Higher Living Reflections

Putting It into Perspective

We’re a curious species, we Homo sapiens. Among the billion-plus species that have gone extinct and those with whom we now share Earth, some precariously close to extinction, we’re the only ones, as far as I can determine, that believe we’re exempt from the laws of nature. But the truth is we’re like every other animal when it comes to survival and continuation of the species. And extinction is part of that natural phenomena.

Perhaps the dinosaurs thought they were exempt from natural law. After all, they ruled the planet for over 175 million years. They even had a fierce king: Tyrannosaurus Rex. But he along with nearly all his minions got fricasseed in a firestorm, choked to death on noxious gasses, or got swept away by tsunamis in Earth’s Fifth Mass Extinction when a comet the size of Mt. Everest gut-punched Mother Earth. Such are the vagaries of the universe.

If one steps back from the bedlam engulfing us and takes a grand view of the totality of Earth history, they should be in awe, even humbled. And disconcerted. Because of the hundreds of millions of species that have roamed the land, swam in the seas, and flew in the sky, we’re the only ones with the knowledge, capability, and most scarily, willingness to destroy not only ourselves but also the environment that sustains us.

To help put American history into perspective as well as their place and role in it, I had my eighth grade students draw a series of lines across an eighteen-inch sheet of tagboard and plot dates from the birth of Earth to present day on them. Each subsequent line was a closeup of  a portion of the timeframe from the line above. As you might imagine, it was a quite an exercise, an eye-opener especially that even within the few thousand years of documented human history, America’s history took up little space and their few years a fraction of it.

I recalled that activity when watching the Netflix series, Life on Our Planet. In the series, a timeline is used to help move viewers through the epochs chronologically and put the epochs into perspective. It caused me to wonder how long a roll of paper I’d need if I created a timeline from the birth of the Earth 4,000,000,000 years ago to now if one foot equaled a century. The answer: 7,575 miles, which is nearly the diameter of Earth. Next I wondered how much space on the 7,575-mile—forty-million-foot—length I’d have to plot the significant dates and stretches of my life. Given that I’ve lived for about three quarters of a century, I calculated I’d have nine inches. Finally, I wondered what percentage of the timeline I’d occupy. The answer: 0.00000001875 percent.

Of course, a 7,575 roll of paper is neither realistic nor workable, so I pictured a more manageable one of 400 feet, where one foot equaled 40,000,000 years. I imagined plotting these significant dates, from a human point of view, onto it: (Note: Some scholars posit different dates and timeframes for the various epochs.)   

  • First oceanic life forms: 2,000,000,000 years
  • Plant Life on Land: 450,000,000 years
  • Rise of the Dinosaurs: 245,000,000 years
  • Death of the Dinosaurs: 66,000,000 years
  • Earliest humans – Homo habilis: 2,000,000 years
  • Rise of Homo sapiens: 100,000 years
  • First Agricultural Revolution: 12,000 years
  • Founding of the American Republic: 250 years
  • My Life Span

As you might have calculated, the entirety of humanoid history would take up an infinitesimally small space on that 400-foot timeline. And my life, your life?

Could we go the way of the dinosaurs? It would be folly to think otherwise. Perhaps the comet that did them in was the first of a one-two punch. Although not expected anytime soon, maybe the Yellowstone Cauldron will blow its gasket. And then there is environmental degradation and AI: Artificial Intelligence. There is conjecture it could lead to our own extinction. I cannot authoritatively speak to that, but I can about the capabilities of human folly. I just look at and read the news.

Looking at it from that grand macro perspective, I’ve concluded that I’m merely a microscopic dot when calculating my time and space relative to the whole. Understanding that, I asked myself what I will do with this precious gift—conscious life—that I have remaining, especially with 2024 approaching with its dire prospects.

It sure as heck won’t be engaging in base human actions like judging, killing, or denigrating others in the name of some creed, ideology, or other complex. Rather it will be spent celebrating life by doing uplifting stuff like writing, hanging with friends, and reflecting on what my—and our—place is in the grand scheme and whether by our choices and machinations we will bring about the Sixth Mass Extinction.  

You Might Also Like

  • Glenn Blanco
    December 28, 2023 at 3:45 pm

    Jerry, somewhere you and i ran into Ozymandias. Another way to look at the human experience is to recall that a roll of toilet paper turns faster as we come to the end.

  • Bonnie McCune
    December 28, 2023 at 5:13 pm

    We can only hope we go extinct before we put the kaboosh on every other living thing.

  • Melanie Mulhall
    December 28, 2023 at 6:36 pm

    Recently I had a conversation with someone who wanted me as a guest on her podcast, and I told her that I’m interested in the big questions these days. Who are you? Why are you here? I’ve asked myself those questions, and I’m interested in nudging others to think about them and answer them. I’m willing to speak to the answers I have for myself, and I’d love to hear those of others. But not just the superficial answers, and not just the answers about who they are in the 3D. Your question–What will I do with this precious gift of conscious life?–is another worthy question, and it flows from my two questions. You and I are on the same page, brother. 🙂

  • Donna Taylor
    December 28, 2023 at 8:11 pm

    It’s good to remember that we are here by chance – the comet hitting the earth and recovery, the ice age and recovery, etc. We breathe air to keep us alive – air in the making for eons. It’s so easy to be caught up in the news of the day, your reminder of the “real” reality is welcome. We are no less dependent on the earth than the dinosaurs.

  • D Powell
    December 29, 2023 at 9:57 am

    Your graph with the students reminded me of a time when I arrived to clean a house of a lady scientist. She got a funny grin on her face and told me to follow her into her living room and dining room. Once there she had me stand with my back as close to one wall as possible. She had me hold tightly to the end-edge of a roll of paper that was perhaps ten inches wide. She then backed up the entire length of the two rooms (about forty feet), unrolling the paper. He father, also a precisely minded sort, had made a scale graph of the distance between the planets in our solar system. The end I held was the outer, Pluto, edge and her end was the Sun. The perspective was a bit daunting – as is what you presented.

    You hit another one out of the park. Thanks.

  • Patty Pooh
    December 31, 2023 at 5:58 pm

    It’s amazing how many ancestors it took to put just one person here today. Very humbling. Loved this read and the comments afterwards. I think of that often too .. Can’t we use our energy on good things instead of the killing and destroying of people and properties?
    Thank you for sharing your gift of words

  • Rick Posner
    January 7, 2024 at 8:51 pm

    Nice reminder list Jerry! Thanks again for being open and kind.