Posts Tagged ‘Long Now Foundation’

“The Long Green”

September 5, 2012

Time for Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrestin EEA. Green’s nothing new, it’s been around for a long time. If we’re to be around long-term, he suggests, we’re going to need to hitch our respective movements and activisms and causes and “restore, grace, justice, and beauty to the world.” For we now “have the same impact in five minutes that our ancestors had in a year, the same in a year as our ancestors did in 100,000 years.” The least we can afford to think about is the next 10,000. So Hawken told the Long Now Foundation.

Taking the long view on the environmental movement, Paul Hawken discovered that something very large and transformative is going on. For four decades Paul Hawken has created organizations and books that advance the environmental agenda. The books include the now-classic NATURAL CAPITALISM (1999, with Amory Lovins), THE ECOLOGY OF COMMERCE (1993), GROWING A BUSINESS (1987), and THE NEXT ECONOMY (1983). Currently Paul is founding the Natural Capital Institute and several companies for Pax Scientific. He chaired the US introduction of The Natural Step and co-founded the great gardening mail order catalog, Smith & Hawken. His 1966 company Erewhon helped create the natural foods movement.

Here he is more recently. He also gave an inspiring commencement address in Portland. And here’s the bio on his website.

In “The Long Green” he reminds us that environmentalism didn’t just happen when a bunch of young idealists thought it would be cool to have an Earth Day, or even when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962 (the contention of a new book by William Souder).

No, environmentalism’s always been latent but real (if not so labeled) for as long as there have been indigenous peoples with a deep sense of themselves as nature’s children. In the western world it’s more recent, coinciding with social justice movements in general and the rise of biological science in particular. “The 19th century may come to be called the Age of Ecology, thanks not only to the scientific ethos of Darwin and Huxley but to a popular mindset framed by the likes of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Horace Greeley, and John Muir.

As for conservation: George Perkins Marsh’s legacy of domination is a mixed bag, and Gifford Pinchot’s “conservation” lends itself to a “wise use” policy that undercuts the aggressive activism some of us think is overdue. “Wise use” has become a catchphrase used by right-wingers to fight against environmental organizations” like Friends of the Earth, Earth Island Institute, the Rainforest  Action Network and more. It’s become a euphemism for environmental exploitation in the name of jobs and economic growth – the subject of the next chapter.

The bike is going to challenge the carA call to action from Lazy PointSilent Spring at 50Denying it doesn’t make it stop

A joyful wisdom

May 24, 2012

The past is the past, but the future can be a Long Now. That’s what Faulkner really meant to say, whether he knew it or not.

But I wonder if he knew or approved of John Dewey‘s view?

We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. [More Dewey quotes]

That’s a Stoic attitude. (See Marcus Aurelius.) All these guys were Stoics of one sort or another, as John Lachs first taught me many years ago. Life is for the living, in an expanding and inclusive present that continually renews itself day after day, year after year.  Stoics have their dreams, but also their responsibilities.

And as William Irvine says, Stoics can have their fun too. Stoics for life possess a joyful wisdom.


September 20, 2010

This looks to me, mechanically disinclined as I am, like an awful lot of moving parts for a clock designed to last 10,000 years. You can check the specs & drawings yourself, for the “01999” prototype that now awaits its installation on  the grand and lasting scale– sixty feet if it’s an inch, says Stewart Brand.

But the most moving part is the consciousness that dreams it. It has some potential staying power, since its contents are transferable from one generation to the next.

The key point here, though: this “future-oriented mechanism” is not supposed to be a mere monument to our ingenuity or our dreaminess.

It’s supposed to be alive. It’s supposed to floresce. (“Anthropologists call the sudden urge to build something huge a florescence.”)

Joyce Kilmer thought

that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree

But this poem, and clock and orrery, is plenty lovely enough for me. Like an old tree it inspires, like the Socratic hero it models responsibility as a way of life and not a moldy museum piece. “It should not let itself become a religion” or “do eternity,” a temptation which for so many historically has meant “future-dodging” and cultural suicide. We don’t want another Alexandria, another Hypatia.*

Tim Berners-Lee once said of the web, “You don’t have to visit it, but it’s nice to know it’s there.”

Well, that’s true too of museums. The designers of this amazing clock have built in the expectation and requirement that someone or other visit regularly to literally wind the thing. (Out of sight, out of mind etc.)

If they build it, I will come.


“Future” begins

August 30, 2010

I have to say it at least once: The future is now.

The “Future of Life” course, that is. It starts today. Trying to get a jump-start, I’ve emailed students (though Beloit says the “1st Yrs,” the Class of 2014— born in 1992!– don’t really do email anymore) and asked them to begin pondering a statement from William James in his Pragmatism, at the end of his third lecture:

The really vital question for us all is, What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself? The centre of gravity of philosophy must therefore alter its place. The earth of things, long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights. To shift the emphasis in this way means that philosophic questions will fall to be treated by minds of a less abstractionist type than heretofore, minds more scientific and individualistic in their tone yet not irreligious either. It will be an alteration in ‘the seat of authority’ that reminds one almost of the protestant reformation. And as, to papal minds, protestantism has often seemed a mere mess of anarchy and confusion, such, no doubt, will pragmatism often seem to ultra-rationalist minds in philosophy. It will seem so much sheer trash, philosophically. But life wags on, all the same, and compasses its ends, in protestant countries. I venture to think that philosophic protestantism will compass a not dissimilar prosperity. Gutenberg etext

I’ve asked my still-future students (or the ones who still read email, anyhow): Do you agree with James? Wherein lies the “vitality,” for you? Or is the future a black box any normally-constituted human should expect to have difficulty imagining or caring about? What would it mean, really to care about it? How would, or how does, caring impact your choices and actions?

That’s part of what our course will be about. “Future” and “life” both sprawl in an almost untameable way, of course, so we’ll have plenty of parsing to do as we go along. That means even more basic, orienting questions: Is the future all about me, or about us, at all? Or is it all about successors to whom our relation is murky? Should we consider our main obligation to be to ourselves as individuals, to our (contingent) historical epoch, to our wider communities, our DNA, the species, the planet, the carboniferous form of life, or— as the late Carl Sagan said– to the very cosmos, “ancient and vast” and ongoing, itself?

So many questions. We’ll begin looking for answers with a nod to Dan Dennett, who pointed out that we are the beneficiaries of generations of people who cared about us while knowing they’d never meet us, and with a forward-looking glance backward from 19th century futurist Edward Bellamy (“Looking Backward“). How easy it is to get details wrong, but how exciting to dream of real progress in subduing the inherited scourges– including economic and political as well as biological plagues– of the past.

Then, Sagan’s calendar and the Long Now Foundation’s clock (“now“),’s “Third Culture” crowd, Jaron Lanier, Bill McKibben, Richard Powers,  maybe E.O. Wilson and Aubrey de Grey too.

So many possibilities, in the great open-ended pluralistic universe. I talked about some of them on the radio back in the Spring, when the future seemed so far off.

But first, it being the first day, we’ll introduce ourselves. I’m tired of being “Dr. Phil,” maybe I’ll pass along Older Daughter’s suggestion that, in this class at least, I become “Phil of the future.”


June 10, 2010

This is why we need a long clock.

The short one we’ve already got keeps ticking closer to midnight, closer to doomsday. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists calmly declares: it is 6 minutes to midnight.

The Doomsday Clock conveys how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction–the figurative midnight–and monitors the means humankind could use to obliterate itself. First and foremost, these include nuclear weapons, but they also encompass climate-changing technologies and new developments in the life sciences that could inflict irrevocable harm…

Such potential dangers are forcing scientists, institutions, and industry to develop self-governingmechanisms to prevent misuse. But developing a system to ensure the safe use of bioengineering, without impeding beneficial research and development, could pose the greatest international science and security challenge during the next 50 years.

The next 6 minutes.

“This is our life happening,” Michael Chabon has written, “and it’s happening right now.”

Dawkins’ spirituality

January 26, 2010

Here’s Dawkins painting his eulogistic rainbow, minus the soundtrack.*

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?


There is an anaesthetic of familiarity, a sedative of ordinariness which dulls the senses and hides the wonder of existence. For those of us not gifted in poetry, it is at least worth while from time to time making an effort to shake off the anaesthetic. What is the best way of countering the sluggish habitutation brought about by our gradual crawl from babyhood? We can’t actually fly to another planet. But we can recapture that sense of having just tumbled out to life on a new world by looking at our own world in unfamiliar ways. — Richard Dawkins (Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder)

And, although presumably there is no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, the Professor endorses the perspective of Dr. Flicker… and Bertrand Russell:

“Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out — at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation — it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things.”

Dawkins praises the late Carl Sagan‘s special talent for evoking the feeling of awed wonder that science can give us… one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable, a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver… one of the things that makes life worth living.

With that last phrase he’s channeling William James too, in On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings: “Life is always worth living, if one have such responsive sensibilities.”  Open your eyes, indeed. It’s a vast and sprawling cosmos, and we’re its mind. Transcendence is just an eye-blink away.


* And here he is barnstorming middle America, affirming (J & M notwithstanding) transcendence and repudiating the supernatural. And here, speaking at length with Dan Dennett. This may not be the way he would put it, but I say (again, to the distress of J & M) Richard Dawkins is “spiritual, not religious.”


Postscript. Got a tweet this morning from Dawkins, directing me to the latest from the Hubble Space Telescope. I’ve commented before on how this marvelous eye in the sky keeps on boldly going where we’ve never gone before, so far away across the daunting expanses of space and time.  Seems to me the Dawkins-Sagan brand of spirituality is crucially concerned with our taking ever-longer and wider pan-spatio-temporal views of our species– as is the Long Now Foundation, with its Millennium Clock. That was the import of John Dewey’s “continuous human community,” too. I think it may also be part of what Jeremy Rifkin is saying in his new book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis.

So, though it may be true that nobody really worries about what’s going to happen to the universe in another few billion years, it’s still not unimportant that we’re now technologically capable of peering 13+ billion years into our cosmic past. Long-term thinking may be our only salvation. I say we deserve it. We owe it to ourselves.

WJ bio – 12

December 4, 2009

We rejoin James in his early sixties, in 1903: a time of rapid (by the standards of the day) mechanization. “A Packard accomplished the first automobile trip across the United States,” San Francisco to New York, in the astonishing time of just fifty-two days. The Wright Brothers have just gone aerial. And Henry Adams is yearning for the thirteeth century’s cult of the Virgin of Chartres.

To get slightly ahead of our story: James exchanged letters with Adams not long before his death, responding to the latter’s dark musings about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the inevitable “heat death of the universe” and so on, this way:

“Though the ULTIMATE state of the universe may be its… extinction, there is nothing in physics to interfere with the hypothesis that the PENULTIMATE state might be a happy and virtuous consciousness… In short, the last expiring pulsation of the universe’s life might be, “I am so happy and perfect that I can stand it no longer.”

That’s looking on the bright side.*

James’s great intellectual excitement at this time is his discovery of the “process” philosophy of Henri Bergson, his elan vital and his perception of time’s inexorable forward momentum. “It is like the breath of the morning and the song of birds. And to me it tells of reality itself and not merely of what previous dusty-minded professors have thought about reality.”

(Note that it’s always other professors’ dusty-minded ideas one must shake off.)

This is when James wrestles, somewhat ineffectually, with “the Ph.D. Octopus.” If exclusionary formal credentialing was already out of hand then, how much worse is it now? Short answer: lots.

This is also when he really first appreciates his fundamental consanguinity with John Dewey, who “makes biology and psychology continuous” and whose “favorite word is situation.” (His second-favorite was “reconstruction”).

And this is the time of the Emerson centenary, when James orates in memory of New England’s great Socratic Transcendentalist:

“The deep today which all men scorn” receives thus from Emerson superb revindication. Other world! there is no other world.” All God’s life opens into the individual particular, and here and now, or nowhere, is reality. “The present hour is the decisive hour, and every day is doomsday.” Such a conviction that Divinity is everywhere may easily make of one an optimist of the sentimental type that refuses to speak ill of anything. Emerson’s drastic perception of differences kept him at the opposite pole from this weakness. After you have seen men a few times, he could say, you find most of them as alike as their barns and pantries, and soon as musty and dreary. Never was such a fastidious lover of significance and distinction, and never an eye so keen for their discovery. His optimism had nothing in common with that indiscriminate hurrahing for the Universe with which Walt Whitman has made us familiar…

1904 brings the nominal birth of  James’s “radical empiricism,” made radical by its refusal to concede the reality of “any element that is not directly experienced nor exclude any element that is directly experienced.” Bertrand Russell, famously disapproving of James’s “Will to Believe“– make-believe, Russell had sneeredsaid James “was right on this matter, and would on this ground alone deserve a high place among philosophers.” (More Russell quotes)

*Russell also agreed with James’s rejection of cosmic pessimism, even supposing our sun and galaxy and universe must someday expand and collapse and disappear:

I am told that that sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that, they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence.

Long-term thinking is good, wondering what life will make of itself is vital… but let’s not get carried away! The end of the universe is (almost) unimaginably remote, much moreso than the potential end of a humanity victimized by its own self-destructiveness. This would have been Russell’s answer to young “Alvy Singer”… it was in fact the essence of what “Dr. Flicker” advised:

NOTE to students: the James story still has a few years to tell… but this is all you’ll “have to know for the test.”