Putting the life back in science fiction


That brief window
July 29, 2015, 9:35 pm
Filed under: deep time, futurism, Worldbuilding | Tags: , ,

Well, the book manuscript is done, and I’ve got some beta readers going over it while I figure out the strange world of non-fiction publishing. As I understand it, one not supposed to write a non-fiction book on spec, but rather to have a contract to write the book based on how well you can convince the publisher it will sell, based on your audience. And simultaneous self-publishing is a thing too, apparently. Interesting business, especially when I write a book of 100% speculation about a climate-changed Earth, and it’s called non-fiction.

So I have time to blog more regularly.

One of the things I’ve increasingly noticed is how bad we are with big numbers, and dealing with big numbers turned out to be a central feature of the book. In general, when we look at phrases like a few years, or a few decades, or a few centuries, or a few millennia, or a few thousand years, or a few million years, we fixate on the “few” and ignore whatever comes after that. As a result, we get weird phrases like the Great Oxygenation Event, which took a few billion years back when the Earth switched from an anaerobic atmosphere to aerobic one. It doesn’t sound like much, until you realize that animals have been on land less than 500,000,000 years, or less than a quarter of a billion years. The Primitive Animals Invade the Land Event will end with the expanding sun making such life impossible on Earth long before our little event matches the length of the Great Oxygenation Event, yet people some people still think that the Earth was oxygenated very suddenly, rather than incredibly gradually. All that happened was that people ignored all the zeroes, called a process an event, and confused themselves and their audience.

This applies to human history as well. If we take the Omo 1 skull as the oldest modern human, we’ve got at least 195,000 years of history to our species already.

We’re young compared to most species, but we’ve still got a lot of history, and most of it is lost. Our documented history is about the last 5,000 years, and the archaeological becomes fragmentary shortly thereafter. In other words, thanks to writing, we’ve got partial access to about 1% of our apparent history as a species. The conventional interpretation of this is that humans were basically boring for the first 99% of our history, then something changed, and we took off like gypsy moths, expanding into this outbreak of humanity we call civilization. Prior to that, we were peaceable-ish hunter gatherers living in harmony with nature.

What changed? The more I read, the more I tend to agree with the archaeologist Brian Fagan. In The Long Summer, he postulated that civilization arose after the last ice age because the climate stabilized after the ice age, not because humans changed in any real way. There’s some evidence to back him up. Alvin Alley, in the Two Mile Time Machine, talks about Dansgaard-Oeschger (D-O) events in the glacial record. These are times when the global temperature bounces back and forth many degrees, and they are thought to be due to ice from Hudson’s Bay glaciers messing up global thermohaline circulation in a semi-periodic way. Basically, the climate at Glacial Maximum is stably cold, the climate in the interglacial is stably warm, and the times between those periods have the climate oscillating between cold, colder, and coldest in something like a 1,500 year pattern with lots of noise. In such a continually changing global environment, things like agriculture would be difficult to impossible, so it’s no surprise that humans would be nomadic hunter-gatherers. If there were something before the D-O events, the evidence would be lost, and the absence of evidence would make us think that, until 5,000 years ago, we were primitive savages.

If you’ve been following the news, you know that evidence for agriculture 23,000 years ago turned up in Israel (link to article). The last glacial maximum happened from 26,000-19,000 years ago. If one believes that stable climates make things like agriculture possible, then it’s easy to believe that someone invented farming during the last glacial maximum, and that it was lost when the D-O events started up and their culture shattered.

So how often did humans go through this, discover and lose agriculture? We have no clue. Except for that fortuitous find in the Sea of Galilee, when a long drought temporarily revealed an archaeological site that is currently underwater again, there’s no other evidence for truly ancient agriculture.

The last interglacial was the Eemian, 130,000-115,000 years ago. Did the Neanderthals invent agriculture back then? There’s little undisputed fossil or archaeological evidence from that time, and who knows if any evidence still exists. What we do know is that the Eemian people did not smelt a lot of metal, for there were ample ore deposits waiting for us to find them on the surface. We know they didn’t use petroleum or coal for the same reason, and there’s no evidence that they moved massive amounts of Earth or built great pyramids, as we’ve done. Those kinds of evidence seem to last. But if they had small neolithic farming towns, especially in northern Europe, the evidence would have disappeared in the subsequent glaciation.

This pattern applies to our future too, especially if climate change collapses our civilization and forces the few survivors to be hunters and gatherers. Our civilization would lose continuity, our history would vanish, our flimsy concrete buildings would collapse into rubble, and coastal ruins would disappear under the rising sea. What would remain of us, except our earthworks and our descendants? My rough guess is that such an age of barbarism would last between 200 and 2,000 years before the climate stabilized and civilization became possible again. Would the people building their civilization on the other side think they were the first civilized people, too, that their history began when they were created a few thousand years prior, as we used to think?

That may be the fate of future humanity on Earth, even if our species lasts a billion years. When the climate is stable for thousands of years, there will be outbreaks of humanity–what we call civilization, when we temporarily escape nature’s constraints, grow fruitful, and multiply to fill the place. In between these outbreaks there will be far fewer of us, and we’ll live in smaller, simpler societies. What we will know will be a balance between what we’ve retained and (re)discovered, and what crisis, collapse, and continual change has caused us to lose. Our history, at any one time, will be that brief window of a few thousand years between discovery and loss, with only enigmatic artifacts, like those 23,000 year-old seeds, to tell us that we weren’t the first ones to discover something. They’ll be enough to hint at how much history we’ve lost, but not enough to let us recover it.

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