Take a look at the history of our species. We’ve been around a while. The oldest evidence of our human ancestors is a fossilized skull that dates back about seven million years. Most anthropologists agree that so-called “modern” humans came on the scene about 130,000 years ago. The industrial age began a couple hundred years ago but the age of fossil fuels and our massive use of energy has only been about half that.
What we call “normal,” the lifestyle that those of us living in privileged, wealthy nations have known all our lives, is actually quite the opposite. Modern life is an anomaly.
Relative Perspective on Modern Life
Using a 24 hour clock for reference, let’s see how significant the last fifty years has been as a percentage of our history. Our 130,000 years of existence yields a relative period of modern life of around 33 seconds on the 24 hour scale. We are a flash in the pan. It’s as if we were laying around all day and night, barely breathing, and then in the last minute of the day, jumped out of bed, got dressed, drilled for oil, built cars and skyscrapers, blew off some nukes and mass produced ourselves billions of times. All in thirty seconds.
The point of this exercise is not to illustrate how amazingly fast we have managed to accomplish all these things, but to show how incredibly abnormal our normal society is when put into historical context. The vast percentage of time we’ve been around has been under much different circumstances.
It’s easy to understand those who cling to their belief that unlimited access to cheap energy is an inalienable right. It’s all they’ve known. It’s easy to assume that our abundant food, chemicals, drugs, energy, cars and seemingly endless goods from far away places is just a natural part of existence. It is – for now – but that is changing rapidly.
While much of our modern life is good, there is no doubt we are hitting and exceeding the limits of our finite world. Our thirty seconds of modern life led us to invent something new – the idea of sustainability. Why is it a new concept? Because up until this last minute of the last hour in our hypothetical day, everything we did had minimal impact. Our existence was in relative balance as part of the natural world.
Most people in modern society now live in cities. We’ve divorced ourselves from nature. Indeed, we look upon it as something outside ourselves, something to exploit and tame. We’ve designed our entire society around an abstract notion we call The Economy and we’ve placed The Economy above all else. We have transposed the real wealth of the physical world with artificial notions of value based on unending economic growth. We’ve come to believe this as if it were true. We have subordinated reality to the point where we have placed ourselves and many other forms of life in peril.
That is the mindset that allows many to believe that it’s still OK to pollute the air, to use oil as if it will never run out or to ignore the warning signs of a planet in peril when the most prudent action calls for leaving all remaining fossil and atomic fuel in the ground.
When reality is a spreadsheet, all else is secondary.
I don’t condemn people for thinking this way, it’s just what they’ve been taught. I do think it is a good idea for all of us to take some time to deeply consider what we mean by progress.
What do we really value in this world? Is it a cheap electric bill or the smile on the face of a beautiful grandchild? Is it last quarter’s profits or the sweet smell of a fog-shrouded redwood forest on an October morning? Is it a trophy home with a trophy wife, bought and paid for with a trophy job at some ad agency? Or could it be life in a comfortable, right-sized home in a neighborhood of friends who care for each other and about the impact they have on our world?
Living well includes living consciously, within our means and the means of our planet.
We choose. What will our reality be today? I suggest that we reclaim our place in nature by respecting its limits, honoring its diversity and opening our hearts to the exquisite experience of life on earth. We could spend an hour on that alone.