I recently read Brian Hayes’ wonderful collection of mathematically oriented essays called Group Theory In The Bedroom, and Other Mathematical Diversions. Not surprisingly, the book contained plenty of philosophical musings too. In one of the essays, called “Clock of Ages,” Hayes describes the intricacies of clock building and he provides some interesting historical fodder.
For instance, we learn that in the sixteenth century Conrad Dasypodius, a Swiss mathematician, could have chosen to restore the old Clock of the Three Kings in Strasbourg Cathedral. Dasypodius, however, preferred to build a new clock of his own rather than maintain an old one. Over two centuries later, Jean-Baptiste Schwilgue was asked to repair the clock built by Dasypodius, but he decided to build a new and better clock which would last for 10,000 years.
Did you know that a large-scale project is underway to build another clock that will be able to run with minimal maintenance and interruption for ten millennia? It’s called The 10,000 Year Clock and its construction is sponsored by The Long Now Foundation. The 10,000 Year Clock is, however, being built for more than just its precision and durability. If the creators’ intentions are realized, then the clock will serve as a symbol to encourage long-term thinking about the needs and claims of future generations. Of course, if all goes to plan, our future descendants will be left to maintain it too. The interesting question is: will they want to?
If history is any indicator, then I think you know the answer. As Hayes puts it: “The fact is, winding and dusting and fixing somebody else’s old clock is boring. Building a brand-new clock of your own is much more fun, especially if you can pretend that it’s going to inspire awe and wonder for the ages to come. So why not have the fun now and let the future generations do the boring bit.” I think Hayes is right, it seems humans are, by nature, builders and not maintainers.
Projects like The 10,000 Year Clock are often undertaken with the noblest of environmental intentions, but the old proverb is relevant here: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. What I find troubling, then, is that much of the environmental do-goodery in the world may actually be making things worse. It’s often nothing more than a form of conspicuous consumption, which is a term coined by the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen. When it pertains specifically to “green” purchases, I like to call it being conspicuously environmental. Let’s use cars as an example. Obviously it depends on how the calculations are processed, but in many instances keeping and maintaining an old clunker is more environmentally friendly than is buying a new hybrid. I can’t help but think that the same must be true of building new clocks.
In his book, The Conundrum, David Owen writes: “How appealing would ‘green’ seem if it meant less innovation and fewer cool gadgets — not more?” Not very, although I suppose that was meant to be a rhetorical question. I enjoy cool gadgets as much as the next person, but it’s delusional to believe that conspicuous consumption is somehow a gift to the environment.
Using insights from evolutionary psychology and signaling theory, I think there is also another issue at play here. Buying conspicuously environmental goods, like a Prius, sends a signal to others that one cares about the environment. But if it’s truly the environment (and not signaling) that one is worried about, then surely less consumption must be better than more. The homeless person ironically has a lesser environmental impact than your average yuppie, yet he is rarely recognized as an environmental hero. Using this logic I can’t help but conclude that killing yourself might just be the most environmentally friendly act of all time (if it wasn’t blatantly obvious, this is a joke). The lesson here is that we shouldn’t confuse smug signaling with actually helping.
The concern about conspicuous consumption, while entertaining, misses the larger epistemological issue though. If our climate does change significantly (and even if it changes from anthropomorphic causes), how do we know that this is a bad thing? To assert that the climate is changing because of humans, and that this is therefore bad, is simply begging the question.
According to many scientists, it’s a fact that the earth’s climate is changing from human influences. Let me bring your attention to another important fact though, i.e., the earth’s climate has also varied wildly historically, without human influence. So we shouldn’t worry about climate change per se, but about the sort of climate change that potentially poses an incredibly dangerous threat to our (and the planet's) wellbeing.
It’s also worth noting that human evolution has not magically stagnated. In their book, The 10,000 Year Explosion, University of Utah anthropologists Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending argue that human evolution “is now happening about 100 times faster than its long-term average over the six million years of our existence.” I’m not suggesting that we purposefully destroy our environment, but isn’t it possible that future generations of humans (or even trans-humans) will evolve and adapt to an earth with a changed climate? If we claim to know what kind of environment future generations want, I think we are guilty of a particularly egregious form of epistemic hubris. Let’s let them build their own clocks.