Today ends the little experiment: could I ride every day for thirty days in a row? The answer is, no. Passover simply made that impossible. (For those of you who don't observe this holiday, just know that it involves cleaning and cooking to such an extent that one does not leave the house until it's done, and by then your guests have arrived for the seder. I'm letting myself off the hook for this one.)
But twenty-nine out of thirty ain't bad. Considering that some of those days were pretty awful weather-wise, with cold, driving rain and a couple of thunderstorms thrown in for fun, I'll call it good.
I read an article in the latest issue of Harper's last night that really saddened me and sort of depressed me for awhile. It was all about the fact that, as the life span of the earth goes, there have been five Great Extinctions, mass extinctions of many species as the earth's conditions changed radically in a relatively short period of time (by short, we've usually been talking about a hundred thousand years or so, though there may be evidence that at least one great mass extinction was brought about by a massive asteroid which wiped everything out much faster than that). Now, in a new book called The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, author Elizabeth Kolbert lays out the science that shows that we are, in her understanding, headed for a sixth extinction that will -- not just likely, but definitely -- mean the end of the human race. The difference is that this sixth extinction will happen in a much shorter span of time, largely because of the Industrial Revolution and all the micro-industrial revolutions that have followed over the last 250 years, accompanied by unchecked rampant consumption of natural resources and unregulated population booms. A geologist at UC Berkeley suggests that, unless radical political and economic steps are taken immediately -- and that seems highly doubtful -- The sixth extinction could happen by sometime around 2400 CE.
Reading that last night and realizing that's only 300 years away saddened me beyond words. Obviously, I shouldn't read Harper's at bedtime. But even in broad daylight this suggestion haunts me, and makes me doubt everything about my existence, about everyone's existence. What are we HERE for? Moreover, what ARE we for?
It makes my long-held beliefs about bicycles being part of the solution ring hollow. It is highly likely that we've gone too far and that one day in the not-so-distant future we will all be extinct. And there will not be enough of us making good, caring choices now to prevent it.
On the other hand, considering our mortality on such an overwhelming scale does serve another purpose: it reminds me that we are not so much greater than the other species of the earth. It puts humans squarely back in the food chain. Such an overwhelming, final sense of mortality writes us back into the grand calendar of all natural history, which is probably where we belong anyway.
That's not to say that my riding a bicycle will, or won't, matter and more or less today than it did yesterday. It simply puts my decision to live car-free or car-lite in another perspective.
"In the long run," the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote, "we are all dead." And he was right. But in the short run, we can still make life sweeter, healthier, fairer for everyone and just plain better while we're still here. Maybe we ARE living in a sort of perma-now, in a cosmic sense; and the bicycle helps to slow me down enough for me to inhabit that time and space a little more easily. Maybe it's appropriate that we will one day be extinct. That fact doesn't erase the reality of our human condition now, or even tomorrow. And it doesn't make my bicycle-riding pointless. because in the shorter term, we can still make life better.
So tonight I will ride my bicycle into town and teach the next generation. And if I'm lucky I'll go home having learned something, too. Because we still have time. And maybe, God or the Universe willing, all the time we have will be all the time we need.