Taking The Long View

Posted by Stuart Hertzog on Mar 7, 2008 in cosmology culture

As an activist who has experienced the urgent demands of an environmental campaign, I know how easy it is to label one’s opponents as uncaring, insensitive, greedy, or misguided. Stepping back from the fray and focussing on the vast and inexorable sweep of geological time, cools the emotions and brings both clear seeing and compassion.

Patience takes a long time to long to learn, yet contemporary Western society is all about instant gratification. We want something and expect to get it immediately or we become annoyed. Our frustration and anger are based always on a desire to achieve a specific outcome, which we often demand must be delivered immediately or very soon. We are the spoiled children of affluence, and self-centredness appears to be increasing in today’s society.

But patience is based on a genuine detachment plus the loving intelligence of compassionate understanding. It is not the hedonic indifference of self-obsession. This may sound pompous and preachy, but over the years I’ve come to realise that life works that way.

Inside the Tyrrell Museum

For me, the experience that started the move towards detachment came during a visit to the Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta, and then to Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the south-eastern corner of the province.

Seeing the whole history of our small planet laid out before me, from the original condensation of the gas cloud after the formation of the Universe, through the agonisingly slow and patient development of life on Earth, gave me for the first time an insight into the enormous magnitude of geological time, and how recent and fragile is our human life form and its fleeting civilisations.

Just inside the entrance to the Tyrrell museum is a tall display board, facing back towards the entrance. You have to turn around to see it. When you do you face a similarly-shaped window with a view of the side of the ravine the Milk River has cut into the prairie, in which the town of Drumheller sits. On the display board, mirroring the view through the window, is a photograph neatly labelled with the geological epochs in which each layer of sand and rock was laid down.

The ravine is, I don’t know, maybe a couple of hundred feet deep, and just a few feet below the top is a black band, the Iridium Layer, after which no dinosaur fossils are found. Our human civilisation occupies the top few inches. The hundreds of feet of sandstone deposits below this, hit me like a hammer. What a vast amount of time! What enormous changes and leaps of life forms! My mind was boggled.

15 billion years old

This universe is by modern calculations about 15 billion years old; this Solar System and Earth around 4.5 billion years. And human history? …. maybe a few tens of thousands of years? In the history of Earth there have been many great discontinuities, cataclysmic events that wiped out billions of species, whole phyla of evolution that took million of years to develop, disappeared in a geological instant.

Inside the museum, real dinosaur skeletons are arranged in life-sized dioramas, razor-toothed Tricerotops gnawing at the flanks of a giant Edmontosaurus. Here is the battle for survival, writ large. Around them is arranged on displays and dioramas the story of life on Earth… the cooling of the planet… the arrival of the single-celled bacteria… the lichens and mosses… the Age of the Fish… the Insects… the emergence of animals from the sea… it’s almost too much to grasp.

Afterwards, visiting Dinosaur Park and walking on the bones of our Ancestors — my life has not been the same since then. This Universe is vast, and we humans live on one small planet in a remote arm of an average-size galaxy. So what if another piddling species proliferates and dies out? Life proliferates, creating countless billions of evolving life forms on countless billions of planets, I believe. Before this vast panorama, I am nothing, a replaceable unit, a brief flash of consciousness. But as a living creature, I am connected to all that lives.

It’s easy to be wrong

Of course, it’s important to fight the Good Fight. What concerned people are doing all over the world is meaningful and brave. Yet without an overview of the vastness of life and the patience of time, we can get caught up in the heat of the moment and become angry, point fingers, say hurtful things, and commit cruel acts. It’s so easy to be short-sighted and wrong — I’m guilty of that almost all the time.

But as I go through life, I realise that so many of our fears are based on the fear of death, of absolute darkness and annihilation. Perhaps the Christian church’s historic suppression of the concept of reincarnation and the ensuing scientific materiality that denies anything beyond the material and measurable, have cut us off conceptually from the flow of life, trapping us as individuals into the desperation of isolation, which means that we must solve all our problems and get our gratifications instantly, in this moment, right here-and-now.

For the true patience of detachment, we must go beyond our own primitive beliefs. How to do that, is the struggle we face as both activists, and as human beings.