Anne leaned close and said confidentially, “I don’t know how you feel about nonviolent civil disobedience, but I have done it a few times, and some of the people around here don’t approve because I broke the law.” I had just asked her if she felt comfortable in the “Old Folks Home” with her radical politics, and this was how she prefaced her answer. I shared that I, too, had performed nonviolent civil disobedience. We compared notes. Both of us had participated in nonviolent protests against nuclear weapons in the 1980s. Anne said she never actually went to jail for her actions. I did. This conversation took place at a residential senior community that I had the pleasure to visit for a couple of days last week. Anne has dedicated her life to political activism to promote peace and justice. I agree with her belief that the only way to make lasting positive change is through nonviolent action. It’s obvious to both of us that violence only breeds more violence. Violence is therefore not a viable method for transformation; it’s a dead end.
The rest of her answer to my question was interesting. She said that most of the people at the Old Folks Home don’t talk about politics and this helps them all get along with each other nicely. She understands that avoiding politics keeps the peace and makes for more pleasant interactions. But she explained that she lived her whole life in NYC in the embrace of a politicized activist community, where she talked politics all the time with her friends. Missing these conversations, she relished talking to me, a kindred progressive spirit. Anne has put her safety on the line to stand up and speak out many times in her life. She has stood witness to protect indigenous people in Columbia. Miraculously, since they are about as old as snow, her husband Tom is also still living. He is a Quaker minister with an impressive list of accomplishments as well.
Anne and I paused in our conversation to listen in on Tom’s conversation with a friend also seated at our dinner table. They were discussing the consequences of climate change, and they wound up speculating about what will happen after climate change has killed off all the human beings on the planet. Calculating how many billions of years more life our sun has in it, they reckoned that there will be enough time for some kind of human organisms to evolve from the slime once again before the sun dies and Earth goes dark forever. Tom’s friend says he finds comfort in this thought. Tom and his friend are both men who have led productive lives and have a healthy acceptance of the proximity of death that accompanies their advanced age. Of course they would prefer for their life’s work to live after them, but if their work will disappear with the entire human race in the wake of environmental collapse then the second-best scenario to wish for might indeed be that the human race will re-evolve into existence (if it’s possible for such a miracle to happen again). There is much to love about humanity, despite all its failings. Perhaps humans will have a second go at it.
We were so caught up in the conversation at our table that we lost track of the time. Almost everyone else had left the dining hall before us. A number of them had adjourned to a lecture offered that evening. We hurried to the lecture straight from the dining room. It happened to be the second-to-last lecture in a series of 50 lectures called Big History that had been going for over a year. From what I gathered, the first Big History lecture had been about the creation of the universe. The lectures had moved forward from there, looking at the gradual development of the solar system, our planet and the life on it that had evolved over billions of years. The lecture felt like an extension of the dinner conversation about the consequences of climate change and possible future scenarios.
The lecturer devoted some time to imagining the colonization and terraforming of another planet as an exit strategy for a people unable to survive on a destroyed Earth. I read a sci-fi not long ago called Red Mars about a team of scientists who go to Mars and change the environment on the planet so that it will be habitable for humans. The lecturer’s speculations reminded me of this book. Although I must say that this discussion makes me wonder why we would go to all the trouble of sending people to Mars and making it habitable when we already have a perfectly good planet that could be fixed with the same not-so-sci-fi-as-all-that terraforming activities. With some organization, commitment, relinquishment of what is easy, and willingness to abandon profit motives, we humans could change the climate of Earth back to something more conducive to sustaining human life deeper into the future. Why not seed rain clouds, restore the habitat in the oceans needed to bring back disappearing essential marine life, and stop pouring toxins into our soil? Just saying.
There was something extraordinary for me about having these conversations and attending this lecture in the company of these old souls. At 60 years of age, I qualify as an elder myself, but not nearly as much as the people at the Old Folks Home, who are a generation or more older than I. The people with whom I ate dinner and those who attended the Big History lecture have spent many more years than I thinking deeply about the tough questions, the progress of the universe, the future, and what lies in store for humans as well as other life on the planet. Life felt somehow more authentic, more explicable, and more functional in their presence. It moved me to witness these elders strategizing and caring about the condition of the planet left for future generations. It reminded me that some of us have done our level best. Some of us try to think forward unto the seventh generation and to preserve what we have received. The odds are so much not in our favor, but I believe that trying counts for something in the context of Big History. Trying is evidence that we are not oblivious. Trying is evidence that we have loved this world.
Here’s a picture of me delighting in a magnificent magnolia in full magenta bloom in NJ last week. Our compromised world is so beautiful. The ephemeral quality of worldly beauty is achingly poignant. This magnolia is a blip of vibrant pink too small for notice in the vast reach of Big History. I’m glad I’m insignificant enough to enjoy a springtime magnolia.
Photo by Ron Reed