Monday, 17 October 2016

Toomas Karmo (Part A): J.M.Greer on Popular Geology, Chronocentrism, and Deep Time

Quality assessment: 

On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3'5 is "mediocre pass", 4.5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 4/5. Justification: Kmo had time to make the necessary points to adequate length. 

Revision history:


  • 20161018T1809Z/version 2.1.0: Kmo added some "further and better particulars" on official claims regarding the Saint Petersburg emergency bread reserve. - Kmo reserved the right to upload minor, nonsubstantive, merely cosmetic, revisions over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 2.1.1, 2.1.2, 2.1.3, ... . 
  • 20161018T0043Z/version 2.0.0: Kmo finished converting the outline into reasonably finished prose. He reserved the right to upload minor, nonsubstantive, merely cosmetic, revisions over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 2.0.1, 2.0.2, 2.0.3, ... . 
  • 20161018T0002Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo uploaded base version. He had to leave part of the work in mere outline form, under time pressure. He hoped to convert the outline to reasonably finished prose over the next 4 hours.

[CAUTION: A bug in the blogger software has in some past weeks shown a propensity to insert inappropriate whitespace at some late points in some of my posted essays. If a screen seems to end in empty space, keep scrolling down. The end of the posting is not reached until the usual blogger "Posted by Toomas (Tom) Karmo at" appears.]

President Barack Obama, in his capacity as a guest editor at Wired (a magazine with a somewhat technophile readership) , has written a guest essay - thereby enlisting himself in an honourable tradition which, for instance, saw Mr Tony Blair expatiating in a major newspaper on his "favourite author". (Mr Blair was so bold, and so I suppose so confident of perduring electoral support, as to confess favouring Jane Austen.) Mr Obama's URL and title are and "Now is the Greatest Time to be Alive". 

What title could be less apt? 

Mr Obama is, after all, writing in 2016. 

In 2015 and 2016, Europe faces its greatest refugee crisis since the Hitler war. 

In the second half of 2016, the principal Russian system for the manufacturing of domestic consent - namely, the Russian-language television, directed at Russian viewers - has (I am told) shifted its tone in a civil-defence direction. There is now (I am told) bizarre official talk of food reserves in St Petersburg. As of the 2016 Russian autumn, it is claimed that there exists a wartime-emergency bread stock, sufficient for the entire city population for an entire 30 days, assuming a drawdown rate of 300 grams per person per day. (The roughly 10 percent or 15 percent of the population which dislikes the government finds this funny, I am told: the current joke, I am told, is that 300 grams per person per day is ever so much more than the 125 grams per person per day available in the 1941-09-08/1944-01-27 Siege of Leningrad.) There is also (I am told), as of this 2016 Russian autumn, strange official domestic-television talk of shelter space in Moscow. The subway, more formally the Московский метрополитен, is being proclaimed to viewers as capable of sheltering every Muscovite in the event of nuclear war. 

In this same 2016, the fear of police abuses in the USA, committed against civilians of colour in defiance of community-policing norms, seems as strong as ever. 

And in this same 2016, the USA political system seems to be moving in directions that would have been considered outré even in the scary outlier year that was 2015. 

The army of homeless is of course still with us, with Bay Street lawyers in Toronto (near my town of residence) carefully stepping around or past sidewalk campers, as those well-fed professionals proceed with their briefcases, in their dark suits, from Union Station to their various Bay Street offices. 

The USA, and Canadian, and British manufacturing base seems in 2016 to be as weak as ever. 

Much of the urban infrastructure - the USA watermains, for instance, or Toronto's subway - seems as tattered now as in previous years. 

What is the real future of our industrial West? A plausible predictor (I say, respectfully, to President Obama) is present-day Camden, or present-day Flint, or present-day Detroit, Wired magazine notwithstanding. 

Here I do not want  to anatomize Mr Obama's entire promotional piece. Rather, I want to focus on a handful of specially revealing sentences: 

I can't help but wonder what might be next - what might happne at a White House Science Fair in five years or 20 years or 50 years? I imagine /.../ 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.

Elsewhere in his piece, Mr Obama lauds "our commitment to fact and reason", proclaiming that "we need science." How much fact is there in the four-or-so sentences I have just quoted? 

The idea of bringing back soil from Mars, so as to grow potatoes, is odd. Unless the soil is enriched beyond anything that could be considered authentically Martian, the soil must be a mix of small particles, akin to such rocks as have been studied by the Sojourner, Spirit, Enterprise, and Curiosity rovers. One model used on Earth to simulate Martian soil conditions is a basaltic grit, from Hawai'i. Nothing, Mr President, will grow in such stuff until you add humus. The normal way of adding humus, Mr President, involves adding compost, which you would typically dig in with multi-tine fork, by foot action.  

So, Mr President, when was the last time you planted anything? 

As for the "new kind of telescope", and "looking through the lens" (rather, "stack of lenses", as in an eyepiece): Mr President, you know, as everyone does,  that there are 90 degrees, or 90 * 60 = 5400 arcminutes, or 90 * 60 * 60 = 324000 arcseconds, between horizon and zenith. A brief experiment will convince you that your fist, at arm's length, spans about one ninth of this angle. You can ascertain through brief Googling that Mars this past May, in its rather close approach to Earth, was subtending an angle a little under 20 arcseconds. (It sometimes gets better than this, but never dramatically better. The maximum possible for Mars, on its closest approach to Earth, is a little over 25 arcseconds.) 

The slightest acquaintance with a telescope will reveal the limits normally set by terrestrial atmospheric shimmer. An observer, with such portable equipment as a schoolgirl and a couple of well-muscled assistants could lug up to the South Lawn, does well to resolve anything tighter than one arcsecond. 

The slightest thought, Mr President, about the actual size of the galaxy and the typical orbital radii of exoplanets will reveal the gap between star and planet, for your envisaged "faraway star at the very edge of our galaxy", to be vanishingly small, even if we prescind from the hopeless, blinding, difference in relative brilliance between exoplanet and hosting star. The Earth-Sun gap subtends an angle of just 1 arcsecond for a telescope 3.26 light years away. So from a nearly-across-galaxy distance of, say, 150,000 light years, the subtended angle becomes (3.26/150000) arcseconds, which to one significant figure is 0.00002 arcseconds, or one fiftieth of a milliarcsecond. 

So, Mr President, when was the last time you were at the eyepiece - trying, for instance, to discern just one surface detail, just one gol-danged thing, such as gigantic Syrtis Major or a gigantic polar cap, on that irritating little throbbing, quivering, terrestrial-atmosphere-shimmering reddish pinhead which is the "lens", or rather the stack-of-lenses, view of so-nearby Mars? (Mars, whose light back in May was reaching us not in 150,000 years, but in about four minutes?) You have said, Mr President, that "we need science." What you are lacking here is not university science. You are, more radically, deficient in some pre-matriculation curriculum. 


I pick a little savagely on the likeable, genteel President of the United States to bring out a wider point. So I hope that in the (vanishingly improbable) event that he reads this blog, he will not become irate. My wider point is that is is only too easy to detach ourselves from reality, only to easy to retreat into a Hollywood world. 

What is the antidote? 

University or school coursework is useful. Not everyone, however, has time or money for that. What we do all have money and time for, if only in a free-of-charge library, if only on some Sunday afternoon, is reading  at any easy and popularizing level, from sound authors. 


I now wish to highlight the kind of popular writing that is needed, by citing this month's material on the one blog I read as a matter of unvarying weekly routine. This is the blog of social analyst John Michael Greer - his perhaps misleadingly entitled  "Archdruid Report", at  The title might perhaps suggest a channeling of Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix, with periodic divagations also into the haruspication (into the entrail-reading) of his drearily superstitious Roman foes - with me, I suppose, as Mr Greer's Catholic reader, then storming onto the scene like some stern latter-day Saint Patrick, preaching the Nicene Creed in noisy and fulsome correction. But we in reality have here a cultural analyst - less a robed Celtic mystic than a contemporary Chomsky, Galbraith, or Toynbee. 

Specially stimulating this season are Mr Greer's postings of 2016-10-05 ("The Myth of the Antropocene") and 2016-10-12 ("An Afternoon in Early Autumn"). Although not himself a geologist, Mr Greer has done the general reading public a service, in the course of these blog postings, by explaining geological chronology. 

Such explanations abound, to be sure, at a popular-science level. I have one on my desk right now, in a helpful book I rescued from garbage - the Firefly Pocket Guide entitled Essential Facts, and giving (this is itself helpful) a snapshot of the world not as it stands in 2016 but as it stood in the less stressed year 1996. 

Mr Greer, however, takes matters a little farther than they often get taken, in such things as Firefly (or, I suspect, in such admittedly helpful things as National Geographic and PBS (the USA "Public Broadcasting System")). Not only does he outline our present scheme: additionally, he devotes a few sentences to showing how the present scheme got developed. 


It is helpful to know something about the historical development of whatever classification scheme one is trying to master. All readers of popularizing astronomy have encountered the stellar temperature classes O,B,A,G,F,K,M, with the accompanying mnemonic ("Oh Be A Fine Girl-or-guy, Kiss Me"). (Well, actually we need to tighten up the National Geographics and PBSs a little here. What we actually need is OBAFGKMLTY, to accommodate the recently discerned brown dwarfs - "Oh Be A Fine Girl-or-guy, Kiss Me Like This, Yowee," I presume; and for certain chemically anomalous stars, RN "Right Now" if we separate classes R and N, or C ("Chomp") if we amalgamate R and N under the general "Carbon" heading - with also chemically anomalous S ("Smooch", or "Splock", or something). 

How seldom, however, do we get told, at the popular-science level, the historical reasons behind the specific order of the letters! 

In late Victorian spectroscopy, stars were classified simply by the strength of their Balmer hydrogen lines (the lines also easily observed in the chemistry lab, from electrical discharge in low-pressure hydrogen vapour;  several of the Balmer lines fall within in the visible spectrum, whereas the more challenging Lyman lines are all in the ultraviolet, and the Paschen, Brackett, and Pfund series of lines all in the infrared). The late Victorians wrote "A" for the stars in which the visible-light part of the Balmer series was at its most pronounced, and used a sequence of half a dozen or a dozen or so letters following "A", in alphabetical ordering, for stars whose visible-light Balmer hydrogen lines proved progressively harder to discern at the observatory spectrograph. 

Some letters in that ancient, horse-and-buggy, plate-camera, Holmes-and-Watson-era, alphabetical sequence have by now either dropped out or - here I go a bit vague, sorry - been retained under new meanings. But further (it is this that is crucial), it has been found that the old Victorian "A" stars do not represent an astrophysically extreme condition, and so do not deserve to be placed at one end of a spectral sequence. It now turns out that the spectral types correspond to photosphere temeperatures, with the old Victorian "O" and "B" stars respectively the hottest and the next-hottest, and with the old Victorian "A" now happening to come third in the (physically crucial) temperature ranking. In "A", as distinct from the Balmer-fainter "B", and the Balmer-hopeless "O", temperatures (a) are not so unpleasantly extreme as to strip the typical hydrogen nucleus of its electron, and nevertheless (b) are so pleasantly high as to pump many  hydrogen-atom electrons up into one of the various energy levels favourable for the eventual emitting or eventual absorbing of Balmer-series (along with the less readily observed Lyman-series, Paschen-series, Brackett-series, and Pfund-series) photons.


Before I turn to Mr Greer, I wish to cite also a second, this time rather tentative, example of my own, once again highlighting the utility of history to the student of a taxonomy. 

In univariate real calculus, we encounter subsets of the real line. Some specially important subsets are called the "open sets". Intuitively, these are sets not containing any of the points which may happen to bound them. (If your only permitted positions are at the points in an open subset of the real line, you might be capable of sitting arbitrarily close to a bounding point, and yet you cannot actually sit on it.) 

One example of an open set is a "finite open interval", or set of reals lying strictly between the reals a and b - for instance, the set of reals strictly greater than the positive square root of 2, and strictly less than pi. (You might choose to "approach pi from below", coming closer and closer to it. For any positive epsilon less than pi-minus-the-positive-square-root-of-2, you can while remaining in this set approach pi from below, making your approach closer than the distance epsilon - no matter how tiny that preassigned positive epsilon may be. But since the set is "open", you cannot, while remaining in the set, actually sit on the boundary point which is pi.) 

Another kind of open set is any "open ray", such as the set of reals strictly less than -17, or (another example of an "open ray") the set of reals strictly greater than 0 - the "positive reals", as opposed to that non-open set which is the "non-negative reals", and which has its boundary point 0 among its members. 

A third kind of open set on the real number line is the union of two disjoint finite intervals (for instance, the reals which either are (a) strictly between -1 and pi, or (b) strictly between 5 and the common logarithm of the rather big integer 123,456,789, 000). 

A similar concept of open set arises in multivariate real calculus. For instance, in 3-variable real calculus, one open set is the set of all real triples (x, y, z) happening to fit the condition "x*x + 2 y*y + 3 z*z is strictly less than 1." (In a perspective drawing, this particular open set becomes a football-like cloud, an ellipsoid, neatlly lining up with the x, y, and z axes, and with its centre at the point (0,0,0). This set is to be  distinguished from a non-open set, the set of all real triples (x, y, z) happening to fit the condition "x*x + 2 y*y + 3 z*z  is  less than or equal to 1" (to be thought of as an ellipsoid-with-its-bounding-surface), and for that matter from the non-open set which is the set of all real triples (x, y, z) fitting the condition "x*x + 2 y*y + 3 z*z  = 1" (a set identical with its own - football-like - bounding surface).) 

All this is rather old mathematics, safely antedating the late 19th-century and early 20th-century rise of topololgy, and thus familiar enough also to the mid-Victorians. 

But around the time spectroscopy was taking off in astronomy, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mathematicians were developing classification schemes for their emerging discipline of "topology". 

We take a "space" S comprising two or more "points" (typically, comprising a countable or beyond-countable infinity of points - the positive integers comprise a countable infinity, and the non-negative integers comprise a countable infinity, and the integers comprise a countable infinity, whereas the reals are beyond-countable; surprisingly, the set of rationals is merely countably infinite, despite the fact that the rationals are densely packed). Now we want to introduce the concept of an "open set in S", generalizing our mid-Victorian predecessors' work in univariate and multivariate calculus.

But how to generalize this? 

Whatever might turn out to be a natural notion of "open" set, the intersection of two intersecting "open" sets should also turn out to be "open" (by analogy with what has become familiar in univariate and multivariate calculus), and so should the union of two arbitrary "open" sets (again by analogy with univariate and multivariate calculus). 

For rather arid, but easy, technical reasons, it additionally proves reasonable to call the empty set of points "open", and to call the entire given set S of points - the entire given "space", whose various subsets we are herewith pondering and classifying - "open". 

We additionally surely want to disallow as an open set the arbitrary, and therefore possibly infinite, intersection of open sets. For instance, on the real number line, the intersection of all open sets S(a,b) (for reals a < 0, b >0) where S(a,b) is "the set of reals x such that a < x < b" is the set having as its sole member 0 - indeed is a set that might reasonably be described as identical-with-its-own-boundary, and very unlike the familiar open sets (in which, to repeat, we can come up closer and closer to a boundary point, yet cannot sit on the boundary). 

So far, so good. 

But where do we go from here?

I gather that the history of topology was marked by significant gropings, as people tried first one, then another conception of "open set" (finally settling on what is in the modern textbooks, such as the powerful Munkres: arbitrary unions of open sets are themselves deemed open, and intersections of FINITE collections of open sets are themselves deemed open). 

Although I do not know more than this right now, it seems to me likely that some history-of-mathematics study of the various failed lines of attack - of the various gropings - is liable to prove illuminating. 


In Mr Greer's case, then, we have (in his 2016-10-05 posting) an illuminating discussion of the way geological classifications have developed. 

First, in or before the 18th century, there was (writes Mr Greer) the naive "Postdiluvian", "Diluvian", "Antediluvian". This three-fold scheme reflected the gross geological appearance of much of Europe, as well as a literal interpretation of the Bible: the upper stratum was thought to postdate Noah's flood, the middle to be contemporary with it, and the lower stratum to antedate it. 

Next, with the 18th-century realization that the Bible is not a geological authority, came a scheme of "Eras" (marking finer, but from today's standpoint nevertheless coarse, distinctions in geological levels): the Quaternary Era, the Tertiary Era, the Secondary Era, and the Primary Era. 

The fourfold scheme was in turn found to be physically misleading, being in this regard a bit like the naive spectroscopic scheme which misleadingly put the "A" stars onto one extreme. In this case the problem was that the Quaternary reached back only 2 million years, whereas the Tertiary proved to be of 63 million years' duration, the Secondary of a still greater 186 million years' duration, and the Primary very much longer - being ultimately found to extend over something on the order of 4,000 million years. 

To improve the taxonomy (explains Mr Greer), there came the finer subdivision into Periods, many of them now of roughly equal length. This is the scheme we have today, and which we surely find presented - but, I suspect without the illuminating historical background - on PBS and in National Geographic. 

I may as well partly reproduce here my own flat-ASCII study notes from reading Mr Greer, as a service to others. I incidentally do this as an illustration of the utility of keeping study notes in flat ASCII, with monotype font, as output from a mere "text editor". I as a rule eschew the (inefficient) refinements of the "word processor", such as Open Office or Microsoft Word, favouring as a rule the austerely efficient UNIX disciplines of the late 1970s: 

     + Quaternary Period        --|

     + Tertiary Period            |

       -> later broken up into    |---- Cenozoic Era ("Age of Mammals")

          - Neogene   Period      |

          - Paleogene Period    --|

>>>>>>>>>>>Yucatan; "end-Cretaceous extinction" <<<<<<<<<<<<<

     + Mesozoic Era ("Age of Reptiles")

       - Cretaceous Period

       - Jurassic Period

       - Triassic Period

>>>>>>"the time Earth nearly died"; "end-Permian extinction crisis"<<<<<<

     + Paleozoic Era

       - Permian Period

       - Carboniferous Period

       - Devonian Period

       - Silurian Period

       - Ordovician Period

       - Cambrian Period (started 542e6 y ago)

     + Precambrian


But there is more in Mr Greer's 2016-10-05 posting.

In some specially arresting language, which I quote here in the hope that I am staying within the limits of copyright-law "Fair Use", I find Mr Greer discussing industrial humanity's own probable place in the eventual geological record:

A hundred million years from now, /.../ if another intelligent species happens to be around on Earth at that time and takes an interest in geology, its members won't find a nice thick stratum of rock marked with the signs of human activity /.../. They'll find a thin boundary layer, laid down over a few hundred years, and laced with exotic markers: decay products of radioactive isotopes splashed into the atmosphere by twentieth-century nuclear bomb testing and nuclear reactor meltdowns; chemical markers showing a steep upward jolt in atmospheric carbon dioxide; and scattered freely through the layer, micron-thick streaks of odd carbon compounds that are all that's left of our vast production of plastic trash. That's our geological legacy: a slightly odd transition layer a quarter of an inch thick, with the usual discontinuity between the species in the rock just below, many of whom vanish at the transition, and the species in the rock just above, who proliferate into empty ecological niches and evolve into new forms. 

/.../ I'd like to propose that we call the geological interval we’re now in the Pleistocene-Neocene transition. Neocene? That’s Greek for "new recent," representing the "new normal" that will emerge when our idiotic maltreatment of the planet that keeps us all alive brings the "old normal" crashing down around our ears. We don't call the first epoch after the comet impact 65 million years ago the "Cometocene," so there's no valid reason to use a label like "Anthropocene" for the epoch that will dawn when the current transition winds down. Industrial civilization’s giddy rise and impending fall are the trigger for the transition, and nothing more; the shape of the Neocene epoch will be determined not by us, but by the ordinary processes of planetary change and evolution.

One is at first tempted to wonder whether industrial humanity's probable impact on the geological record is not greater than Mr Greer allows. For might there not be (one is tempted to ask) at least a modestly discernible trove of industrial-era fossils? We currently manufacture lots of sneakers, shoes, nets, cords, and the like - not to mention soft or hard dolls; and gears and shafts not only in oxidizable metals but in possibly robust plastics; and so on. We admittedly must for fossilization purposes ignore artefacts, notably buildings and their support systems, in typical cities, since the typical city is far away from significant mudflat or swamp. If a city ends as an oxydizing ruin on dry land, its footprint may never get transferred to sedimentary rock. Some, on the other hand, of our artefacts - particularly the more portable ones, like sneakers - are bound to end up in the requisite mudflats or swamps, awaiting entombment in sedimentary rock as the plate-tectonic megayears roll on. A thing as fragile as a fern leaf can leave a detailed fossil. (I marvelled at this as a child, either under the tutelage of my science-keen Dad or in the local single-classroom schoolhouse.) But so, surely, could a fossil also originate from a cloth sneaker, revealing the eyelets, and even the lacing, and even the trademark!

So, then, goes one's initial attempt at correcting Mr Greer. Further reflection, however, suggests Mr Greer to be right, and this fossilized-sneaker speculation to be wrong. The familiar fossil ferns, one of them eventually ending up in the palm-sized slate-like slab of my childhood, grew over tens of millions or hundreds of millions of years. If our own industrial exuberance lasts for mere centuries - and even this is optimistic, given Peak Oil, climate change, overpopulation, bio-terrorism, and nuclear weaponry - then our fossil record megayears hence will prove sparse indeed, to the vanishing point.

Or maybe London, as a particularly muddy and particularly long-lived place? Well, London has lasted for two millennia, but is unlikely to last (as sea levels rise) for three. Three millennia is a blink of the eye in geological time, and so might not leave much of a record, even given the abundant tidal muds of the future Thames Valley.


Mr Greer's follow-on essay, the 2016-10-12 piece entitled "An Afternoon in Early Autumn", raises a point of chronocentrism. We are familiar with the unpleasant phenomena of ethnocentrism. Chronocentrism, however, is less familiar and more insidious.

It is curious, says Mr Greer, that people who write about deep time, comparing geological periods or eras to days or months in a year, construct their comparison by not only having their time-series start on 1 January (this, so far as it goes, is reasonable) but in addition making their 31 December the present moment. Why the strange, parochial, deference to the present? Why not make 31 December something else? Why not make it, for instance, the end of Terran geology (on the reasonable, although not ironclad, assumption that when our Sun finally leaves the stable Main Sequence, going from "dwarf" to "giant", it will bloat so far as to swallow Earth)? Or else (this is Mr Greer's choice), why not select as 31 December something rather earlier, the end of Terran biology?

It is perhaps not sufficiently stressed in popular-astronomy talks that the end of Terran biology comes far sooner than the end of Terran geology. The Sun is about halfway through its career on the Main Sequence, i.e., is about halfway through its career as a stable consumer of core hydrogen. During this placid career, in which opposing mechanisms of gravity pull and gas-pressure push are in a self-regulating equilibrium which someone has helpfully compared to the push-pull equilibrium stabilizing a soap bubble, it generates its heat through the "proton-proton chain" fusion of hydrogen into helium. So we have 4,000 million or 5,000 million or so years of stable Main Sequence solar activity behind us, and 4,000 million or 5,000 million (or thereabouts) stable years yet to go.

The end of the biosphere, by contrast, comes sooner.

As the Sun continues on the Main Sequence, it progressively brightens, even in its overall self-regulating stability. The Sun as we know it is already to a biologically significant level brighter and hotter than the Sun which powered the earliest algae. In just 1,000 million or so years (one USA billion of years, 1e9 years), this inexorable process of brightening will reach its biological culmination, with Terran temperatures rising to a point at which our oceans boil away. After that, only scant life can remain -  only such small things as thermophile microbes, hidden a few kilometres down in the Terran crust, living not off solar photons but off subtle local chemical disequilbria.

Where, then (asks Mr Greer) does our present industrial civilization sit, if 31 December is the end of the Terra biosphere, and 1 January is the start of the Terra biosphere? (Or even make 1 January, say I for my part, the formation of Earth, i.e., the start of geology - since life arose early, the difference will not be dramatic -:  in this case again, where in the year-long sequence of calendar days do we ourselves sit?)

Mr Greer's answer is September 26, his "Day in Early Autumn".

He amplifies his standpoint as follows (again, I quote rather sparingly, in the hope that I am being parsimonious enough to pass the Fair Use test in copyright law):

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.


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.

[To be continued, and probably concluded, in a "Part B", probably with upload next week, in the four-hour interval UTC=20161025T0001Z/20161025T0401Z.] 

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