diamond geezer

 Tuesday, November 22, 2016

One of the unavoidable truths about our lives is that we only get to experience a tiny fraction of human existence. We don't get to experience events before our birth, and we don't get to experience events after our death. All we get are a few years inbetween.

not born yet dead

Time travel aside, and miracle drugs notwithstanding, that's our lot. Our lifetime is simply an insignificant snapshot of everything that has been and ever will be, and our purpose is to make the most of our allotted span.

The two grey bits in the timeline above are very different. We may not experience the time before our birth but we can find out about what happened. The older generation can tell us all about what their lives were like, and the tales of our ancestors are passed on. The recent past is documented in film and newspapers, and the centuries before in historical documents and buildings. The ground beneath our feet reveals how continents and the environment changed, while fossils confirm who we've shared our planet with. The period before our birth is unexperienced but known, if not in full then within the realms of possibility.

The time after our death is different. We have all kinds of expectations about how society will continue after we're gone, but never get to discover if our assumptions were correct. Will it rain tomorrow, will our team win the cup, will that airport ever get built, does all the ice melt, do the aliens ever come, who knows? There comes a point at which we wink out, and the remainder of recorded time is something we're entirely excluded from. Humanity chugs along without us, our former presence an increasing irrelevance, as days and years and centuries complete. The future is a legacy we contribute to but never see.

And the earlier we die the less we know. Those who died in the 18th century know nothing of a world of vehicles powered by electricity. Those who died before June 1969 may have imagined man landing on the moon but never saw it. Those who died last month never discovered the future was Trump rather than Clinton, and all this might entail. Live until 2050 and you'll know far more than someone who only reaches 2025, but nowhere near as much as someone who reaches 2100. Nobody yet alive will see the 28th century, let alone the 23rd, unless astonishing strides are made in longevity... which of course you'll almost certainly never know.

Specifically, nobody knows how many good years humanity has left. It might be ages, if our species grows in technological understanding and spreads out across the stars. It might be quite a while, until some calamity besets us, either of our own doing or some unforeseen cosmological disaster. I like to think it'll be quite a while, because that means humanity has a decent future in which science and culture flourish, and generations of humans get to enjoy their time on the planet, and our current existence is inherently worthwhile.

But it might not be long, relatively speaking. Climate change might be as serious as some scientists say, and allowed to run out of control, destroying the ecosystems life on earth relies on. A diplomatic misunderstanding might trigger nuclear armageddon, laying waste our planet and eradicating centuries of progress overnight. An incurable virus might emerge, or intelligent robots might rise up and crush all human opposition, or a thousand and one other world-ending scenarios ably illustrated by Hollywood. Someone dying in 2016 might not be missing out on much, should the worst happen, nor will they ever know how close they came.


I was feeling brighter about the future before 2016 came along. We're basically a good bunch, humanity, I thought, working together in the common good against whatever's thrown at us. But this year there are signs that countries are becoming more inward looking, more concerned for their own than for outsiders, and if that means others lead less good lives so be it. Our immediate future needn't all be bad, but it could be, as a period of relative global stability unwinds and who knows what comes next.

What nobody wants is to waste their lives during a period of dystopia, their time on earth blighted by living through one of the bad bits. East Germany 1961-1989, for example, or the Black Death, or Syria right now. Oliver Cromwell's rule after the English Civil War was one of these miserably unlucky periods, with freedom of expression banned in favour of a tyrannical puritan regime. If you were born in 1620 you got to spend your twenties fighting and your thirties being glum, before release finally came in your twilight years. Likewise the first and second world wars aren't periods you'd ever choose to live through, but millions had no choice, and bequeathed to us the far happier age we live in now. How long's it got?

There are numerous ways our comfortable lives could deteriorate, from economic collapse to rising sea levels, from autocratic government to nuclear winter. It could happen overnight (oh, the electricity's not working), we might see it coming (ah, the President just tweeted he was angry), it could be much more gradual (have you seen how much data MI5's collecting?), or we might simply vote it in. Our society is finely balanced, indeed it's a miracle it generally works so well, whilst still allowing choice and opportunity and free will. How frightening then to watch the rise of fascism, the advance of religious intolerance and an increasing disregard for the environment, at this stage only a potential threat to our survival, but a genuine threat all the same.


We're fortunate to have lived through a golden age since World War Two - not perfect, but the best that civilisation has yet offered. This might well continue for several more decades, indeed let's hope it does, but history warns us that one day things will go wrong, and continue to go wrong for some indeterminate time thereafter. It'll be no fun to be around when that day comes, whenever that may be, nor to have to endure the years that follow. The best we can hope for is that it never happens in our lifetime, only after we've slipped away, in the future we know nothing about.

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan19  Feb19  Mar19  Apr19  May19
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18  Aug18  Sep18  Oct18  Nov18  Dec18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream