Less Than Nero
The span of recorded history stretches back some five thousand years. Which isn’t that long, really, considering that we as critters have been walking around some 300,000 years. And it’s not even as long as it sounds, since that five grand includes cuneiform tablets.
Really, three thousand years, tops. That’s how far back we can go before things start getting really vague. Blink and you missed us.
That’s the continuity of the world we live in, the world of our language and culture. We speak of vast amounts of time, of a universe billions of years old, of the immortality of fame, but in the West we have no names before Homer. To be among the Immortals is to have your name written down somewhere, to enable passage from generation to generation.
All of philosophy, it is said, is but footnotes to Plato. You don’t get that without Plato being handy on the shelf.
We grew up during the tail end of an era when it was reasonably feared that continuity of history, of history itself, would end with a blinding flash of light. But we were barely potty trained by the Cuban Missile Crisis, and didn’t start noticing the world until six years later. Nukes never possessed our fears, but gas crises were a real bummer. But that was fine, as such things go: You knew the future would be very different, but at least you still had one.
Too bad that didn’t last.
We date collective awareness of our collective fate to 1990, when SNL broadcast its “Global Warming Christmas Special”. In the sketch, Mike Myers as Carl Sagan sings a variety-show duet with Tom Hanks as Dean Martin, including this line:
“Our CO2 concentration
has risen to 350 parts per million.”
350 is an interesting number. Before the Industrial Revolution, the number was 280. It took around a hundred years to rise by 70.
It’s taken less than thirty years to rise another 60.
That’s been in the news this week, the parts not flooded by the latest twist in our national Coen Brothers farce. 410 sets yet another dismal record, another step up from the mere 315 measured just before we were born into a 49-state America.
Things start getting really nasty above 450, and don’t ask about 500. Kids born today won’t need to, since they’ll be suffering for our sins in the next eighty years. Maybe they’ll get a dark chuckle out of “We Didn’t Start the Fire”.
But here’s the thing: We could have done something about it. We really could have. Never mind that SNL sketch — scientists knew this was coming since at least the 1950s, when CBS included it a primetime science special for kids. Industrial economies don’t turn on a dime, but sixty years is plenty of time to steer a new course.
We didn’t do that, of course, and we all know why, and we’ll all be dead by the time our kids realize how much we’ve screwed them. And it won’t be that long before our memory is dead, too, our collective memory, the continuity of history, the immortality of Plato and Shakespeare and Kermit and Piggy. That’s what we’re throwing away. That’s how little we cared about it in the first place.
Oh, and we’re throwing away Jesus, too. Sorry.