Earth’s two-minute drill

Sports fascinate in part because games are a microcosm of life. Reflect on two sports that command our attention each autumn – the baseball season just concluding, and the football season just cranking up. The two sports differ in several ways, but for today let’s focus on just one distinction. In baseball, the game ends only after the last out, or after the walk-off hit. Time is not a factor. Games can go on endlessly into extra innings. In fact, the longest baseball game ever played lasted 33 innings, spanning a 24-hour period. By contrast, in football, play ends when time runs out. Often, in close games, teams crank it up a notch at the end, running a so-called two-minute drill. The level of intensity goes up, but so do the stakes. Both teams make unforced errors, and the unexpected can be more the rule than the exception.

Now when it comes to humanity’s future on Earth, probably most of us would prefer that life would be more like baseball. We don’t want a time limit! That’s not in our best interest. But right now our future on Earth – the decisions we’re making, the actions we’re taking, the stress level, and the error rate – feel a little more like football’s two-minute drill than like the start of a baseball game.

Why think this?

First, Earth is giving us warning signals. We’ve talked about some of these. Just a few examples. We’re drawing down aquifers around the world. What we call fresh water is increasingly water that’s been used and cleaned up several times, water that’s starting to show noticeable levels not just of conventional pollutants but all sorts of exotic chemicals such as antibiotics and hormones – and that’s in the United States. We’re searching ever-harder for arable land as our numbers increase and urban centers grow and merge. We have to mine at ever-greater depths to find untapped natural resources. We’re using fossil fuels – drawing down reservoirs of fuels created millions of years ago – versus meeting our needs through renewable energy.

Take that last problem. In response in part to our energy policy, Earth’s climate is changing. You often read that climate change is a slow-onset event. But we might have that backwards. Viewed another way, climate change is a rapid-onset event – rapid compared with the time required for seven billion people to agree on what to do about it. [An aside. Consider the shift in thinking from Rio in 1992 through Kyoto in 1996 to Copenhagen in 2009. We have moved away from framing global commitments in the top-down, command-and-control way we did with respect to chlorofluorocarbons and the ozone hole. Instead we have a proliferation of nationally-focused attempts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Some regret this, but perhaps we should applaud. Maybe 180-some independent nations, each seeing the same reality, will through their separate actions respond to climate change more quickly and effectively, than if they insist on reaching consensus first. We see this even domestically within the United States, where individual state governments have already begun taking a range of actions.]

Second, we’re engaging in what marriage counselors [to go back to yesterday’s metaphor] would call self-destructive, risky behavior. We are over-building along hazardous coastlines, on earthquake fault zones, on unstable hillsides, near volcanoes. We’ve made ourselves vulnerable to pandemics. We have a fatal fascination with weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, chemical, and biological. We are prone to various forms of escapism versus facing our problems. Each of these predilections carries a risk that is small over the short term, but virtually inevitable over time.

Third, we’re internally conflicted. Even though our fates are intertwined – all humanity is in this together – we don’t all seem to be on the same page. We’ll go to war with each other at the drop of a hat. Terrorism may not be rampant but it feels that way. And even in more “peaceful” settings, stop and ask where you’d rather be: in a society where a privileged few live in gated communities and heavily guarded facilities for protection from a vast majority living in poverty? Or in a society where there’s equality of opportunity, and where the residents live openly and in harmony – and less need for those walls and gates?  Now look a little beneath the surface…and you don’t have to probe very deep…you can find gated communities, not just in some parts of the world, but within every country. And, to mention one final respect: we have a wonderful diversity of cultures and traditions across the planet, much of which is worth preserving. But many of the transnational differences exist in part not just because of separate histories, but rather because some countries have exploited or are exploiting others. (Think of exploitation as a chronic form of terrorism, and terrorism as an acute form of exploitation.) Not a favorable personality trait as we struggle to reconcile our standing with the planet.

Fourth, we humans are ourselves aging a bit. That’s not just the demographics of the western nations, though there’s been plenty of media coverage of this, and it’s a serious problem. Wherever scientists look in the natural world, they conclude that the mean lifetime for species seems to be something like a few million years, give or take (maybe excepting cockroaches and crocodiles?). By that clock, humankind is living on borrowed time.

So, as the football analysts are fond of saying late in the game, “time is becoming a factor.”

No metaphor is perfect, and this one is certainly flawed. So, for example, you could argue that time is indeed a factor, but it’s more like soccer (the world’s football). We know about when time will run out, but only the referee knows exactly how much time is left. And in life, unlike in sports, it’s possible to buy more time.

How to do that? How to buy more time? We’ll return to that point soon. But, first, in the next post, we’ll look more deeply at recent human success – the very success that triggered Earth’s two-minute drill.

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