch a nerve...

Leo Santilli said...

I'm reminded of a Napoleon quote.

"After me, the Revolution — or, rather the ideas which formed it — will resume their course. It will be like a book from which the marker is removed, and one starts to read again at the page where one left off."

Given that his main legacy was not a French empire, despite his military brilliance, but other changes such as the Napoleonic code I'd say he was fairly accurate in this claim.

Alexander the Great had a similar legacy. His was more the spread of Hellenic culture than a solid empire. Contrast with the Roman empire which was far more durable and also built by military might.

Ideas and institutions matter far more on a timescale longer than individual lives, even though individuals can have large impacts during their lifetime. And on a larger timescale such matters as resources and fundamental economics, e.g. part of the difference between Greek and Persian, warfare can be attributed to differences in land ownership (middle class farmer owners vs large peasant populations) and basic social structure.

I remember that Jared Diamond repeatedly stressed that his theory only made sense over very large timescales (for humans) and large areas (continents). On this geography and climate will shape anything that happens.

Deep time is importantly inhuman in scale, I'm reminded of the elder things story in the mountains of madness (vastness of time is common in his works), and is shaped by its own forces.

Unknown said...

As a long time reader, I was quick to conclude that TODAY would not be 31DEC on your calendar (How chronocentric!).

Chevaliermalfait said...

perhaps relevant to the discussions
"Mankind’s search for alien civilisations may never succeed, because intelligent life destroys itself not long after it evolves, Professor Brian Cox has suggested."

John Michael Greer said...

Austin, you've fallen into what I call the "technical feasibility trap" -- the notion that all that matters, in discussing some future technology, is whether it's technically feasible, leaving aside all questions of economic viability and the like. Sure, in theory, it would be possible to build generation ships to head for other solar systems -- but who's going to cover the astounding expense? The American people baulked at continuing to pay the vastly smaller cost of the Apollo program, which is why we have such a shoestring space program these days; how are you going to convince the people of the world that the notion of interstellar travel is so important that resources desperately needed for other purposes ought to be devoted to no better purpose than making the fantasies of science fiction fans come true?

Harverster, you're welcome and thank you.

Joe, and if those animals do go extinct, give it a couple of million years and other animals will evolve to fill the vacant niches. Our current bears evolved from ancestral ursids about five million years ago, and if you go back a couple of days in the Great Year, you've got more or less canid critters about the size and shape of a sheepdog; since canids are unlikely to do extinct any time soon -- the coyote, coywolf, and coydog are doing very well indeed -- even if the bears don't make it through the current extinction crisis, something bearlike will evolve to fill the niche in due time. That's the great thing about evolution!

Yucca, you're most welcome.

Unknown, it's a matter of probabilities. If the cosmos is only six thousand years old, it's entirely plausible that our species really is as important as we like to think. If life on Earth has a five billion year span, on the other hand, what's the probability that one species of social primate temporarily (and unsteadily) perched on top of the food chain is the be-all and end-all of existence? What about the intelligent beings that may arise in the distant future, or those that may have lived in the distant past? Our ignorance about those possibilities makes an argument for our species' supposed importance excruciatingly hard to defend.

Adam, no argument there. I note that China, India, and the native civilizations of central America each evolved their own astrologies, all of which are significantly different from the western Eurasian model.

James, I rather like "Deep Time Day" -- though it might end up moving a day or so in either direction as estimates of the beginning and end of life on earth change.

Peter, I'd be inclined to agree -- and it interests me that some people have Lovecraft's reaction to it, and others have Robinson Jeffers' reaction, a sense of homecoming and laying down the burden of our supposed uniqueness.

Lordyburd, that's my take -- the Faustian ethos, to use Spengler's term, isn't just about infinities, it's about the individual human being soaring up and out to embrace and conquer those infinities. Most other societies aren't anything like so intoxicated by their own hubris.

Tortoise, if deep time is in the being of God, does that also allow it to exist in the created cosmos?

A Post-Millennial said...

Mr. Greer, have you read this article? What do you think about the threat of CO2 toxicity to human health? The below text is a peer-reviewed journal article from Australian scientists, the wonky URL is due to the blogger who is rehosting it.

gwizard43 said...

JMG, this time, inspiring. Thanks. This is a vision that I very much appreciate:

"we’re headed toward something that’s different—genuinely, thoroughly, drastically different. It won’t just be different from what we have now; it’ll also be different from the rigidly straight-line extrapolations and deus ex machina fauxpocalypses that people in industrial society like to use to keep from thinking about the future we’re making for ourselves. Off beyond the dreary Star Trek fantasy of metastasizing across the galaxy, and the equally hackneyed Mad Max fantasy of pseudomedieval savagery, lies the astonishing diversity of the future before us: a future potentially many orders of magnitude longer than all of recorded history to date, in which human beings will live their lives and understand the world in ways we can’t even imagine today."

I've always thought that the Buddhist notions of kalpas were a helpful way to think about at least deep geological (if perhaps not cosmological) time. You've no doubt heard the Buddhist tale about the bird flying over a huge mountain, vaster than Everest, with a silk scarf in its beak, which it drags across the mountain top once every 100 years. One kalpa would be the time it took to wear that mountain down to nothing.

Chris Smith said...


Regarding Horace Smith's "Ozymandias", I first saw it in my English lit book back in undergrad. The Wikipedia entry tracks my memory of the story:

I appreciate both the wording of the Shelly poem and the blunt force of the Smith poem. But I have a certain fondness for the idea of some hunter in the distant future coming across the foundations of the tower of London and wondering who could have built such a thing.

John Michael Greer said...

Allexis, curiously enough, I didn't have that reaction, but then I was a pretty somber kid. As for the conflict between science and Christianity, that's entirely the product of the mistaken notion, on the part of some Christians, that the Bible is a geology textbook. As far as I know, nowhere in the Bible does it say that everything in the Bible must be taken as a statement of fact in the most pigheadedly literal sense...

Seb, I'd love to see those numbers!

Spanish Fly, that does sound Stoic! As long as you remember that you, too, are an animal, it's a good thing to keep in mind.

Phil, I'm enjoying the ambiguity in that last sentence of yours. Do you mean that everything in recent posts here brings up an example of Taleb's IYI thinking? Or do you mean that the author of these posts is an IYI? Inquiring minds want to know... ;-)

John, that seems plausible enough; I recall the medieval archbishop of Paris who, in criticizing Aristotle, proclaimed as Christian doctrine the idea that God could have made as many inhabitable worlds in the cosmos as He wanted to. Everything I've read about Christian eschatology before modern times, though, seems to presuppose a timeline for the cosmos measured in thousands of years -- six thousand from Creation to the Second Coming, followed by the Millennium, was iirc the usual medieval figure -- so I suspect that what you've described as a modern perversion has older roots. That said, as suggested in my response to Damaris, there's nothing in the core beliefs of Christianity that necessarily conflicts with the perspectives of deep time -- quite the contrary -- and, as I noted in a post back in 2013, the current crusade against evolution on the part of some Christians requires them to ignore some of the basic presuppositions of their own faith. I hope that many centuries from now, Christians will look back on the whole creationist business the way most Christians today look back on the flagellants of the Middle Ages: one of those odd things that apparently made sense in the context of the time.

Brigyn, good! I remain skeptical that Kurzweil's computer-Jesus is technically feasible at all, and even more so of the notion that human personalities can somehow be uploaded to robot bodies -- but you're right, of course, that those were never meant to be realistic predictions. They're myths, which -- as Sallust points out -- always are, but never actually happened.

SMJ, dark ages vary in intensity, and some Asian cultures -- China in particular -- have been through several of them; but on the whole, yes, the dark ages in the western end of Eurasia have tended to be more severe.

Brigyn, thanks for the data points!

Cortes, nope. Nor was it in commemoration of the release of the Beatles album Abbey Road, or Ragenfrid's triumph over Theudoald in the battle of Compiegne in 715 CE...

Mallow, glad to see it!

Naked Environmentalist said...

On making predictions of the length of human existence on earth, which many will call impossible, Einstein pointed the way to "block time" in which past, present and future are equally real.
Brandon Carter, a British astrophysicist is associated with the anthropic principal. But he says that we have no reason to believe we are atypical in the universe. If humanity lives for thousands or even millions of years, nearly all the people who ever live will live a long time in the future. But what reason do we think we current humans are special? If we are typical then humanity is doomed and destined for annihilation. Canadian philosopher John Leslie has come to the same conclusion using gaming experiments.

MindfulEcologist said...

It is a very interesting investigation that begins when we ask how well modern revelations concerning deep time and deep space have been integrated into how we see ourselves. I addressed the same ideas using deep space this week in We Know. I finally got around to watching the movie, The Martian. It inspired this sentence I thought you would appreciate:
"In our rockets our Icarus dreams mock us even as they fall back to earth like fallen angels."

"the Book of Genesis is about the Rock of Ages rather than the age of rocks" - lovely, made my morning.
"To my mind, that was the single most important discovery our civilization has made" - I will use this as a subject of contemplation. It is a very powerful idea I had not encountered so baldly stated before.

In the post mentioned above I used deep space as shown by the Hubble Telescope as an example of an equally important discovery our civilization has made. The discovery of billions of galaxies also teaches the place of humankind in the grand scheme of things.

The paragraph that starts, " I like to imagine our time" I think is simply beautiful.

mh505 said...

Dear JMG,

why this worry about gender-neutrality all of a sudden? You are not going to turn PC on us, I hope ... .(:)

John Michael Greer said...

Scotlyn, oh, granted. I should have said "our kind of multicellularity."

Dylan, thanks for the link!

Gee, he's a well-to-do intellectual who lives in a bubble of class privilege; he can afford to be sanguine about the future, at least for the moment.

Scotlyn, I honestly have no idea whether it was that, or my dismissal of interstellar migration, or for that matter the fact that I find Star Trek dreary!

Patricia, oog. Yes, I've occasionally corresponded with such.

Paulo, I'll certainly accept a Hank Williams soundtrack for this post!

Lawfish, that's certainly one option. Another is that current notions of stellar evolution turn out to be wrong, and stars begin their lives very bright and hot, then slowly fade over time. That way the habitable belt would move slowly inward over the course of the Sun's life cycle; Mars was habitable long ago, and Venus will be habitable in the far future.

Yossi, funny. I've never been to Weston-super-Mare, though. ;-)

David, they're really pretty dull. Still, I may put one through, make fun of it, and refuse to let the poster respond, if I feel irritable enough.

Leo, and that's simply the relation between human time and historic time! Yes, it applies there too.

Unknown, glad to hear it.

Chevaliermalfait, substitute, in place of "destroys itself," "runs out of concentrated energy resources and has to settle for less extravagant habits" and you've basically got my theory.

Post-Millennial, like every environmental stressor, increased CO2 levels will affect some people more than others, and thus yield a selective pressure that, in fairly short order, will push human evolution in a CO2-tolerant direction. Of course the fact that we're running out of cheap accessible sources of carbon also slaps hard limits on how much toxicity we can produce!

Gwizard43, yep. A very vivid way of thinking about deep time, which also appears in Welsh sources -- the Eagle of Gwernabwy in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, the second oldest animal in the world, perched on a rock that was once tall enough to let it peck at the stars, but when Arthur's knights came there, the rock was less than a handsbreadth in height. (Though I suppose that might be a commentary on Wales' weather...)

Chris, thank you.

RPC said...

@David, by the can see the sort of thing JMG filters out here by going to some of the sites, such as, that repost his blogs, and scanning the comments there.

Thomas Yelton said...

While I agree with most of your articles and appreciate them regardless and I agree with most of what you say in this article, I have to concur with Nomadicbeer that you are being an optimist about human and earth future. In this case I find your arguments overly linear and unsupported.

First, you say "We're a superbly adapted generalist species, right up there with the rat and the cockroach, and just about as difficult to exterminate; I expect we'll be around for a good long time to come." Biologists say we are well into an accelerating mass extinction after which a large proportion of current species may have ceased to exist. In this case accurately predicting which species will survive and which will not would be very hard at best. Adaptability is certainly a good heuristic but human adaptability, unlike cockroaches, is dependent on our continued ability to innovate technologically and that depends in turn on a great many things that may well fail in a mass extinction.

Second, for the longer term, the effect of the warming sun on earth biosystems is much less linear than you seem to presume.

James Lovelock theorizes in 'Ages of Gaia' (and other books) that the living systems of the Earth together work to moderate the temperature and other conditions to keep them favorable for themselves. He doesn't ascribe conscious intention to these systems but shows in simulations that it is nevertheless possible and claims that this 'Gaia' theory fits the observed data.

He also discusses the sun's gradual warming over its lifetime and says that living systems have sequestered more and more carbon from the atmosphere to keep the temperature livable. But there is a limit to that method since plants need CO2, etc. Eventually he says a tipping point will be reached, the systems will fail, CO2 released, and Earth will enter a runaway greenhouse condition, similar to what we observe on Venus. Lovelock also says that Earth's 'recent' cycle of ice ages may be a symptom that CO2 removal is reaching its limits.

Lovelock, like you, guesses that time is far in the future. But what if it is closer than he expects? Perhaps human activity freeing up CO2 is about to push it over that tipping point far sooner than would naturally occur. Wouldn't a mass extinction lead up to that tipping point?

Maybe we are mayflies and we don't matter in the long run. Maybe the planet has no awareness. Or maybe we are an essential part the planet's consciousness. What if our collective intelligence is (was?) in some sense a last ditch effort by Earth to stave off a runaway greenhouse effect like the one may have that killed her sister planet?

You can say that all this is speculative, guesswork, and of course it is since we can't observe other planets and intelligent species in similar circumstances. We can only test it as Lovelock did with thought experiments and simulations, but at least that is some basis.

To be clear, I'm not saying that humans will probably go extinct soon or that the Earth warming tipping point is at hand -- nobody really knows. But assuming that those events are distant is unwarranted and possibly perilous for our and our planet's future. If you have a better basis for your optimism than what I see as 'hand waving', I'd love to hear it. We all could use some of that kind of optimism.

Google said...

This is a wise and wonderful essay. The part I stumble over is the risk from the Sun. It seems to me fusion is a game changer in that regard as its relatively straightforward to adjust the orbit of the Earth in numerous ways should we have the good fortune to retain it and a semblance of civilization a billion years. Of course the shorter term threats to the human species and civilization are my real worry. While fusion as general energy source seems a long shot in time to save industrial civilization, fusion bombs are pretty well understood.

Anthony Romano said...

What a nice follow up on last weeks post. Great work!

Deep time is heady stuff, and it isn't surprising that it evokes existential dread in many people especially when, as you point out, our culture doesn't offer us much of a framework for dealing with it in an honest way. The analogy of life on earth that blooms for a season and then wilts is one that I find both comforting, beautiful, and melancholy all at once.

An interesting side note: The bacteria Desulforudis audaxviator lives in groundwater over a mile under the earths surface and persists without access to sunlight or other life. It is the only known organism to be completely alone in its ecosystem. It gets its energy from chemical food sources derived from radioactive decay of surrounding rocks.

I wonder how Desulforudis would extend the lifetime of life on earth, maybe a couple more hours in your calendar?

SweaterMan said...


Your post was sensational and got me to thinking of even longer timescales. You discussed a roughly 5-billion year time period for our local solar system but what of the rest of the universe after Sol takes us out? It will go ticking along just like normal for … well maybe forever to a freeze or maybe for awhile to a contractive crunch. Thinking that after the whole shebang around our teeny tiny spot of the Milky Way goes away and that all of the rest of the universe keeps going is just fascinating to me –the date on the calendar if we assume that the universe has another 30-40 billion years to ‘run’ – instead of autumn, the universe would be enjoying a nice part of early April I think*.

Here's a post from BBC Earth discussing that very end of the universe. Quite fascinating: How Does It End?

*If we say that the universe is 14 billion years into a 50 billion-year cycle, that puts ‘now’ around April 12th.

Eric S. said...

This… was absolutely beautiful, it’s one of those rare Archdruid Reports that will wind up setting the tone of most of my thoughts and moods for much of the rest of the week. Thank you. When I was a teenager fresh out of creationism trying to reconcile my new-found worldview with my deeply held reliefs, the thing that helped me conceptualize deep time and transform my emotions surrounding it from unease and helplessness to enthusiastic excitement was a documentary that began with the premise that humans had gone extinct at some point in the interval between the present day and ten million years from now and left no traces behind… covering the types of ecosystems that could possibly emerge over the next 200 million years. It was a rare gem and something that completely changed the way I thought about the distant future. It’s something you might enjoy looking at if you haven’t encountered it (there’s a book so you wouldn’t have to watch anything): . (unfortunately, it seems that more recently the media made them plaster over the usual hackneyed sci-fi stuff and kind of ruined it (it’s now exodus rather than extinction and there’s some stupid looking cartoon… but if you ignore that the original concept is still there. )


One thing I’ve been thinking about in relation to both this week’s essay and last week’s is the relation the world around us has to shaping mythologies… Among the fringe conspiracy theory community (of the fringe that includes flat-earthers), there’s apparently a new narrative emerging of an earth that was once vibrant and alive before humans came along… according to them, the massive trees that once covered the ancient world were all torn down by the machines of a long forgotten civilization, mountains being their charred and fossilized stumps. Valleys are wounds in the earth torn open in search of resources, and the trees we know today are really only shrubs. The narrative was interesting to me because it suggested the beginnings of the sort of narrative I could see shaping into something much more mainstream in coming generations… It’s as though they’re superimposing the memory the middle future will have of the present onto the ancient past… with ancient landforms becoming mythologized as remnants of the events described in painful memories by future poets (in much the same way landforms in Ireland are attributed to the doings of Patrick, that were before that attributed to the doings of Cuchulainn, before that Lugh, and on back). A mythic landscape of decline. The physical remnants of our civilization will be reduced to a few scattered ruins that fade into the backdrop… and the ecological devastation we’re wreaking will bounce back, but the poorer world our descendents will inhabit for at least another minute or two is one that people living today are already beginning to turn into a mythic landscape. It can be enticing to think about how long such stories could stay within human consciousness and transferred onto a mythic landscape by some future civilization. Since I read this article, it’s been something that’s been bouncing around in my head as a possible story idea .


In other news more relevant to the present political moment than to any notion of deep time, I’m wondering if you’ve heard about a recent federal law that got passed that effective Monday will take the entire lower end of the salary class (everyone with an income under a little less than 50,000 a year), and make them all hourly wage earners. It’s supposed to be to protect overtime (but most wage earners know that you get in big trouble with your boss if you actually try to log overtime), and in reality basically just gets rid of paid vacations for low income salaried workers… so now the salary class is exclusively people making over 50,000 a year. Things are about to get –really- interesting as far as class tensions go.

SweaterMan said...


Coincidentally, this just showed up in a feed:

Putting Time In Perspective

John D. Wheeler said...

@Agent, @Jamie, I recently came across a piece in cosmology that an accelerating expansion is what we would see at a certain point in a universe that is destined for the Big Crunch. But the real crux of the matter is, we DON'T KNOW what 90+% of the universe is made out of; we call it Dark Matter and Dark Energy, but we only have the foggiest notions of its properties. Discussing the fate of the universe under those conditions is complete folly and should only be undertaken strictly for entertainment purposes.

Myriad said...

@Yossi, I've never been comfortable with the idea that if a different spermatozoon had penetrated at my conception, "I" wouldn't exist at all (and presumably "someone else" would exist in my stead). It never quite made sense to me. Isn't it just as reasonable to claim that "I" would still exist with some different characteristics? (Perhaps that "I" would find coffee palatable, as most people seem to do.)

That question leads in some difficult directions, as suggested by the scare-quotes around the words that might purport to distinguish between what we regard as ourselves and what as others. Especially because as a philosophical materialist I'm not positing a pre-existing unique soul-self poised to glom onto whatever zygote happened to form either. So if a different sperm might still result in a superficially altered "me," why not a different sperm and a different egg in different parents at a different time? I've tentatively concluded that what I think of as my own individual identity arose mostly from the world, this very physical September 26th world, based on my physical self's trajectory through it. We seem to think we're framed self-portraits in oil on canvas (every one an irreplaceable masterpiece), but we're really more like mirrors.

Your point that there are plenty of reasons to be happy and appreciate the gift of life still stands, of course. But as for the luck of being born, I suspect the game was rigged.

Dammerung said...

I always thought of MOX nuclear contamination as an abomination in the face of which almost all other strident human efforts in that direction pale by comparison. It's embarrassing - and maybe, almost, a little disappointing - to see it as a half hour of planetary nausea over the course of a very long Vedic year.

Chris Larkin said...

The English language really does need a replacement for the Rhetorical Man used in lines like “Man is the measure of all things”. Humans could work though using it means pluralizing which makes it sound more like a group activity than a singular instance of a general archetype. “Humans are the measure of all things” is changed in that regard. However using human singularly results in “Human is the measure of all things” which sounds weird. After common and repeated use, it’ll be fine, but it’ll be hard to get to that point.

As for Deep Time, my first brush with it (other than existing) was when I found out the age of the granite boulders I used to play around growing up in Georgia. The granite there is about 300-350 million years old which means they are a little over 3 weeks old on the Grand Year. However I realized since they’re exposed to the elements, they were going to erode quite quickly, an “hour or two” at most. While they are much much older than me, we are both pretty close to our respective ends and ultimately temporary.

Martin B said...

I wonder if the Eagle of Gwernabwy was the inspiration for this?

The King said, “The third question is, how many seconds of time are there in eternity.” Then said the shepherd boy, “In Lower Pomerania is the Diamond Mountain, which is two miles and a half high, two miles and a half wide, and two miles and a half in depth; every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over.” -- The Brothers Grimm, "The Shepherd Boy"

Personally, I've always liked the Steady State theory. The Universe has always existed, and always will existed, pretty much the same as it is now.

Those damn scientists always want an reason for everything. I realize the Big Bang is a better explanation of how the Universe comes to look the way it is, but that's just theory. It's a map, it's not the territory.

Now they are also asking, why is there something rather than nothing? Why worry about such things? The Universe is here; we're here; just accept it.

Kirby Benson said...

Thank you for this week's endeavor. I just knew the ol' Archdruid would come up with something that paints our existence in broad strokes and thus he has. I think I have been sinking into the green goo mentioned as our beginning - an existential crisis if you will involving the ugly political situation we now find ourselves in here in the US as institutions I have believed in for most of my 78 years are being torn asunder.

I don't know if I would classify today's report optimistic but if you consider there is something in the future that defies understanding given today's beliefs it kinda is. I think.

Bruno B. L. said...

JMG, what about our fossils? Some future intelligent species might find them and deduce, from our large skulls, that we had brains big enough in relation to our bodies to develop consciousness, and hands to manipulate tools.
Can you imagine homogeneous sapiens fossils being displayed in a museum a hundred million years from today?

John Brink said...

Beautiful thinking John. Something about deep time and music seem to go together for me. Like one of the previous posters mentioned the fleeting beauty of a blooming rose that is like a song meant to be enjoyed for a moment and then drift off into the fading music of the spheres. Technically human kind has nearly perfected the actual accepted sound of music to the 99 percentile. We can auto tune and edit and adjust a note to perfection with our machinery. We can record and manipulate across a huge spectrums of simulated effects. As you say, "collapse now and avoid the rush" an interesting phenomena is that people are reverting to building primitive instruments and playing them for the here and now experience. Primitive roots music sessions with crude 3 string and 1 string guitars made out of cigar box bodies and broom handle necks. Rhythm section from whatever. The un-amplified human voice. Something ironic about our fleeting mayfly life that is enhanced by fleeting experience that hold no permanent value. Cut wood cary water.

Bruno B. L. said...

I meant "homo sapiens", not "homogeneous sapiens" in the post above.

NZ said...

I just finished reading your Decline and Fall, and one passage that hit home for me was found in the chapter on reinventing society. It was the notion that all of us, at one time or another, must acknowledge the foundation on which our lives are built. It is this examination of foundations that so much depends on, both for individuals and society. The cruel joke playing out for many people is the false sense of security perpetuated by the current system.

Modern society has made every attempt to cheat time. To confuse its true meaning and force. I think a stronger foundation can be achieved by embracing time, which is another way of embracing nature. Doesn't everything revolve around the relationship between technology and our acknowledgement and meaning of time? We don't need creation myths any longer, just a story that places us solidly, and truthfully somewhere in the cosmos that makes sense.

David, by the lake said...


Re the sputtering responses, etc.

They must all be minor variations on a single theme ("Humanity! F--- Yeah!") so I can see how, especially after this many years, you would find them dull.

It is fascinating, however, to see how deep this nerve goes and to realize how fundamental the need for human control/dominance/power/immortality is ingrained in modern industrial society. The narrative you've developed of the Radiance and its previous incarnations is wonderfully illustrative.

Eric S. said...

Re: Cephalopod Devas: You've just got to look to Polynesian cultures for those:

HalFiore said...

I hope this doesn't come across as nitpicky, but assuming this will see print in some form, I thought I'd point out that there's at least one whole kingdom, the Protists, of unicellular life between the bacteria and "blue-green algae," (which are just a different branch of bacteria), on the one hand, and multicellular life on the other. Also, arguably, the Mycota basically fall in there and slop over into the multi realm.

Myriad said...

I was thinking about the calendar analogy (which I associate with the original Cosmos but I've seen many other places as well) when commenting about our traces in the strata after last week's essay. The geologic record as we know it, like the standard "today = the stroke of New Year" version of the earth calendar analogy, ends at the present. One thing I liked about the "quarter inch layer" image is that such a layer doesn't form or appear as such until quite a bit of additional geological time has accrued, adding some of the same perspective that your balanced version of the earth calendar does.

Perhaps somewhere there's an intelligent species whose long-term past is obscure, but whose long-term future is "written" in some more concrete form—such as easily visible bands of interstellar dust, directly foretelling and causing changes in their world's carrying capacity, that their sun will pass through over the coming billion years. That might make a good literary device for a story exploring the question of appropriate aspirations in the face of easily knowable future constraints and limits (not exactly a new theme; call those limits "fate" and we're on very familiar ground indeed). All I need is an insightful answer for that premise question...

Robo said...

Eat, drink and be merry, for in the next quarter-second we will die. Contemporary humans who inhabit the technological illusion are not accustomed to thinking of themselves as infinitesimal or ephemeral. It takes a special effort to think outside the bubble.

Unknown said...

Thanks, just what I needed.

Rain Waters said...


A beautiful post. Loved every word of it.

I have been reflecting more recently on "deep history" and how in the long-run a lot of the things folks are getting worked up about mean nothing.

Regarding the US elections, a few random dots have been popping up in my brain, and I would like to hear your feedback.

In 2007, you wrote a superb post on the dawn of Scarcity Industrialism, and whether the United States would successfully transition to this new era without imploding (

Re-reading the blog now, it is quite frightening to see how angry and unprepared America is in facing the huge challenges coming its way. Significant sections of each side of red and blue America consider the other candidate to be unacceptable. I will be shortly be posting a scenario on my blog, called "The Rise of Caesar", in which I outline a scenario where Trump, after narrowly losing the GE, accuses the establishment of rigging the result and refuses to accept his defeat. Trump goes on to call on his supporters to go on the streets, armed, to protest against the result.

Events start to spiral out of control. Inner city tensions explode, police (who will overwhelmingly vote for Trump) are sympathetic to the pro-Trump protests and refuse to crack down. Trump escalates by ordering his armed supporters to march on Washington to prevent Hilary Clinton being inaugurated. Police, army and Homeland Security personnel (again, pro Trump) refuse to stop the protesters entering Washington, and in some cases join the protests, and chaos erupts. After protracted negotiations with the US general staff,the establishment blink - they do a face-saving deal with the self-styled President-Elect Trump, effectively handing him power as the Caesar to avoid civil war.

I think this is a remote prospect but the idea of the story will be to explore how close America is to such a thing happening. Ian Welsh has made a similar point in his blog (

Your thoughts?

Shane W said...

Apologies if this is not germane, I may create a thread on Green Wizards if so. I had a non-conversation with an African-American progress worshipper, and I was wanting to speculate on the dearth of black ADR readers. We did once have Khadija(sp.), but I'm not sure where she went to. Maybe there are black lurkers out there, or there are African-American posters that I'm not aware of. Offhand, my non person of color observation is that black folk are too busy fighting for a bigger share of the pie, having been disenfranchised for so long, that they're failing to realize the pie is shrinking, or that the pie is rotten to begin with. Of course, not attracting a black readership should not mean JMG alters his message to attract black readers, but I'm curious to speculate nonetheless.

gwizard43 said...

"the Eagle of Gwernabwy in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, the second oldest animal in the world, perched on a rock that was once tall enough to let it peck at the stars, but when Arthur's knights came there, the rock was less than a handsbreadth in height."

OK, I'll bite - if that was the second oldest animal, what in Llŷr's name was the oldest???

Mean Mr Mustard said...


A most intriguing concept!

I shall mark 26 Sept on my 2017 calendar. And celebrate our shared half-second somewhere on that day, which happened to be right at the mid-point of the two seconds of the Oil Age, and the melting of the Arctic inside that.

Perhaps a regular poster - or footnotes to the ADR? - could give us the weekly news over next year? 'Another mass extinction this week, folks..' 'Bats arrived last Tuesday..'



Mean Mr Mustard said...


"Were" didn't drop out of use. It now means "Anybody who goes furry and four-legged under whatever circumstances the fantasy writer has dreamed up for him or her"



pygmycory said...

As a christian who majored in biology, concentrating on evolution and ecology, I've never had serious problems with them contradicting. I've had problems with other people insisting they contradict, but I'm fine with being both.

As far as I'm concerned, evolution is the means by which God created the creatures we see today, and they continue to alter to suit their opportunities and stressors. As for the time taken, presumably 'days' is not literal, or was an artifact of an omniscient God trying to explain matters in a way that people of that time and place could understand. It also isn't the point! The point is WHO made the world, not exactly how long it took.

The other option is that it did indeed take literal days, but for some reason it looks to us exactly as if it took billions of years. I don't think God is playing a practical joke on us, or that he'd use such a thing as a loyalty test.

pygmycory said...

I've occasionally wondered if angels are the post-death saved remnant of a people long before humanity, but that falls firmly in the category of wild speculation. As does wondering if a similar fate may be ours one day. Or if we might get to serve God helping a future people one day. Wouldn't that be neat?

Shane W said...

Yard sign update: it was just on the local (Lexington) news about Trump yard sign theft (one man locked down and electrified his signs after repeated thefts), so we know that theft is an issue, at least regarding the presidential election. Man, this is descending to new depths daily...

John Roth said...

Since someone's brought up lawn signs, I had a minor epiphany a while ago. These things do not drop from the sky like mana from heaven, nor do people buy them on Amazon. They're distributed by political campaign organizations, so the density, or lack thereof, correlates as much with the existence or non-existence of a political campaign organization in the neighborhood as it does with political sentiments.

On a rather different note, my twitter feed came up with a reference to this essay (with link). That's quite interesting, since I wouldn't have thought any of the six people on my feed would have been following ADR. The person involved is a well-respected and quite influential software developer - among other things, he's involved with internet standards. Maybe we'll actually see the deep time metaphor changing.

weedananda said...


These posts on deep time (along with the earlier The Next Ten Billion Years) rank as some of your very best in this humble traveler's opinion. As several others have commented, I find the contemplation of deep time comforting and liberating. Deep space too...our current astronomical science suggests that there are at least 100 billion galaxies each containing at least 100 billion stars! These revelations help me to accept and know that I am an inseparable part of All That Is (literally Om Tat Sat).

I especially liked David, by the lake's comment "There is so much more to existence than humanity, and so much more to humanity than our present narrative." and that our brief time here is best spent doing the best we can within our spheres of influence. Simple as that...very Stoic.

It seems our species must have stories; so deep our need to understand, to belong, to know meaning. I recently read the novel The Human Stain by Philip Roth and marveled at his phrase "the pointless meaningfulness of living"...I find it koan-like and quite deep in it's implications.

Finally, as we all contemplate deep time let's not forget the late, great Yogi Berrananda's customary response when asked what time it was: "You mean NOW?"

tokyo damage said...

I've been reading you for a few years, but this and last week's columns are far and away the most Asperger's.

On one hand, at a time when everyone else is getting cheap clicks by cranking out 'hot takes' on the election, your decision to probe the obscurities of geological-era-nomenclature and time-scales is pretty UN-commercial and badass.

On the other hand, I hope you can use the Asp, and not let it use you.

Darren Urquhart said...

Elon Musk of PayPal, SolarCity, Tesla and SpaceX fame gave a presentation last month on "Making Humans an Interplanetary Species". I suggest Musk is making a play for the papacy of progress.

Here is a 5 min promo video he showed in the middle of a one hour presentation - I particularly enjoyed the miraculous greening of Mars at the end.

The plan is to send people to Mars in 2025. Yes, in just over 8 years. They will send 100 people at a time. The goal is to build a civilization of 1 million people.

What amazes is the eagerness of people to lap this up. There are some entrepreneurs I follow online - really smart people who have built very successful global businesses from nothing - and they drool over this guy. It seems all critical thinking goes right out the window.

These entrepreneurs led me to a blog called Wait But Why. The writer appears to be Musk's Chief Drooler. It's worth a read -

I also know some guys in their early 20's who talk about Musk's "terraforming of Mars" as if it's the same as laying a new lawn over a weekend.

If you are looking for a clear example of the idea of progress as a faith based "religion", I can recommend starting here. The glassy eyed happy-clappiness is right our of the born-again playbook.

Musk doesn't do things by increments. He is an amazing salesman - maybe the best alive today. I can't tell if he actually believes his own pitch or is just playing for dollars. Either way he is riding the progress myth as hard as he can and pulling plenty of people along with him.

escapefromwisconsin said...

Sadly, it appears the madness has also consumed my own profession of architecture:

{Asked by incoming U.S. Green Building Council COO Mahesh Ramanujam what the next 20 years of architecture might hold, [starchitect Bjarke] Ingels spoke of new materials and technologies, like graphene and 3D printing, before turning his gaze farther afield… to Mars. “We architects and engineers are going to have a lot of really powerful tools to play with in the next couple of decades,” he said. “Maybe we spend the next two decades practicing on earth—and then we take it to the next planet."

The builder of the great wonders of the classical world are weeping...

Ethan La Coursiere said...

Yet another wonderful post, Mr. Greer. It has come across to me that one of an intelligent species' most powerful tools is its capacity for distraction. If we all thought along the lines of this post, nothing would get done. Still, it is good to reflect from time to time; it certainly does beat listening to the mass media yammer on about things Donald Trump said 11 years ago.

Speaking of, what do you predict will happen after the 2016 election? I'd be lying if I said I'm not just a tad worried that there will be mass riots and violence, no matter who wins. Trying to predict the future at this point does seem a bit like trying to get winning lottery numbers from a Magic 8-Ball, but I'm eager to hear your input on the situation.

Shane W said...

As we get ready to put this election season out of its misery, things are, once again, heating up in the Middle East as Yemenis supposedly supported by Iran have lobbed missiles at our Navy. We've been itching to bomb Iran for quite some time. Chinese curse, indeed. Just too much going on to keep track of it all...

siliconguy said...

In regard to Eric.S.
"I’m wondering if you’ve heard about a recent federal law that got passed that effective Monday will take the entire lower end of the salary class (everyone with an income under a little less than 50,000 a year), and make them all hourly wage earners. It’s supposed to be to protect overtime (but most wage earners know that you get in big trouble with your boss if you actually try to log overtime), and in reality basically just gets rid of paid vacations for low income salaried workers… so now the salary class is exclusively people making over 50,000 a year."

Mr. Greer's distinction between wage and salary classes is useful shorthand, but not very accurate. Unprotected class and protected class is much better, but harder to say and write. A lot of salaried people are not in the protected class. And for them Management has never been shy about requiring the extra time, and the supposed compensation of letting you take off early when things are slow does not happen. You can be fired for not putting in 40 hours a week (or more) even if there is nothing to do. Take a half day off, that costs you a half day of vacation. Sick days are counted as vacation days. One of my coworkers quit in disgust when he added up the extra time and came up with 400 hours of unpaid time in a year.

The color of your hard hat may be different between exempt and non-exempt, but the company policies are about the same. In the end, my Ph.D. in engineering gets me about the same pay as a chemical plant operator but without working a rotating shift. And both of us have electronic leashes. If the operator gets called out on his off shift (oddly, there are no women working rotating shift in the unit) he gets four hours pay even if he just has to remove a padlock on a tagout. I get nothing.

Today I just got a new pair of Company paid for safety shoes, standing in the same line as the hourly workers. Don't get hung up Salary vs Wage. Wage class may be cut and dried, at least under Federal labor law, salaried status is not. There is even a salaried non-exempt class, a rare class because it leaves Management with the worst of both worlds, a minimum weekly pay rate and having to pay overtime as well. said...

Thank you for this grand overview of time. May I recommend the fine book by Roberto Unger and Lee Smolin. The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time. And a further thought that has intrigued me for 50 years. It is not intelligence or even consciousness that distinguishes humankind but the faculty of imagination. It is our ability to imagine alternatives to what is in front of us that has brought us to this evolutionary point. It is not intelligence that is lethal it is our use of imagination. My hope is that one day in the future, people are taught how to use this faculty as we are taught how to dress and feed ourselves.

canon fodder said...

Nice companion piece to last week's post.

Even if the lunar landers don't last more than a couple hundred years, we still have the voyager spacecraft wandering off into interstellar space. Using the big universe, small spacecraft theory, I think it's a safe bet they'll still be around several million years from now. At 39 light-years for every million years, they'll still be in the local stellar neighborhood.

One aspect of contemplating Deep Time is the contrast between how short our individual lives are versus the length of our collective memory. Many of us can quote Lincoln's Gettysburg address from 150 years ago even though it is apparent Lincoln himself didn't think the speech that enduring. And our collective memory is less than a hundredth of our species time on earth. So we are actually pretty new at this intelligence thing. I would love to be that corvin 65 million years from now to look back to see what we as humans did with it.

onething said...

Time is neither long nor short, distances neither vast nor small, but only the relative mind labels them so.

The human form is special indeed, what with its combination of a good size to have sufficient strength to manipulate the environment, two fantastic hands with opposable thumbs, the ability to walk completely upright to free those hands and the eyes to look easily in all directions, including up, and great intelligence.

We are as important as we need to be, neither more nor less. The center is everywhere and all things are always connected to God who is everywhere, everywhen and everything.
When I think of the unfolding of this planet and its life forms, it seems like a pregnant woman. 9 long months seems so slow and yet what a great number of things need to be organized into place and the number of atoms and molecules busily metabolizing all this is in the trillions, all simultaneously at work, nonstop.

The earth is like that. First it is gaseous, taking time to solidify, being hot and vaporous, then cooling just so that water can condense, raining for thousands of years, raining the oceans into being, the big continent solidifies, bacteria come along, algae form the atmosphere of oxygen and ozone. No sooner is the protective ozone in place than creatures come up on the land, and the rest is history.

So it took a billion or two years to get the atmosphere oxygenated. So what? It's a big job, isn't it?

So amazing.

James M. Jensen II said...

tokyo damage,


Like our host, I also have Asperger's syndrome. I think maybe I should be offended, but I just can't figure out what you're trying to say. If you're saying that focusing on the cycles of Nature instead of overemphasizing the local political fauna is characteristic of Asperger's Syndrome, well, I think it's more characteristic of Druidry and sincere respect for the living world around us.

Shane W said...

Umm, I'm having trouble keeping up w/the volume of comments the blog receives now, any way we can filter them a little more ;-)

John Michael Greer said...

Naked, Carter's argument is a classic example of the misuse of statistical inference. The same argument could have been made by one of the first two Cro-Magnon humans to the other, and it might someday be made by one of the last two human beings to the other; it would be just as false in those cases as it is now.

Mindful, of course! It's just that I have a particular affection for deep time, probably having to do with my youthful passion for trilobites, dinosaurs, etc.

Mh505, nah, I just find the Greek and Latin ungendered words useful to think with.

Thomas, obviously I disagree. First, I challenge your claim that our survival depends on our ability to continue piling up technological complexity. Quite the contrary, technological progress has already passed well into the realm of negative returns; it won't be those humans who are dependent on increasingly brittle and dysfunctional technosystems who are likely to survive the crisis of our near to middle future, but those outside the technosystem, who know how to get by with a few simple tools and a lot of personal resilience. Second, Lovelock's claims about CO2 are not supported by other research, and he himself has already had to walk back claims of the same sort more than once. Third, it's always possible to come up with a chain of unsupported speculation that leads to the end of the world in the near future; you might want to ask the people who pinned all their hopes and fears on December 21, 2012, how that worked for them.

Google, fusion isn't a game changer at all. The one thing we know from fifty years of fusion research is that even if it turns out to be technically possible to run fusion power on a scale smaller than a star -- and the odds of that aren't looking so good just now -- it's utterly unaffordable; no nation on earth will be able to pay the bills for electricity from fusion. You might want to read Charles Seife's excellent book Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking before pinning any more of your hopes on that phantom.

Anthony, I tried to factor in deep crustal bacteria into my time scale, but yes, there's some wiggle room on both ends.

SweaterMan, of course! There's deep time and then there's deeper time...

Eric, many thanks for the report from the fringes! That's absolutely fascinating -- the notion that everything was once much bigger, that the ancients were giants and we are dwarfs by comparison, is common in dark ages, and it makes perfect sense that it would be showing up by now. I'll look forward to the story. As for the federal regulation, why, yes, we're moving toward an explosion, aren't we?

Dammerung, excellent. You've brushed up against the dark heart of human egotism -- "we're so bad we can mess up the whole planet!" -- that drives so much of our current passion to pollute.

Chris, remembering that boulders are temporary is a very good start!

Martin, I'm pretty sure it's a common trope in folktale, perhaps going back to some Indo-European origin.

Kirby, I consider it highly optimistic. When you realize that in due time, nobody will ever have heard of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, that to me is something to celebrate...

John Michael Greer said...

Bruno, I'd be delighted to know that some intelligent species a hundred million years from how will contemplate my skeleton, the way I used to contemplate the skeletons of dinosaurs, and try to imagine what kind of strange prehistoric world I inhabited!

John, yep. Not the first time we've discovered that perfection is sterile.

NZ, but a creation myth is exactly that -- a story, told in terms meaningful for a specific human community, that places the community and its members in a context of space and time that makes sense of human experience. Our myths draw their raw material from science, but they still meet the same deeply human needs.

David, that's the funny thing. They're not all variations on a common theme; they're evasions of a common theme. They usually plunge into personal attacks or other irrelevancies as a way of not talking about the thing I've brought up that they can't stand to have mentioned. That's what makes them dull.

Eric, well, not being Polynesian, I'd feel uncomfortable talking to their devas without an invite from the relevant religious specialists. I have a constitutional distaste for playing the part of the bumbling and boorish white guy...

HalFiore, yes, and if I expanded this to book length, both those would be in there!

Myriad, I want to see a SF story written on that premise!

Robo, yep -- but it's worth doing.

Unknown Rain, you're welcome.

Lordberia, exactly what kind of trouble is going to come out of this election is, to my mind, impossible to anticipate accurately -- too much depends on the actions of individuals. One way or another, though, it's very unlikely to end well.

Shane, nonwhite Americans have had to listen to far too many white people telling them all kinds of superficially plausible reasons why they can't have a fair share of the pie; it doesn't surprise me at all that they tend to tune such things out. Unfortunate, but there it is.

Gwizard43, why, the Salmon of Llyn Llyw, of course! What do they teach children these days? ;-)

Mustard, hmm! That might be an interesting exercise.

Pygmycory, as I noted in the post, there's no necessary conflict between Christianity and deep time -- it's just that a lot of Christians think there is.

Shane, welcome to the mud wrestling pit!

Peter VE said...

Shane, we're all here because our host sets the parameters and enforces the rules for a free flowing intelligent conversation. It's a salon covering the entire world, and I wouldn't miss any part of it. ;-)

John Michael Greer said...

John, fascinating. So far this post hasn't gotten an unusually high readership, but we'll see, of course.

Weedananda, "pointless meaningfulness" is good. One of these days I hope more of us manage to grasp that meaning is something we bring to the world, not something that's out there already -- that it's a creative thing, akin to (or rather at the heart of) what the artist and the storyteller do. That realization would cut down on the number of times that people cut each other's throats over differences in interpretation...

Tokyo, you don't have to have Aspergers syndrome to get bored by the latest media frenzy. Somehow many people manage not to chatter about the Hollywood couple whose breakup is all over the supermarket tabloids, for example!

Darren, I vacillate between seeing Musk as a really capable con artist and seeing him as a delusional true believer. I suppose he may be at the meeting point of the two categories, the con artist who falls for his own spiel...

Escape, a fine example of pompous drivel. Thank you.

Ethan, mine keeps on saying "Reply Hazy, Ask Again Later"!

Shane, yep. Hang onto your hat.

Arthur, thanks for the recommendation; I'll take a look at it as circumstances permit.

Fodder, in the third of the Weird of Hali novels, I mention that something ate them shortly after they left the solar system. One never knows what might be out there between the stars... ;-)

Onething, maybe so, but most of us would still rather spend as short a time as possible in a traffic jam!

Shane, too funny. You can always just read every other comment...

onething said...


"the current crusade against evolution on the part of some Christians requires them to ignore some of the basic presuppositions of their own faith."

I reread some parts of the linked blog post from 2013, and also noted that in your recent book about Dark Age America that you refer to creationists but not to ID. In general, the expression 'creationist' is usually used pejoratively, at least in the place where the real scientific debate is taking place, which is between Darwinian evolution and ID.

You may not mean it that way, but I am perplexed that you seem to ignore the place where the interesting arguments are actually going on. As to whether creationists have some good arguments I do not really know; I think they do have some but I don't spend much time on them because I consider it tainted. Not that I have any problem with belief in God, of course, but if you try to fit evidence in compliance with prior scriptures, you've got at least a bit of a bias, no?

I have seen where you have been frustrated with people for thinking in grooves but this meme that it is either Darwinian evolution or Biblical creationism really just describes two rigid extremes. It's not cutting edge, not current. Darwin himself might be called a creationist by some of the more strident atheistic types. After all, he made references to a creator more than once, perhaps breathing life into a few forms or one, and he said in some correspondence that he thought life evolved due to "designed laws."

If he thought that the creator started life (or may have) and that laws of life's unfolding were designed, that would make him quite acceptable in ID circles. Some ID people indeed go as far back as the Big Bang as the place where the input was frontloaded into the universe.

Just as you've said that Progress is a kind of religion, some people hold onto Darwinism as a religion substitute, those being atheist and scientism types who need an origins belief system. And it has to be mindless, purposeless and without any will or input. For this reason I had thought you were an atheist for a long time and still struggle with whether you "really" are not one. Because the thing which slows down the progress of science in this arena, the feet dragging and bullying behavior, is due to a very strong emotional attachment to the philosophy of mindlessness and purposelessness. This is the actual battle ground.

It puzzles me why someone who has used a phrase like the transcendent divine and written world full of gods defends a cosmos that looks exactly the same as the one that the atheists inhabit, that the divine will or wills has/have no interest or input in the unfolding of the cosmos which is its emanation or body, nor its life forms, which are the most complex thing in it.

Oh, and what do you refer to in the above quoted sentence, that the crusade against evolution ignores some of the presuppositions of their own faith?

Shane W said...

thanks for the succinct explanation. I never thought of it, but it makes total sense. I must say, that as a gay man, your explanation that sexual and racial equality did not begin to be realized until the US went into decline, and that sexual and racial repression were at their peak during the Victorian peak of Western Civilization made total sense to me. Of course, white straight men would not relent and invite others to the banquet until it was fully picked over. That is totally plausible to me. Nothing against straight white men, just the human dynamics of wealth, class, and power that exists in every civilization.

onething said...

Eric S,

I think you are mistaken. Many salaried people are hugely taken advantage of by their employers who expect them to regularly log 60 and 70 hour weeks at no more pay than if they worked 40.

Joe McInerney said...

"A Correlated History of Earth" - coolest poster ever, just had it framed for my house.

Kevin Warner said...

My first thought after reading this essay was that we humans are not just built to comprehend deep time much less deep space. It is only with symbology (here known as mathematics) that we can even begin to get a handle on the immense scales involved. Such understanding is simply not part of our make up. But then I had second thoughts.
Anybody here found themselves staring into a star-filled night? Or looked at immense natural vistas like mountains or open plains? Astronauts that go into space spend a lot of their free time looking down to the immensity of earth as it revolves by. Archaeologists that hold in their hands artifacts used by people thousands of years earlier do so with keen excitement.
Why do we do it? Why do we find ourselves drawn to deep space & time? Other people may have their own answers but I truly believe that the reason we do so is because we know in our hearts that in contemplating that beyond our reach that it is good for the spirit.

Just as a data point as I saw JMG mention technology complexity in one of his replies, I will mention a story that I found which shows how far down the rabbit hole we are being unwillingly pulled. The story is at and also has a bizarre end.

Unknown said...

re Musk, if he is the intersection of con man and gullible smuck, he has good company. I just finished reading a biography of Charles Ponzi, after whom all great scams are named. He suffered the fate of believing his own spiel.


eagle eye

Synthase said...

Thank you. I'm going to insist on a correction whenever I see a discussion of deep time end on $CurrentYear.

Tony said...

Regarding possible earlier intelligences something like ours on Earth:

There's some fascinating recent research on brain anatomy showing that there are two known lineages of vertebrates on this planet that pack neurons a lot more densely per unit volume of brain than others: primates and birds. Primates have been around for on the order of 50 million years, but birds are older and significantly more diverse and there were some pretty enormous ones in the early Cenozoic.

My favorite crazy and almost definitely wrong speculation about older intelligence on Earth is in regards to the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum 50 million years ago. It was a 200,000 year pulse of high CO2 levels and high temperatures that came after a sudden release of carbon into the atmosphere that definitely took less than 10,000 years to happen, possibly less than 1,000 years, and from its isotope ratios looks like the carbon came ultimately from plant matter, living or long dead (as opposed to volcanoes).

The only place on Earth that hasn't been extensively surveyed for fossil fuels is Antarctica, the vast majority of its landmass being under two kilometers of ice and it being utterly uneconomical to cart them to the rest of the world. Meaning we don't actually know a lot about the geology of the continent and its complement of these fuels. What if all these fuels were burned by someone 50 million years ago, followed by some natural positive feedback to get the full effect of the maximum? Someone who never left that continent? Two kilometers of glaciers for the last ten million years would scrape away just about all evidence that anything was ever there.

Antarctica was pretty much where it is now then, making it some of the coldest land on Earth, but the Earth was much warmer then so it was pretty temperate (with the tropics a steambath and the mid-latitudes like the tropics today). We evolved in the tropics and can keep ourselves warm near the poles by wrapping ourselves up in clothes. It's a lot harder to keep something adapted to cold temperatures alive in the stifling supertropics...

Crow Hill said...

This week’s post offers many inspiring topics for meditation. Thank you.

When I get that feeling of horror of deep time/deep space, I meditate on the fact that it is that deep time/deep space that produced me and sustains me and everything else at every moment, therefore I must be able to withstand the thought of it too.

Tony said...

@ SweaterMan regarding 'even deeper time':

There's some information on the rate of star formation going on out in the universe as a whole that has been piling up showing that just like the Earth will die, and the Sun a while afterwards, the universe itself will 'die' if by its 'life' you mean its generation of new stars and biospheres. The rate of star formation has been declining exponentially for most of the history of the universe and shows no sign of stopping.

I've recently restarted an old attempt at blogging about astrobiology and explore exactly this in a post of mine, coming to the conclusion that if patterns of change in the rate of star formation in the universe continue as they have been for the last 8 billion years the sun is in the last 20% of stars to ever exist and the Earth is right about halfway through the set of planets to ever exist (the later stars to form being more likely to form planets because they've been seeded by heavy elements from the earlier stars).

I go through the numbers in some detail at the resurrected blog here:

Urban Harvester said...

JMG, "I vacillate between seeing Musk as a really capable con artist and seeing him as a delusional true believer. I suppose he may be at the meeting point of the two categories, the con artist who falls for his own spiel..."

Sounds like the Religion of Progress just found its own Joseph Smith!

SteelRust said...

Dear JMG,
putting aside for one time our totally different & irreconcilable visions about the "Religion of Progress", as you like to call it, I'm curious about your point of view about one point. Where you put human (and possibly the one of some animals one too) self-consciousenss in the context of the vision of the Universe you describe? I mean: we exist and we are conscious to exist as individual. From where comes this consciousness? Where it goes afterward?

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks very much for stating the very obvious - and yet deliberately obscured truth - that that metaphor was missing quite a large chunk of time. From hindsight it appears to be rather obvious, but I did not see it. I'm pretty certain that I once saw Carl Sagan using that particular metaphor too. Surely he would have known? It does make you wonder.

I did have to laugh when you had the usual space debris taking out the human artefacts on the moon too, over a huge period of time. :-)! I mean it is not as if it won't happen... I read about peoples hopes for that gear in last weeks comment section and just went off and did something else. What is with those hopes? It is not as if people can't do something today to make the world a better place for the future. Just sayin...

A very talented but very also very eccentric musician down here once made the claim that: "Out front of a rock n roll band is where I hide". It is quite a profound understanding of the lead singers own inner nature don't you think? And the day / year metaphor has many subtle correlations as it provides an entertaining show, but obscures some serious fundamentals.

I don't get all the hang ups about human exceptionalism. I just don't get it at all. We wouldn't have a clue if in between the extinction of the dinosaurs and the current day - a period of 65 million years, mind you - if another species had arisen that were every bit as smart as we are. Certainly humans would have done their very best to wipe them out both physically and in memories...

Anyway, we only ever borrow the minerals and compounds that go into making us. I mean, it is not like they go away and disappear after we bite the dust. All of those borrowed minerals and compounds then go into making something else despite our best efforts to the contrary. And when the sun finally swallows the Earth in that far distant future some of those minerals may even escape into whatever is out there in deep space. How exciting is that? And who knows what happens in a Black Hole? I mean honestly, it is not as if Black Holes do not serve some sort of a purpose. Just because we can't understand them, doesn't mean that they are not doing something very useful and necessary...

Well that's my rant for the week, I guess. It was quite a pleasant day here, the air was warmish at 63'F and the sun delivered heat that sunk into your bones. The insects buzzed around enjoying the many flowers. You can hear them too as they are quite loud and all of them were going about their insect like business.

The trains have been replaced by buses this month as the government removes train and road crossings and replaces them with underpasses - which is a very good thing as the two different vehicles do not mix well. I managed to read your essay on the bus on the way into the big smoke and it was a very pleasant journey.

Hope that Hurricane Matthew only brushed the edges of your part of the world.



Phil Knight said...

Uh, I didn't phrase that very well, did I?

Taleb actually asked for readers to nominate IYI's on his Twitter feed:

The two names that are most frequently nominated are Dawkins and Krugman.

Cherokee Organics said...


Oooo! How good was Abbey Road? I heard that album from a very young age and the song "Golden Slumbers / Carry that Weight" has haunted me for years and still brings goosebumps even today. Thanks for the pleasant reminder! :-)!



Cherokee Organics said...


I had a very curious thought bubble yesterday morning. What if Trump is actually on the path to "replacing bad management" which is code words for a giant asset stripping exercise? I mean it is not as if such things do not go on in the world of big business?

Time will tell all on that front - either way. Still Clinton's recent banking discussions for which she was paid, well, quite a lot, were to that effect anyway.



gwizard43 said...

@ Eric S

You might find Alan Weisman's 'The World Without Us' of interest. The publisher's blurb begins "Teasing out the consequences of a simple thought experiment—what would happen if the human species were suddenly extinguished—Weisman has written a sort of pop-science ghost story, in which the whole earth is the haunted house." I found it a fascinating read.

Greg Belvedere said...

Great post as always. I agree that humans need to accept our own mortality, both individually and as a species. I agree this represents maturation. This becomes very clear when I hear people talking about going to the stars. If you want a laugh read this synopsis of Musk's plan to go to Mars. NASA has trouble landing a rover on Mars, but this guy who can't meet production deadlines on much simpler technology (TESLA cars) wants to land a colossal spaceship with onboard theaters and restaurants on the red planet.

It seems much more realistic to expect our species to simply do a little maturing than to expect, for example, the kind of transformation in consciousness some folks kick around these days.

Lynnet said...

I roll my eyes when I read about "terraforming" a planet such as in Elon Musk's Mars, taking only a few years. It took 2 billion years for the blue-green algae to terraform the Earth, precipitating iron and spitting out the oxygen that most of us depend on.

Seaweed Shark said...

"While the Rose blows along the River Brink,
With old Khayyám the Ruby Vintage drink:
And when the Angel with his darker Draught
Draws up to Thee--take that, and do not shrink.
And fear not lest Existence closing your
Account, should lose, or know the type no more;
The Eternal Saki from that Bowl has pour'd
Millions of Bubbles like us, and will pour.
When You and I behind the Veil are past,
Oh but the long long while the World shall last
Which of our Coming and Departure heeds
As much as Ocean of a pebble-cast."
--- Edward Fitzgerald, 1859

weedananda said...

I knew you'd appreciate "pointless meaningfulness". Also, in a deep space news update, yesterday's Guardian reported that the estimated number of galaxies has increased twentyfold -- we're up to two trillion! Now that's deep!

BoysMom said...

Shane, how do you know the racial backgrounds of the commentators?

I have the fun of hanging around an internet gaming forum where the default gender assumption is female. It's quite amusing when some newbie shows up with a non-indicative handle and gets his undies all in a twist over being referred to as 'she'.

I presume you possess an X and a Y, as you chose the handle Shane, until you say otherwise. I suppose you presume I possess two Xs, since I use BoysMom, and moms, as a general rule, do. You've stated, I believe I recollect, that you're a red-head and sunburn badly. But what of my coloring do you know? I believe I've said here that I sunburn badly, in regards to the utility of hats on one of the Retrotopia posts, so you may assume I have pale skin. (Which you would be right about.) However, if and when my children and husband start posting here, you'd be very mistaken indeed to assume the same about them. (And whether or not any of the self-and-family description in this paragraph is actually true is up to you to guess!)

Of course there are a few who use photographs, and one assumes they are personal photographs, but then again, on the internet, who really knows? It's easier to guess flavor of English written (Brit-style, American-style, ESOL-style) than anything else about anyone. You could be a straight black-asian woman just as easily as anything else you might be. I find that one of the loveliest features of the internet, actually, that invisibility of the biggest current cultural cues for prejudice, and I only wish we could keep the internet long enough for a large majority of folks to have it really sink in that you can't tell much that matters about a person by their visible genetics.

Chris Larkin said...

With regards to Elon Musk, he’s a true believer. SpaceX has already delivered on their most immediate goals, lowering the price to orbit and rocket landing, and shaken up the industry. The “Space Industry” is littered with ambitious projects that endure shadowy lives with enough funding to continue but never getting past mockups, animations, and the occasional works-in-progress. The big example is the Space Launch System, but there’s many others like VASIMR, Blue Origin, and Skylon. They aren’t scams per se, but their reach exceeds their grasp. If Elon was a scam artist, it would have been easy to be just another example of one of those projects. Instead, he’s done things.

In addition, he almost certainly would have gone or going public with SpaceX when it is / was so popular in the public eye. He’s unlikely to do better if the ITS stalls in development. It’s clear he’s in it for the long haul which isn’t a common trait of scam artists. He could be waiting till the first steps on Mars are planted before cashing out, but at that point would it be a scam?

None of this means he’ll be successful much less meet his target dates. He seems to be more like colony prompters like Sir Walter Raleigh, Stephen Austin, John Winthrop, and the Virginia Company. They were sincere, but had different levels of success / failure. I hope he succeeds, but at best it’s a hard road ahead.

RetrovationSociety said...

Episode 3 of my story that doesn't yet have a name. Shoes, boys and sparkly things are all included. It's like post-industrial chick lit or something.


Eric S. said...

@Silliconguy: I just know how it affects me directly, I was just promoted from a wage job to a salary job a little under a year ago. My annual salary didn't change much from what I'd been making before, but it meant that when the office was closed for a holiday, it wouldn't cut into my vacation time, which was the one perk that separated someone making a 30,000 a year salary from someone making a 15 dollar an hour wage. Now I have to use PTO even on the days when my office is closed if I want to still get paid, and I earn the same number of PTO hours per year than the office is actually closed, which means if I want to take any days off at all for myself, or if I have a sick day, it'll have to come out of my pay check. As for the overtime the law is supposed to give me: non-billable overtime isn't allowed at all, and billable overtime has to go through such a convoluted bureaucratic mess of signatures and waiting that the extra 10 or 20 dollars you'd get from trying to log the extra time just isn't worth the trouble, and certainly wouldn't make up for the pay now being lost from sick days and such. I haven't been in the salaried position long enough for going back from a situation I hadn't even fully adjusted to to something more familiar to affect me. And there's doubtless a vulnerable class of people who will benefit, and other people who won't be affected at all, but there are going to be enough people whose interests and concerns shift going forward, that in a culture where the relationship between the system and the working class is already tenuous, and populist movements are already on the rise, a sudden burst in the number of people who just went from making 30,000 a year to 15 dollars an hour is not going to be a non-factor going forward.

Ekkar said...

Thank you for this John Michael Greer. My new favorite of your post. Nothing makes me feel as calm and as excited, and sets my imagination on fire, as deep time.

Ed-M said...


Thank you for this post. This is the first time I have ever seen deep time for life on Earth put into its proper perspective. Every time before I have seen only the past up to the present day, and usually the narrator/author ends with a remark stating to the effect that the present Modern (Postwar) Era can be crammed into the last Twinkling Of An Eye, or New York Second.

WHY don't people think of the future more!??!

Varun Bhaskar said...


About two years ago I had a conversation with a friend who believes in the singularity. He was overjoyed at the idea of living forever. I pointed out that time changes everything, and if you’re alive forever then your personality is necessarily going to change. Given enough time you’ll develop characteristics that you currently consider deplorable, you could end up a child molester, tyrant, or mass murderer. His response was an unthinking “yeah, that’s good, it means I have endless possibilities.” Now I’ll admit that he was quite drunk at the time, but that sentiment is pretty normal for people who want to live forever. No one seems to stop and consider that their selfdom (to borrow a word from dune) isn’t fixed, nor are the changes in our personalities totally within our control.

I enjoy the stories that I’ve learned, and remember the ones that have given meaning to my life. If I live forever and learn more stories, how long before I forget the ones that I have now? Will the sheer quantity ever make up for the quality?



onething said...

"Also, in a deep space news update, yesterday's Guardian reported that the estimated number of galaxies has increased twentyfold -- we're up to two trillion! "

I've begun to wonder if perhaps we do live in a simulated reality, and the programming does not allow for us to ever find an edge to the universe.

mh505 said...

"I just find the Greek and Latin ungendered words useful to think with."

Ah - very relieved. You had me worried there for a second with these explanatory notes :)

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

nitpick: In the classical Latin I studied in High School, the counterpart to vir was mulier. I believe this word has cognates in Spanish. Maybe femina is Church Latin? I'd check my Latin dictionary, but most of my books are inaccessible for a few weeks.

Shane W said...

"Maybe there are black lurkers out there, or there are African-American posters that I'm not aware of." I thought that statement covered the bases of any potential black posters/readers out there that I was not aware of.

Candace said...

@ Eric S

I have to say I was really glad when the rule changed. The salary question was a big part of why I wasn't willing to take on any middle management positions. Upper management can keep work places chronically understaffed and then make middle managers "cover". It's been used as a regular way to exploit workers. Just re-cast the position as management. I have friends at a major medical center who had their administrative Assistant positions recast as salaried. So now when someone drops work on their desk at 4:00pm Friday and says they need it by 8:00 am Monday they have to come in on the weekend. Before the overtime cost of doing that was an incentive to make people plan ahead.

Sorry it's messing up your PTO:-(

I like imagining that creatures before us had. History art and music just different sense dependencies and so different styles is f communication. What if dinosaurs could pee poetry? :-). "A rose by any other name...

Shane W said...

come to think of it, I do now remember you mentioning in a post, I think it was a political one, about being in a mixed family and hating and avoiding checking the racial box. I do remember that, now...

Shane W said...

Speaking of race, I am just crestfallen to find out that there is no West African DNA in my bloodline. I thought for sure that for as long as my family had lived in the South, and as many slaves as my home county once had, for sure back there somewhere, someone who "passed" had miscegenated their way into my bloodlines, but no. It was pretty boring: 30% Great Britain, 30% West European, 10% Irish, and 8% Scandinavia, 6% Iberian Peninsula. None of this is out of line for the British Isles, considering the Norman invasion and the Danelaw. Iberian is somewhat more interesting, but there are Caudills in KY, which comes from the Spanish word "Caudillo" The only interesting thing was the Jew (I'm assuming 1% would not be many), though that was very cool, and the 4% East European. Ah well...

sara drew said...

I have made a couple of comments since finding the ADR a year ago. I am totally gripped now and read every week, taking in all the comments and looking forward to hearing from everyone. I have been pretty timid about commenting myself but don't want to be seen as a lurker so am going to show up a bit more. I have had a really bad case of cognitive dissonance for about a year since I started reading. I always thought I was a left of centre right-on progressive type but now I'm not so sure. I have certainly discovered I don't naturally agree with most middle class comfortable conversations anymore, but am fairly reticent about voicing a different opinion- toying with Brexit was bad enough - having issues with Clinton is beyond the pale, yet I have read enough here to make me pretty concerned about both candidates. So this week's post is a beautiful and timely exposition of our real place in the cosmos.
Further to comments about the language of progress; as a former salary class manager in the BBC I like to keep a look out for management speak nonsense, and from the UK Guardian newspaper this week comes the gem of a story of how York Minster bell ringers have been sacked:
'Seeking to further explain its decision, a spokesperson for the minster said in a statement: “It is critically important to ensure that there is a consistent approach to health and safety, governance and risk management across all of our volunteer teams. In order to make these changes, we sometimes need to close existing volunteering roles so that we can move forward with the new processes. This is what has happened with our bellringers.' -Bellringers for heaven's sake!
I read elsewhere there are apparently not enough new bell ringers coming forward to keep the tradition going. Another small indicator of bigger changes looming perhaps?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Chris Larkin,

Your quote: "In addition, he almost certainly would have gone or going public with SpaceX when it is / was so popular in the public eye."

Mate, if the project was such a money spinner then it wouldn't have to be foisted off onto the public in an offering... There is a difference between hype and reality and often the truth falls in between those two points, but generally closer to the reality side of that equation.

My thoughts on that matter is that he is doing business in the preserves of what is usually business conducted by governments. There is a reason that governments do that sort of business - it is because it is very risky and not at all guaranteed to make a profit. And no pockets are infinitely deep!



Shane W said...

Of course, there could be a West African in my background whom I did not inherit any DNA. My grandmother is 1/2 Italian, yet my DNA profile is less than 1% Italian/Greek, so I actually have more Jewish & Eastern European DNA, even though I don't know where it came from.

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

I was about to ask you about your expectantions of how long will humans (more or less recognizable as today's humans, anyway) would likely last. Your comments about "average lifespan of mammalian genus" was, in my mind, woefully discarding the evolutionary advantages of intelligence, but on your responses to "NomadicBeer" and "Drhooves" you alluded to it.

The way I see it, intelligence is such a evolutionary advantage, even sans anything technologically more advanced then rock-tipped spears and arrows (and I don't suppose we will run out of those), that we managed to become the most sucessful large predator in most, if not all, of the world's ecosystems BEFORE we invented agriculture. Right now we are, by far, the most sucessful large-mammal by total bodymass, with the only close contenders being our livestock. And, as you alluded, we are master generalists, omnivirous, unlikely to be wiped out by local ecosystem change or something happening to our main prey-species or something like that.

I really don't see anything killing off humans, unless some radical change that completely prevents the existence of warm-blooded omnivore animals of about 50kg or so, everywhere. Mind you, this MIGHT happen, but it seems unlikely to happen in the near future (taking the deep time view of "near future" here), let's say at least a week in your timescale, maybe two. The main thing I would worry about would be meteor strike or gigantic volcanism. I just can't see any scenario, barring some truly catastrophic global ecosystem collapse, where a human with a stone-tipped spear still isn't a dominant species. The only such scenario I could conceive, I guess, is the emergence of a even more intelligent species that outcompetes us. Presumably, such a species would have it's own civilization, and history, and culture and whatknot, so, it would not be the end of those things in the Earth, anyway.

I have always laughed at the common idea that some militant environmentalists use to say that "we are destroying the Earth". Not only there's virtually no chance of us actively rendering the Earth uninhabitable (barring one exception, see later) for life in general, I do not even think we could do anything to extinguish the human race. Even a 99% die-off due to some crazy Holywood-scenario manmade catasthope would still leave us as the most sucessful large mamallian species on the planet. This kind of talk is actually pretty representative of the hubris of modern culture, that you've been talking about. Or maybe blindness. It's certainly possible that we might destroy current civilization by pursuing the path we are going, and maybe subconsciously what these people are saying is that they equate current civilization with human life, or even the entire ecosystem.

P.S: I can see a way we might purposedly extinguish life on Earth, as a thought experiment, but not due to "careleness" or anything like that. We would need to dedicate considerable effort, resources and time to do so. Basically, we would need to spray the Earth with huge ammounts of highly-radioactive isotopes, with half-lives in the order of a few thousand years, probably by detonating a couple thousand very large "salted" nuclear devices. That would probably extinguish multicellular life and would have a somewhat decent chance, IMO, of wiping out even the bacteria :)

Shane W said...
Here's the article...

Tidlösa said...

For those who want more on the ongoing election campaign, remember what C S Lewis said: "If you want to meet the Devil, you will. If you like him when you do, is another matter entirely". ;-)

Dennis D said...

After reading Tony's comment about the "Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum 50 million years ago" I googled it and read the Wikipedia entry on it. There is a fair bit of logic that would fit a short lived civilization, that caused the spread of mammals, among other creatures, across most of the globe. The interesting thing is the Kimberlite pipes found in Northern Canada, which are currently being mined for diamonds, are considered a possible source of the required carbon to cause the temperature change. A possible explanation would be a civilization that left behind these Kimberlite pipes, loaded with their most enduring product, diamonds, and all other traces were destroyed by the glaciers or are still under the ice. The chimps mentioned could have been members of this civilization, or merely a breed that oversaw the ranches of primitive horses. Our ongoing fascination with diamonds is a memory left over of their original purpose. here is the link:
It would be a great starting place for a Scifi story, where the production of diamonds to power their civilization causes a giant carbon release, climate change and retreat to the south pole of remaining civilization.

n=ro said...

Sorry to be a bit off topic here, but I just ran into an interesting article on the the state of US infrastructure. I didn't the numbers were that obvious!


Shane W said...

Regarding Barack Obama's lame technofantasies, did anyone else catch the South by South Lawn sad imitation of SXSW's (Austin's South by Southwest) tech brainstorming. Sigh, the real thing seems pretty void of new ideas, the whole White House thing sounds even worse...

Thomas Yelton said...

JMG: "Thomas, obviously I disagree. First, I challenge your claim that our survival depends on our ability to continue piling up technological complexity. Quite the contrary, technological progress has already passed well into the realm of negative returns; it won't be those humans who are dependent on increasingly brittle and dysfunctional technosystems who are likely to survive the crisis of our near to middle future, but those outside the technosystem, who know how to get by with a few simple tools and a lot of personal resilience."

No, we agree on all this. By "technological innovation" I mean to include not only medium and high technology but also the most basic sort as practiced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We are a highly specialized species that achieved our adaptability through our ability to flexibly model the physical world in our collective minds (as opposed to with our genes, like most other organisms). As specialized organisms our ability to survive depends on our ability to model, which depends on our ability to form (at minimum) stable 'tribes' of 150 or so people, cooperating to feed, clothe and shelter each other, raise children, accumulate and refine knowledge (models) and pass it on to new generations. The question is whether even the conditions supporting that minimum requirement will be met during and in the wake of the 'crisis' of a mass extinction. Or, better for us, will the mass extinction be averted either through human efforts or through the demise of industrial civilization.

JMG: "Second, Lovelock's claims about CO2 are not supported by other research, and he himself has already had to walk back claims of the same sort more than once."

I will look into it. Apparently the Gaia model has been refined by Lovelock and others (as one would expect) and CO2 is still a key component. Also, despite some criticism, it is apparently still the best explanation for the extraordinarily stable temperatures that have persisted on Earth for hundreds of millions (billions?) of years despite the sun's gradual warming.

JMG: "Third, it's always possible to come up with a chain of unsupported speculation that leads to the end of the world in the near future; you might want to ask the people who pinned all their hopes and fears on December 21, 2012, how that worked for them."

Speculation is good -- essentially asking 'what if?', i.e. modeling, trying to figure out the shape and size of what we cannot yet observe. It's what humans do to survive and prosper. It's our evolutionary niche, how we see the coming storms and the reefs and pilot our way through them. And it's how we have achieved so much (for good and ill). Of course using unsupported predictions to guide future activity is not good though sometimes it is the best we can do.

The existence of the current mass extinction is not in dispute as far as I know. Neither is the theory that the sun's warming will in the future end life on earth nor that it would be accompanied by a mass extinction. The question is when and what will lead up to that. 2012 predictions of great change were scientifically unsupported. Predicting that humans will survive a great extinction or that the current one will extinguish itself soon seem unsupported based on past events. Asserting that this extinction event will definitely not be the final nail in Earth's coffin likewise seems unsupported.

Ignoring possible reefs is a good way to run a ship aground. I prefer to decide based on intelligent modeling -- extending observations with networks of supported speculation. Modeling is what separates humans from other species. It is what has brought us to this point of crisis and, besides *maybe* dumb luck, is I think our best hope of surviving it. Do we disagree?

MawKernewek said...

The Sun is indeed losing mass via the solar wind however the current rate is quite small and will not have affected planetary orbits that much over the last few billion years. It will however be much larger during the red giant stage of the Sun's evolution, which could potentially save the Earth from being completely engulfed by the Sun, although there is a counteracting tidal effect that tends to pull it inwards.

One interesting idea is that some believe that it would have been possible for life to have evolved on Venus, even complex life and it could have spread to Earth via meteoritic ejecta. It has even been suggested that Venus could have supported life up to a few hundred million years ago, and only was tipped into a runaway greenhouse effect by a massive burst of volcanism that is believed to have resurfaced Venus completely around that time. See

Janet D said...

Quite ready for election season to Be Done. Felt much comfort over the thought that Deep Time will erase all Trump/Clinton/Musk vestiges.

Two other random thoughts:

I've previously posted about the lack of political signs in my very conservative town. No one has any at all on their lawns, other than for a few local elections. I have seen exactly zero Clinton signs anywhere at all, or bumper stickers. I've only seen a few Trump yard signs, mostly out in the much more rural areas. What I do find interesting is that the Trump signs that are posted on street corners and random road signs in town here have all been defaced or smashed. This is extremely unusual for such a conservative area. I know that he is not popular (to put in mildly) among some members of the Hispanic community, but I live in the white part of town (we're about as divided here as it gets), so am not sure if the sign destruction has racial origins or not. No matter, really, but it is rare for any sign to be vandalized here, especially for Republican candidates. (Not to outdone, the Trump people finally built a handmade wooden sign, put in with huge stakes, and covered the "Trump" painting on the front with some sort of plastic that can be cleaned! So far, that one is still standing and un-defaced...)

On a second note, I have had a few friends go to Standing Rock to support the No-DAPL efforts. It's some really telling s*** going on there with the security forces and the police. Regardless of how one feels about DAPL, it's important to note that the protestors have all made commitments to not carrying any weapons and to remaining peaceful and prayerful. They have been (are being) met with armored tanks, multiple assault rifles, attack dogs, tear gas, and more. Government and corporate mercenaries. Out. Of. Control. I mean, seriously, the protestors are unarmed and many weapons do you need?

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20161015T181908Z

@Deborah Bender ("10/14/16, 1:44 PM"): Lewis-and-Short lexicon shows "femina" to occur in authoritative classical authors, including Cicero and Caesar. The word thus belongs to classical, as opposed to distinctively late, Latin. Thanks for interesting linguistic question.

@MawKernewek ("10/15/16, 8:58 AM"): Thanks for reference to interesting paper. The author has a radical suggestion at the very end of the paper - the suggestion, namely, that life of the kind we are familiar with may be somewhat rare in the cosmos, having arisen from the statistically unusual interaction of two biospheres (one, the Venusian, featuring a high mutation rate under heavy bombardment of DNA-altering radiation, producing an abundance of species; the other, the Terran, featuring a lower mutation rate, not favouring such extravagant speciation, but providing its own special advantages of long-term comparative geological and atmospheric stability).

@JMG: Thanks for exceptionally stimulating posts on deep time, both this week and last week. I will not comment here, but might try commenting a little on some aspects of this later on, on my own blog.

Sincerely, but hastily,

Toomas (Tom) Karmo

Chris Larkin said...

Hi Cherokee Organics,

My point is that he’s not acting like someone who’s jadely funneling the government money in his pocketbook. There’s thousands of government contractors who do that It’s the essence of the military-industrial complex. If Elon Musk was a scam artist, the logical and quite successful scam would have created one of those. Instead he took a large risk and tons of effort on actually attempting to change the rocketry market, instead of saying he would.

Likewise, you’re right that a Mars colony is risky and expensive with at best uncertain returns. That’s why I consider Elon Musk a true believer and not a scam artist. Otherwise selling out via IPO before the hype dies down would be too enticing. If SpaceX is a huge money spinner, that would make it even better since the market loves large returns, though most estimates put SpaceX at respectful but not insane profits. He even could continue lead SpaceX as it became a traditional aerospace business which would almost certainly happen if he did go public.

Instead, he’s pushing for Mars colonies which he knows doesn’t have a good case for returns in years if ever. That’s the choice of someone who wants Mars colonies for its own sake and is strong evidence that Elon Musk is being sincere when he says the purpose of SpaceX is to put a human presence on Mars. This of course doesn’t mean he’ll succeed, but he’s earnestly trying.

Phil Knight said...


In case you were wondering if Elon Musk is really a conman:

Patricia Mathews said...

Speaking of growing up:

The heading is "Ever young" and he traces four generations of what he doesn't even see as decline. Even as he lists the material goods involved in "being an adult" in each generation. Very across-the-pond oriented; he's Scottish. Edinburgh, I think, won't swear to it.

TJ said...

Regarding your non-conflict between religion and science, I'd say your opinion finds you in good company of a pretty respectable scientist:

"A conflict arises when a religious community insists on the absolute truthfulness of all statements recorded in the Bible. This means an intervention on the part of religion into the sphere of science; this is where the struggle of the Church against the doctrines of Galileo and Darwin belongs. On the other hand, representatives of science have often made an attempt to arrive at fundamental judgments with respect to values and ends on the basis of scientific method, and in this way have set themselves in opposition to religion. These conflicts have all sprung from fatal errors"

-Albert Einstein

John Michael Greer said...

Onething, intelligent design always struck me as Creationism Lite -- the same notion but very carefully stripped of anything that would allow it to be disproved. I don't use the word "creationism" pejoratively; I consider it misguided and inaccurate but coherent; I disagree with (for example) our resident young-earth creationist Nestorian, but I recognize that the disagreement between us is a matter of basic presuppositions, not simply a matter of misunderstood or fiddled-with data.

Shane, partly it's a matter of the banquet being picked over, and partly a matter of the disintegration of hierarchies that's always part of the decline and fall of an imperial society.

Joe, so noted! I wonder if they've made arrangements to update it as new data comes in...;-)

Kevin, good. One of these days I need to do a post talking about why contact with the unknowable is good for human beings...

Unknown Eagle, makes sense to me.

Synthase, delighted to hear it! I just might decide to do a series of posts and then a book on the Deep Future -- though I'd need a good illustrator to really make it work.

Tony, that's plausible. Another possibility that occurs to me is that there may have been some other form of concentrated carbon that now exists only in very small amounts, because the Paleocene sentient beings extracted and burnt nearly all of it.

Crow Hill, good. I gather, then, that deep time and deep space horrify you, rather than delighting you and making you feel instinctively at home?

Harvester, that's frighteningly plausible. Let's see if he can come up with some urim, thummim, and Martian golden plates...

SteelRust, perhaps you can explain to me why this is relevant to this post.

Cherokee, when I finally noticed the way that the standard version excludes the future, I wondered why I'd never noticed it before. As for the hurricane, we didn't get a bit of it -- it wandered off into the ocean hundreds of miles south of us, and we had ordinary fall weather. Thanks for asking!

Phil, no problem! If there were a competition for Intellectual Yet Idiot of the Year, oh man -- that would be a *very* hard-fought battle.

Greg and Lynnet, that's why I think he's a con artist. His notion of shipping people to Mars and terraforming the planet more or less overnight is only plausible to people who don't know the first thing about what's involved.

John Michael Greer said...

Shark, thank you. Omar was good at that.

Weedananda, lots of space and lots of time. What's not to like!

Chris, I'm not at all sure it would have been in his best interest to go public with SpaceX. All his corporations survive on federal subsidies -- he's smart enough to realize that that's where the money is these days -- and as long as he keeps SpaceX private, he's got a huge slush fund of grant money that he can play games with. The sheer delusional naivete of the Mars project does not lead me to think that he's actually planning on going there!

Mallow, good! Keep it rolling.

Ekkar, me neither.

Ed-M, good question. I think that's really going to be a focus of some upcoming posts.

Varun, granted. The thing that would horrify me about living forever is the opposite, though -- I have a fair idea of the limits and failings of this personality, and the thought of being stuck with it's like being trapped at a party with a boring guest, knowing that there's no way out!

Onething, not surprising. The whole "simulated universe" thing is simply another form of creationism, you know.

Mh505, under the circumstances, that doesn't surprise me. ;-)

Unknown Deborah, Latin has two common words for "woman," and yes, mulier is the other one.

Sara, sad to hear that the bell ringers have been sacked -- and absolutely typical that it's been done by way of a torrent of meaningless corporate jabber. I wonder when it's going to sink in that the current way of thinking leads inevitably to getting rid of every job below middle management, and then wondering cluelessly why nobody can find work...

Guilherme, human intelligence is a significant evolutionary advantage but it's not omnipotent. We could go extinct in any number of ways -- evolutionary overspecialization, environmental crises, our own idiocy, the emergence of another species smarter than we are, etc. That said, as already noted, it's quite possible that we'll be around for quite a while before any of those things happen.

Tidlosa, funny.

Dennis, fascinating. I foresee a really cool science fiction story on the subject!

John Michael Greer said...

N=ro, thanks for this! Yes, the US is crumbling at an impressive pace.

Thomas, I find it wryly amusing that some people, yourself apparently included, respond being being told "I disagree" by trying to redefine what's already been said to force some kind of agreement. Since I've already discussed each of these topics at great length on this blog, I'll pass, thank you.

MawKernewek, the interesting thing about the life-on-Venus idea is that occultists have been claiming for a very long time that intelligent life did in fact come here from Venus a long time ago. Mind you, I'm not prepared to claim that they were right, but it's an interesting coincidence.

Janet, interesting. Here in Cumberland I've finally seen a Clinton sign -- it's in the rich neighborhood -- and there are quite a few Trump signs everywhere else, with no sign of vandalism so far.

Toomas, I'll check it out as time permits.

Phil, whether he's a con man or not, he's certainly into wasting money at a fine pace...

Patricia, typical. Thanks for the link.

TJ, exactly. Religion deals with values, science with facts; the two of them use narrative language in radically different ways, and confusing the two does zero good for anybody.

Tony said...

Regarding Venus, we really do not know what it was like more than 500 million years ago (when vast lava flows covered most of its surface). It could have always been like it is now or it could have been tipped over into runaway greenhouse some time long ago by the brightening sun or it could have been tipped over by the enormous carbon release such extensive volcanism would have caused. In whatever case, the current state of the atmosphere would basically scrub clean most evidence that anything interesting ever happened on the surface.

The idea of microbes traveling from world to world on meteors within our solar system is not out of the question but would basically require there to have been only one origin of life for multiple worlds in the solar system - everything on Earth shares a common ancestry and basic attributes. The notion of COMPLEX life doing so accidentally is pretty much a complete nonstarter, with the possible exception of things like fungal spores. You need spacecraft for that. Besides which there is massive genetic and paleontological continuity of all life on Earth...

Unknown said...

Interesting, I always read things like biblical time with an eye toward an intended meaning; 6,000 years is a way of saying time immemorial; that is, some time so long ago that no on living remembers it, and no one that was alive any time that anyone can remember, this all happened. i.e. 6,000 years = time before human mind.

Kevin Warner said...

Varun Bhaskar has mentioned the subject of living forever that a friend of his hoped for. This seems to be an extreme example of the Peter Pan Syndrome and is getting prevalent with our tech billionaires.
Those DNA samples that people pay to do at Ancestry? Those DNA samples end up with a Google company that is researching immortality ( which is cross-referenced with the family tees that those same people post at Ancestry. I wonder how many people know that they are paying to help our elite to live longer?
May I suggest that people read the article at for a bit of a reality check on this subject? Yeah, I know that it is an online comedy site but you have to take the truth where you find it.

Patricia Mathews said...

@JMG re: "Religion deals with values, science with facts; the two of them use narrative language in radically different ways, and confusing the two does zero good for anybody."

So, likewise, said Augustine of Hippo, 1500 years ago, reaming out some idiot who had the two totally confused. Said Augustine, "If you want to study science, go to school!" And added "You're giving Christianity a bad name." So guess who's ahead of who in that department!

And yes, what Charlie Stross was outlining looked an awful lot like serious decline to me. Decline on the order of sitting down on a steep hillside full of 2" rocks and scooting down the hill on the seat of your jeans. (Safest way to get down, might I add. But very hard on the rear end.) Of course, compared to, say, Tudor Era Scotland, maybe it isn't such a long downhill trip?

Cherokee Organics said...


Well done you for even noticing. It is a very clever stratagem that metaphor and it says a whole lot. Glad to read that you escaped the hurricane as it was quite extraordinary, although that may become the new normal given that a cyclone formed over the Southern Ocean recently... I feel that eventually the tropics will move south (or north as in your case).

I don't really have lot to add this week, just with the Trump observation it may also be possible that he looked into the immediate future and had a "Holy Sheet" moment much as FDR probably did. Even Blind Freddy knows the outcome because it is not as if history hasn't provided some rich and replete examples.


Chris Larkin,

Mate, I dunno at all, but I appreciate your civil response. Why is it that anyone would believe that life on Mars would be a good thing? The hard radiation alone will kill any potential colonist - all of them within a short period of time. Not to mention their food stuffs. Why would anyone wish for that I ask you? We are of this planet and there is no escape from that.


Carl Dolphin said...

Dear JMG, I think I will attempt to teach your deep time year to a class of 4th graders when we're studying geology. They're always fascinated to hear that the sun will engulf the earth, and relieved to hear it is billions of years away. Carl

Patricia Mathews said...

OT, but: you can't make this stuff up. Architecture.

Doug Castle said...

As many other posters have said, I find the reminder of my/our insignificance from a deep time perspective to be very comforting. Especially when the times they are a-changing as rapidly as they are these days.

I have a question about the "Religion of Progress". I have long been repulsed by the rampant commercialization of our society. It seems that a great many people worship the almighty dollar and the invisible hand. In "Small is Beautiful" Schumacher writes "The religion of economics has its own code of ethics, and the First Commandment is to behave "economically". So I wonder how this relates to the religion of progress because both seem related but somehow separate. In my case, I've long been distressed by the lust for profit but for most of my life (until I started reading this blog) I was enthralled by the Myth of Progress. Perhaps there is a connection in the belief that (to paraphrase Kenneth Boulding) we can have exponential growth forever on a finite planet.

- Doug

Unknown said...

Interesting about your observation that a cyclone formed over the Southern Ocean. I looked at that weather system and thought it looked awfully "cyclonic" but that was not how the BOM described it here in Tasmania. There have been several systems that looked that way over the last few years.

John Roth said...


I haven’t taken a good look at Intelligent Design because I expect it’l be a waste of time, unless they’ve discarded (with extreme prejudice) the notion of Irreducible Complexity and are actually grappling with the very hard question of how one would detect the traces of an outside intelligence influencing the flow of evolution.

Have they done this?

As I and other people have said before, Darwin is part of the history of science. The only relevance he has to current evolutionary biology is that he’s a good read. As it is said: “We honor the pioneers because they were first, not because they were right.” Darwin was wrong in a lot of ways, and trying to take anything he said as typical of current thought in evolutionary biology is simply attacking a straw man.

@Thomas Yelton

Re the “Gaia hypothesis.” As far as I’m concerned, it’s an arm-wave. To get a hypothesis accepted, one needs evidence, and so far, there’s no evidence. Talking about CO2 levels and so forth is modeling; models can establish possibility, but for anything beyond that they need to be supported by evidence. So far, there’s no evidence that distinguishes the Gaia hypothesis from other attempts to solve the problems caused by rising solar insolation. In fact, I’m not sure there are any direct or even proxy measurements of solar insolation over that time frame.

Yeah, I’m not impressed by the 2012 thing. All it means is that there were a heck of a lot of gullible people around. Why people latched on to it, with the publishing industry gleefully egging them on to the jingle of cash registers, is a topic that needs considering though.

JMG: re Elon Musk

The last I heard he’s launching satellites for about 1/5th of the cost of the Space Launch Consortium (60 million vs 300 million per launch). If that’s a waste of money, we seem to have rather different definitions of “waste.”

«Oldest ‹Older   1 – 200 of 234   Newer› Newest»