On the fragility of life

‘Fragile’ — Yes


Planet Earth is 4,600 million years old.

If we condense this inconceivable time-span into an understandable concept, we can liken Earth to a person of 46 years of age. Nothing is known about the first seven years of this person’s life, and whilst only scattered information exists about the middle span, we know that only at the age of 42 did the Earth begin to flower.

Dinosaurs and the great reptiles did not appear until one year ago, when the planet was 45. Mammals arrived only eight months ago; in the middle of last week man-like apes evolved into ape-like men, and at the weekend the last ice age enveloped the Earth.

Modern man has been around for four hours.

During the last hour, Man discovered agriculture.

The industrial revolution began a minute ago. During those sixty seconds of biological time, Modern Man has made a rubbish tip of Paradise…


The text above is from the poster on the wall in front of me, entitled ‘Against All Odds’. The words are by Greenpeace, London (hat tip to ‘Pray For A Better World‘ for saving me the trouble of transcribing it!).

On this timescale, each human lifespan is a mere 18 seconds.

I feel like an incredibly old mayfly. Fifty-four ‘hundred million’ years old this coming Saturday — and yet, from another point of view, I have only a few more seconds left. Welcome to The Total Perspective Vortex.

I haven’t tried very hard — life’s too short! — to determine when ‘Against All Odds’ was first published. Some time prior to 1991 is the best I can manage by searching. Since these words were penned, the acceleration hasn’t eased up; in the story so far there’s one thing that doesn’t even get a mention — probably because it was just a fledgling at that point.

That thing is: the Internet.

  • When I was born, there were perhaps just a few dozen computers on the planet (and each of those was the size of a room and yet also nowhere near as capable as this machine I’m using at this moment).
  • As a teenager, I blew all my pocket money savings on a Sinclair Cambridge calculator. This was a valuable lesson in not being an early technology adopter, because the Sinclair Cambridge Scientific was released just a few short weeks later — and it cost less, too! I also spent a lot of my hard-earned cash on vinyl (such as the one shown in the video above). At the time, I never realised that ‘records’ would become obsolete so very, very quickly…
  • Also at this time, I was becoming concerned by what I was hearing about the short expected lifespan of fossil fuels as an energy source for civilisation (‘about 30 years’ is what I remember. I strongly suspect that the voice in my head telling me “it’s a trap” was distracted by dint of a Jedi mind-trick). Oooh, shiny!
  • On the way out of my teens, I used a Commodore PET computer at work. I was (briefly) sales administrator for the company’s line of computer games for the PET, on cassette tape — one of the first ever such roles, in an industry that’s now worth many billions world-wide. I should’a stuck with that one!
  • In my early twenties, I bought a ZX Spectrum computer, and played games on it until the wee hours. (Rebelstar Raiders, anyone?) And then I bought an Amstrad PCW. And then I bought a Commodore Amiga.
  • As I turned 30, I was studying for my bachelor’s degree in computer science. And I bought my first PC. It was based on a 486DX-33 CPU, with a massive 100Mb (yes, not a typo) hard disk drive. It cost me just over £2000 (!)
  • At about this time, someone at Greenpeace penned a piece called ‘Against All Odds’ (see above). Also at this time, the Internet began to leak out from its specialist beginnings into the wider world.
  • As my life began (at 40 — or so they say), I was surprised to find that I had started up, from scratch, a business making and selling these new-fangled ‘website’ things… and, among other things, trying to persuade people — who didn’t believe me — that FAX technology was obsolete.
  • At 50, the problem that hadn’t gone away began to raise its ugly head again…

Anyone born in the last fifteen years probably feels in their gut that the Internet has ‘always been around’, in the same way that I felt as though electric light was ‘perfectly natural’ when I were a lad. I strongly suspect that the term ‘pre-Internet’ to such folk has much the same feeling as does ‘gas-light’ to me.

Photo of the northern lights from Tromsø, Norway, on 09Jan2014 by photographer Harald Albrigtsen
The aurora borealis from Tromsø, Norway, on 09Jan2014. Credit: Harald Albrigtsen, Photographer

Meanwhile, back on planet Eaarth, just as we are becoming ever-increasingly reliant upon technowidgetry, our sun is behaving very strangely. It’s preparing to flip its magnetic poles, which happens once every 11 years or so; it’s not something that has ever troubled us humans before — but then we have never before been as dependent as we now are on electronic gadgets.

Solar scientists suspect that we may be in for some exceptionally strong space weather in the coming months — and fragile electrical (and electronic) systems are prone to serious disruption by solar flares.

Recently, the sun has gone exceptionally quiet. Is this the calm before the storm?

If we don’t start asking ourselves some questions about what we’re doing, and considering whether we need more adhesive ducks, we may (not) live to regret it. Accidents happen: and I have a bad feeling that we’re sleepwalking into a big one.

For now: back to the records…

‘The Miracle of Life’ — Yes

About peNdantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
This entry was posted in ... wait, what?, Communication, Computers and Internet, Core thought, Culture, Environment, GCD: Global climate disruption, History, Music, Phlyarology, Science, Strategy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On the fragility of life

  1. John Crapper says:

    Great post! Time is now to stop doing business as usual. Time for taking action here on Earth on what we do have some control over.

    Let’s send a clarion call! No KXL

    A 30-day public comment period began on February 5, 2014 and will close on March 7, 2014. During this period, members of the public and other interested parties are encouraged to submit comments on the national interest determination to http://www.regulations.gov. Comments are not private and will be made public.
    Comments may also be mailed directly to:

    U.S. Department of State
    Bureau of Energy Resources, Room 4843
    Attn: Keystone XL Public Comments
    2201 C Street, NW
    Washington, DC 20520


  2. penpusherpen says:

    it is, ’tis actually the calm before the storm, (’tis blowing a gale outside and the rain is battering at the windows!!) BUT mentally I feel IT. If you know what I mean, The signs are glaring,, noticed by all who are worried (understatement) about what we (humans) have done to this Planet in our very short tenure. WE act as if it’s ours by right, yet we’re not even half a blink in the passage of time, we’re mere tenants, and I feel we haven’t as much glanced at the small print on bottom of the Tenancy agreement. I hope the Owner turns up soon to complain. I really do. xPenx


  3. Wonderful post. And it highlights a link between us (apart from us both being WordPress bloggers.)

    That is when you became aware of the Commodore PET and briefly worked for them you were resonating with me taking on the sixth Commodore PET dealership based in Colchester, Essex in the UK; the year being late 1978.

    Wouldn’t mind reblogging your post?


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