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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Romancing the Future

Poetry and whisky are two things I don't need a reason to combine, but come the end of January and Burns Night, there is no better reason to do so. As the annual festivities kick off across the United Kingdom this year, many glasses of whisky will be raised in the famous Scot's name.

After his death, Robert Burns became a great source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism, and today he is celebrated worldwide. He is also regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement, characterised by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of all the past and nature.

It was a kind of reaction against the increasing industrialisation and technological advancement of the 1800s, wishing to revive a romantic medieval past that was considered noble and authentic for being of folk and ancient custom. Thus, while its significant and complex effect on politics meant that for much of the Romantic period it was associated with liberalism and radicalism, its long-term effect on the growth of nationalism was perhaps more significant.

Today we still tend to romanticise the past. Conservatives do it. Republicans live for it. Fanatics wanting the future to be the past are killing people on the basis of it. Nationalism and religious fanaticism both owe their growth to a romantic view of the past. But it would seem that in the progress of technology there is good reason to romanticise previous centuries. Plastic now pollutes every corner of Earth. From supermarket bags to CDs, man-made waste has contaminated the entire globe, and become a marker of a new geological epoch.

Humans have made enough plastic since the second world war to coat the Earth entirely in clingfilm, an international study has revealed. This ability to plaster the planet in plastic is alarming, say scientists - for it confirms that human activities are now having a pernicious impact on our world.

The research, published in the journal Anthropocene, shows that no part of the planet is free of the scourge of plastic waste. Everywhere is polluted with the remains of water containers, supermarket bags, polystyrene lumps, compact discs, cigarette filter tips, nylons and other plastics. Some are in the form of microscopic grains, others in lumps. The impact is often highly damaging.

Meanwhile, Lake Poopo in Bolivia was officially declared evaporated last month. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have lost their livelihoods and gone. Overturned fishing skiffs lie abandoned on the shores of what was Bolivia's second-largest lake. Beetles dine on bird carcasses and gulls fight for scraps under a glaring sun in what marshes remain.

High on Bolivia's semi-arid Andean plains at 3,700 metres (more than 12,000 feet) and long subject to climatic whims, the shallow saline lake has essentially dried up before only to rebound to twice the area of Los Angeles. But scientists believe recovery may no longer be possible.

And the human race faces one its most dangerous centuries yet as progress in science and technology becomes an ever greater threat to our existence, Stephen Hawking warns. The chances of disaster on planet Earth will rise to a near certainty in the next one to ten thousand years, the eminent cosmologist said, from nuclear weapons and genetically engineered viruses, but it will take more than a century to set up colonies in space where human beings could live on among the stars.

Hawking shows that we also have a tendency to romanticise the future. Science fiction has painted a certain picture of space travel in popular culture. Drawing on stories of exploration from an age of tall ships, with a good helping of anachronisms and fantastical science, space exploration is often depicted in a romantic style: a crew of human travelers in high-tech ships wandering the Galaxy, making discoveries and reporting back home.

Perhaps they even find habitable words in their trek around the stars, some teeming with life (typically humans with different-colored skin), and they trade, colonise, conquer or are conquered. Pretty much, they do as humans have always done since the dawn of their time on Earth.

But it is much more likely that we shall live and die with our planet. We are made of the Earth, and as inextricably and intricately linked to it as the axis upon which it turns. If what some climatologists argue is true that it may be too late to reverse climate change, and it's just a matter of time before the Earth becomes uninhabitable - if hundreds of years from now - then it is a legacy humanity not only created but a fate it shares.

The vast distances between solar systems combined with the speed-of-light limit puts severe constraints on the realities of space travel. Large distances combined with low speeds means that exploration is going to take time. Astrobiologists tell us that our galaxy has no shortage of habitable worlds: estimates range from at least 1 every 10,000 stars to as many as 1 every 10 stars. Even so, given the vast distances between stars and the low speeds achievable by realistic spacecraft, plan on voyages between worlds taking centuries to millennia.

Physically we are more organic than we would like to believe, too: We are not equipped to live in space, and finding a planet that can harbour not just life but human life is a task far insurmountable than looking after the one we already have. More than that, if Earth falls, space exploration will only be our salvation if we solve the problems we want to run away from - else they will just follow us to wherever we choose to land. Indeed, they may even halt us taking off in the first place. Squabbles stand in the way of our technological advancement when we are too busy fighting to forge ahead.

Sometimes we think technological advancement is a cure for all human ills. The grander claims of twenty-first century neuroscience, including the fashionable idea that humans are just sophisticated computers, and that our behaviours and emotions can be explained by identifiable activity here and there in our brains, is bunk. Animals are not machines. The way we experience love, wonder, guilt, humour may be beyond the reach, not only of the machines we build tomorrow but of science itself.

Tomorrow, as today, we are pulled and pushed by what we label as the past and future, we are trapped by a linear reality that forces us to walk a line. It is this unforgiving line that often makes us romanticise the way behind or the way before us, to make the walk with our self bearable. "If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail," French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in his 1929 meditation on our paradoxical experience of time, "we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer."

Nowhere is this duality of time more disorienting than in the constant mental time travel we perform between what has been and what will be in order to anchor ourselves to what is. As our lives tick on, gradually robbing the future of potential and robbing the past of relevance, we trudge along the arrow of time dragging with us this elusive curiosity we call a self - an ever-shifting packet of personal identity, mystifying in how it links us to our childhood selves and misleading in how it maps out our future selves.

This puzzlement, however, actually gives a soul to existence. German writer, philanthropist, and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann articulated this idea that our awareness of the fleeting nature of time is what it means to be human. Time can only be fleeting if it is perceived as linear - it is only when flung on the arrow of time and stuck between the push and pull it causes, one is forced to mentally land and rethink. Our mental reality may ultimately all be just a collection of timeless experiences with no real start or finish, but that just leaves existence up in the ether, like a human lost in space and torn from the planet that sustains him.

We all know the saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. But no one says that the first step begins from home. We need to rethink our journey not just in terms of where we're going, but where we can realistically go in the perceived fleeting nature of time. Yet, even though a plea to contemporaries to rethink the past and the future is admirable, and might have been useful even in the last years of the twentieth century, is it possible? Now, when the studied past has ceased to exist in the minds of those under 30, this plea seems a cry in the wilderness.

I find that most university students find a 30-page article a burden; they want a 30-word summary of what defies summation. They cannot imagine the pleasure that a massive work of scholarship and study can give the conscientious reader, because such intense reading needs background, practice and discipline, not virtues often found in our universities today. The warning German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche gave over the future of our academies of higher learning rings true that it is popular culture not a perceptive one that rules mainstream thought.

Maybe this is me romanticising over whisky and words, but we prefer science fiction to science fact. We prefer the dream to reality. But that is a timeless trap; it has always been thus. We wouldn't be human else, if we didn't reach for the unreachable. And our greatest paradox gives birth to more.

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