In the beginning, some 13,800,000,000 years ago, there was a bang.
Everything we know as the universe was compressed beyond imagination. Within moments the instability of it all led to the Big Bang. Moments after, the Big Bang gave rise to forces and the forces got to work making the gassy nascent universe more clumpy.
Pockets of gas attracted other pockets of gas. And eventually some pockets got so big and dense that they became super hot and transformed in to what we know today as stars.
Some particularly large stars exploded in spectacular fashion and in the process allowed particles to join up in ways we know as heavy elements. And with that, things started getting clumpy.
Wait enough time—some 9,230,000,000 years—and exploded clumps from exploded stars found themselves chaotically gathering into what we know today as The Solar System.
One of these clumps we named Earth. For the first 1,000,000,000 or so years of its life, Earth was continually bombarded with free floating clumps looking to get clumpier. We call these meteors and comets.
But with time, most of the clumps found other clumps to team up with and things got quieter. Earth was still very hot and unrecognisable, but some of the clumps smashing in to the surface brought water with them. And it’s believed that a mixture of water, heat, and other trace materials (brought by other clumps) created a soup of sorts which would become the nursery of life.
Around 3,900,000,000 years ago it’s possible that—on the sides of an anonymous sub-oceanic vent—some clumps started acting very strangely indeed. Animated clumps appeared to exhibit a strange tendency we know today as hunger and seemed to haphazardly transform benign food clumps into animated children clumps.
And with time, via a process of natural selection, the animated clumps either died or managed to survive and create many children clumps. The branches of the family that continued to survived started looking more and more distinct from each other as they found new environments to live in—each environment forging life in the image of its own particular challenges.
Life marched on and eventually some devised a trick where they broke carbon gas in to oxygen gas. And when enough of that oxygen gas filled the air, some life would leave the sea and start living on land.
Fast-forward and somewhere on a continent known as Africa a branch of the monkey family started behaving strangely indeed. They spent more time balancing on their hind legs than climbing trees. Hands freed, they made intricate tools and used them to make quick work of food scraps. They even started speaking at fidelities that enabled learning from each other and eventually collaborating for goals beyond their natural instincts.
Some 12,000 years ago it seems hunter-gatherer tribes first began collaborating on civic projects. There’s evidence in modern day Turkey of tribe(s) hauling giant tablets of stone to a site, and then going to the effort of drawing on them in intricate ways. This was that kind of project which would have taken many people many months—and kept them from gathering and hunting which they would have done otherwise.
The suspicion is the hunter gatherer tribe(s) were creating a religious monument of sorts and to have done so required a level of coordination which marked the transition from hunter-gatherer tribes to civilisations. To make the project possible, farming might have became a thing.
The 12,000 years that followed we’re more familiar with. Farms gave rise to towns. Towns gave rise to cities. The wealthy and the power-hungry claimed control of regions. Countless wars unfolded. Countless people were either oppressed as slaves or extorted for money. But at the same time, spoken words began to be recorded on tablets—and later, on paper. People started believing more in metal circles than in grain as currency. And generations of investigators and explorers began discovering where we are in time and place.
Which all got us to this moment now.
It’s tempting to draw clean lines through the chaos of history in order to tell comforting stories of progress. And to some extent it’s warranted. We’ve gone from heat and gases, to clumps and life. From homes in trees to homes in ornate constructions.
But to talk of progress being made on the things we really care about—say a sense of meaning, place, happiness (and other branches of the art of living)—and its dubious to say we’re made more headway than the chatter our ancient ancestors shared around campfires.
The cultural baggage of the last 12,000 years provides an illusion of progress and meaning. But I think the world has always been as confusing and chaotic as it is now. Filled with stories of people just trying to survive another day and using whatever knowledge they had at the time to help them get there.
As humanity progressed, more and more of us began questioning elements of our cultural baggage which no longer fitted with the times we found ourselves in—nor the possibilities which could have been. And so some of us got to work, shedding layer upon layer.
But each layer we shed left us vulnerable to the existential crises our cultural baggage shielded us from. Sense of place and meaning—of comfort—was shattered in to freak strokes of luck and lack of meaning.
Religion, to pick an example, suppressed the doubting mind by providing a simple answer: it’s all the work of forces beyond our control and imagination.
The evolving field of science postulated that in fact, with time, the mechanisms thought to be beyond our imagination could be systematically uncovered. And so rationality ripped the band-aid off the existential mind, but completely failed to provide the hushing comfort we so desperately seek.
Naked, and having crowbarred Pandora’s box wide open, we gazed into the abyss. The universe was so much bigger and sparse than we could have ever imagined. Theorists tried to fill the space with theories—and these went some way in helping us make sense of the immensity we found. But try as we might, the doubting mind whispered: “We might never understand, nor reach, the smallest and biggest parts of the universe. We may never understand where the universe is and what gave birth to it.”
And in a roundabout way, we found ourselves at the start again.
In light of the apparent indifference of the universe and its constitute parts, its time for a frank conversation about humanity and what we want for ourselves.
We crave meaning and direction. But we’re currently navigating on an autopilot nobody seemed to have configured.
This is of course quite understandable as emergent residue of a Big Bang reaction. After all, as far as we can tell steam particles don’t seem to require a sense of purpose to rise from their boiling counterparts.
But somewhere along our lineage we developed this strange cognitive quirk we call consciousness. And illusion or not, it has given us a sense of control. We can choose a direction to take instead of merely drifting with the cosmic tide.
With 12,000 years of trial and error, we’ve built powerful institutions for collaboration. So much so that we are the gods now. Unaided, a single human cannot make much of a dent on the universe. But when we work together and build on each other’s innovations and experiences, we can—and have—reconfigured Earth itself.
In the void of conversation and consensus, strange ideals such as economic growth become the default autopilot heading for the immense collective force of humanity.
And this is the rub.
Collectively we work countless hours a day—and to what end? To speed up the degradation of our one home, in exchange for making a few of us outrageously wealthy while the rest of us distract ourselves with ever more purchases and entertainment?
It’s true that some of us have found work they really enjoy. And it’s true the path we’re currently on has lifted many people out of poverty and provided them with improved health and education.
But I look around and I see many tired and depressed faces. I also acknowledge, outside our immediate view, preventable suffering continues.
We’re forced in to work to continue living. Yet minute percentages of us work in industries that actually feed us. In short, it seems a lot of tedious busywork is going on.
And to me, this seems like a profound waste of human potential and environmental capital.
We could, if we so dared, choose to build towards a future we actually want for ourselves. Not just the emergent future the default autopilot heading brings to fruition.
The institutions we have developed provide a sufficient rudder for humanity. But we need to put some conscious thought in to directing the rudder towards the future we actually want.
Trillions of years in the future the heat death of the universe might finally get us. But until then, humanity has time for a few more renaissances. The catering is already covered.