• Array

Time Is Pressing: Can We Be Good Ancestors?

Emlyn Koster, PhD

August 2022

I gratefully acknowledge three colleagues as co-authors of this blog post. An emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge, UK, and adjunct professor at the University of Helsinki, Finland, Philip Gibbard is a geologist focused on the changing environments of the last 2.5 million years. An honorary visiting research fellow at the University of Leicester, UK, Matthew Edgeworth is an archaeologist and anthropologist focused on human modified ground. Richard Josey, founder and principal consultant of Collective Journeys LLC in the United States, is a historian dedicated to converting fractured communities into restorative communities.

This century dawned with a promising new perspective on the most recent stage of the Earth’s 4.6 billion-year history. The Anthropocene, named by Nobel chemist Paul Crutzen (1933-2021), focuses on human-induced transformations of the Earth System. Not yet formally accepted by geologists, this term is widely used but its definition has become a contentious matter. A designated working group favors using radioactive signals from mid-20th century nuclear bomb tests to mark the dramatic onset of a proposed new epoch. However, this definition fails to span the cumulative effects of earlier human activities and is not conducive to the long-term thinking essential to identifying the root causes of recent climatic and other environmental disruptions. A new approach frames the Anthropocene as a geological event that started at different times, gathering pace over thousands of years, unfolding today faster than ever before, and still far from completion. As geology, archaeology and history researchers, we recall several breakthroughs in global thinking and offer a unified perspective on why and how progress could be forged.

As a dictionary Word of the Year in 2019, existential signaled a growing anxiety about the uncertain future. Suddenly, issues ranging from climate change to the Covid-19 pandemic to racial injustice to the rise of autocracies were described as existential crises. In this fractious world, there never seems to be enough will or time to reach consensus, let alone think with an integrated past-present-future perspective. It would have been ideal to heed the philosophy of Aristotle 2,300 years ago that those in leadership roles should focus on the harmonious pursuit of positive outcomes. Today, the challenge of inadequate time coincides with an urgent need for wide and long views.

In 1948, astronomer Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) of Big Bang fame anticipated that profound ideas would be unleashed when the Earth was photographed from space. This came true two decades later with whole Earth and Earth-rise images from NASA’s lunar missions, which arguably rank among the most lasting impacts of the Apollo program. As the world observed the blue-green beauty, wafer-thin atmosphere, and lonely fragility of the Earth, astronauts shared their conscience about its needed stewardship. It was also in the 1970s that biologists James Lovelock (1919-2022) and Lynn Margulis (1938-2011) described the Earth’s enclosing shells of air, water, ice, and life as one interlocked system. Annual Earth Days have become the world’s largest secular event. However, the planet’s evolved biodiversity of an estimated 8.7 million species is seldom associated with the much-discussed diversity of its most influential species – us, Homo sapiens.

When the UN Commission on Environment and Development published Our Common Future in 1987, sustainable development was defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. In 1996 the California-based Long Now Foundation observed that humanity was revving itself into “a pathologically short attention span”. It defined ‘now’ as yesterday, today and tomorrow; ‘nowadays’ as the last, present and next decades; and the ‘long now’ spanning from 10,000 years ago to 10,000 years ahead. In 2004, the forerunner of Future Earth, which now has eight global hubs, announced that human activity had become the main driver of change in the Earth System with an acceleration of two dozen adverse environmental and societal trends since the mid-20th century.

Nowadays, the contrast between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in terms of a synergy with nature versus a failure to think and act sustainably has become glaring. Societies everywhere would wisely learn from the seven generation and good ancestor traditions of Iroquois and Dakota elders. Their communities are propelled by timeless values embracing both stability and needed adaptations. They embody the attributes of interdependent citizenship. In the Iroquois Haudenosaunee culture, considered the world’s oldest participatory democracy, the concept of a chief does not connote executive authority but a caretaker of peace. A similar philosophy in Western culture was exemplified by Jonas Salk (1914-1995). Of Russian-Jewish decent, his epidemiological discoveries included a vaccine against polio which he refused to patent or make money from, insisting that it belonged to the people. He prompted us to ask the question: “In our work, in our policies, in our choices, in the alternatives that we open and those that we close, are we being good ancestors?”.

Literacy in science and history used to mean knowing established facts. The focus has valuably shifted to include an awareness of the past and present from multiple perspectives. While the pandemic has emphasized the need to safeguard public health, the seemingly less immediate realities of disrupted ecosystems and coastal inundation continue apace. The focus of the UN’s recent Healthy Planet for All conference in Stockholm was a fusion of environmental and human health.

Holistic thought and action in whole Earth terms are needed for any enlightened journey towards a brighter, more ecologically mindful future. Grasping this critical moment in the continuity of time has never been more vital. With anthropogenic and anthropomorphic already in everyday language, adopting the Anthropocene term should not be a big next step. And while time flies by, flowing like sand through a timer, an aspiration to become good ancestors with a long view needs to engage us. As well, discoveries about the Universe by the James Webb Space Telescope now in orbit almost a million miles from Earth and 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Telescope will be tomorrow’s surprises.