Here’s something which fires me up:
“You only have one life to do everything you are ever going to do.”
However, this isn’t a unique thought and IMO it’s not even that interesting:
- I think about it often; and
- It’s held up by bloggers and life coaches everywhere as the ultimate motivator. “You only live once! Life is short! Go big or go home!”
Individual life IS short, especially on a cosmic scale, and you can add a further limiter that few folks include in the calculation: your healthy and able-bodied life is even shorter.
And so, acknowledging your mortality and death’s grip can be motivating to get shit done. I find this perspective energizing, at least for short bursts, but confronting your mortality is at best a second class motivator. There is something looming just a little further outside our consciousness which IMO is much stronger.
The Probable Extinction of Humanity
Scientists continue to debate on how our current universe will end, though most agree this end will come in one of two ways:
- A very slow progression toward total uniform distribution of energy AKA the heat death, which theoretically humanity could survive but probably not; or
- More likely, everything that is currently expanding outward gets pulled back into another cosmic egg, which is basically the ultimate black hole and then we are all fucked.
Either way, the maximum lifespan of humanity is roughly pegged to that of the universe. Everything everyone has ever done anywhere will cease to exist, though IMO it will not cease to matter.
The end of our universe is a very long way out, perhaps more than a trillion years. In the nearer future, our sun could be swallowed by a black hole, a supernova could blast us with gamma rays, or gravity from one passing star or another could pull our sun out of alignment in such a way that we are given a much shorter lifespan. These scenarios and others are possible, though not probable; space is very big.
However, one thing all credible scientists agree on is that our sun will die. And before that, in five billion years or so, the sun will exit it’s main sequence and make life on Earth uninhabitable. If humanity doesn’t leave Earth, we will go extinct.
Admittedly, five billion years is a very long time. Smart folks theorize that life on Earth started 3.5+ billion years ago. It took a few eons for us to become tree shrews, and then another 200 million years or so to evolve from tree shrews to Trump supporters.
In another 200 million years humanity could look very different, and in two billion years perhaps unrecognizable. We have a bias toward our current form as the final stage of evolution, yet that’s unlikely; we haven’t even quite adapted to standing upright.
And so, whether by collapse of the universe, the death of our sun or maybe even the mechanism of evolution: we have only one humanity in which to do everything we ever will. It’s easy to pass responsibility off to future generations, but that’s a giant fucking mistake.
Here’s why: we think of the ancient Greeks as the baseline of human civilization, and you should add the Sumerians and Chinese too. These folks gave us math, and philosophy, and sophisticated language, and spanakopita. And that’s all within 5000 years or so.
The Greeks are the foundation for everything after because humans think in really short time spans, and because we confuse the present with the future. Of course now is the furthest in the future we’ve ever been, but it’s also not the future. If you pick any arbitrary point ahead of this one, maybe 5000 years, or 50,000 or five million, at some point you will reach a time when the then humanity will consider US their baseline, basically indistinguishable from Socrates & Co.
That perspective isn’t to make you feel insignificant. In fact, our unique position as a technologically advanced baseline is exactly what makes us, and you, matter so much. Everything you do in this life of yours, however short, has the opportunity to ripple outward with unfathomable impact.
Here’s a recent example: the man, or more likely woman, who invented the wheel was doing so for a selfish purpose: it helped her create better pottery. Add thousands of years of incremental innovation, and the wheel gives birth to harnessing energy, the majority of major industry, the economy, space travel, everything.
In most cases, a rule for innovation is “the sooner the better”, because invention builds on invention. We started with crappy water clocks, and now we have atomic ones which are about a billion times more accurate. Also, it’s favourable and sometimes necessary to have technology at specific moments. We’ve recorded events like supernovas, but these were before the time of telescopes; which would enable much greater study.
Your input doesn’t have to be an invention. Something as simple as being kinder or more patient, or being more productive at work, or straining the environment a little less, or writing a book about something you know; the range of contributions is wide and growing.
Everything you do, and don’t do, has the potential to bring about a better future, or at least one with greater potential to be better. While your individual mortality may be motivating in short bursts, the powerful multiplier on the scale of humanity can be much greater. Embrace it. Do everything you want to do and need to do. As far as you know, you are the only advanced civilization the universe will ever know. Go big or go home.