What with natural disasters, climate change, the end of carbon, terrorism, wars, the global financial crisis, and the frightening rise of violence and viciousness in our cities, at some point we all wonder, What’s going on?
Is it the End if Days? The beginnings of the collapse of our civilisation? Is God mad? Is the planet trying to shake us off?
A couple of years ago I read Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” about how and why past civilisations have collapsed, sometimes lead over the cliff by their own folly, blind to the consequences even as they cut down the last tree. The tale of Easter Island in particular was mesmerising and shocking. But with some of the stories (such as Easter Island) I found myself wondering, Is this really what happened? It seemed so amazing that it was actually hard to believe. Then again, past civilisations have surely collapsed or petered out – when this was going on what was it like? What were the people thinking? Did they realise what was happening?
I’m sure this is what people in the past said as their societies unravelled around them, but you know, I just cannot bring myself to believe we are nearing the end of ours. Maybe our minds can’t process it or our hubris can’t accept it. But I really don’t think it’s happening.
Remind ourselves: every marker of “progress” is up, in every way. Health, freedom, longevity, infant survival, childbirth survivals, education, quality of living, equality of opportunity… I know, not for all. Not by a long shot. But in general and around the world these things have not gone backwards.
You can be cynical about “progress” – and I am – but admit it, there is no place in the past, even 10 or 20 years ago, that most people would truly choose to be.
So then what is going on?
Are disasters increasing? Are we spiralling?
Now of course, I haven’t the faintest idea. But this is what I believe.
I think we are actually in the midst of a “bad period” in history, which will pass. These have happened before. And in the western world we have just come out of a long period of calm and prosperity. The current upheavals and recessions and disasters and uncertainties are coming to us as something of a shock.
I think this period will be marked as beginning with the events of 9/11.
I know this is not when things really started, but it is when we noticed. Suddenly, from that day, everything seemed dangerous and uncertain. And the problems have piled up around us since then. For me and for many others, I suspect this was a real turning point.
I notice too (because I’m getting old), that many of the writers in the media these days are quite young – in their 30s or even 20s and pronouncing on things which sometimes, just sometimes, they get wrong. They make a statement about the past or about the sweep of history and I think, No, that’s not what it was like. And I’m sure people older than me notice this even more.
I notice that older people are far more sanguine about this period in our history than people my age and younger. They have more perspective. They remember the world wars, the 1960s, the 1970s – also times of upheaval and fear, which passed.
The recent spate of disasters, natural and human-caused, has certainly been catastrophic and has hit the world badly. It is as if we have had a very unlucky streak, and unlucky streaks of all kinds take their toll and take time to recover from. We know we haven’t seen the last of them, but we can all fervently hope there will be some ease in the rates of disaster and suffering around the world.
We also need 2012 to come and go so people can let go of the latest millenarian anxiety.
And I think we need to be more optimistic about the future. I think there are enough humans on the planet, with all the resources and brain power and variety of thinking and ways of living that they have at their disposal, to come up with new ideas and new ways which will help us; that, and the natural tides of history and nature, will, eventually, get us over most of the hurdles we are facing today.
Yes, I really do believe that.
"God is mad at us":
A saner view: excellent comment by Boris Johnson in the Telegraph, reprinted by The Age today:
Jared Diamond’s Collapse: summary of debate: