I’ve been playing a mental game.
A couple of numbers have been gnawing at my mind.
There are 7 billion people alive today. How many homo sapiens have ever walked the earth in the 200,000 years since homo sapiens first appeared (becoming more recognizably “us” 50,000 years ago; the earliest members of the “Homo” genus date back 2.3 million years ago)?
But a million years ago, human ancestors faced extinction (likely because of a significant climate event). By one calculation, there were only 18,500 homo erectus individuals left on the entire planet (homo sapiens evolved from homo erectus and are the only humans left of all the varieties that have come before and gone extinct). Imagine that. All of us today are descended from 18,500 people (okay, maybe not so hard to believe if you accept the Adam & Eve story and then try to work your brain around the notion that we are all descended somehow from Cain & Abel, or actually just Cain who was supposed left after murdering his brother).
I try to figure out some numbers that might be useful to figuring out the answer: there were 1 billion people alive in 1800. In only 200 years, then, we have added 6 billion people to the planet.
Apparently I’m not the only one who has done this thought experiment, since a “Google” search yields several results.
The Washington Post took up the question in 2011, I think just after humanity hit that 7 billion threshold number (certainly a record, it’s not like we have ever had that many people alive before)
Carl Haub of Population Reference Bureau, (PRB). calculated that since 50,000 BC, calculating for changing birth rates and average length of life, and major disasters like the Black Death (I would add wars, imprisonment, enslavement, genocide and homocide, infant mortality and women dying in childbirth, gun violence, famine, droughts, flood, fire) and historic population estimates, the total count of everyone who has ever lived is 108 billion.
Now here’s another question: out of the 108 billion who have ever lived, how many names can be recalled of people from longer than three generations ago?
Just off the top of my head: Jesus, Moses, Mohammed. DaVinci, Michelangelo, Mozart, Beethoven, Napoleon, Louis XIV, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, Christopher Columbus, Magellan, Confucius, Genghis Khan, Mao Tse Tung, Chiang Kai-shek, HG Wells, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe, Verdi, Puccini, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Salk, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Hillel (I could go on).
But I’m wondering how many names any one person can come up with, and collectively, how many we could all come up with. How many people who have ever lived are still known?
I’m guessing that one person might be able to come up with 2,000 names; perhaps all of us together might come up with 100,000, and that’s being generous.
That’s 100,000 individuals who have lived, created a legacy that has been passed on and survived the ages (as well as revisionism.
I’m thinking of this because it is the High Holy Days, when we think about our lives and our mortality. We think of our place in the cosmos and in the chain of life.
It is humbling to realize There are more Stars than there are grains of sand on every beach on Earth, and billions of galaxies, and very possibly 100 billion habitable planets (we just probably would not be able to recognize the life form).
With all that is happening in the world – especially when you see the results of orthodox religions – I have stepped back from the mysticism of religion, embracing the humanist philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, or the “Bright” philosophy of those who believe that Mother Nature is worthy of respect, if not devotion.
On Sunday, nearly 400,000 people gathered in Manhattan the People’s Climate March….the largest protest for Climate Change in history, and one of the largest political gatherings ever (another 2500 solidarity rallies were held in 162 countries). “It’s easier to organize in the rest of the world,” Bill McKibben or 350.org, an organizer, said on Science Friday. “The poor are not as insulated from the effects as the rich.”
That is certainly true of Dick Cheney, who made sure there would not be any snowmobiling near his Wyoming Ranch, or the Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson blocked fracking near his own home.
The Climate Marchers are trying to battle the misinformation and political control by the richest industry on earth. “We hope to balance with our bodies,” McKibben said.
“People don’t care about a 2-degree rise in temperature. But they care about access to food, water, shelter.” And they fear floods, fires, drought. “Mother Nature is a powerful educator.” 80% of American communities have been declared federal disaster areas at some point.
But what can an individual do? Changing lightbulbs only gets you so far.
“The answer is joining with others to change what is a structural, systemic problem,” McKibben says.
Bill Maher chided Americans (particularly Senator Lindsay Graham) for our irrational fear of being snuffed out by ISIS, pointing out that the carcinogens that Monsanto puts into feed “is more likely to kill you.”
But many others are now appreciating Climate Change as an existential threat. “Climate change is the most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face,” Hillary Clinton, former secretary of State said at National Clean Energy Summit 7.0 on Sept. 4, 2014, in Las Vegas “The threat is real, and so is the opportunity … if we make the hard choices.”
At the Hall of Human Origins – ironically funded by David Koch who has spent millions funding Climate Deniers and the politicians like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – there are displays which correlate evolution and extinction with climate. One display notes “The level of CO2 today is the highest since the species evolved. the projected increase over the next century is more than twice that of any time in the past 6 million years and suggests a long-term sea level rise of 6.,4 m (21 ft).”
In fact, the last time the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been as high as it is today, only a century after the Industrial Revolution, was 1 million years ago – the time when scientists believe homo erectus nearly went extinct.
This week, after nearly 400,000 people literally filled Manhattan’s streets, to demand national and global leaders finally act against climate change, and the United Nations opened a Climate Change Summit, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo designated September 22-28 as Climate Week “in order to encourage New Yorkers to think forward about the challenges of a changing climate, as well as to highlight the progress being made to prepare New York State for the new reality of extreme weather.”
And Cuomo has really has had some important initiatives. For example: Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to reduce the carbon emission cap by 45 percent; $1 billion NY Green Bank; Charge NY to install public electric vehicle charging stations; BuildSmart NY to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent in State government facilities by 2020; Reforming the Energy Vision to promote more efficient use of energy, deeper penetration of renewable energy resources such as wind and solar, and wider deployment of “distributed” energy resourcesl; Clean Energy Fund and Renewable Heat NY.
But what he has yet to do is ban fracking in New York State. And he was notably absent from the Peoples Climate March.
In fact, I am discomforted by the greater focus and greater attention placed on “hardening” and making our infrastructure – our buildings, utility plants and such – more “resilient.” – what Cuomo calls “Reimagining New York for a New Reality.” It is almost as if people have simply given up – after decades of quite literally denying Climate Science, now, it seems, they are saying, well it is too late, the impacts and effects are with us.
But you know what is not part of the “hardening” and “resiliency” equation? People. The lives lost after climate disasters, including the first responders who must rush in to save lives and property, the pain and suffering of living with illnesses brought on by pollution and degradation of air and water and food.
I have gotten to the point where I am thinking that if there is a God it is an entity that our human minds cannot yet fathom. But let’s take the image that has perpetuated human thought probably going back to the first homo sapien, that if it is true that a God created the earth and the planets and all the living things and the universe itself, why would we not also expect that God might be off to some further place in the universe to plant that spark of creation. And what if God is not a Creator at all, but really more the ideal of justice?
In other words, there is no God to get involved in our personal problems. There won’t be some godly hocus pocus to keep our planet habitable for our life form. Maybe earth would continue on, but not our progeny.
It is up to us, individually, to live the best life we can live, one fitting of a legacy that might be remembered more than 3 generations hence.
It is impossible not to be humbled when we consider that our planet is but a speck in a universe of billions of galaxies
These are the Days of Awe – between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – when we think of such things.
May you be inscribed for a good year.
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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