Sometimes on Wednesday afternoons I like to tackle questions such as “what’s the biggest challenge facing the existence of our species?” One can point to a great number of things ranging from environmental crises to education issues. But there exists a common thread among almost every major struggle and setback we face: our collective inability to perceive non-immediate consequences and contemplate a timespan that stretches beyond our individual existence.
Humans are great at processing immediate stimuli and connecting the dots. Hell, we’re animals. That’s what we’re hardwired to do. But we’re terrible at objectively assessing our decisions if the consequences aren’t immediately evident. If it takes five years, ten years, fifty years, it becomes increasingly blurry and difficult to make that connection.
The reality is that the universe operates on a different timescale. One in which our lifespans pale in comparison. But as beings who have evolved to achieve a higher level of consciousness, I believe we’re obligated to show greater concern for this bigger picture. The reason being that in the bigger picture resides truth, an objective reality, and ultimately the preservation of consciousness.
Claiming exemption because it challenges the constraints of your faith or because you might not be around to face the consequences is unacceptable (and increasingly untrue).
To solve the biggest challenges we face, we must first have firm grasp on reality. This starts with considering a timeframe far beyond what we’re accustomed. Otherwise it’s impossible to bring the full picture into focus or understand our place in it. The struggle is getting people to reach this point. Most aren’t there; many aren’t even close.
This is not because people are malicious in their intent, but rather that it’s such a challenge to comprehend and put into perspective. We’ve never had to think on such a massive scale in the entire history of our species. We’ve only been concerned with our immediate surroundings. This is the same reason it’s easier to imagine the Earth as being only a few thousand years old, crafted by some divine being who’s carefully guiding our fates.
It’s much more difficult to wrap your head around the reality of the 4.5 billion year history of the Earth. One filled with randomness, mass extinctions, and millions of years of evolutionary success that led to our existence. It’s a sobering truth, overwhelming at times. It can easily lead one to call their individual significance into question, which is why most people would rather turn a blind eye.
But that’s also the very thing that makes life so fascinating. Only once you’ve grappled with the enormity (time and size) of the universe are you’re able to appreciate how precious life truly is.
The benefit of this invaluable perspective is that it can be used for the greater good. When you come to terms with the bigger picture and frame your thought process within an objective reality, you’re able to better assess the biggest challenges we face, piece together viable solutions, and begin making a measurable difference.
Without this foundation it’s much easier to dismiss major issues; let’s use climate change as an example. Since the ocean level appears to be the same to the naked eye as yesterday or winter happened to be colder than normal this year, climate change must either exaggerated or insignificant. This thought process completely neglects the bigger picture and thinking on a global scale.
Again, we struggle with non-immediate consequences. But today’s seemingly insignificant decisions can have serious implications for the long-term viability of our species. When our daily behaviors are taken as a collective whole and projected across decades, shit gets real.
It’s difficult to come to terms with. But we have to try. And we have to get better.
This is the only inhabitable planet we currently have. While I have faith in our ability to move beyond Earth one day or concoct a trillion-dollar technological solution, these are not justifications for kicking the can. It’s unacceptable to shrug off major challenges (climate change or otherwise) and think we can deal with them later. Procrastination is a pathetic way to go through life and a plague that has come to define much of our society.
A simple exercise in long-term consequences:
One of the many implications of a rapidly warming planet is rising sea levels. Oceans are expected to rise between 2.5 and 6.5 feet by 2100. Taking the conservative side, let’s say we hit a 3-foot rise. 108 million people currently live less than 3 feet above sea level (most major U.S. cities included). Consider the current crisis with 9 million displaced Syrian refugees which is creating a monumental amount of stress. Now imagine this type of evacuation every year for the next 12 years. That, my friends, is what a seemingly minuscule 3-foot rise in sea level equates to. And this should light a fire to take every precaution necessary to avoid such a disaster. It doesn’t take much more effort from here to imagine the conflicts, wars, and bloodshed that would result from 108 million displaced people across the globe.
We must navigate beyond the reactive approach we bring to every major issue facing our planet. Instead, for the first time in our existence, we must take direct and deliberate control…over the challenges we face and the long-term viability and evolution of our species. That’s the only realistic way forward.
This requires examining and giving greater appreciation to larger trends, scales, and timespans. The good news is that I believe that younger generations have shown far greater aptitude for this. Although despite my optimism, we’re still in a transitional period at best.
The common thread lies in restructuring our thought processes to place greater emphasis on long-term implications and reference a timeframe that extends far beyond our individual existence. No matter your position in life, you’re living, breathing, and forming thoughts at this very moment. That is a beautiful thing. We should do everything we can to ensure consciousness as we know it prevails. And it starts with something as simple (or complicated) as the way we frame our thoughts.
 Pollack, H.N. A World without Ice. New York, NY: Avery, 2009. Print.