The Arc of History


Nothing is so peculiar as the idea that modern life is normal. All the comforts and conveniences that we take for granted actually represent a stupendously special moment in history. We enter a room, throw a light switch, and would only be astonished if the lights failed to come on. Yet, my grandparents were born into a world where electric lighting was a novelty, and hot showers a luxury. And there’s a fair chance our grandchildren will look back at these decades that bridged the millennia as an enchanted golden age of miracles. Everything passes, everything changes, and now we are moving into an age of dark uncertainty.

All the disorders of the moment can be traced to the end of abundance – of energy resources, high-grade ores, good soils, clean water, fertile oceans, and healthy natural ecosystems. The human race has overshot the Earth’s ability to provide and now faces systematic contraction. The political implications are untenable and so political leadership cannot cope with the task of managing contraction, whether it manifests in an unraveling social safety net or the need to put insolvent banks through administration. In short, there is no political appetite for reality these days. Instead, we mount one campaign after another to sustain the unsustainable – bailouts for banks, the rescue of bankrupt car companies, net-loss ethanol subsidies, interventions in the housing market, Operation Twist 2 and 3, quantitative easing-to-infinity. We wish desperately to stay in the safe and comfortable moment in history.

History has other plans for us. It is dragging us kicking and screaming into a new era that will contradict and disappoint the most popular extrapolated fantasies about a super high tech cornucopian future. What awaits us instead is the breakdown of interrelated complex systems that will amount to a striking re-set of all our activities. Everything now gets smaller and more local or it goes out of business – and that goes for governments, the operations of finance, commercial enterprise, farming, medicine, schooling, even professional sports and the arts. This re-set to a less complex version of civilization (or simply human society, if that term offends) will very likely include a “time-out” from exactly the sort of technological progress that was the essence of modernity.

What a shocking irony that the modern age failed to notice that it, too, had a “sell-by” date. A big part of its appeal was the notion that all prior limits to human desire were suspended. Anything seemed possible including Ray Kurzweil’s “Singularity” fantasy of human life merging with machine intelligence to become, in effect, God. Trafficking with infinity is dangerous business and beats a path directly to hubris and self-destruction.

Historians of the future sitting around their fireplaces will look back on the hundred-odd years after the First World War with reverent wonder (and perhaps some vertiginous nausea, just as we look back on the bygone spectacles of Imperial Rome.)  Some of the artifacts of the modern period will survive, for a while, anyway. What will they make of the Busby Berkeley chorus lines singing “We’re in the Money, and the Ninja Turtle action figures, not to mention the decrepitating Creation Museums?

In this inevitable future everybody will recognize what an anomaly the modern era was from the magnificent stringencies of nature’s rule. For a dazzling moment, we were able to outpace the laws of thermodynamics until it all snapped back on us.

That would be the same instant when we become reacquainted with our lost notions of virtue, of the idea that we are actually closer to the angels than to machines we came to worship in an unfortunate age.