image: earth during the eocene epoch, the last time the average surface temperature was 25C, via bbc nature
image: depiction of eocene rainforest in the antarctic, from this site, original source uncredited
image: from the documentary film baraka
- Imagine that, a few millennia from now, down the steep slope that followed Peak Everything, the sixth Great Extinction is finally winding down. The pace of species extinction is slowing, and landscapes, while still often showing the signs of many recent ecological catastrophes due to ongoing tumultuous climate change, are beginning to show more patterns of succession. Our lovely planet has been through this kind of change many times before: At least twice it’s been choked in dust after meteorites or volcanoes that produced a global night that lasted a year and soaked the planet in a deluge of rain with the pH of battery acid. At least once it’s been totally encased, pole to pole, in a sheet of ice miles thick.
- Imagine that this Future Earth looks about as different from the way it did in the 21st century as it did the last time the average surface temperature was 25C rather than 15C — during the early Eocene epoch about 50 million years ago. Imagine that more than half of the planet is therefore now desert, including the Western US, Southern Europe, the Western 2/3 of all tropical areas, and all of the areas that were already desert in the 21st century. Much of the rest of the planet is now rainforest, subject to torrential and relentless monsoons, including former Arctic and Antarctic areas. There are no ice sheets or glaciers now. Rising sea levels have engulfed the formal coastal areas and reduced overall planetary land mass by about 20%, and coasts are now mostly steep and mountainous.
- Imagine that human population has declined to about 50 million, and is still declining, though much more slowly than during the earlier stages of the Great Extinction. The remaining humans have abandoned all technologies, in part because there is no cheap accessible energy to power them, and in part because with population now so small and declining, there is no real need for technologies for a full and healthy life. Population is still declining because humans are just not naturally well-adapted to very hot or changeable climates, whereas many of the succession species that now feed on humans (jaguars and crocodiles, for example) are much better adapted to prevailing climates. Nuclear radiation from abandoned 21st century power plants has also created ongoing birth rate and illness problems for humans and other species.
- Imagine that humans have readapted to living in the trees (because it’s safer and more comfortable), to gathering rather than growing food (because it’s more reliable and easier), and to a vegetarian and insect diet (because it’s better suited to our digestive system and more accessible in post-tool-use societies). Humans still look much like they did in the 21st century (and, for that matter, much like they have for the past million years), but they behave much differently. They have given up abstract languages because such languages are no longer of value or use, though they can communicate essential messages very accurately through vocalizations (whistles, calls and songs) and gestures. They retain a passion for art and music and practice these extensively. They live in small, autonomous tribal cultures, each with a territory large enough to provide abundant food even when catastrophic climate events occur, and little or no contact with adjacent human cultures, which are, as a result, very diverse.
- Imagine that such humans have given up their sense of time, again because they have no need for it. They live entirely (except for brief periods when under attack by predators) in the present, joyfully, in the moment. They have, of course, memories (so do most creatures) but their minds, without clocks, calendars and abstract language, now evolve differently from the way they did in the old “civilization” times, so they cannot and do not dwell on the past, nor fear nor long for the future. They live lives of great joy, leisure and abundance, and are unaware of the trajectory that will inevitably lead, many millennia hence, to their ecologically maladapted species’ slow and final extinction. And they are unaware of how humans live/lived in other places and times. It doesn’t concern them. They do not fear death; they accept it. Their curiosity is focused on here, and now.
- Imagine that such humans have begun to evolve cultural and coping characteristics more aligned with their forest-dwelling bonobo cousins than their savannah-dwelling chimp cousins. Their best-adapted societies are peaceful, gentle, matriarchal, affectionate, and egalitarian, and resolve internal conflicts and stress through embrace, caress, and sexual calming methods rather than through the expression of violence.
- Imagine that, despite the apparent similarities between these post-civilization humans and prehistoric tree-dwelling humans, there are a number of qualities that clearly distinguish them. These differences are not physical but behavioural, due to differences in selected genetics, learned behaviours passed between generations, and differences in environment. Post-civilization humans are still not as intuitive as prehistoric humans, but they are more imaginative and hence more playful. They are more empathetic, because they still pass on the embodied grief of having experienced massive suffering and hardship just a few hundred generations ago. They still retain vestiges of skill at abstraction and capacity to synergize, that comes through in and is practiced in their art and music composition. They also ironically retain vestiges of competitiveness, even though this no longer serves a useful purpose.
If you can imagine that, perhaps you can understand why some of us are no longer working to save or reform this sad, damaged, unsustainable, juggernaut civilization culture, or even to try to make a “transition” from it to some other large-scale, high-technology, global-scope culture. Perhaps you can understand why I say “It’s hopeless, but we’ll be fine.”
If you can, perhaps you can help me imagine how we can make it to this strange and wonderful future Earth, from where we are now, with the minimal amount of intervening suffering of human and other creatures, and the minimal amount of damage to this planet we call home. What could we do, now, and in stages over the coming few decades as the ragged flywheel of our civilization comes violently and shudderingly apart, that would prepare us to cope better, to be hurt less, to do less harm?
I’m trying to imagine that.