Thinking On Cosmic Time Scales

Human life is incredibly short. While 100 years may seem like a long time for those of us living on the Earth (1915 feels just as distant as any other past date) in the grand scheme of the universe, our life is but a blip. Comparing 100 years to the 14 billion year age of our universe and even the 4.5 billion year age of the Earth is not only futile, the size scale is so different that we have no innate conception of the difference between those two time scales. That is the nature of our brains. We have never needed to think about time scales of that range. Until now.

For the first time in history, humankind has reached the point that it not only needs to think on longer time scales, but has the capacity to do so. We are confronting future environmental catastrophes that will not occur in our life times. We are thinking about setting the groundwork for long term human space exploration, even though none of us will set foot on an alien planet. We have to imagine what effect our waste and population will have on the Earth, not in 50 years or even 1,000 years in the future but 100,000 years in the future of humankind.

Unfortunately thinking like that is not second nature to most humans. That is why people like Neil deGrasse Tyson are met with a sort of skeptical fascination. Sure, physicists, environmentalists, and forward thinking engineers sound cool and they make for interesting TV shows, but should we really be making the changes that they propose?

Atmosphere 2

The answer is of course yes, but it requires a shift in our perception of events. Most policy makers in the world do not think farther than the next election cycle, or if they are particularly visionary, they will look a decade into the future. There is a reason for this sort of thinking. Unlike scientists, who will always have their jobs, politicians are tethered to a cycle of election and reelection. They have to get reelected to keep their jobs. Therefore, when their constituents are not thinking on the long term, politicians have no need to as well. A climate change denying politician has no need to even consider the long term effects of his or her decisions as long as they get reelected in the next cycle. A chauvinism develops where these politicians begin to apply personal solutions and desires to long term problems. It is not really their fault. Human psychology is based around survival, so politicians who de-fund NASA or deny climate change are just saving their own skin. It takes years to rewire basic human psychology. But it is necessary to rewire our thinking.

Within the next two centuries, humanity will be facing unprecedented challenges. Although climate change has somehow become a political issue and not a scientific issue, the mass scientific community agrees agrees that it will cause problems. The scale and danger of those problems is up to debate, but what is not up to debate (at least for those outside the scientific community) is that problems will arise.

Although climate change is a real hot-button issue today, two other major challenges are facing humanity. First is overpopulation. Over the past decades, we have seen the population of the Earth hit a period of exponential growth. At the present growth rate, the Earth will be seriously taxed to provide enough resources for humanity. The danger of overpopulation will provide an environmental threat greater than that of global climate change. Although my point here is not to provide solutions, one of the more farsighted but important solutions is to begin long term space exploration and eventually colonization. But even that requires long term “cosmic thinking”.

8_Observable_Universe_ELitU

The difference between future crises is that we can not solve them by the seats of our pants. These are not instances of tsunamis or hurricanes, where quick disaster relief can help reduce the effects of crisis. These are problems that will require ground work. When a overpopulation crisis hits us, it is too late to thinking about what we can do to minimize the effects. That time has past.

We can do two things to think on a cosmic scale, and need both study and an effort to rewire our own psychology.

1. Start to listen to what the scientific community is saying and act accordingly. I am not saying that we need to accept every scientific idea with open arms, a dose of skepticism is helpful. In fact, being skeptical of new ideas has been the key to many important advances. The problem that we have today is that people outside of the field are denying scientific evidence on the pure fact that it does not feel right to them. Debating what action to take to act on scientific data is ok, but debating on whether the data is correct is the job of scientists. Too often we see politicians, business men, economists, and talk show hosts debating with trained scientists. Scientific debate should stay within the scientific community.

Along those lines, we need to realize that scientists actually can make predictions for down the line. As Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams explain:

Mention a date thirty or forty years in the future, and most people will throw their hands up and say, “That’s too far off we can’t possibly predict the situation.” But in many cases we can. Although we may not be able to predict what any individual or group of individuals will be doing in forty years (people are the most complex of all), we can predict with increasing accuracy the consequences of physical alterations to the planet, such as ozone holes and climate changes.

Do not follow things on blind faith, but realize that there is validity to the scientific process.

2. Cultivate a care for the future inhabitants of the Earth. Tell somebody that what they are doing will effect their grandchildren, and most people will change their tune. Tell the same person that we need to think about their great-great-great grandchildren and you will get a blank look. We just can not think that far in the future. But a key part of thinking on cosmic time scales in realizing that those people are real people and a few hundred years is not that long when compared to the period that things happen in the universe. When we compare a few hundred years to the 14 billion years of the universe, we can see that it is not that absurd that our actions today will effect those future people. Realize that they are real. They deserve the best life possible, and we can make that for them. It is a selfless mentality, but it is one that we must cultivate. For the first time in history we have the technology and knowledge to make a big change in the future conditions of our Earth. But too often we are caught up in petty squabbling that only has periods of decades in mind.

Thinking bigger will change our world. We will be able to evaluate decisions and ideas on time scales that will give us an understanding of what effect this will have on the future generations of our world. Nothing is more important. Take things with a grain of salt, but do not spend your time thinking in terms of a decade. Think cosmically. We owe it to the future.

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