“This I Believe” essay, June 8, 2006
The Biggest “We,” the Biggest Hope, the Longest View
Raymond Day Watts is a combat veteran of World War II and a retired lawyer. A fanciful chart in a college textbook sparked his belief that our species might outlive our natal planet and its star.
I believe in humankind. So, when I say “we,” often I’m thinking of the very largest “us” that includes me: our species.
It wasn’t always so. When I was a child, my biggest “we” meant Americans. When I was a combat infantryman in World War II, “we” meant our side, the Allies fighting the Axis.
What opened my eyes was a chart in the geology textbook, Down to Earth, that I studied as a GI Bill student at Antioch College in the 1940s. I’ve kept the book these sixty years just to save that wonderful chart, captioned “The Gargantuan Calendar, wherein all geological time is compared with a year in which … each minute [equals] 6,000 years.” In this compression of Earth’s entire age into one year, our species, Homo sapiens, emerged at 11:57 p.m. on December 31st. That perception electrified me. In that figurative last three minutes of the last day of Earth’s lifetime to date, just think of what we’ve done!
Astronomers tell me that our lovely planet has used up only about half of its ten-billion-year life expectancy. On that ultra-condensed Gargantuan calendar, then, Earth has lived one year of an expected two.
In that time, we have developed countless cultures and subcultures, languages, religions and philosophies. We have grouped ourselves into myriad tribes, kingdoms, nations and empires. Granted, most of them are now dead; but many of the survivors are still going strong. While these, too, will pass, there are powerful signs we will keep on developing more, and better.
I acknowledge that we, Homo sapiens, have also invented the catapult and hydrogen bomb. We have established methods and ceremonies for killing our offending members, from the hemlock and cross to the electric chair and lethal injection. We have fought innumerable wars, killing uncounted millions, and we are still far from curing this madness. Our manifold excesses of stupidity, greed, cruelty and general wickedness are my shame; but, in my faith, my belief system, our manifold achievements of cooperation and kindness, humane science and technology outweigh the shame with pride and glory, hope and promise.
When I consider what my brash young species has done in the last three minutes of the last day of that first Gargantuan year, I’m blown away thinking what it can do in twelve whole months of the second.
I believe that, by 12:01 a.m. January 1st, we’ll have devised a worldwide society of loving diversity, justice, peace and plenty. I believe that, probably even sooner, certainly long, long before December of that Gargantuan second year, we’ll have developed technologies sufficient for large numbers of us to “slip the surly bonds of Earth,” colonize space, and, when it becomes necessary, move away, outliving our natal planet and its star. Every time I say “we” and think “Homo sapiens,” the one classification that unites all and excludes none of us, I believe that more.
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