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walk through time

Remarks following the Walk Through Time at the State of the World Forum
Sid Liebes
Senior Scientist, HP Labs

November 5, 1997
San Francisco, Calif.

I'd like to tell you a little about how the "Walk Through Time ... from stardust to us" came to be and our plans for it, and to share with you a personal
perspective.

In 1989 Francis Moore Lappe wrote, "Each of us carries within us a worldview, a set of assumptions about how the world works - what some call a paradigm - that forms the very questions we allow ourselves to ask and determines our view of future possibilities."

The Walk is intended to help stretch our world paradigm so that it might encompass a long-term future-oriented worldview.

As my dear friend and colleague Barb Waugh, whom you will hear from in a few minutes, observes, "context is the most important determinant of outcome."

What was the context that lead to proposing a Walk Through Time 27 years ago, and, finally, to its realization this year?

I grew up on the San Francisco Peninsula 30 miles south of here. As a child in the 1930s I could hike "for ever" in any direction from my home through fields
of poppies and forests of eucalyptus. The towns of the Peninsula were separated by open space. The city of San Jose was surrounded by miles of apricot orchards. Today's San Francisco International Airport was a small gravel runway called Mills Field. The air was pure. The sounds around our home were of birds, rustling leaves and squeaking eucalyptus trees.

At the age of seven my Dad introduced me to the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada mountains. During two weeks exploring the heart of Sequoia National Park we encountered one other party.

I moved east for a while, to Princeton University, in the late 1950s to teach physics and research the properties of gravity linking together all the matter of the Universe. This gave me professional justification to lie on the campus lawns at night gazing into the stars, and pondering the wonder of it all.

While east, Linda and I married. When we returned to California in the 1960's the changes suddenly struck me. The poppy fields and eucalyptus forests were gone. The cities of the Peninsula had merged into 50 miles of uninterrupted urbanization. The apricot orchards surrounding San Jose had succumbed to urban sprawl. Plans were afoot to fill south San Francisco Bay to accommodate continued growth.

When I sought to share with Linda the ultimate freedom of a wilderness experience in the Sierra Nevada, we had to wait in line for a wilderness permit rationing access to the back country which would otherwise be loved to death. I felt a tremendous sense of loss for me and for others.

I decided to work for the preservation of options for the future. I used to feel that the ultimate irreversible environmental assault would be the bulldozing of the Yosemites of the world, for it takes 10's of thousands of years for ice ages to sculpt new ones. I then discovered that the time required for biodiversity levels to recover from mass extinctions was a thousand times as long ... 10's of millions of years. The destruction of biodiversity - the extinction of species - struck me as the ultimate irreversible act.

Science enables technology that on the one hand contributes to realization of the human potential, and on the other bestows power to adversely impact the
future of life on Earth. Science also has the capacity to contribute to the wisdom required to exercise technological powers wisely and with restraint.

I felt that science could do a better job of providing the public with perspective: an appreciation of the enormous span of time over which life had evolved on Earth; an awareness that the sun could support life on Earth for another billion years; knowledge that man was precipitating what could rapidly become the next mass extinction; awareness that human actions today were threatening the diversity of life on Earth for 10s of millions of years into the future. I believed that if people knew they would care.

When I lectured to Stanford students in those days about environmental issues, I lined the walls with a roll of paper unfolding a Walk Through Time. At the end of the Walk I'd hang a 15 ft high human population curve, noting that it was doubling in height each one-thousandth the width of a human hair.

The first Earth Day in 1970 offered an opportunity. I proposed building a 3-mile-long Walk Through Time, at a million years to the foot, from the Big Bang to the present. I anticipated scores of Stanford volunteers. No one was crazy enough to help, and I was not crazy enough to go it alone. I set the Walk aside, as it turned out, for three decades.

For the past 15 years I've been working at HP Labs, the central research Lab of the Hewlett-Packard Company. Last year I decided to retire in order to
seek private funds, finally, to build a Walk Through Time. When I told Barb Waugh of my plans she was distraught that I felt that I had to leave HP in order to fulfill what she called my "dream." "Sid," she said, "maybe we can pilot your Walk here." I would never have conceived such an outlandish proposal. Barbara, however, is different. She fans the flames of the passionate, and pushes her company to "raise the bar on corporate citizenship."

We investigated. Bill Shreve, director of my Lab, freed me of all other responsibilities. Senior managers grew to view the Walk as a metaphor and a rich context for identifying and addressing fundamental corporate issues.

We won support to feature the Walk at Labs for a 1997 Earth Day "Celebration of Creativity." With two months to go, we hired Lois Brynes, a non-scientist museum colleague of distinguished microbiologist Lynn Margulis, to draft our text and secure illustrative photos. The tone, humor, and microbiology content reflect Lois. Labs volunteers worked long hours polishing the text that Lois drafted under enormous pressure. Artists and art copyright holders granted use of their art. Employees built easels, and helped assemble and erect the Walk.

By the end of next week the Walk will have been presented at nine locales around the world. With practically no marketing, additional inquiries have come from Australia, Canada, China, Germany, and New Zealand, with possibilities including Rotary International, the American Society for Microbiology, the World Parliament of Religions, the Smithsonian, Olympics 2000, and Expo 2000 (the next World's Fair).

HP is giving the Walk Through Time ... from stardust to us to the Palo Alto, CA non-profit Foundation for Global Community, to evolve and carry to the rest of the world. The Foundation is in the process of seeking financial support. Project plans include, in addition to the one-mile Walk, books, miniature Walks for schools, and a web version.

In conclusion ...
I believe that if, in the past, humanity had adopted a long-term future-oriented worldview, then overpopulation, habitat destruction, species extinction, CO2
greenhouse warming, ecosystem degradation, and non-renewable resource exhaustion would have been anticipated and avoided.

I ponder ... is it possible that a sense of awe and wonder, of origins, place and possibilities, can, and perhaps must, become operational imperatives in guiding humanity into the future? It is not too late to transform our values and adapt our policies. A long-term future-oriented worldview would keep us well back from precipices, and obviate last-minute debates on the likelihood, or timing, of our falling off.

To paraphrase Don Michael: "None of us can predict the future. However, each of us is free to determine how we will contribute to the circumstances out of which the future will evolve."

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