Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Loss Of Perspective

We, as a species, should be very aware now of our place in the scheme of things. In all the vastness that is the cosmos, on a solitary ball of rock, circling an average star, in a typical galaxy, in a nondescript galactic cluster, 13.7 billion light-years from the edge of creation, we sit as the sole example of intelligent life. We are as a grain of sand to the size of our solar system, an infinitesimal speck in a vast, empty ocean, containing only the occasional clump of matter to relieve the monotony of vacuum.

This leads us to two diametrically points of view: for one, that we are insignificant compared to our universe, and for another, that we are the most singularly precious thing in it. Until the possible day that we make contact with another civilization anywhere out in the depths of space, we must count ourselves to be the sole representatives of sentient life. It is at once an awe-inspiring and bleak picture, humbling and glorious at the same time.

That it took millennia for us to reach the point of knowing this is not unexpected; what is unexpected, is how underwhelming this knowledge has been to human civilization. Perhaps, owing to our history, and to our penchant for building belief systems around concepts of the supernatural, we do not marvel at what and where we are, as we should. Putting our faith in the intervention of all-powerful and unseen beings, we have disconnected ourselves from the place we live, which is a far grander and more interesting place than any imagined by our ancestors. Our exploration of the universe has revealed wonders that defy conception at first glance, and have forced the brightest minds in physics and astronomy to write and re-write the rules of existence.

That the beauty and majesty does not affect us is sad; sadder still, is the idea that our singular existence as representatives of sentient life in the universe has not driven us to take a fresh look at our relations with ourselves. Still clutching to the dogmas of the past, we seem to be resigned to muddling through our lives in the vain hope that something better lies in wait for us beyond the horizon, rather than reveling in the world that we live in now. Too many of us see Earth as a disposable commodity: pull material out of the ground, shape it to our needs, then throw it away or bury it. We act as if our planet is an infinite store of things, rather than the finite ball of solids, liquids, and gases that it is.

Perhaps our lives are too short to comprehend the pace of change on the planet, though as that change accelerates, the evidence of the change becomes clearer every day. Roads choked with cars, smokestacks belching filth into the sky, garbage lying strewn about, water with a sheen of oil, a huge mass of plastic floating in the open ocean... and because the pace of our lives gets ever quicker, we do not see these things for what they are, only being interested in the next thing we are supposed to have, even as we pine for the "simplicity" of our youth.

The sooner we realize that our position in the universe is precarious, and that our resources are finite, the sooner we might finally throw off the shackles of consumerism and self-importance, and work together to restore our little world to its normal working order. The borders and barriers we have put between ourselves, and the ignorance we have allowed to blind us, keep us from these realizations, which are as factual as the precession of the Sun across the sky. Humanity, in its various parts, is very good at ignoring the truth lying at its feet, turning a blind eye to the obvious, and creating stories to salve a guilty conscience. This is all well and good, if our only intent is to gobble up what little we have until it is gone, then ever so slowly die away, fighting over the last scraps of our sordid past.

The energy we foolishly direct into so many negative aspects of our lives -- prejudice, fear, self-aggrandizement, greed, politics, gamesmanship -- is wasted and counterproductive. Were it to be turned to healing the wounds between people, and rebuilding the health of our world, we could truly say we have attained civilization. The longer we repeat the tropes of the past, the longer we build empires, only to watch them fall, the less time we have to do what is truly important. Each minute is precious to us, and too often is wasted in futile pursuits.

The survival and expansion of the human race is a greater goal than any we would call important, as it encompasses all the problems so long neglected in our race forward through time: poverty, disease, famine, war, pestilence, etc. It begs that we solve these issues, while at the same time moving away from our cradle, to take our place in other parts of our solar system and our galaxy. The human race is too precious a gift of the universe, to be allowed to die through its own hubris and disinterest. If there is purpose and value in our existence, then it is not simply through that existence, but through the potential we have to become so much more than we are. We will not reach that potential, however, until we come together as a species, and accept that despite all our differences, we are all truly one.

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