Today, hundreds of thousands of people around the world are marching to raise awareness and demand action to reverse the rising impacts of climate change. This is perhaps the most important example of an issue that is difficult to grasp the relevance of our actions from an individual perspective, yet collectively, has had the most widespread and indiscriminate effect on our world.
By indiscriminate, of course, we are realizing how climate change affects all life on earth of which, despite our uniqueness and achievements, the human race is small in stature in many ways. A local journalist recently tweeted a photo of a scuba diver beside a whale illustrating this metaphor.
The infographic the Economist tweeted out today provided a more chronological perspective. With the Earth’s age being over 4.5 billion years, even if you generously estimate the age of the human race at one million years (more like 100-200,000 years depending on your criteria), that only accounts for 0.02% of this planet’s lifetime.
That by itself is quite humbling contrary to those who would like to think that this world is ours to do with what we please and that the Age of Man is all that matters in existence. Despite his outdated information, Mark Twain’s witty comment on this opinion over one hundred years ago fits perfectly.
“Was the World Made for Man?” (1903): Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; & anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would. I dunno.
And then there’s the perspective against the even vaster mind-boggling expanse of the Universe itself for which the Economist infograph reminded me of the Total Perspective Vortex from Douglas Adam’s classic Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
The Total Perspective Vortex is allegedly the most horrible torture device to which a sentient being can be subjected. When you are put into the Vortex, you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it there’s a tiny little speck, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, “You are here”.
The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife…[who] would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space…. “Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day. And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her.
…into one end he plugged the whole of reality …, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it. To [his] horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.
If anything, that last sentence maybe provides one example, among others, of why getting collective action on climate change can be so challenging. It is easier for many to ignore this issue than attempt to truly understand it, while others may recognize its importance, but place their own priorities over those of the public interest.
For those living in poverty, this is understandable as a matter of survival. For others, it is more a matter of choice, and it is those people for which it is becoming increasingly vital that the relevance between the individual and public interest in perspective and outcome be debated and understood. On both sides, there are environmental and economic factors to consider, but either way, it has become evident that we cannot afford to wait to see if the global environment stabilizes before we have a sincere discussion on this issue.