In 1999 Annie Dillard published For the Time Being, her most enigmatic book to date, where she layers statistics in a chilling attempt to pierce the mystery of who we are, as individuals, as humans, and about what matters and what does not.
Using turn-of-the-millennium demographics, she estimates the human population at 5.9 billion (we’re now at 7.7 billion). When I was born in 1959, the earth’s population was 2.97 billion. The number of living humans has now more than doubled. Dillard describes these billions of living beings as “unique shades of consciousness,” and would say no different of the 70 and 100 billion people who have lived and died on earth—half of the dead being babies and children. “We who are alive now make up about 6.8 percent of all people who have entered the world to date,” Dillard notes. “This is not a meaningful figure.” The dead outnumber the living by at least 14 to 1, though this could be as high as 20 to 1.
If there are and have been billions of us and will be billions more, how can each one of us be exquisitely unique and precious? Some—let’s be honest, many—would say lives are not equally precious. As George Orwell said satirically in Animal Farm: “Some are more equal than others.” Joseph Stalin once said with arrogant candor, even pride: “One death is a tragedy: a million deaths are a statistic.” And Stalin put his words into action during his leadership, ordering the deaths of 20 million Soviet citizens, starving seven million Ukrainians in one year. After one battle, the ancient Chinese Emperor Qin killed 400,000 prisoners. In the mid-1800s English policy deliberately starved a million men, women, and children in Ireland. Pol Pot killed two million of his own citizens in Cambodia. In 1994 Rwandan Hutus killed eight hundred thousand Tutsis in one hundred days. Communist China’s death toll “tops them all,” as Dillard says, at 72 million. “Mao’s Great Leap Forward policy alone killed 30 million people in just three years.”
And that’s not the half of it, she seems to be telling us. She’s not even scratching the surface of a pinpoint. She could go on all day and into the night:
“China has many people,” Mao told Nehru in 1954. “The atom bomb is nothing to be afraid of . . .. The death of ten or twenty million people is nothing to be afraid of.” A witness said Nehru showed shock. Later, speaking in Moscow, Mao displayed yet more generosity: He boasted that he was “willing to lose 300 million people”—then, in 1957, half of China’s population.”
Of course, it’s not always human hands doing the killing. Dillard names specific natural disasters and epidemics to scale human suffering across time: In 1976 an earthquake in Tangshan killed 750,000 people; the flu epidemic of 1917-18 killed twenty-one million people; on June 15, 1896, a seismic sea wave in northeast Japan killed 27,000 people; in the Middle Ages 25 million Europeans died of bubonic plague; a more recent plague outbreak in 1894 killed 13 million people in Asia, though little is said about this. Are these lives less equal?
Dillard then measures humans against the cosmic scale. Nine galaxies for each of us now alive—eighty billion galaxies, each one with one hundred billion suns, at least. Our Milky Way galaxy is larger with approximately four hundred billion suns—that’s 69 suns for every living person. These stars are estimated to be 13 billion years old.
And yet another layer: The ongoing cycle of life and death on earth. There are 164,00 deaths a day worldwide, 6,000 a day in the United States. And births: 10,000 a day in the United States. And this fact: “Every 110 hours a million more humans arrive on the planet than die into the planet,” Dillard says and adds a twist: “Of every seventy-five babies born today in the United States, one will die in a car crash.” She puts it out there—the one child. She pulls us into the numbers. For we all have at least one lost child in our extended family. And we know the life of that one child was priceless.
In this stark passage, she multiplies that one priceless child to millions, and yet . . .
“Anyone’s close world of family and friends comprises a group smaller than almost all sampling errors, smaller than almost all rounding errors, an invisible group at whose loss the world will not blink. More than two million children die a year from diarrhea, and eight hundred thousand from measles. Do we blink?”
Dillard piles on the facts, the metrics, layer on layer, until we want to slam her book shut. Yet we read on.
How long have we been here? Dillard estimates 500 civilized generations. About 7,500 generations of Homo sapiens, and 125,000 human generations—if we count all the generations from five to seven million years ago when most scientists agree our earliest human ancestors appeared. She shows us humanity’s long reach into the past, and yet we—and all our generations—are no more than a thin crust on the living earth. She rubs this in hard: “For every one of us living people, including every newborn at the moment it appears, there are roughly one thousand pounds of living termites. Our chickens outnumber us four to one.”
What are we to make of Annie Dillard’s fierce arithmetic—the human deaths and births, the unfathomable age of the earth, the vast universe, the termites? Why do tyrants like Mao exist? And if their individual influence for evil is so vast, must not an individual’s influence for good be just as great? Jesus of Nazareth, Buddha, Nelson Mandela, or one of our own grandparents?
Dillard’s calculations ask the oldest questions: Is each human life precious? Is there hope for the human species? Does it matter what individual humans do?
Yes, and always yes, on all counts, yes.