There is a curious discord at the heart of the way “news” media operate. They all tend to exaggerate the trivial and grossly underestimate the longer-term trends. They lack perspective.

News media are obsessed with the “now”. A good example of what I mean is the flashing of the current value of the Nasdeq index on financial channels. Second by second, the ever-changing index is tracked and displayed. As if whether it is 2384.52 or, the very next instant, 2384.42, matters. Even to people saving for retirement, they should be investing over a 20-30 year timescale, not worrying whether MSFT is down 2 points on disappointing sales figures in Asia in the fourth quarter….or whatever. This compulsive reporting of quite inane and trivial figures is just plain daft.

On the other side, there are some longer term trends that the news media seem to studiously downplay. We are currently undergoing what some scientists are terming “The Sixth Great Extinction” – an event that represents the extinction of most of the earth’s living species. Oil and other carbon fuels are almost exhausted – funny, seeing as we only started actively extracting them around 100 years ago. Global warming will radically alter our climate, this century. Yet these events seem distinctly abstract to most of us. We go on with our lives and our humdrum plans as if nothing was happening. If they are reported – and they sometimes are – they are usually reported as being arcane arguments between competing scientific opinion rather than the actually quite dramatic and epoch-changing events that they really are.

It isn’t that most of us (I presume) don’t see the bigger picture. But I am puzzled by the human capacity to recognise and understand the big picture at one level (intellectually) and yet to continue on regardless at every other level. After all, I doubt very much that scientists predicting the end of the climate system as we know it are not busy contemplating their holidays next summer in their spare time. And I myself am happy to plot and plan my own movements over the next month without regard to the melting ice caps.

So I am presented with a puzzle: why do we grossly exaggerate the trivial and vastly underestimate the longer-term trends? Why do we lack perspective?

Partly, it must be because we have human needs for food, water, and shelter that are pressing on a very short time scale. If I don’t eat breakfast, I get cranky – that sort of thing. Secondly, even over a longer time scale of a human life, we rarely directly experience the bigger changes that are afoot. Knowing that the planet is 0.5 degrees C warmer than it was in 1990 is not something likely to strike home, especially if you’ve only been born in 1992, or whatever. And it is even less likely to strike home when you are asked, just what does 0.5 degrees feel like?

Here’s another take on perspective:

If all of time since the origin of the planet Earth to now (about 4.5 billion years) is represented as one year on a calendar, life began around noon on February 9th (about 4 billion years ago). About March 21st, that life formed into the first primitive cells. Mammals made their first appearance about 200 million years ago – stunningly long ago on our normal timescales, but on the calendar scale just December 14th. That’s eerily close to Christmas and deep into the heart of winter. Those early mammals missed their Thanksgiving dinners. The first hominids emerged on December 31st, around 6.09pm. Astonishing really, to think that all of human history – recorded and unrecorded – occurred on the final day, after teatime. No time to be invited to any New Years Eve parties even. Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America happened, on that calendar, at 11.59pm and 56 seconds. Or just 4 seconds separates his landing on a beach in Haiti to an American landing on the moon. Pushing it out a bit into the future, the complete melting of the Antartic ice shelf might happen within the next 100 years – or less than 1 second into January 1st of next year.

My purpose in drawing out this well-known analogy like this is to remind ourselves just how miniscule is our human timescales to the really important events of the earth. Events are occurring now – such as that climate change and the extinction event – that on a geographic scale are almost instantaneous. Looked at – perhaps by some visiting alien life forms – in 100 million years from now, this whole century will look like a black stain in some rocks. All of human history will have occurred over a timespan of perhaps 3 million years (another few thousand years, if we’re lucky) over an entire earth history of billions of years – or around one day on our illustrative calendar.

Nothing prevents human life as we know it from coming to a shuddering halt right next year, or next month for that matter. Nothing says that we won’t all be destroyed by a collision with an asteroid, or subjected to a virulent strain of bird flu that wipes out 50% of the population. Events like these have happened before and they’ll surely happen again. But even if we are spared these major one-off events, the slowly-building ones will probably get us pretty soon too.

But even knowing that these things could occur, we continue on as before. We are being propelled down a track to destruction that seems irreversible and irresistable. Our human capacity for exaggerating the trivial and underestimating the longer term will as assuredly ensure our eclipse as any other human trait, like greed or ignorance. Let’s get some perspective on it.



  1. David said,

    April 7, 2008 at 10:42 pm

    Thanks for the reminder my apocalyptic friend! It is the job of the media to keep us adequately distracted from pondering our termination. What’s scaring me at this time is the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Starting soon they will be trying to understand the beginning of time by crashing particles together at the highest ever energies. I’m sure that they’ll create a black hole by accident and will suck the entire planet into oblivion. Or maybe just Geneva. The scientists freely admit that they’re not sure what will happen. But they have to do it. I mean they built this gigantic machine …

  2. shazgood said,

    April 9, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    Ah yes, the CERN collider. They’re more likely to create swiss cheese than a minature black hole. Anyway, according to Hawking’s equations governing the (empirically unproven) evaporation of black holes (I say this tongue in cheek – as if I know what those equations look like!), the tiny holes created in the Hadron collider will evaporate in 10^-26 seconds. That’s fast. To imagine just how fast, scale that time period up to 1 millionth of a second, only. Then one second of our time by that scale is 10^20 seconds, or 31,706 billion years. Gulp.

    Meanwhile, I imagine on the night before the collider is finally turned on, Hawking realising that his equations were wrong. Frantically typing out a message at about one word per minute, he gets as far as saying, “I was wrong, do not turn on the coll…” and then BANG!! Just mankind’s luck, eh.

  3. shazgood said,

    April 9, 2008 at 12:14 pm
    It should be stated, in conclusion, that these black holes are not dangerous and do not threaten to swallow up our already much-abused planet. The theoretical arguments and the obvious harmlessness of any black holes that, according to these models, would have to be formed from the interaction of cosmic rays with celestial bodies, mean that we can regard them with perfect equanimity.”

  4. April 13, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    We’re almost out of oil? Not sure about that; we always seem to have 10-20 years left every year. And we have hundreds of years left of coal. Just in case we want to catch up with Venus…

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