Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The human legacy


As I approach 60, I've begun to think of what I'll leave behind. I'm not planning on dying anytime soon, but I can do the arithmetic of obituaries as well as anyone. Barring improbable advances in geriatric science, I'll be gone from this vale of tears in the next tick of geologic time.

What will be left? In my case, not much. The memory of friendship in the minds of the friends who survive me. The object lesson of a solid and happy marriage. The ideas contained in four or five books. A couple of hundred Mountain Express columns and articles, some of them yellowing on the sides of real estate office refrigerators.

Note that I don't mention material objects or money. Material objects don't endure in geologic time, at least in recognizable form. The 1977 Porsche that I wanted in 1977 is something I could possess tomorrow if I visited the right salvage yard. The houses I've built with care and love will fall down. Money isn't real in any geological way, as the world financial system is demonstrating.

Even without geologic time, legacies are problematic. Heirs get to define what has been bequeathed to them. The Law of Unintended Consequences takes over. For example, if a wealthy uncle had bequeathed me a new Porsche in 1977, I probably wouldn't be alive right now. Benign gifts turn out to be malignant, and malignant ones benign, in the lives of the people who get them.

Think of the mover-and-shaker Robert McNamara—he lived at the centers of industrial and political power in this country, running Ford Motor Co. and the Defense Department. He tried to do the right thing in the service of his company and his country. But his legacy, to my mind, is his late-life admission that he continued to send young men to die in Vietnam long after he realized the war was lost.

We might count on a wider human legacy, now that common sense has made it apparent that human activity is changing the planet: a tropical climate at the poles, empty ecological niches due to mass extinction, and a weird geography of flattened mountains, marshy plains behind crumbling dams, and giant holes in the ground, some of them radioactive. Also the scientific wisdom of three centuries, and if anyone is around to make use of it, consciousness.


I was 30 when I read Jonathan Schell's "Fate of the Earth." When I read that the loss of human consciousness would be the most terrible effect of nuclear war, I wasn't much affected. If no consciousness is around to mourn the loss of itself, what's to worry about?

At twice that age, I can mourn the loss of human consciousness. I teach writing and when my students actually learn to write, their lives are transformed by the meaning that they are suddenly capable of making. Consciousness seems to be the organization of meaning out of chaos, evidence that entropy doesn't always hold, at least in the microcosm.

I hope that we can write down the best things of humanity—its science and its poetry and music—on a medium durable enough to last until the next intelligence comes along. That would be an OK legacy for our species, and maybe one that would justify the arc of human existence in the eyes of whatever consciousness comes after us, machine or not, alien or not.

As I write this, oil is blowing out of the seabed in the Gulf of Mexico, the world financial system is surfing ever greater waves of lies, and the valley I live in is gearing up for the summer onslaught of tourists. The stark realization that comes from reading the headlines and watching the motorhomes go by is that ours is a civilization about to die.

My students are writing stories that pretend to be in the present, but they're really historical pieces from the Clinton years, before setting became story. I keep telling them to write in the Now, but it's hard to write narrative if you can't envision a future for yourself or your characters.

It's good to think about legacies, because they are a small way of projecting ourselves into the future, even when the Law of Unintended Consequences is dictating the big story.

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