Some say that as 2023 nears its merciful end, it may turn out to be a pivotal year. AI has now become a fledging reality with all sorts of warning bells going off that eventually it could do us in. Trump has shown his cards of neo fascism and is currently ahead in the polls, despite his 91 indictments. The Russian/Ukrainian War is at a tragic standstill with widespread death and destruction showing no signs of ending. Even more alarming, the Israeli/Gaza War is moving toward what could turn out to be one of the worst humanitarian crises in world history. And then there is climate change and global warming. Oh, my goodness!
Could the planet be headed toward catastrophes beyond our imagination? What does all this mean? Here is a look at the big picture:
You may have read some of my recent blog posts which traced the history of the universe starting with the Big Bang, which happened some 18.6 billion years ago. While the focus was on the evolution of religion–these were based on a forum I lead at All Souls Episcopal Church– I believe that some of the information is relevant for our world today in putting our times into perspective.
Our sun, planet and solar system have been around for about 4.5 billion years, and cellular life on the planet for about 4.0 billion years. Animal life came much later and human-type life very much later, “only” about 2.0 million years ago. We Homo sapiens arrived very late, only about 200,000 years ago. Religious belief and practice only a few thousand years ago. What caught my attention was that since life started on the planet there have been five mass extinctions when over 80% of all plant and animal life were wiped out each time. In one mass extinction over 95% of plants and animals disappeared. These mass extinctions have tended to happen around every 130-150 million years, about the time that has elapsed since the last mass extinction. Scientists tell us that we are now entering the sixth mass extinction, so far limited to animals and insects pretty low on the food chain due mainly to us humans eliminating natural habitats of animals and plants.
The question of our time is this: Will we humans be part of the sixth mass extinction? Think about how fast life on the planet is changing and how this change is accelerating before our eyes. Hundreds of thousands of years passed when the total human population on Earth remained under several million when we humans struggled to survive in the middle of the food chain. Then we slowly began climbing our way up to the top. Our relatively large brains allowed us to communicate, to imagine things that did not yet exist, to make tools and form communities, and gradually to learn how to grow crops, build towns and cities, and change the landscape of the planet. The world population has now surpassed eight billion, most of the growth happening over the past 300 years. How many people can be sustained on the planet? The current thinking is that with better food and agricultural technology maybe 10 million. Some believe we are already there. All scientists agree that there is a limit. Plus, inequality on this planet persists with poor nations and poor people outnumbering those who are well off. Can these imbalances last forever? And there has never been a time when wars were totally absent. What will happen as weapons become even more lethal and ubiquitous?
In Dubai this week, scientists and politicians are gathered to discuss the future of the planet in the era of global warming. Most people now acknowledge that climate change is happening. There is cautious optimism that we can address global warming if the world comes together and acts decisively, but we are not there yet. We are way behind in achieving the goals of the Paris protocols. Will this be what ultimately does us in or will it be something we do to ourselves? After all, more and more nations are producing nuclear arsenals. It would only take one major miscalculation or mistake to start a war that would have the potential to wipe out life as we know it. And where will artificial intelligence take us? If you ask ChatGPT how to make a nuclear bomb, how long will it take to get an answer?
So here is an indisputable fact: the likelihood of Homo sapiens being around two billion years from now when our sun will begin growing into a red giant before it shrinks into a white dwarf is zero. Two billion? How about two thousand years at the speed we are going? Two hundred? Whatever the number is, all life on the planet Earth will continue to change and eventually will come to an end. There is slim chance—actually, no chance– that we humans will be part of life on Earth forever. The question is when will our time on the planet come to an end. What is sobering about the times we live in now is that it seems that many of the ingredients are in place for that time to be a lot sooner than we humans would like or expect.
And before the planet Earth is consumed by our sun when it expands into a red giant, if experience is any indicator, at least five more mass extinctions can be expected.
This is where science and religion intersect. Very early in the era of Homo sapiens, early humans figured out that there must be something responsible for life on Earth that was real but beyond our human capacity to figure out. We humans named this mystical force “God,” but what that word means varies from religion to religion and from person to person. Some religions, like the Abrahamic religions, see God as the creator of the universe and everything in it and who is accessible via prayer and ritual. Other religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism see God as Being itself, ineffable and beyond human understanding or comprehension but nevertheless still very real and vital. We humans are fundamentally a religious species. Some 85% of the world’s population is estimated to fall into one of the various religious categories. Each religion tries in its own way to make sense of the meaning of life. At the end of the day, however, there is no definitive meaning regarding life on Earth and our place in it. It is, as they say, beyond our pay grade. All we can do is celebrate our existence, honor the mystical force that is behind it, and be thankful for the short time we have been allotted on this incredibly beautiful planet. Our time now—the 20th and 21st Centuries—may turn out to be the golden age for our species.