Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?

Thomas Schueneman

The end of the world as we know it, an essay on telling time

I considered using the phrase “The Doomsday Clock” as the title for this piece, but thought better of it. I figured a reference to an old Chicago favorite would entice more than the suggestion of the end of the world. We’ve got the daily news for that, right?

So yes, I admit, now that you’re here, let’s talk about the how to tell time with a Doomsday Clock.

The end is near! Or is it?

Digging ourselves into a holeGeorge Gvasalia on Unsplash

I don’t suggest we need endlessly dwell on the end of the world. As we’re about to discuss, that would be downright ungrateful for someone like me, bestowed with such unearned privilege simply through providence of birth. I do contend we ponder the idea from time to time.

For the past three years, the Asahi Glass Foundation has requested my input on their annual survey Environmental Problems and the Survival of Humankind.

At the end of the survey, respondents are invited to offer thoughts and opinions based on our previous answers given in the questionnaire.

In other words, it’s our chance to ponder the end of the world. It’s only once a year.

Three points before we dive in:

  • The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is more pessimistic than I am. For them it’s nearly midnight. The weighted average of my responses says it’s more like 10:40 (22:40).
  • It is essential, for me at least, to learn to live with cognitive dissonance. Without the ability to hold in my mind two opposing ideas, each a representation of reality, then nothing is real. It’s a complex world.
  • Since I have not yet succumbed to pessimism and self-inflicted guilt, I assume there is still hope.

Of course there is.

Looking for the lightArtem Kovalev on Unsplash

How I see it from my perch

The Early Years-250w
I'm the short one

From the perspective of a citizen of the United States, it is difficult to consider any more pressing issue for the long-term survival and flourishing of humanity than overconsumption and lifestyle habits.

Born in 1958, I am on the youngish end of the baby-boomgeneration, a “fortunate son” of the Great Acceleration led by postwar America. At least implicitly, I expect access to a level of consumption, material throughput, and modes of energy production that can only be sustained by borrowing from the future. With a monetary system based on debt, our economics is a reflection of this skewed worldview.

The forest for the trees

In the book Sustaining Life on Earth: Environmental and Human Health Through Global Governance, co-authors Colin L. Soskolne and Laura Westra write:

“The dominant worldview assumes that the human economy is separate from the environment and thus free of biophysical constraints. Under what has been labeled the expansionist perspective, the environment is the source of an unlimited supply of resources and a sink for an unlimited quantity of wastes, allowing the human economy to expand without limit.

“The rise of neoclassical economics late in the 19th century launched this perspective, effectively decoupling culture and environment. Today, ‘society’ and ‘economy’ seem almost synonymous, at least in the minds of many political leaders. We make societal decisions almost exclusively on the basis of narrowly construed economic indicators unless these indicators are trumped by ideological or political goals.

“…predicting the future on the basis of faulty assumption can be both misleading and dangerous, especially if those assumptions come solely from the past few centuries of European expansion, a small subset of history that took place over a narrow timeframe.

“In reality, the Earth, a finite body, does not continue to grow, so neither can populations or the material consumption of these populations. A dynamic steady-state perspective more accurately reflects the reality of a finite Earth.”

And yet, this is the water in which I swim.

The root of the challenge for humanity is first awareness, then expanding the perception of our place in this world, as a species and in a global society of 7.8 billion individuals.

The way it used to be never was

There is no going back
The arrow of timeDavid Von on Unsplash

There is no going back to another time, nor should we want a return to a life that was “nasty, brutish, and short.” Our evolution as a species must somehow overcome the genetic tendency of adversarial tribalism. We can no longer isolate our human responsibility to one region, country, religion, race, clan, gender or species, despite political narratives to the contrary.

Even with all its enormous benefits, we too often mistake technology as a strategy for survival. Our technical prowess is only a tactic. Strategic solutions to the physical depletion and constraints of a finite world will come only from a fundamental human transformation.

Until we resolve this inner conflict between short-term affluence and long-term stewardship of life on the planet, including our own, we will continue on a perilous path toward an annihilation of our own making.

Clearly, this is easier said than done. I doubt I will ever see it, but I still believe it is possible.

Seeing the futureAdbiel Ibarra on Unsplash

Humanity In The Anthropocene


Thomas Schueneman