Poet’s Notebook: The new Big Story (The short story: a super-intelligent species behaved badly)

I have been teaching a class where we have been discussing the Big Story, the new Big Story of the creation of the universe and the ongoing creation. The old story told about the Big Bang, and an expanding universe of lifeless star systems careening away from each other for the rest of time, a very depressing prospect indeed!  Yes, for almost the last seventy years it has been assumed that the old expanding universe was most likely a dead issue, Star Trek notwithstanding. The old story dictated that Earth was unique. That vision of the universe was pretty much based on what our own solar system seemed to be saying — that everything about Earth, that made it so ripe for life, was a miraculous coincidence, sort of like winning the lottery where the odds are one in infinity. The Christian narrative of Genesis dovetailed with the old scientific narrative: The origin of life, which accounts for our winning the cosmic lottery, was copyrighted by an Earth-centric God. We can look all we want, but there are no other Earths in the universe to be found. In other words, if you’re looking for company out there, don’t get your hopes up, said the old story. All we will find is super-hot places (like Venus), arid rocks (like Mercury and Mars), gaseous giants (like Saturn and Jupiter), or icy outliers (like Pluto). The universe was just a vast proof that God is not a creator of worlds, but the benevolent father of one world, our Earth.

Now we know differently. Our spiral galaxy, one of over a trillion galaxies, is a star-incubator and it is still incubating stars to add to the 100 billion stars that are already in our galaxy. And it is not uncommon for suns to birth planets, nor is it unusual for those planets to be incubators of the conditions for life.

It happens that Earth is about ¼ the age of the universe, about 4.5 billion years old. For 1/5 of its life it was just a cooling rock collecting water from collisions with asteroids.  When it was just a baby, a mere 500 million years old, life began to appear, in the form of single cells. The moon showed up 500 million years later. 3 ½ billion years after that, dinosaurs and flowers appeared. About a hundred million years after that, birds. 100 million years after that, mice, then monkeys, then elephants, then horses.

Our human story (which I summarized in the title of this post) goes something like this: Our first ancestors appeared just the other day, cosmically speaking, that is, 2.5 million or so years ago, in central Africa. There was a climate shift, an epic drought. A small group of apes left the forest to try their luck on the ground. They quickly evolved larger brains and the ability to create weapons to help them hunt and defend themselves. These aboriginal ancestors of ours wasted no time in migrating to other continents, domesticating animals, building fires and developing languages.

7,000 years ago (cosmically speaking, this morning) people started farming to be able to feed larger populations. And they began living in larger and larger cities. Cities needed armies. Urban societies required organized labor. Powerful countries colonized weaker cultures and enslaved people. Labor was cheap.  200 years ago the steam engine was invented and industry took off. Countries with stronger economies could build strong armies to protect their monopolization of resources. Countries battled or traded with each other. They formed alliances. Industry produced enormous waste. The environment was polluted, air, earth and water. Nature was mined and resourced, animals were hunted to extinction or lost their habitats to creeping development. People kept proliferating. The Earth could no longer support the number of people who lived on it. Eco-systems began to fail, governments to destabilize.

This story is essentially over. It was a page turner, but we’ve come to the end of it. We are at a threshold. What we do next hasn’t been written. All we have is prophecies and predictions. But, if you look at the timeline of the Big Story, and you look at the whole story that tells us that our sun is only one of a trillion trillion suns, many of which probably support living planets, it becomes clear that the whole story of the human race amounts to little more than a hairline threshold on an infinitesimal point in the Milky Way. That is to say, the history of the human race is a hair-thin line of time; a super-intelligent species appeared shortly after horses and they behaved badly. There have been other thresholds, mostly caused by freak cataclysms, but in our case, we are the cataclysm.  But we are made of the same stuff that everything on earth is made of – star dust.

Our entire solar system and everything in it, even our minds, originated from a super nova. Now for the shaming: There is no denying that we have behaved badly. The horse, the butterfly and flowers and we humans are all of the same stuff. We all came from the explosion of a giant star. The horse and the butterfly have conducted themselves well. They have contributed to creation. Butterflies have pollinated flowers whose beauty they rival, and horses have given us the gift of their speed and they have helped us hunt and farm.

We, of the giant brain, have yet to behave like the offspring of a star. What have we given back to creation?

So, the question is, What are we going to do now? Let’s not take too much time to answer. In terms of the short story, time is not our friend!



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