Should We Be More Epicurean (and Less Futurist)?

Should We Be More Epicurean (and Less Futurist)?

Don’t worry. Be happy. Live in the present.  The philosopher Rousseau said that was the natural condition of man, before he was screwed up by self-consciousness, time, awareness of death, and delayed gratification.   So the key to happiness is to be really, really stupid.


But the Epicurean philosopher actually says the rational person can achieve the same result.  He finds serenity now by living beyond hope and fear.  Fear of death is unreasonable.  So too is our unreasonable hope to somehow get out of dying.  The key to happiness is wisdom, which is more than being really, really smart.

Here’s a thoughtful article by Particia Vieira and Michael Marder that suggests we get over being obsessed with the future by being better Epicureans. It goes without saying that I’m going to give my own spin on that suggestion.

It’s true that people are less and less obsessed with the past, maybe especially (but not only) in America.  We have no historical sense, a sense which could give us a sense of place, purpose, and limits, as well as the chastening that comes with reflection on experience.  That’s both good and bad. But surely it’s  good not be saddled with too much traditional baggage and ancient grudges. 

We’re obsessed with the future for a variety of reasons.  For one, we think the future is actually in our own techno-hands.  We used to think “climate change” was up to nature, and now we think it’s up to us.  That means we might have trashed the planet beyond repair.  It might also mean we can save ourselves from our own mess if we act aggressively now.  It might also mean that we’re developing the techno-means to bring the climate change—which used to be caused by chance and necessity—under our personal control.  That would mean no more natural climate change—such as an inconvenient ice age—that we can’t believe in.

We’re also obsessed with our personal futures.  That’s partly because we don’t often believe that our personal beings are sustained by the grace of a personal God.  We believe, with the Epicureans, that biological death is the end of ME.  But we’re less accepting of that fact.  We believe that death is more in our control, because we know so much about risk factors we can avoid.  And there is, of course, no one who obsesses more about his personal future than he who has the transhumanist hope for the Singularity and all that.

The trouble with being obsessed with the future of those not yet born or our species or all life  on the planet is that we sacrifice the interests and enjoyments of people today to a rather speculative cause.   Communism, everyone agrees, was evil because it justified terrorizing and slaughtering individuals we can actually see in the service of an imagined future paradise.  Our obsessive futurology, arguably, is evidence that we haven’t yet learned enough from the monstrous failure of the ideologies of the 20th century.

There is, of course, a difference between obsessing about oneself and subordinating oneself to the interests of people or ecosystems or whatever not yet born.  But, in both cases, we’re diverting ourselves from what we really know about ourselves and our limited future.  Surely the authors are right that we shouldn’t let the future divert us from what is.

But there is something wrong, after all, about being Epicurean.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote in his most private letters that he was an Epicurean.  That means, in a way, his teaching about natural rights was public and provisional, as was the depth of his concern about protecting the rights of others.  Jefferson wrote eloquently about the violence slavery did to particular persons, but he wasn’t as obsessive as we might have hoped about keeping slavery from having much of a future in his country.  According to Jefferson himself, what’s wrong with Epicurean thinking is it produces a selfish negation of the natural instinct we all have as beneficent social and relational beings.

So the least we can say is there’s a middle point between the indifference of Epicurean serenity and ideological obsession when it comes to controlling the future.  Our concern for past and future is properly relational.  It begins with our parents and our children and extends, if more weakly, to our ancestors and to the future of the children of our children.  It also begins with everyone we know and love in our particular place.  It might have begun with Jefferson’s concern for his own slaves, whom he knew well and even loved.  It did begin (even if it didn’t go far enough), Jefferson wrote, with the effects of tyranny on the souls of his own children.

Thinking of the person in isolation and thinking of the abstraction humanity (or the abstraction species) are both pathologies of our very personal and excessively unrelational time.

.A Christian might say that out of love of God we should love all those made in his image.  That's true.  But that doesn't mean we have to be obsessive about keeping them around.  Their future is in the hands of their personal Creator.  Christian environmentalism, although reasonable enough, is saved from obsessiveness by that personal fact. 

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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