Buried somewhere in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series is a joke about scale, it is in Life, the Universe and Everything I think, in which Adams describes a torture device called the Total Perspective Vortex:
The Total Perspective Vortex derives its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses. To explain–since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation–every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition, and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.
The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife. Trin Tragula–for that was his name–was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot. And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.
“Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day. And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex–just to show her.
And into one end, he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other, he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it. To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain, but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.
The joke is that whenever we human beings start to consider ourselves in relation to the real absolutes of time and space, that is to say in relation to the size of the universe over the billions of billions of years it has been in existence, we get really small and we realize how little we matter at all, how little it is possible to matter.
Watching the television advertisements against the carbon tax, I couldn’t help but think that the incongruency, globally, with regard to climate change is the misalignment of scale. The whiny and unhelpful campaign (exactly matching in tone and style the campaign against super-profits tax last year) currently being rolled out against the carbon tax says it is all about jobs, all about the food we will put on our tables over the next, five, fifteen, fifty years. This is an important consideration, there’s no denying that, but the carbon tax isn’t really about the tax. The tax is just another dollar eighty a day. Small bikkies.
The argument regarding the fiscal response to climate change coming from Labor and the Greens is posited in terms of “our children and our children’s children.” This is a useful rhetorical device, it makes climate change roughly equivalent to the second world war, and compels us (as good parent types) to invest in the world for our children’s children so that there will be SUV’s and plasma televisions and instant messaging. But actually the scale of climate change means it isn’t about the next sixty, seventy years anymore than it is about a dollar eighty a day. Tuvalu will be flooded but it is estimated not actually until the end of the 22nd century, or so it is estimated.
The counter argument to the fixation on a dollar eighty, or our children’s children, is that over the course of billions of years climate has already changed quite substantially (remember the little Ice Age, the most recent ice age, ended only two hundred years ago and the last big, big Ice Age was only twelve thousand years ago) and that climate is not fixed anymore than land and sea and air are fixed. On this scale it matters not a jot what the climate is doing because climate is always going to be in flux, not quite like last year. This is the core argument of the deniers and it has some weight but it doesn’t help Tuvalu and it also doesn’t actually deal with the fact that the climate is changing.
The core of all of this is that really whichever scale is used to consider climate change, or whichever scale is used in responding to climate change, the real substantial issue is that we should pay and that is what the battle on our television screen is about. Having lived with the rationalism of user pays most of my adult life I am astonished to see those very rationalists arguing against the carbon tax on the basis that it diminishes Australian trade competitiveness. Oh, go pound sand!
None of these perspectives, none of these scales, permit much in the way of giving ground to other perspectives or acknowledging the value of the other. And it is for this reason the Total Perspective Vortex no longer seems like a joke to me. It no longer seems to me that hanging on self importance (personal, temporal, spatial) is the key protection against the vast confusion of the universe. On the contrary, as long as we exclude all those other scales and perspectives in which we are not foremost we will always be looking at that piece of fairy cake and never at the world it represents. We can no longer avoid having a sense of proportion.