The Last Thought

Human beings are, on the whole, incapable of contemplating the scale or nature of time. As individuals, we live an hour, a day, a week, perhaps a year ahead, at most. Government or corporate strategies are issued that look five, ten or at best twenty years ahead. But there is no room in public discourse, nor is there any serious effort dedicated, to truly strategic thinking; no serious contemplation, by those with any authority, of the question: how long do we expect – do we want – human life to continue, or all life to continue?


The threat of climate change/global heating to human prosperity is now broadly accepted in a conceptual sense by most, save the corrupt or corrupted; but truly grasped by few; and acted on in good faith by even fewer. In all likelihood this will have been the defining issue of the 21st century. But the discourse on it continues to be wrong-headed. 'Saving the planet' is one of the most damaging misnomers we have adopted, sometimes knowingly, sometimes not. As the late, great George Carlin told us with his tongue firmly in our cheek: 'the planet is fine; the people are f**ked'. There is no question of saving the planet, because it is impossible to save an inanimate object. Stating our intent of how long we will preserve the only known biosphere, and how many more generations of our species we hope will endure – those are the questions that should guide all of our actions.  But we have no collective agreement, nor do we even engage in any meaningful discussion, of what our aims or hopes are in that regard.

At a climate change conference a few years ago, a group of pre-eminent climate scientists were asked: ‘why do we never talk about the effects of climate change beyond 2100?’. The answer came ‘people can’t deal with timelines that far ahead’. This, despite the fact that hundreds of millions of children can reasonably expect to live significantly beyond that date. We talk of 'sustainability' in the vaguest of terms - as corporate buzzword - with no emphasis on what it actually means, namely how long a given practice could continue – for 10 years, 100 years, 1,000 years, 10,000 years, or more. But beyond any given practice or product, how sustainable is human existence? 

The universe has existed for 13 billion years; Earth for 4 billion; humans with language for 70,000; farming for 10,000 years; industry for 300; and computers for 70 years. The sun will engulf the Earth and most of the solar system in 5 billion years. It would be reasonable to assume that all known life in the universe will be extinguished at that point. But even if we develop the technology to escape our solar system and travel to neighbouring ones – which is highly unlikely – the eventual heat death of the universe in approximately 1 googol (10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) years puts it beyond any reasonable doubt that there will be a last thought.

Why does this matter? Because knowing that there will be a last thought, and that we have the power to affect when that be, and the curiosity to wonder what that will be, should inform and drive our collective decisions in everything that we do.  


“The ones who spoke were never those who knew /

The ones who knew just never wanted to /

It must have seemed like we were going to lose /

A hundred years and it would all come true”