On living in interesting times

Far-called, our navies melt away;

On dune and headland sinks the fire:

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Rudyard Kipling, “Recessional

Everyone, of course, has heard of the Chinese curse, or the supposedly Chinese curse. And it’s hard to deny that the times we’re going through will make interesting reading in the histories of the future, if they ever get written.

It’s an interesting exercise to wonder what those future historians will make of us. We’ll certainly leave a plentiful archaeological record, although much of it may be unpleasant, especially the parts involving spent nuclear fuel. How much of the written word will survive it’s hard to say. Most of our printed matter is on paper that quite quickly becomes yellow and brittle. The electronic stuff will be unreadable to future generations – even some of our quite recently made digital artifacts already fall into that category, and we still have access to computers.

Still, you’d like to think that it will be possible for the basic narrative of our civilisation’s fall to be reconstructed. After all, we can still manage a reasonable job of it with the Roman Empire even after all this time. That empire, or at least the Western half of it, took about a century to collapse. Let’s take that as a ballpark estimate of the span of our imagined future history. What would be our equivalent of the battle of Adrianople?

I’m tempted to suggest the 1973-4 oil crisis, which puts us about halfway along the trajectory of collapse. Back then there was much wringing of hands when the price of oil almost reached the dizzying heights of $12 a barrel – around $78 in today’s money. (At the time of this writing, incidentally, Brent Crude was $120 a barrel.) That crisis was blamed on the evil Arabs, much as the current one is being blamed on the evil Russians.

Where they will choose to end the story is hard to say. Conventionally, the end of the Western Roman Empire is dated from the abdication of the last emperor in 476, but to be honest, if they’d had newspapers back then it would have rated a filler paragraph at the bottom of page eleven. History is always a continuum, after all. Perhaps the equivalent for us will be the closure of the last oil-well, or the manufacture of the last car.

Whatever it is, it will probably also rate a filler paragraph at the bottom of page eleven, if there are still newspapers by that point. These things will have ceased to be relevant to the mass of the population, other than on a symbolic level. We’ll all be too busy getting on with our lives to shed too many tears for Royal Dutch Shell.

The details, of course, can’t be known in advance. But perhaps we can be clearer on what attitude towards us our descendents are likely to take. Historians of the Roman Empire have generally taken a broadly sympathetic view – helped by the fact that the bulk of the written sources come from the Roman side, of course, but also drawing on a genuine feeling that Roman civilisation and culture bequeathed many things of lasting value.

What will the future make of us?

On the physical level, it will be a mixed bag. I can imagine at least some of the road network being of some use, as indeed was the case with the Roman roads. We will have left an immense amount of scrap metal and other materials which can be salvaged in the future. On the other hand, we will also have left behind plenty of toxic rubbish which will continue to cause trouble for centuries if not millennia.

But I can’t imagine future cultures having much time for our values or our art. Those who prosper in the future will need to have adapted their ways of thinking about the world, and especially their relationship to other living beings, in a way that will be quite inimical to ours. This may indeed develop to a point where we become quite incomprehensible to them. There may, in the end, be no market for some putative Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of Industrial Civilisation.

In many ways this is a sad prospect. Much will be lost that might indeed have had lasting value. But that, after all, is how it goes. And at least in this imaginary future life goes on, in different ways from what we are used to, of course, but it will still have meaning for those who live it.

Let us hope that their times are a little less interesting than ours.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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