ELBOD: As humans we only live a short time, but we need to gain a feeling for our place in the life of the planet and the universe.

The problem is that we need to acquire a sense of our importance so we understand where we belong, and at the same time a sense of how small we are so we don't become too big for our britches.

We are important because we are part of an unbroken chain of existence that goes back to the Big Bang, a chain that may lead to civilization and intelligent life reshaping the planet and the universe (see previous essay).

We are unimportant because each of us is only one of six billion people on the Earth who will live a very brief period of time.

As humans we only live a 100 years at most (just to use a round number), but the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and life on Earth is about 3 billion years old. Sexual reproduction of life is about 1 billion years old (it was only with the development of sex that most of the diverse life forms on the Earth came into being). Humanoids in some form have been on the Earth maybe 10 million years. Agriculture and civilization is about 10,000 years old. So the 100 years that each of us might live is very small.

Yet in that short period, we can inflict severe damage to the Earth, damage that may last hundreds of thousands of years. Damage that our children may not be able to repair. In less than a hundred years we may be destroying part of an ecosystem that took millions of years to create.

So during the short period each of us is alive, we should not add to the destruction of the Earth.

I am not a pessimist. I believe that human kind and intelligent life will prevail, but only when it comes to terms with the natural limitations of population, waste and bi-products created by that population.

TALBOT: After saying all that how can you be optimistic?

ELBOD: In just one hundred years, we have gone from flimsy bi-planes that could barely get off the ground to rockets that land on Mars and explore other planets.

Just two hundred years ago electricity was a parlor trick. It was not thought to have any practical application. Now we could not live without it.

But because we have achieved so much, because we have gathered so much power into our hands, we feel now that we can do anything. We used to think that lighting was a thunder bolt thrown by the gods and that outbreaks of disease were punishments from God. Now we know the inner workings of these natural phenomena and no longer blame the gods. We now have the power of the gods but we still need to learn the responsibility of the gods.

Many think that if we damage the environment we can invent new technology to repair it. Yet we may be drunk with our own power. We may damage the environment beyond our ability to fix it. Right now we do not seem to have a sense of our limitations.

In short if we gain so much power that we can alter the planet, we must learn to be responsible in the ways that we use and limit the use of that power. We need to understand the consequences of our power.

The movie Titanic (the Titans were greek gods, by the way) seems like a metaphor for where we are headed. We think we can do no wrong, that we are invincible with our modern inventions, but something very simple and natural like an ice berg may sink our visions of a glorious civilization and instead plunge us into the dark cold waters of environmental disaster.

TALBOT: Sounds pretty pessimistic to me?

ELBOD: Well, remember a third of the people on the Titanic survived. And as a result of the sinking major changes were made to regulations governing life boats on board ships, as well as the monitoring of distress signals.

Out of disaster came the relative safety of modern ships. I feel certain we will survive and go on. As I said earlier, imagine what we could do in another thousand years or million years or billion years.

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