THIS I BELIEVE
I believe in the long future. I believe that you and I, our families, and our governments, should learn to think in terms of millions of years.
Many things lead me to this belief. Since I was a child, I have enjoyed science fiction – especially novels of ideas dressed up as visions and adventures. As an adult, I worked for the Medicare program – and learned to appreciate the actuaries who every year provide 75 year estimates as a basis for policy making. As a reader, I have been fascinated with archaeology, evolution, and cosmology, each with its own progressively larger set of time frames. As a bureaucrat and citizen, I have learned that every change starts small – usually with one actor, or one action.
These experiences have impressed on me that most things that count in life are not big moments, but small actions that are done over and over again. I think about this in terms of those images that swoop in scope and scale, in shifting orders of magnitude, from the first to the last, from the smallest to the largest. I am excited that humans are a young and vital species. I am appalled that it seems so unlikely that we will become an old species, because governments, corporations, and people take only short and local views.
For the most part, our national wealth is produced by workers who get up and go to work every day, week, month, year. Our health and longevity are based on repeated acts of eating, exercise, and cleaning. Our public health is the same story writ large, by daily acts of thousands, millions and billions of people. Our climate is being warmed by billions of acts. This power of repetition is becoming increasingly well described through algorithms, mathematical and computer models, and cellular automata, which are driving new understanding of the complexities of causation.
This is both exhilarating and frightening. I am awed by the SIZE of the concepts. But sometimes it makes me feel very insignificant. I am moved to see that tribes and nations are like the grass that in its season withers and dies. I fear for my descendants, for my greatest loyalty should be to them. I look at my grandchildren, with their European, African, Asian and Native American ancestors, and I realize that all those identities are just recent variations, and that all of us humans have common ancestors. And I realize that I must view all future humans as my, and your, descendants.
And so, I am rethinking my daily life, with two questions constantly in mind:
1. For this one small thing that I am about to do, what will it mean for my grandchildren’s grandchildren if this were done again and again, by billions of people, for hundreds of years?
2. For this one small thing that I may or may not do, what might it mean for my grandchildren’s grandchildren if no one ever did it?
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