Two Minutes

I recently read an article discussing Held, et al v. Montana. This case, the first of its kind in the United States to go to trial, was filed in Montana First Judicial District Court by 16 young Montanans. These plaintiffs are suing to enforce their inalienable right to a clean and healthful environment, guaranteed under Article II, section 3 of our Montana Constitution.

The article prompted me to reflect upon the evolutionary history of our species, homo sapiens–a story of soaring accomplishment and abject failure.

 To put this in perspective, we need to consider some time frames, starting at the beginning: The earth formed in our solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. Rudimentary life is thought to have first appeared about 900 million years later, or around 3.7 billion years ago. From there evolution took over, ultimately resulting in humans—homo­­­­—who evolved from a genus of apes about 2.5 million years ago.  Our species, homo sapiens, evolved from these early humans, between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago. Up until a time between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago (12,000 years ago is the date most frequently cited) humans lived in small hunting and gathering groups.  It was during this time forward, that various of these hunter/gatherer groups settled in larger units—villages, towns, cities, and empires–planting and harvesting food crops, domesticating animals, and dividing labor as a more efficient way of living. Modern civilization.

If one were to view this evolutionary history through the lens of a standard 12-month calendar, life first appeared on January 1; the dinosaurs went extinct on December 25; humans first appeared at 11;00 pm on December 31; and modern civilization began at 2 minutes before midnight on December 31.[1]

During these final two minutes homo sapiens crafted written language, digital technology, and methods to communicate information anywhere in the world in seconds. We split atoms and harnessed their power. We sent people to the moon; our presence in space grows more far-reaching and sophisticated each year.  We invented treatments and cures for a goodly number of ills that killed many of us less than a hundred years ago. We probed the depths of the oceans, and, with our space-based telescopes, we observed the light from within seconds following our universe’s formation. We learned how to change the structure of DNA and genes, ours included. We’re on the cusp of developing machine intelligence that will probably, itself, become sentient in not too many years. We explored the particles and forces that comprise time, space, gravity, and the laws that created us and enable our very existence.  All in those two minutes.

In those same two minutes, however, we created monotheistic religions, wrote sacred texts, and, for good and evil, empowered priests, pontiffs, prelates, and prophets to institutionalize our sectarian myths. We governed ourselves with warlords, kings, queens, dictators, and presidents, counting among those the wisest and most evil and ignorant among us. We warred against each other constantly, killing billions of us. We explored, and we decimated indigenous populations in the process.  We fouled our nests, our waters and our air with all manner of filth, waste, disease, pollution and, ultimately, the heat from our industries and lifestyles equivalent to 400,000 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs detonating every day–four every second.[2] We hold on to systemic racism, sexual and gender-based phobia, misogyny, and xenophobia; we discriminate against and punish each other for our differences.

We are the first species with the power to render our kind and most other living things extinct; and we are exercising this power to do just that.  All in those two minutes.

We became so smart, so fast, that we outsmarted ourselves. If we do not change course, if we do not engage our prefrontal cortex to rein-in our limbic brain, we will not be around for the next two minutes in a new January 1.

 In our present two minutes homo sapiens became homo extinctor (man the destroyer, the annihilator).  And, though our planet will survive for another four of those virtual calendar years, homo extinctor will not be a part of it.

So, 16 young Montanans, you still have what remains of our present two minutes. Homo extinctor has, indeed, placed a heavy burden upon you. But you are a start, you are the future, and you are entitled to a clean and healthful environment in which to live. Good luck.


[1] See, Humankind, Ruter Bregman, Little Brown and Company, 2019, at p.51.

[2] Bill McKibben, Falter, Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, Henry Holt and Company, 2019.

at p. 22.

James C. Nelson a retired Montana Supreme Court justice. He lives in of Helena.