Put on Sackcloth

Fractal Time

Human beings are bad at judging scale. ‘I could just run up there,’ I think, contemplating the tempting green slope of a shapely mountain: an hour later, plodding over rock and heather, I realise how distorted my perspective was.

History is the same. Biologists, speaking of evolution and extinction of species; geologists, speaking of tectonic plates and the creation of rocks; astronomers, speaking of star formation, all construct chronologies which look very similar to the chronologies I, a historian, construct of the development of the New Town of Edinburgh: important events, long trends, and generalised details in between.

Yet the generalisations of one are the detailed chronology of another. Time (our various chronologies) and space (my underestimated mountain) tend to be structured fractally: the detail looks very similar to the big picture. The best way to understand this is to dive into the Mandelbrot set. The detail of this mathematically-defined shape is unlimited, and repetitive: the original lumpy shape keeps turning up in the infinitesimal threads which spun out of it:

If you want more control over your exploration of the Mandelbrot set, have a play with this interactive version

It’s a mathematical construct, but it’s also a deep insight into the way nature is constructed.

Important Events

While scientists and mathematicians have taught us a huge amount about these great timescales of Earth’s history — extinctions, tectonics, climate shifts — we have not experienced any of it.

This graph shows marine extinction intensity through time: the coloured letters at the top are geological era, the figures at the bottom millions of years. The spike marking the end of the ‘K’ era (Cretaceous) and the beginning of ‘Pg’ (Paleogene) is the disappearance of the dinosaurs, 65.5 million years ago. Our genus Homo evolved 2.3 million years ago, the last tenth of the 50-0 division on the graph. Homo Sapiens around 250 thousand years ago, the last twohundredth of that last division. You would have to zoom a long way into that graph, as you zoomed into the Mandelbrot Set, to find the significant events of my history research — or the significant events on your facebook timeline. Yet, like the Mandelbrot set, they’re all on one line: the History of the Earth.

You will quickly perceive that it is statistically very unlikely for a human being to witness a mass extinction event. All the generations of humanity that ever lived are encompassed in that smudge at the end of the graph, where the extinction rate happens to be very low. The typical human need not fear that the earth they inhabit will be disrupted by events from the bigger chronologies.

Stastistically unlikely. Yet we are not dropped at random into the timeline of human history: we are at the end of it, living it forwards; and the scientific consensus is that a mass extinction event, caused by human activity, is likely to occur in our lifetimes:

We now face losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, within a single generation. Unless action is taken now, the consequences of our activities are at high risk of causing, through the combined effects of climate change, overexploitation, pollution and habitat loss, the next globally significant extinction event in the ocean. It is notable that the occurrence of muliple high intensity stressors has been a pre-requisite for all the five global extinction events of the past 600 million years. (Summary of the conclusions and recommendations of the international Earth system expert workshop on ocean stresses and impacts, 20 June 2011)

Ocean biodiversity may seem rather abstract to us land-based creatures, but it is the indicator biologists use to measure the health of life on earth, on which we clearly depend for our survival. Have you ever been faced with the question ‘Where will my next meal come from?’ I am lucky enough that I never have: perhaps you have, but in generally it will be an unusual situation for readers of this blog. Our civilization is based on the highly efficient farming of animals and crops, requiring a stable climate, a reliable water supply, pollinating insects, genetic diversity, oil, mined phosphates — all of which are critically under threat, running short, or (in the case of oil) compounding the problem.

This Financial Times article explores the disastrous consequences of the unseasonable drought in the US for food prices; while the wet weather in Britain threatens disastrous levels of disease. If such unstable weather patterns become, as is predicted, typical of higher carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere, then it is easy to see how yields will fall, the question ‘where will our next meal come from?’ will occupy more and more political and personal attention, and ‘there is no next meal’ will be the final answer for more and more of the poorest on this planet — not in future generations, but in forthcoming decades.

What did you have planned for future decades? I was planning to write great books, travel more, sing, form deep friendships and have exciting love affairs. I’m in my prime, healthy, educated, and ready to live life to the full. I want to keep my human timeline safely within the unimportant detail of the biological and geological timelines. I am not interested in an apocalypse.

But… but… I can’t live other than by this maxim:

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to /see/ something, and tell what it /saw/ in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion — all in one. (John Ruskin, Modern Painters, pt.4 ch.16 para.28)

All I can do is tell what I see.



A mass extinction event, within a generation and caused by us. It could not have been predicted two hundred years ago, when the man I envy most in history, Henry Cockburn, could write this from his house here in Edinburgh:

My hope is in the ultimate force of truth, reason and common interest. By these I hope for a union of all wise and good men in the common cause… till by the correction of evils or abuses, even the lower orders may be interested in the preservation of their privileges and more acknowledged rights… International rights and intercourse growing and more respected every day! The press making the world one audience, capable of receiving at once whatever instruction wisdom may have to give, or whatever feeling virtue may have to inspire! Our sons may see the fulfilment of these glorious things. Happy are we who have been permitted to ‘scent the morning air’. (Henry Cockburn to Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, 30 December 1830)

Who amongst us writes about the life of the generations ahead of us? What would we write if we did? We are too terrified to acknowledge our terror. Most of us scramble to participate in collective events to reassure us that the global community is OK: the Jubilee, the Tour de France, the Olympics, Harry Potter, Fifty Shades of Grey. The courageous and dedicated, ready to face their fears and find solutions, scorn such escapism and pour the best of their resources and abilities into solving the global economic crisis and into seeking ways to direct the Arab Spring towards flourishing democracy. The wise and enlightened work to remedy the lingering injustices that corrupt our societies: gun crime, homophobia, oppression of women, child poverty, financial scandal. The sensible disengage from the global perspective altogether and seek to live harmlessly on our little spot on earth: with real friends, a vegetable garden, creative interests. The environmentalists continue to talk in terms of solving the problem: successful conservation efforts, achievable international agreements, little actions you can take which add up to global solutions. It is the only way they know to ‘sell’ their message; but increasingly the ‘achievable solutions’ are so blatantly unachievable that they are merely an extra screen to help them shield them from the truth. Here’s a great example, by myself a few years ago, depicting a ‘green’ lifestyle:

Living in an Age of Mass Extinction

It is likely that (unless we are killed off early in the process) the rest of our lives will be spent watching the collapse of life on earth, and the collapse of human civilization. It’s fairly likely the adaptable Homo Sapiens will survive the experience, just as Inca genes probably survive somewhere in the population of South America, but I’m certain that almost all our culture won’t. To me this is a spiritual problem. I can deal with my own mortality — knowing that the things which made my life worth living don’t die with me: love, poetry, music, larks, literature, laughter, Christmas, harebells, history conferences, discussions about the meaning of life which last until two in the morning. It’s that reassurance that I’ve been denied.

What I see terrifies me.

For a start, it’s a very lonely experience, because no-one else is talking about this. Am I in fact wrong and insane? — a far less terrifying prospect than the possibility of being right. But suppose I’m not insane? Suppose I’m talking sense, and you’ve read this and followed my thought process. Now you are terrified too. Here we are, enlightened, rational, educated, sensible people, starting to think in terms akin to the more ridiculous of history’s religious apocalyptic movements, terrified.

What do we do?

Well — I’m not sure. I have tried to see things clearly, and I’ve tried to tell you what I’ve seen. The two responses I’ve generally had when discussing this are either ‘I don’t think it’s as bad as you make out’, and ‘right then, let’s work out how to fix this’. If you are inclined to give the first response, I would like you do a bit of research and back it up by evidence please, as my argument is. If you’re inclined to give the second, I’d suggest we’re too late: we can’t fix it, because we are seeing the beginning of consequences of damage already done.

It is noticeable how the advice of the scientific community has moved from ‘averting dangerous climate change’ to ‘adapting to climate change’. This is one perhaps valid approach, which will appeal to all of you who need to be doing something active, and I suggest you start your studies at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who have recently published a special report on this topic.

However, I am pessimistic about the possibility of action. All the important indicators — burning fossil fuel, global population growth, biodiversity loss — continue to accellerate. The fact that oil companies are likely to start drilling in areas made accessible by the retreat of Arctic ice due to climate change is symptomatic of how we are not changing. The global consensus and transformation of priorities required at every level of policymaking and personal decision making is too enormous. We imagine that it is fairly easy to bring the world to one mind, because the world all collectively said ‘Ahhh!’ when Will and Kate got married. But that is a very different thing from being prepared to change our lifestyle completely. If you are for action, are you prepared to lead the way? Reduce your environmental footprint to 15 hectares?

The story I keep coming back to is one which has had little relevance in our enlightened civilization: the ancient Jewish story of Jonah* (Please refer to footnotes if you are troubled by the religious turn in this article) Once all that whale saga is out of the way, the story continues in the bald narrative characteristic of old texts:

Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. He began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. 

When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: 

“By the decree of the king and his nobles: 

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” 

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

The fictional people and King of Nineveh faced catastrophe, just as we do. The important thing to realise is that they knew they were completely powerless to stop it — just as we are — and being powerless was just as horrible and terrifying for them as it is for us. Jonah told them ‘Nineveh will be overthrown’, not ‘Unless you change your ways, Nineveh will be overthrown’. They didn’t dress in sackcloth and fast because they thought it would work, but because faced with the knowledge of their certain imminent extinction due to their own fault, repentence and mourning was the only possible response. And once they had stopped everything they were doing, and truthfully faced the enormity of the disaster they had brought upon themselves, they unexpectedly found a glimmer of hope.

We don’t really do mourning and repentance in our culture: we do action and fixing — but that is how the Nineveh is depicted too. They weren’t fasting at the drop of a hat, like the godly commonwealth of seventeenth century Scotland: they were much more like us. Mourning and repentance wasn’t ‘their thing’, but faced with Jonah’s news, they couldn’t do anything else.

Mourning and repentance is my response to this situation, which sounds like more completely counter-cultural lunacy than saying that environmental disaster is upon us. ‘Don’t beat yourself up with guilt, but look forward, become the person you wish to be!’ my religious traditions tell me, as they campaign optimistically for gay marriage and women bishops. No, I reply: you have two thousand or more years of tradition behind you, but you have forgotten it, and live in the paradigm of the beautiful new humanist myth of the happy Henry Cockburn: ‘My hope is in the ultimate force of truth, reason and common interest… Our sons may see the fulfilment of these glorious things…’

In fact, ‘our activities are at high risk of causing the next globally significant extinction event‘. I think we need to mourn, I think we need to repent: I think doing so will mess up our lives monumentally (Sackcloth??), but I think our lives are going to get messed up soon anyway. And then once we’ve stopped, and mourned, and repented, then I think we need to ask, how do we live well in the face of environmental catastrophe? Most writing about ethics we hear is consequentialist: ‘The US must tackle gun laws because 32 people are murdered with a gun each day’. More foolishly, much that masquerades as virtuous and grand is about pride: ‘We are proud to be Scottish’, for example. Consequentialism and pride, which form so much of our ordinary moral compass, are meaningless in the face of environmental catastrophe.

Yet things like compassion, generosity, hospitality, humility, mercy — the more curious and inexplicable virtues, the ones which appear in stories of the guillotine or the gas chamber — they seem to ring more true to me than they ever did as I contemplated enjoying my prime like an enlightened Jean Brodie. When the destruction of all our loves and hopes and longings is just a blip buried deep in the fractal timeline of the universe, I think I want to know that humanity encountered the catastrophe in a way that gave it a little transcendence.

Put on sackcloth.

And when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.
John Dryden, 1687.


* The non-religious amongst you needn’t worry that all that miraculous whale business seems unlikely: whereas some Biblical characters like Jeremiah are semi-historical, I don’t think Jonah was ever intended to have been thought real: they are like Thomas a Becket and Robin Hood in our own history: one real, but surrounded by legend, the other fictional, but highlighting important aspects of the society which dreamed him up. If you don’t like ‘God’ please interpret the word in as unreligious a way as you like: my own understanding of ‘God’ is more of a ‘collective life force’ — the sum of the consciousness of biosphere and civilization — and therefore facing just as bleak a future as the rest of us. ‘God’ as I understand the word does have a sort of mysterious transcendence which we encounter in our more spiritual moments, but no ‘external existence’. I’m not sure if that explanation will put off my religious or secular readers more quickly — but I would remind you that we are facing imminent catastrophe, and this is not the time or place for arguing about definitions of ‘God’. ‘Let everyone stop and think clearly about what we are facing: who knows, maybe by doing this we will start to find a way through’ might be a secular rephrasing of the King of Nineveh’s command.

**I’m addressing religions not to the exclusion of the non-religious, but because their purpose is to proclaim the truth and advise on how to act accordingly, and that’s what I’m attempting to do too; and because it’s a constituency I’m familiar with, who are likely to form a large proportion of my readership, and who might be most likely to understand what I’m getting at.