World War II, through extensive mobilization and government invest-
ment. It’s a bold proposal. But not once in his account does McKibben
mention another crucial part of that war mobilization on the home
front: rationing. Where is the political will for that?
So here’s a prediction — or, because I’m not sure historians should
make predictions — a worry. We’ll burn every available thing there
is to burn. It’ll take 200 years, or 400, or 600, but eventually all easily
available sources of fossil fuels will be used up. The earth will get very
hot, and there will be little we can do about it.
Historians can weigh data from the past or make predictions about
the future, but there is not much they can do in the face of entrenched
systems of consumption. Our extinction will have its chroniclers, but
no one will be left to read them.
But even in a worst-case scenario, the longue durée can offer a reason for optimism. After all, the atmosphere has a history of its own,
and over the scale of hundreds of millions of years, it’s been quite a
turbulent one. Fifty-six million years ago, during the Paleocene-Eo-cene Thermal Maximum, global temperatures rose 5 degrees Celsius
Roughly six hundred million years ago, the whole earth — or at least
most of it — froze. Then, at the end of the Permian period, volcanic
eruptions heated coal beds, releasing enormous amounts of methane
and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and causing temperatures to
soar upwards of 10 degrees Celsius. That led to the most severe mass
extinction in history. But even so, life survived.
We’re in the process of causing something similar, in a more compressed time frame. Maybe we’ll go extinct. Maybe all the mammals
will go extinct. Maybe we’ll screw up so
much that even our phylum, the Chordates,
will go extinct. But no matter how much
we screw up the earth, life will very likely
endure. In the longue durée, that is a good
Consider the priapulids, diminutive, carnivorous worms that live buried in the sea
floor. They have two sexes, short rectums, and muscular pharynges.
Their name, Latin for “little penis,” comes from their supposed resemblance to the male member. Nearly 30 years ago, Stephen Jay Gould
speculated in his book Wonderful Life that if things had gone just a little
differently 600 million years ago, when the first multicellular organisms were emerging, it might have been the priapulids, and not humans,
that eventually inherited the earth.
Priapulids are still around. Why not give them a shot at the evolu-
tionary rodeo? And if not them, maybe another animal phylum, like
the indestructible Tardigrades or the wheel-mouthed Rotifers. Would
that be so bad?
I’d like to imagine that in 600 million years, some magnificent, sentient representative Rotifer will emerge from the sea with loupe and
hammer to examine the strata of some long-eroded cliff. At some
point, she’ll come to the golden spike of the Anthropocene. By then
the sediment from our era, so rich in ash and carbon spherules, will be
compressed to the width of a fingernail. And our civilization, all our
striving and fighting and innovating, will be revealed for what it was
all along: a gasp, a sigh, a long wet fart vanishing in a cosmic ocean of
Jacob Mikanowski is a freelance writer in Berkeley, Calif. For many years he
pursued a graduate degree in Eastern European history.
means adjusting one’s imagination to a different pace of history, at which
changes unfold incrementally over hundreds, even thousands of years.
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, the great historian of the French countryside, called this “l’histoire immobile” — history without a motor. This,
he wrote, was what history was to most people, most of the time: an
endless slow seesaw of demographic boom and bust — a famine here,
a boon harvest there, and the slow, grinding hunger for land. This was
the world where the introduction of the potato had a greater impact on
everyday life than the French Revolution.
What can thinking in terms of the longue durée tell us about the future? For one thing, we should pay closer attention to slowness. The
speed of technological change in the present blinds us to the degree to
which our 200,000 years or so on the planet has been dominated by
Take religion. Religions change, but only slowly. Religious conflicts
are long-lasting. Anti-Semitism has a history going back 2,400 years.
Divisions between Sunnis and Shiites go back all the way to the first
decades of Islam, in the seventh century AD. The European wars of
religion after the Reformation lasted for more than a century. After
hundreds of years, religious conflict in Ireland has settled down, mostly. Will the continuing strife in the Middle East be resolved in our
lifetime? Perhaps. But it might well continue for hundreds more years.
Inequalities of race, region, class, or caste are deeply embedded in
many societies. Even in countries oriented to their eradication, these
inequalities prove remarkably persistent. Forms of government are likewise long-lasting. Monarchy and empire had their long reigns. Now
the nation-state reigns supreme, while intergovernmental organizations
like the European Union and the United Nations struggle to maintain
Social systems likewise last a long time. Feudalism had its five or six
hundred years in the sun and lingered on for a few hundred more. In
some places it lingers still. Capitalism has been around for close to 700
years, since the foundation of the great merchant banks, in Florence, in
the 14th century. It’s been doing pretty well, at least by its own terms.
One lesson from the 2008 financial disaster is that every-short term
shock only seems to add to capitalism’s underlying stability: Crisis, as
the economic history of the 19th century teaches us, is baked into the
Will capitalism last another 700 years? The possibility is one to be
EVEN TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE isn’t as fast as we think it is. Moore’s Law says that every 18 months or so, the density of transistors on a microchip will double. This has held roughly true for about 50 years. But in most areas of technology, change isn’t nearly as rapid. Vaclav Smil, an
environmental scientist and policy analyst, calls this Moore’s Curse.
Increases in energy generation and efficiency, for example, do not dou-
ble — they inch along, improving by 1 or 2 percent a year.
Changing energy regimes is like turning an ocean tanker around,
writes Smil. There’s a lot of infrastructure to replace, and that takes
time. There are also serious technical challenges to making green energy genuinely widespread — challenges that we haven’t come close to
Recently the environmental activist Bill McKibben wrote an arti-
cle in The New Republic in which he proposed declaring war on global
warming. He suggests tackling the problem the way America fought
Our extinction will have
its chroniclers, but no one
will be left to read them.