The time has come to reexamine our place on the Earth, our attitudes toward it and one another and the state of affairs that we are facing early in the twenty-first century. They say that hindsight is 20/20 and in some respects it can be true, but for that to work, we have to have a sense of whether things have become better, gotten worse or stayed the same. This is where the vanishing present comes in. Having not been allowed to participate fully in the collection of data that “scientists” normally undertake, there have been thousands of events and occurrences that have slipped, unrecorded, into the dark recesses of time, observations that would have recorded them simply do not exist.
This is the vanishing present. I can document the fact that at one time there were salamanders, thousands of them in specific lakes that I spent time in and around as a child that no longer have habitat that is welcoming to salamanders, but what does that mean? What was the tipping point that led to their extirpation? When did they cease to inhabit that area? Why was no one looking or paying attention? I guarantee that future generations will not miss them, for they may not even know what a salamander is by then. Of course, many of us know just enough about the myth of increased leisure, the loss of habitat or of species, but the vast majority are still in the dark ages when it comes to understanding natural phenomena, population dynamics or the complexities of a single river system.
I would go as far as to say that many of the most powerful people in the world either do not give a hoot or are just absolutely convinced that their whims are valid simply by being their whims. Justification of these desires is not even necessary if you believe them to be your “god-given right”. Merely suggesting that we look into the real effects of our actions is an affront to those who feel that their exploitation of shared resources is an inalienable right. Who can say what Chicago would look like if the forests of Northern Wisconsin were not eliminated to build the tenements for the first generation of immigrants who came to this country to feed the industrial revolution’s appetite for labor? Who can remember the time when the oceans were not dumping grounds for toxic compounds? We will never be able to go back and investigate what baseline conditions existed before we began to look carefully at our planet.
Inferences can be made until the cows come home, but the reality is that much of what we have squandered will never be quantifiable, never be known, perhaps never realized. Again, the vast majority, if they ever do learn about ecological history and the track record of “technology” will be quite quickly overwhelmed and develop the look of a deer in headlights. The rampant exploitation of each and every “resource”, the tragedy of the commons and the exponential decline of nearly every parameter that we do study gives us the false sense that there is nothing we can do to stop the decline and worse yet, there are many well paid cheerleaders for continuing down the path to our own destruction.
We desperately need to forgive ourselves and previous generations for their ignorance, their deception and their miscalculations. The present that they were part of was vanishing the same way our own is, but there was not much attention paid to that detail. In our time we face a similar situation, but for us to survive, we have to make better decisions, conserve rather than squander our resources. The time has come to realize the great gift that clean water, air and soils are, respect the systems that exist for the good of all and bolster their ability to fill the cornucopia of blessings that are here for all of us to enjoy. If we are unable to do this, we will all surely suffer greatly at the hands of those desperate to “have it all.” We can forgive without forgetting and the time is now to do things differently.