Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Education of a (Diminishing) Baby Boomer

One of my favorite books is The Education of Henry Adams, published at Adams’ death in 1918 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  Henry was born in 1838 and witnessed a steady parade of innovation during his lifetime, from the railroad and telegraph emerging around the time of his birth to the electrical grid, telephone and automobile so pervasive at his death.  Adams grew up in a country half-slave and about to be torn asunder but died in one that was a unified, world power.  He saw factories in old age beyond anything he could have imagined as a child, and a nation of disconnected farmers turned into a mass market of connected cities.  These changes were so dramatic, Henry believed, “the old universe was thrown into the ash-heap” and something brand new had been created over the course of his lifetime.  “At the rate of progress since 1800,” Adams concluded, “every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power.” 

We know better, of course, but were Adams to return and play with a smartphone, surf the Web or visit an automated factory, he might very well think we had arrived.

For me to have the same 79-year time horizon as Henry Adams, it would need to be 2036.  For me to have the same perspective I would need another 20 or 30 points of IQ, and it wouldn’t hurt to have grown up the grandson and great-grandson of Presidents.  Or, as Henry was, be a brilliant writer and historian.  Still, on the off-chance I don’t make it to 2036, I thought it would be worth surveying my own ash heap—or more properly now, my Municipal Solid Waste Landfill-- to see in 2014 what’s been tossed of my old world, and at the same time, what’s been created anew.

In fact, the ash heap is not a bad place to start.  Every third or fourth Saturday when I was young,
my father, brother and I would load the car with household trash and take it to "The Dump."  This was a place of wonder—a couple of acres of barely-fenced, foul smelling refuse of every description, from rancid food to refrigerators to construction waste.  Here and there rats scurried around, and a few fires lifted poisonous smoke into the air.  Three or four elderly gentlemen seated on slightly charred lawn chairs served as greeters, helping themselves to the bicycle parts and television tubes worth salvaging.  It was Dante’s Inferno circa 1965, a weekend trip not to be missed. 

I suppose The Dump is a kind of metaphor for my old world.  It was close by.  It was convenient.  It seemed like we’d never run out of land to swallow the waste or air to consume the smoke.  Recycling was senseless in a world where anything new could be made cheap and plentiful.  And The Dump was at least a mile from the nearest residence, completely shielded from our neat, sunny neighborhoods. 

Of course, that's all changed.  We don’t have any more room for trash.  There’s no place to put the smoke, either.  And then there’s the town’s aquifer, which flowed gently beneath the old Dump, picking up toxins as it headed for the river, out to the bay and into the Atlantic. 

Henry Adams may have felt confused at the end of his life, but he took as an article of faith that both his country and his world had grown bigger, grander and more powerful.  Mankind was emerging in the universe.  He saw good things for the future, even if they seemed unknowable and sometimes intimidating. 

It’s nothing like the way I feel in 2014.  For the last generation, the greatest advances in science--coupled with our own foul behavior--have caused all of us to grow smaller, more constrained and more diminished than at any time in the history of mankind.  It all started off promisingly with Sputnik in 1957, regular Saturday visits to The Dump, and a moon-landing in 1969, but how could we know that would be the peak? 

Here’s what I mean.

When Mankind Ruled the Universe

When I was young, I had every reason to believe that human beings were the single most important entity in the universe, and that we would simply go on forever.  Reading Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, I felt sure we would also bring civilization and progress to the entire galaxy. 

Here’s what we know today.  There have been five major mass extinctions[1] on earth.  The mother of all occurred just 250 million years ago; called “The Great Dying,” it took out 96% of all species on Earth.  We have evolved from the lucky 4%, and but for chance, not a one of us would be around today.  This idea that mankind will go on forever needs to account for the fact that extinctions on Mother Earth happen like clockwork, one may be happening now (thanks in no small part to human beings), and one may very well be happening to us. 

Extinctions come in a variety of flavors.  We have now come to understand that an “impact event” is likely responsible for our moon, evolution, the origin of water, and a few of those mass extinctions.[2]   In fact, Discovery Magazine published a list of 20 possible sudden doomsday scenarios with an “impact event” listed as the most likely to occur.[3]  We can reasonably expect asteroids a half-mile wide to strike the Earth every 250,000 years (bringing firestorms followed by global cooling—and probably the end of civilization), while a rock five miles wide would cause a major extinction.  Ignorance was once bliss; now that we know to look, of course, we see asteroids whizzing by all the time. 

Back on earth, viruses mutate fast enough and get networked through our jet-setting world so efficiently that a pandemic could begin tomorrow that would make 1918/9’s Spanish Flu (50 million dead worldwide) or the 14th-century Black Plague (reduced world population from 450 million to 350 million) look like a mild case of indigestion.  The Hong Kong flu of 1968/9 killed about a million people.  AIDS has killed about 30 million worldwide, and counting.  We know a pandemic occurs every 10-50 years, and the last one was in 1968.[4]  So, most experts agree, it’s not whether, but when.

An impact event and pandemic are maybe the easy ones.  It may turn out that the single greatest threat in the lifetime of our children and grandchildren will be global warming, and it wasn’t even part of the conversation until I was well into my 40s. 

It’s all so nostalgic, too.  When I was young, scientists backed by Big Tobacco insisted there was no proven link between smoking and cancer.  Insisted.  No research, no set of data, no hospital ward of dying smokers was proof enough.  Their willful ignorance encouraged smokers and stole thousands and maybe millions of years of life from my parents’ generation.  

Today, 3% of scientists backed by frackers and energy interests are in a desperate battle with the 97%[5] of misguided scientists who are plotting against capitalism and corporate earnings.  This time, the willful ignorance of the deniers stands to take out everyone and everything we value. 

You don’t have to believe in global warming to know that we have recently seen Manhattan under a 14-foot storm surge; commodity prices rising so rapidly over the last decade that they have erased a century of price declines[6];  Starbucks believing that climate change is the greatest threat to its business, and Hershey’s hiring a “chocolate futurist”[7]; a U.S. Army expert comparing climate change to a 100-year war with no exit strategy[8]; wildflower season in the Rocky Mountains lasting over a month longer than it did in the 1970s[9]; an outbreak of mountain pine beetles in the American West and Canada from fewer cold nights claiming tens of millions of acres of damaged forests[10]; the world’s fastest moving glacier now shedding ice at nearly three times the rate it was 20 years ago[11]; experts believing many of the world’s coral reefs are fated to die[12]; California experiencing the driest year in a century in 2013, with the Sierra snowpack at just 25% normal[13]; the cost of fighting fires in America doubling since the 1990s[14]; and one climatologist suggesting that of the 19 cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics, as few as 10 might be cold enough by 2050 to host them again, and just six by 2100.[15]

Eight years ago, a hunter killed the first of the "pizzlies" in Canada’s Northwest Territories.  For those of you without the “Hybrid” exhibit on your endangered species scorecard, that’s the result of climate change and eco-destruction pushing a grizzly bear north and a polar bear south.[16]   That’s like West Side Story in the Arctic--not just global warming but steamy, torrid global warming.

The examples are endless.  In fact, there is nothing we think normal today that won’t be impacted by global warming, from the quality of hops for our beer, the ability of high school teams to practice football in the summer, the spread of poison ivy (which thrives in higher temperatures and increased carbon dioxide), to a possible change in the route of the Tour de France to avoid brutal temperatures.[17]

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society, recently released a report confirming that the average global temperature has increased by about 1.4˚F over the last 100 years.  “Earth’s climate is on a path to warm beyond the range of what has been experienced over the past millions of years,” the report adds. “The range of uncertainty for the warming along the current emissions path is wide enough to encompass massively disruptive consequences to societies and ecosystems [and]. . .there is a real risk, however small, that one or more critical parts of the Earth’s climate system will experience abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes.”

Meanwhile, back in America, 77 % of us believe there are signs that aliens have visited the Earth while only 44% believe that human beings are causing climate change.[18]  Almost 44% of us believe in Santa Claus,[19] as well.  Right about now, the deniers [20] [21] of the 1960s would be saying, “C’mon, you haven’t proven anything.  Where's the science?  My grandmother smoked her entire life and lived to be 100.”

I’m no pessimist.   Honestly.  And I don’t believe that human beings necessarily cause all climate change, or that we won’t devise some brilliant solutions over time.  I’m just saying that, compared to what I believed when I was young, mankind now seems as tenuous in this world as those big old rats at The Dump on a Sunday morning when the local Hunt Club decided to take target practice.  I feel diminished.  That is a much different conclusion than Henry Adams reached at the end of his life.

The Stuff We Can’t Understand

Nothing demonstrates mankind’s place in the heavens as vividly as the cosmic calendar,[22] where the Big Bang happened a fraction after New Year’s, the sun and planets formed in August, man learned to walk at 9:24 p.m. on December 31 and Columbus set sail a second before the end of the year.  As late as the 1990s the hunt for exoplanets—anything outside our solar system--seemed as much science fiction as science.  Last year, researchers reported finding 603 planets, 10 of which are Earth-sized and orbiting their host stars in a habitable zone--the closest a mere 12 light-years away.[23]  That means our Milky Way alone could have tens of billions of potentially Earth-like worlds.  In 2011 the first known habitable zone planet was discovered.  Now, we believe there might be billions of such planets.

In 1996 astronomers pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at a patch of the sky no bigger than a grain of sand held at arm’s length.  It was a point that seemed utterly and completely devoid of stars.   Over ten days the Hubble watched that tiny, empty spot, and when researchers looked at the results, discovered the light from over 3,000 galaxies.[24]  Galaxies.  Each one contained potentially a hundred billion stars.  We now believe there could be 100 billion galaxies in the universe. 

We pointed the most powerful telescope ever built at absolutely nothing just because we were curious.  We discovered that the heavens are bigger than we could have possibly imagined.  But even this might be small potatoes.  Today, there are a number of plausible scientific theories that our universe could be one of an infinite number which make up a “multiverse.”  One version says space-time is infinite but repeats, creating new universes; another that bubble universes (perhaps like ours) sit in a vast sea filled with other universes; another arises from string theory and says there could be parallel universes; and quantum mechanics suggests that there might be daughter universes to account for the fact that all possible outcomes of a situation really do occur.

If you want to feel small, listen to MIT theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek when he talks about the biggest, most important event that ever happened in our universe: “There doesn’t seem to be anything unique about the event we call the big bang. It is a reproducible event that could and would happen again, and again, and again.”[25]

So, our universe is bigger than we knew, and stranger than we can possibly comprehend.  And we may just be one of an infinite number.

Not to put too fine a point on it, either, but we recently discovered the existence of something called dark matter, which we now think makes up three-quarters of everything.  Imagine being befuddled by a universe beyond comprehension and then discovering we were only sensing a quarter of it.  Dark matter has its own dark side, too; scientists believe if there was just a little more of it we would expand to the point where life would be impossible, but just a little bit less and we would collapse in on ourselves.

I don’t know what Henry Adams would make of this, but it’s difficult to feel more diminished than science has made mankind feel in the last generation.  We are infinitesimally small and balanced on the razor sharp edge of a knife, both on our tiny Earth and in the vast multiverse.  Some of this is indisputably our own doing, and some of it a product of finally being smart enough to see a little of the big picture. 

I no longer believe that mankind will bring civilization and progress to the entire cosmos.  For now, I would settle for getting some to North Korea.

And these are the things I will drop off at the Municipal Solid Waste Landfill on Saturday: galactic dominance, mankind’s guaranteed longevity, a basic understanding of where and why, and the expected well-being of my grandchildren.

What’s that?  The Landfill only takes galactic dominance every third Saturday of the month?  And it won't accept my lithium batteries at all?

In all these ways we are diminished.

[16] Nesbit, Jeff, “Will Grizzly-Polar Bear Hybrid Wake People Up to Changing Climate?”, Live Science, December 6, 2013,
[20] Stromberg, Stephen, “Krauthammer Misleads on Global Warming, The Washington Post, February 21, 2014,
[21] “Heartland Institute and the NIPCC Report Fail the Credibility Test,” Climate Science Watch, September 9, 2013,
[23] Garber, Megan, “There Are (Probably) Billions of Earth-Like Planets in the Universe,”, November 4, 2013.
[25] Moskowitz, Clara, “Weird Cosmos: Major Scientific Breakthrough Could Completely Alter Our View of the Universe,” Salon, April 1, 2014,