The Billion Year Plan

“The color of the global empire may well be green.” — Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

Man in his arrogance” thinks himself master of the universe, believing he has uncovered all the mysteries of the cosmos. After all, he knows practically everything worth knowing since a nanosecond after the big bang, he can harness vast amounts of energy from tiny atoms, he can go to the moon, he can cure diseases.

Nothing could be further from the truth. A mere three hundred years since Sir Isaac Newton and the birth of modern science, we’ve already lost sight of the big picture, busy as we are patting ourselves on the back and gloating about our accomplishments.

We’re so preoccupied with details and trivialities, staring blankly down the barrel of a microscope, gazing anxiously at our stock portfolios, glancing voyeuristically at our social media feeds, that we’ve forgotten how to take a giant step back and think about the big picture.

That picture would, by necessity, include not just a list of our scientific accomplishments but also an accounting of its cumulative costs: on our psyches as individuals, on our communities collectively, on other species of plant and animal life sharing the planet with us and, above all, on Mother Earth itself as a holistic ecosystem.

Given the size of the observable universe, it would be the height of hubris to believe that there aren’t other, more intelligent, life forms out there in the universe. Unfortunately for us, they’re not coming to our rescue nor will they colonize Earth any time soon, as every science fiction movie would have you believe.

Their civilizations may have peaked a billion years ago or may do so a billion years hence. They won’t visit us unless they’ve mastered both time travel and warp speed; and, even if and when they do, they’re likely to take one look at the mess we’ve created and turn on their heels. As sad as the thought is, we’re the only hope for salvation we have at a planetary level. For better or for worse, we hold the fate of this “pale blue dot” in our hands.

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” — Carl Sagan. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

Do we really want to be the generation that goes down in history (whatever remains of it) as the one that understood the ramifications of its decisions on all future generations of all species yet chose, with malice aforethought and careless abandon, to plow right ahead and plunder its chances at redemption? Are we really that stupid, that selfish, that arrogant, that short-sighted? How dare we call ourselves Homo Sapiens (Latin: “wise men”)? And for what? To make a few more bucks? To buy another house, another car, another toy? What gives us the right to be so self-centered?

We’re all climate deniers.

In a sense, we’re all climate deniers. Even those of us who believe the fundamental facts of climate change to be true go about living our lives day after day, scrolling impatiently past the headlines, blaming governments and corporations for not doing enough, yet refusing to make any substantive changes to our lives, burying our heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich and denying the inevitability of the catastrophic future awaiting us all.

Here’s what goes through the mind of a typical person living in a modern society:

Of course I need a new car. My old one is three years old and has a dent on the rear passenger door. It doesn’t even have heated side mirrors, for chrissake. Of course we need three cars in our household. Anything less is just too inconvenient. Our calendars are so busy, what with work and groceries and yoga class and soccer practice and all.

Besides, I just heard they’ve invented devices that suck CO2 right out of the atmosphere. Technology to the rescue. Problem solved. Never mind that no one has figured out how to do this efficiently or cost-effectively and in the timeframe needed to avert disaster. Never mind that every human being that ever lived until a hundred years ago managed to do just fine with zero cars. Never mind that figuring out how to live a car-free life is the most impactful thing we can do to help the planet.

Of course I’ll keep eating hamburgers and steaks. I just love the taste. I crave it! My body needs the protein. I’m a conscientious consumer and care about the environment so I always look for “organic” and “free range” stickers when I shop for meat.

Besides, I just heard they’ve figured out how to grow meat in a vat that looks and tastes exactly the same as real beef right down to the blood oozing out of a rare hamburger. It’s not my thing but I’m pretty sure enough people will eat it to offset the methane gas that cows belch and fart into the atmosphere.

Never mind that we treat animals inhumanely their entire lives, keeping them in pens where they can’t even turn around in place, traumatizing them day and night. Never mind that, in the pursuit of profits, we’ve genetically modified the species to such an extent that they grow to a grotesque weight and can’t even stand on their own legs. Never mind that switching to a plant-based diet is listed as one of the top three ways we can help reduce the impact of climate change.

“Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world.” — Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

Of course I’ll keep flying for work and for leisure. Who has the time to travel by train or car in this day and age? I just have to go to Hong Kong and London and Singapore for that conference and that business meeting. I just need to go to Hawaii or Mexico or Italy for vacation. Because I need sunshine, I need to swim in the ocean, I need culture, I need beauty, I need wine, I need rest, I need, I need, I need.

Never mind that the business meetings could just as easily happen over Zoom. Never mind that upon arrival at the vacation destination, I immediately jump on a conference call, yell at my kids to be quiet, fight with my wife about the cost of dinner or the taxi, stand in line for hours to get a glimpse of a painting, and post selfies on social media that look like every other selfie ever posted by every other tourist. Never mind that a single international flight wipes out the benefits of twenty years of recycling.

I could keep going but you get the point.

Like I said, we’re all climate deniers. I rationalize my poor choices just as much as anyone else. We’re all guilty. We put our own “needs” and “wants” ahead of the planet and future generations. Any wonder the planet is dying under the weight of our selfishness?

“We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.” — Greta Thunberg.

The Billion Year Plan.

Imagine if Planet Earth was a corporation and we were the executive team managing it. Busy as we are squeezing every penny out of the resources at our disposal and optimizing for short term gain instead of investing for the long term and for the health and wellbeing of our employees, it would be immediately obvious that our company is sick and headed for disaster. Sure, the quarterly results look great; but at what cost?

What we need now is not a plan for how we’ll survive for the next hundred or thousand or even the next million years but, rather, how we (and all the species around us and the planet as a whole) will thrive for the next billion years, the expected lifespan of the planet.

Don’t get me wrong. The planet will be here for a billion years or more regardless of what we do. After all, it has survived millions of years with boiling oceans and countless years with continents buried under miles of ice.

Meanwhile, as man-made climate change takes a toll on the environment, we’ll manage to destroy many species of animals and plants (currently at the stupefying rate of 150 species per day). Other species will come to life over the millennia as they adapt to new atmospheric and oceanic conditions but, at the current rate of what some people call “progress,” we won’t be around to see any of it.

Two degrees Celsius temperature rise, the so-called “tipping point” expected to happen before the end of the century given current greenhouse gas emission rates, may not seem like much given what the planet has already experienced but focusing on just the average temperature obfuscates extreme conditions at the ends of the spectrum that will come to pass across the globe, some of which we’re already starting to see.

As Vaclav Smil and others have argued, our carbon footprint will continue to increase globally over the coming years almost regardless of what advanced countries do. This will happen as third world countries invest in much needed infrastructure in their attempts to catch up to the first world. That, however, is not an excuse for us in advanced societies to continue to indulge our profligate ways. Responsible consumerism is a choice each and every one of us needs to make for ourselves every day.

If you’re reading these words in the hopes of finding the grand plan, you may stop now. I’m not smart enough to come up with such a blueprint. Frankly, no one is. We have enough trouble coming up with five year plans. What I do know, and what I’m trying to communicate, is that we’re not going to create such a plan unless and until we make drastic changes to how we view the problem space and its potential solutions, how each and every one of us lives our lives, and how we measure our goals and accomplishments.

Such a plan cannot be limited by short term financial considerations nor can it expect to address only parts of the problem space. Everything is connected. We must make sacrifices. We must put the welfare of future generations of humans, animals, and plants ahead of our own. We must be brave enough to swallow the bitter pill.

“We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.” — Barack Obama.

Traditional short term cost-benefit analyses of the problem space will not yield satisfactory results since we’re being asked to pay the cost while others (future generations) reap the benefits. It just doesn’t seem fair. Yet, unless we take the long term view and stop acting selfishly, we’re doomed to failure. To truly address climate change, we have to stop being selfish. And that’s a truly hard thing for us to do — as individuals, as corporations, and as nations.

The current plans in place, even the most aggressive ones proposed by climate activists, are all incremental in nature, trying to contain the damage we’ve wrought on the environment, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and bringing the resultant carbon emissions back to pre-industrial levels. While a laudable first step, this fails to address the longer term demands of an ever-increasing human population on the global ecosystem, the ethical implications of our daily diet choices on animal welfare, and the catastrophic outsized impact of a few rogue regimes and outlaws on vast swaths of the planet.

The reality is that we all need to change how we live and we all need to look at and measure our goals differently if we’re serious about addressing climate change at the billion-year scale. We don’t need to just worry about what the world will look like with ten billion human inhabitants but rather with a hundred billion or more. And we can’t get to where we need to get to if we’re not willing to feel some economic pain in the process.

For better or worse, heaven and hell are now both within our grasp; yet, lacking any interest in the big picture and blinded by selfishness, we’re busy hurtling towards the latter. The platform we’re standing on is burning and we’re busy patting ourselves on the back because we just finished applying a coat of paint. It’s our duty, as the smartest species on the planet, to turn Earth into an Eden for future generations, regardless of the cost to ourselves.

“We can’t save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed. Everything needs to change. And it has to start today. So everyone out there: it is now time for civil disobedience. It is time to rebel.” — Greta Thunberg. No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference.

Trees are sanctuaries.

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.” — Trees are sanctuaries. Hermann Hesse.

It would be one thing if we depended on plants and animals merely for their nutritional value but they’re much more than that. Almost all medicines in use today are derived from plants, yet we’ve only barely begun understanding the medicinal benefits of a few hundred species. Psychedelics and their incredible ability to heal mental trauma of all kinds is just the latest proof point.

The good news is that plants can and will heal us, both body and soul, if we only let them. Instead, we’re busy destroying not just the plants themselves but also the animal species that depend on them and the indigenous human societies that have lived in harmony with them for millennia. The cultural genocide of the very people and cultures that know just what the plants can do is happening at an even faster rate than the extinction of the plant species themselves.

Further, we need to study plants not just as individuals but as communities. The facts emerging just now about the information sharing networks of underground mycelium and groves of trees in forests are fascinating, to say the least. And we’ve only just begun listening.

In hindsight, it’s obvious that such communication networks should exist in the natural world. After all, these plants have evolved for billions of years and have come to inhabit every nook and cranny of the planet. It would be naïve of us to believe they’re not intelligent lifeforms simply because we don’t understand the language they speak. They’re not only intelligent, they form the collective consciousness of the planet. Every time we kill a tree, we do so at our own peril.

Think globally, act locally.

This maxim is repeated so often that it goes in one ear and out the other but nothing could be more profound. We cannot wait for those in power to come to their senses, to give up their greed and short-sightedness, their hunger for money and power. That’ll never happen. For every politician and corporate executive who sees the light, there will be ten more who can’t or won’t.

We need to start a global grassroots movement to mitigate and reverse some of the damage. We need a sustainable model for the next billion years. For every multinational corporation raping and pillaging the earth, we need a thousand volunteers restoring habitats. For every Brazilian farmer burning down the Amazon, we need a thousand people planting trees in their backyards and communities.

It’s time for us not just to scream “climate change” from the rooftops, it’s time to start living our lives differently — sustainably — at a global scale. We need to go back to nature, go off-grid, raise chickens, plant vegetables and herbs in our gardens, become (mostly) vegetarians, buy less of everything, be more self-sufficient, have fewer children, and in general demand less of the planet. Simply put, we need to stop being so selfish.

I used to be one of those who believe technology will solve the climate problem. Then I realized it will only make the crisis recede from the headlines and make us feel good about our accomplishments (again) while not really addressing the root cause. It’s great that Elon Musk is terraforming Mars but that planet will, at best, be a colony. It’ll never be our home.

Over the coming years, and long before we move to Mars en masse, we’ll figure out how to live at scale in the deserts, under the ocean waves, and in the arctic zones of Planet Earth. As science and technology find more ways of utilizing the planet’s natural resources, it behooves every one of us to change our lives so as to demand less of it. It’s the least we can do. This is the only home we have, the only home we’ll ever have.

I’ve deleted all my social media accounts and now depend exclusively on the kindness of strangers to pass the word around about my blog posts. Please share this post on social media if you liked it. Thanks.

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Ben Fathi

Ben Fathi

Former {CTO at VMware, VP at Microsoft, SVP at Cisco, Head of Eng & Cloud Ops at Cloudflare}. Recovering distance runner, avid cyclist, newly minted grandpa.