The one thing we could give our descendants that they’d really appreciate
Anyone who’s aware of history can’t help but suspect we’re witnessing the end of our civilization. Thanks to modern technologies, the forces that previously could take hundreds of years to fracture and finally destroy a civilization can today enable the same processes to occur over a few decades.
Today, modern technologies have enabled populism to sweep the globe and carry blustering halfwits to power. The policies these liars and frauds promulgate then further accelerate the fracturing of civilization and former norms of behavior, thus leading to even more inadequate creatures coming to power, whose policies are even more inept than those that went before, and so the acceleration is exponential.
Although most people can’t see past the surface details (the recent UK election, the Trump futile impeachment proceedings, Bolsonaro’s destruction of the Amazon rainforest, etc.) the fact is that for the first time in history the entire world is synchronized. When the civilization of the Indus Valley around Mohenjo Daro collapsed it meant nothing to the civilization on Crete that left us Knossos. When the Roman Empire finally collapsed some sixteen hundred years ago it didn’t impact Chinese civilization and was unfelt in the Andes. But today the collapse of the West will have profound effects around the globe.
How will China’s attempt to become a modern post-industrial nation fare when its exports have nowhere to go and it cannot import sophisticated machinery from Western suppliers? How will Africa fare when GMO technologies can no longer supply drought-resistant crops and there are no NGOs to help out when famine strikes? We live in an inter-dependent world amid a web comprising tens of thousands of interconnections. Not just global supply chains but a global financial system too. Not just modern pharmaceuticals but also a wealth of shared scientific knowledge and data.
All that vanishes as our global civilization is torn apart by mindless populism, because in a populist world there is only us and everyone else, and everyone else is to blame for the many harms we inflict on ourselves through our folly and ignorance. Worse yet, the cynical and genuinely stupid stir up fear and hatred by identifying groups for us to blame for our woes, real and imagined.
In the past this has always reliably led to wars breaking out because at a certain point there is no way to prevent the fear and distrust and hatred and greed and sheer mindless stupidity from boiling over into physical conflict. There is zero reason to believe things can be any different this time around.
It’s salutary to remember that as late as 1913 the “informed commentary” was that war between the Great Powers was impossible because they were so inter-dependent. Global trade was at an all-time high and, after collapsing from 1914 to 1939, did not reach the same level again until the early 1970s. There were many very good reasons why war would have been incredibly stupid, but none of these reasons prevented World War I from breaking out on July 28th 1914.
When our global civilization collapses this time it’s likely to be a far greater collapse than has occurred before, precisely because of our global inter-dependence and because our knowledge is now largely virtual.
When Rome fell a great deal was lost but many scrolls and parchments remained to travel down the centuries and be rediscovered during the European Renaissance. Although Egyptian civilization flickered out nearly two millennia ago their hieroglyphs remained and carried much information forward to our own time. We even have some clay tablets from Babylonian times.
Of course today we still have physical books in libraries, but how well would these artifacts fare in the event of nuclear war and the firestorms that such a conflagration would create? Less dramatically, how well would our paper information storage units survive the ravages of moisture and mildew and rats?
The hard fact is, we can very easily imagine a great many banal scenarios in which little if any of the knowledge we’ve accumulated over the last few hundred years would make it into the time of our great-grandchildren.
Which means they would be stuck more or less in the Dark Ages and there’s zero guarantee that circumstances would conspire to enable the subsequent redevelopment of knowledge equivalent to that which we take for granted today.
To understand why this is in fact the case we need to understand how it is that today we’re the beneficiaries of an extraordinary intellectual efflorescence unknown previously in all of human history.
We humans hate uncertainty and we hate having change imposed on us. Rulers are no different in this regard from the ruled. They want their lives to be stable and predictable and their dynasties to persist. In order to achieve stability, anything that threatens the current social order (“the way we do things around here”) must be suppressed. When we look at former civilizations we see that suppression has been very effective in most every case. Egyptian civilization was famous for its stasis, as was Chinese civilization prior to colonial incursion by Western powers. After Christianity became the dominant mythology in the West, the Catholic Church sought to impose stasis as far as its remit stretched, which is why Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake and Galileo Galilei was threatened with torture when they independently realized that the Copernican model of the universe was wrong. Even today, long after the Catholic Church lost the power to send the Inquisition to torture people, southern European countries still lag their northern European counterparts in every area of science and social norms. The dead hand of orthodoxy stifles entire nations for a very long time indeed.
The reason we can read articles like this on our screens today is because of the fragmentation of the Christian mythology consequent to Luther’s promulgation of his 95 Theses. Luther didn’t mean to split the Church, but we can be profoundly grateful that this was indeed the consequence. The various Protestant sects that arose were each too small and too fissiparous to accumulate the kind of deadening power enjoyed by the Catholic Church. This meant that for the first time since classical Greek thought flickered out of existence, people were free to question orthodoxy, conduct experiments, and write about new hypotheses.
The result, ultimately, was our modern scientific era. Without Luther and a whole series of chance coincidental events, it is highly unlikely any of what we see around us today would exist. So we cannot blithely assume that even after the end of our civilization it’s inevitable that our descendants would automatically regain the knowledge we have today and reconstruct our everyday marvels of convenience.
Ironically of course it’s our everyday marvels of convenience that have to a large degree enabled the destructive wave of populism that will drown the very elements that made its triumph possible. Technologies have always been used by demagogues to sway the simple-minded. Writing was a powerful magic in mostly pre-literate societies and priests weren’t shy about using it to dominate their congregations. Pamphlets and broadsheets and books proliferated after Gutenberg invented the printing press in or around 1439, each one promoting a particular view of the world and a particular agenda. The telegraph enabled huge geographic expansion of the State and without it neither the USA nor Lenin’s Soviet Union could have spread so far so fast. When the radio was a staple feature of most households, Hitler used it to great effect to creep into the minds of ordinary Germans and lay therein his hate-mongering. Kennedy famously beat Nixon in 1960 because he was a natural on the small screen whereas Nixon was wooden and shifty-seeming. Today blustering creatures like Trump and Johnson are on every screen in every hand, often larger-than-life, and their fatuous narratives burrow their way insidiously into the minds of those who know little and think even less.
Populism, often presented as “patriotism,” is the simple-minded retreat into nostalgic fantasies in the face of urgent global problems. The siren-song of populists is that provided we find someone to blame we can ignore the very real problems we are facing today: climate change, depletion of natural resources and destruction of vast ecosystems, economic upheaval, and social strains. It is obvious that the faux solutions proffered by populists will do nothing to meet these challenges and in many cases will actively make them even worse.
Thus it is reasonable to assume that we’re nearing the end of humanity’s first global civilization. The forces are too great, and the great mass of citizens too foolish or too distracted or too unobservant to understand the real and present danger we face.
So the question becomes: what can we bequeath to our great-grandchildren that may help them rebuild what our own folly is about to destroy?
Clearly we have amassed information on a scale unprecedented in all of human history. We have discovered truths not only about the physical world but also about ourselves as a primate species with hardwired behaviors resulting from selection pressures during our evolutionary history and the evolutionary history of our primate antecedents. We know so much more about the universe and about ourselves than we did even thirty years ago. Much of this knowledge can be applied to constructing far better modes of civilization than the one we’ve blundered into in our short-sighted greed and folly.
How can we pass this on, given the likely destruction of our physical infrastructure and the resultant loss of information?
While it would be lovely to think we can use our marvelous technologies, the reality is that there’s no way any future generation will be able to read anything on today’s hard drives. They are insufficiently resilient to last for centuries, and who would know how to decode the ones and zeros encoded thereon?
So we would need to fall back on visual records and, perhaps, some mechanical devices that could store sounds and perhaps images. We could create papers and inks that could last for hundreds of years, and seal them in nitrogen to slow their decay. We could lock these artifacts away in sealed impermeable boxes that can be placed in sealed underground chambers. The Egyptians managed to preserve a great deal with far less sophisticated technologies than those we currently possess.
We could create ten or more such repositories of knowledge, scattered around the world in locations far from cities that may be bombed in the years ahead. And we could lock these repositories in a way that would be impenetrable to the primitive technologies available to our great-grandchildren. In this way we could prevent the foolish and greedy from gaining access and despoiling the contents. Only through knowledge would access be granted, and we could leave a clue to the knowledge required: a Fibonacci curve atop a standard 10-integer mechanical keypad.
Each vault would contain not only knowledge but also the location of all the other vaults, along with maps and explanations regarding how to use them. Thus knowledge might be shared once again, if our descendants are wiser than we are regarding cooperation and understanding that existence is in no way a zero-sum game.
It is, however, unlikely we’ll do this. Instead, childish billionaires will devote themselves to idle dreams of building panic rooms on Mars, wealthy socialites will donate vast sums to their alma maters so they can be memorialized on a building or a sports center, and ordinary people will spend more on candy and soda than we collectively spend on all the libraries on Earth. There will be no sense of urgency until it’s far too late to do anything, and so we will pass on to our great-grandchildren the full import of what we’ve learned from history: nothing at all.