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Long Now Carleton

January 22, 2010 at 9:52 am
By Margaret Taylor '10

Last week, the board of directors of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reset the Doomsday clock to 11:54pm.  Since 1947, this clock has symbolically represented how close we are to bringing about our own apocalypse.  If the whole of human civilization is a day, says the clock, then we are six minutes to midnight.

It seems that ever since 1914, civilization has been in the business of keeping itself from the brink of collapse.  But what if it didn’t have to be that way?  What if, as a society, we thought not only about strategies that would help us make it to 2050, but ways we might make it to the year 12050?

Such long-term strategizing is the mission of the Long Now Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank based in San Francisco.  Julia Larson ’14 is organizing a new chapter of the foundation here on campus.

The foundation is involved in several projects to further its stated goal to “foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.”  The primary of these is to build a clock in a Nevada hillside that will keep time for 10,000 years.  Long Bets is an online forum where people can have their predictions about the deep future archived for posterity.  The Rosetta Project is also about archiving information, in a somewhat more indelible format.  Information is printed onto a nickel disk, but not encoded into bits – just shrunk, like microfiche, so compatibility with future computers will not be an issue.  All you need to read a Rosetta disk 10,000 years in the future is a really powerful magnifying glass.

The Long Now also has something to say about threats to humankind’s existence between now and 12050.  At the first meetup of Long Now Carleton Chapter, we listened to a recorded talk by Stewart Brand, founding member of Long Now and author of Whole Earth Discipline.  The talk, called “Environmental Heresies,” contains ideas that are pretty heretical to conventional thinking about environmentalism.  He holds, for one thing, that nuclear power is green.  Its waste may be radioactive, but per kilowatt-hour a nuclear power plant produces less waste than a coal plant.  Also that urbanization is green – it gets people away from subsistence farming, which is incredibly environmentally destructive.

Julia Larson got the idea to start a chapter of Long Now at Carleton by working with the Chicago chapter of the foundation over the summer.  “I thought the student body at Carleton would find this interesting and engaging,” she says.  It would get us to thinking about the long term, instead of just on that paper we have due on Friday.  For now, Long Now Carleton will not be a chartered organization.  It will be an informal group of students with common interests, holding meetups twice a term to view seminars and discuss long-term issues.  If the group gets enough participation, Julia might apply for CSA funding.

Interested in getting on the group’s mailing list?  Contact larsonj to sign up.