The blink of an eye

Solstice. New Year. At each cycle of the season and turning of the calendar we tend to look backward, then forward at the progress we have made and what the near term future portends.

We say “it was a good year” if we made money, progressed in our job, enjoyed ourselves, saw our family as stable and healthy, and increased the number of personal toys and other stuff that we possess.

A year feels like an adequate span to measure progress or lack thereof. That’s probably true for the temporary inhabitants of this space, but one year is nothing for the planet we occupy.

One hundred years is barely a hiccup. One hundred years is to the life of the planet as one half a second of our time is to a year. However, from our sheltered existence, a hundred years is an abstraction that stretches the scale of our personal comprehension.

For perspective, consider changes we have brought about in several 100-year intervals. In 1800, the nation was newly formed, Lewis and Clarke had not yet explored the “wilderness” spanning to the Pacific Ocean, there were 5.2 million people in the United States, and just less than one billion people in the entire world.

Travel was by walking, horseback, limited railroads, or some form of water conveyance.

By 1900, the United States was geographically much as we know it today. We had killed 600,000 Americans to preserve our Union. We were getting a good start on the age of energy by tapping our coal and oil bounty at an ever-increasing rate.

There were 76 million people in the country and 1.6 billion in the world. Travel by rail dominated our internal mobility. Horseback was still a very significant way of getting around. Automobiles were starting to come on the scene. Airplanes were nothing more than a concept.

In 2000, the U.S. population was 281 million and the world was over six billion. In this one hundred year span we fought two world wars and a number of lessor ones, put a man on the moon, adapted to computers dominating our lives, and found ways to use countless gadgets and things. We created the entire air travel industry, saw cars proliferate, and saw travel to all parts of the world become commonplace.

All of this “progress” was built on the presumption of virtually unlimited cheap fossil fuels. Ominously, the world began to heat up.

A century is a blip on the cosmic calendar. Yet the changes and the rate of change in our personal habitation over the past two centuries have been phenomenal. This rate of change is continuing and even accelerating as we have more people using more technology to do more things. One small example, consider the changes in the Internet, information technology and automation that have occurred in the last 15 years.

Can we even imagine where we will be by 2100? Will we even be here?

The material progress we have seen in the United States and around the world has been built on our enormous resource base. The byproduct of this progress is the degradation of our land, our oceans, and the atmosphere. Damage is occurring at an accelerating rate that matches or exceeds the expansion of the very things we define as progress. Utilization of resources and despoiling of the environment cannot continue as it has. We need action by scientists, politicians, educators, industry leaders, rich nations, and poor nations. We are all in this together.

Seen from an historical perspective, our degradation of resources and the pollution of our environment have occurred in the blink of an eye, and the next blink could be our last.

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