This Election Day, contemplate the vastness of space and time (after you vote)

A spiral galaxy composed of uncountable numbers of stars floating in the blackness of space.
Spiral galaxy NGC 6814. NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image.

Today is Election Day in the United States. For the past several months, this election, the most brutal, mean-spirited, and frankly alarming in decades, has caused a wave of anxiety, dread, and bitterness to blanket the country like a kind of noxious psychic soot. The American Psychological Association reports that 52 percent of American adults say that the 2016 election is a “very” or “somewhat” significant source of stress for them. It has been particularly horrible for women who’ve been sexually assaulted or harassed (which sadly, is most of us), people without papers, Muslim-Americans, anybody of color, um babies—and yeah, this list could go on for a long time. I think you could probably fit the people Trump hasn’t attacked or threatened into one executive suite at Trump Tower.

The stress is bipartisan. For every liberal like me, concerned that a Trump victory will usher in a dark era of fearfulness, bigotry, xenophobia, and climate inaction, there is apparently a conservative who fears Clinton will destroy America…with her emails. Or maybe because she is an actual Satanist! Have you been following that one on the internet? (Yes, I need to get off Twitter.)

What to do about these powerful and scary feelings of impending doom? Well, first of all, a sufferer of election stress must vote. This is the mechanism our democracy has in place for us hoi polloi to directly influence the course of our nation. But voting may not be enough. If you are reading these words after voting—perhaps while frantically clicking through your Twitter feed, stroking your “I Voted” sticker, and thinking about pushing cocktail hour forward to 2:00 PM—I have another approach you can try: deep time eyes.

I first heard the phrase from Connie Barlow, an evolution educator and forestry activist who has written several popular science books. For Barlow, seeing the world through deep time eyes means looking at nature or any other subject at much longer timescales than we are usually accustomed to. It takes a little mental stretching, but results can be astonishing.

Try thinking beyond this election, beyond your own lifetime, on a scale of hundreds of years. On that scale, even if Trump wins, it might well be recorded as a hiccup on the road to greater inclusion, health, prosperity and kindness that humanity has been more or less following since recorded history began. You might try reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, which persuasively argues that violence has declined and human (and animal) rights have expanded, with a few steps backward along the way (you know, like World War II). Progress comes in the usual two-steps-forward, one-step-backwards fashion, which can look chaotic and terrifying when you are facing down a decadal-scale “step backwards”. But zoom out to the totality of human existence and things really are getting better.

In an ecological context, deep time eyes might mean thinking in scales of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years. For example, we would define the “historical range” of a species not by drawing a circle around where it has been observed over the past several hundred years, but by using paleo-data like fossil pollen or bones to draw a circle around where it occurred for the past 100,000 years. Using a longer time perspective sometimes “solves” ecological problems. Species that were problematically endangered in their “historic” range and yet also “invasive” outside that range, like the Monterrey Pine, are now just moving around within their range.

Thinking on this time scale also shrinks this election down to a tiny pinpoint on a timeline that sees our species emerge in Africa and radiate out to become a global ecological force—for good and for ill. Yes, the carbon emitted in the next four years will hang around for a long, long time. But maybe in a few more hundred years, we will have worked out a way to increase and perhaps supplement natural photosynthesis, drawing it back down to stable levels. A president who wants to “cancel” the Paris Agreement could put that back a few years, but couldn’t prevent us from eventually getting our act together.

If you want to really get some emotional distance from the election, why not zoom out to the length of our planet’s existence? For billions of years, there was nothing but lava, rocks, sizzling hot rain, and other uncomfortable-sounding geochemical processes. And now there is life! Isn’t that great? Isn’t the emergence of life more exciting than the minor details of how one species acts in some random millennium that we just happen to be living in?

The next question is whether people with practice seeing through deep time eyes actually suffer less election stress. I took to Twitter to find out. Paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill says that she’s as stressed as anyone. “I’m still anchored in the present by the logistics of my work, my life, family and friends,” she wrote. In fact, she may be more stressed, she added. “I also think a paleo perspective makes me think of the long-term consequences of events.”

Paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara also lacks any kind of deep-time-Zen. “Not this time,” he Tweeted. “I feel like a dinosaur watching an asteroid streak across the sky.”

Hmm. Maybe we to widen the area of our perspective as well as its duration. It seems to work for astrophysicist Adam Frank , who explains in a recent hokey-in-a-good-way radio essay that it is awesome that you are “just a tiny speck of speckiness.”

Astrobioloigst David Grinspoon, who has a forthcoming book that looks at environmental problems from a cosmic vantage point, is finding solace in the contemplation of the many millions of planets which might harbor intelligent life —on none of which this election is taking place. Now that is a reassuring thought. He quotes Doris Lessing, whose father apparently had a similar perspective. Staring into the starry heavens, Lessing’s father observed, “If we blow ourselves up, there’s plenty more where we come from.”

The consequences of this election are very real for all of us. And for some, it will be much harder to take this very long view. It is a luxury, I admit. But no one can remain in a state of high anxiety for as long as we have and still be good to our people and effective at fighting the good fight for a better world. So turn off cable news and Twitter for ten minutes, open a bag of peanut M&Ms, pour a glass of wine or, if legal in your state, spark up a joint, and watch this video of Hubble Space Telescope images set to music by composer/astronomer William Herschel. Deep space eyes, people. Deep space eyes.


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Categorized in: Astronomy, Commentary, Emma, Political