What Actually Happens

When you think about it, it’s really rather odd that so many people nowadays should be so hostile to the suggestion that history moves in circles. Central to the rhetoric that celebrates industrial civilization’s supposed triumph over the ignorant and superstitious past is the notion that our beliefs about the world are founded on experience and tested against hard facts. Since the cyclic theory of history gave Oswald Spengler the basis for accurate predictions about the future—predictions, mind you, that contradicted  the conventional wisdom of his time and ours, and proved to be correct anyway—wouldn’t it be more reasonable to consider the suggestion that his theory applies to our civilization too?

Reasonable or not, of course, that’s not what generally happens. Suggest that industrial civilization is following the same arc of rise and fall as all previous civilizations have done, and shows every sign of completing the rest of that trajectory in due time, and outside of a few circles of intellectual heretics on the fringes of contemporary culture, what you’ll get in the way of response is an angry insistence that it just ain’t so.  The overfamiliar claim that this time it really is different, that modern industrial civilization will either keep soaring ever higher on the way to some glorious destiny or plunge overnight into some unparalleled catastrophe, is wedged so tightly into the collective imagination of our age that not even repeated failure seems to be able to break it loose.

That last comment is anything but hyperbole; the repeated failures have happened, and are happening, without having the least effect on the claims just mentioned. Glance back over the last half century or so, to start with, and notice just how many prophecies of progress and apocalypse have ended up in history’s wastebasket.  From cities in orbit and regular flights to the Moon, through fusion power and household robots who can cook your dinner and do your laundry for you, to the conquest of poverty, disease, and death itself, how many supposedly inevitable advances have been proclaimed as imminent by scientists and the media, only to end up in history’s wastebasket when it turned out that they couldn’t be done after all? Of all the dozens of great leaps forward that were being announced so confidently in my youth, only a few—notably the computer revolution—actually happened, and even there the gap between what was predicted and what we got remains vast.

It’s indicative that the humor magazine The Onion, which makes its money by saying the things nobody else in American life is willing to say, ran an edgy piece a few months back announcing that Americans had begun to grasp that the shiny new era of progress and innovation promised so many times was never actually going to happen.  No doubt sometime soon they’ll run a similar story about the claims of imminent cataclysm that fill the same role on the other side of the spectrum of industrial society’s folk beliefs about the future. Year after weary year, the same grandiose visions of destiny and disaster get dusted off for one more showing,; they resemble nothing so much as a rerun of a television show that originally aired when your grandparents were on their first date, and yet audiences across the industrial world sit there and do their best to forget that they’ve watched the same show so often they could close their eyes and plug their ears and still recall every tawdry detail.

Meanwhile, over the same half century or so, a very different story has been unfolding here in America and, to a significant extent, elsewhere in the industrial world. Cheap, easily accessible deposits of the resources on which industrial civilization depends have been exhausted, and replaced with increasing difficulty by more expensive substitutes, at steadily rising costs in money, labor, energy, and other resources; the national infrastructure and the natural environment have both been drawn into an accelerating spiral of malign neglect; standards of living for most of the population have been sliding steadily, along with most measures of public health and meaningful education; constitutional rights and the rule of law have taken a beating, administered with equal enthusiasm by both major parties, who seem incapable of agreeing on anything else even when the welfare of the nation is obviously at stake.

In other words, while one set of true believers has been waiting hopefully for the arrival of a bright new golden age of scientific and technological progress, and another set of true believers has been waiting just as hopefully for the arrival of the vast catastrophe that will prove to their satisfaction just how wrong everyone else was, history ignored them both and brought what it usually brings at this season of a civilization’s life: that is to say, decline.

Even so, our collective fixation on those two failed narratives shows few signs of slipping. It’s uncomfortably easy to imagine an America a century from now,  in fact, in which half the sharply reduced population lives in squalid shantytowns without electricity or running water, tuberculosis and bacterial infections are the leading causes of death, cars and computers are luxury goods assembled from old parts and reserved for the obscenely rich, and space travel is a distant memory—and in which one set of true believers still insists that the great leap upward into a golden age of progress will get going any day now, another set insists just as passionately that some immense cataclysm is about to kill us all, and only a few intellectual heretics on the fringes of society are willing to talk about the hard facts of ongoing decline or the destination toward which that decline is pretty obviously headed.

There’s no shortage of irony here, because modern industrial culture’s fixation on fantasies of progress and apocalypse and its irritable rejection of any other possibilities have contributed mightily to the process of decline that both sets of fantasies reject out of hand. Since the early 1980s, when the industrial world turned its back on the hopes of the previous decade and slammed the door on its best chance of a smooth transition to sustainability, every attempt to bring up the limits to growth or propose a useful response to the impending mess has been assailed by partisans of both fantasies; the rhetoric of progress—"I’m sure they’ll come up with something," "There are no limits to the power of technology," and so on—has been precisely balanced by the rhetoric of apocalypse—"Jesus will come soon so we don’t have to worry about that," "It’s too late to save humanity from inevitable extinction," and so on.  Thirty years on, the breakthroughs have proven just as elusive as the catastrophes, but the rhetoric still plods onward.

Behind both sides of that rhetoric, I’ve come to believe, is a habit of thought that’s deeply ingrained in contemporary consciousness—the habit, mentioned toward the end of last week’s post, of postulating an imaginary "real world" that contains some set of desirable features the actual world lacks, and then condemning the actual world for its failure to measure up to the imaginary one.  Few corners of modern have escaped that habit of thinking, and fewer still have avoided being harmed by it.

Take politics, which used to be the process of finding acceptable compromises among the competing needs and wants of members of a community.  These days that process has been all but swamped by supporters of an assortment of fictive worlds—consider the heavily fictionalized pre-1960s America that features so heavily in Christian fundamentalist rhetoric, in which Christian faith was universal, happy families all prayed together on Sunday mornings, and gays, atheists, and other deviant types were safely quarantined in New York City, for example, or for that matter the assorted utopias of political correctness to be found on the other end of the political spectrum. People who are struggling to make the actual world conform to some imaginary one are rarely prepared to accept the compromises, the negotiations, and the quest for common ground that make for functional politics, and the result is the stalemate between entrenched factions that pervades politics on nearly all levels today.

From public health to personal ethics, from dietary choices to the management of the economy, the words are different but they’re all sung to the same old tune.  Abstract theories about how the world ought to work are treated as descriptions of how the world actually works, and heaven help you if you suggest that the theories might be judged by comparing them to the facts on the ground. All the usual contortions of cognitive dissonance then come into play when, as so often happens, measures that are supposed to improve public health make it worse, moral stances intended to improve the world cause more harm than good, diets that are supposed to make people healthy actually make them sick, economic programs proclaimed as the key to lasting prosperity run one economy after another straight into the ground, and so on.

What’s the alternative? Simply put, it involves setting aside our own desires, preferences, and sense of entitlement, and paying attention to the way things actually happen in the world.

It’s important not to overthink what’s being said here. Philosophers since ancient times have pointed out, and quite rightly, that human beings have no access to absolute truth; the world as we experience it comes into being out of the interaction between the "buzzing, blooming confusion" of raw sensory data and the structures of the individual consciousness. Whatever its relevance to the deeper questions of philosophy, a subject I don’t propose to address here, the world as we experience it is as close as we need to get to reality to apply the proposal I’ve just made. In the world as we experience it, some things happen reliably, other things happen unpredictably, and still other things never seem to get around to happening at all—and it’s not hard, even across cultural and linguistic barriers, to find common ground concerning which things belong in which of these categories.

That quest for common ground among the vagaries of individual experience is among other things the basis of modern science. The theory of gravitation is an elegant mathematical way of summing up the fact  that billions of individual human beings have had the experience of watching something fall, and each one of those experiences had important features in common with all the others, as well as with such apparently unconnected things as the apparent movements of the Sun in the sky. The kind of knowledge found in the theory of gravitation, and the whole range of other scientific theories, is not absolute truth; it’s always at least a little tentative, subject to constant testing and reformulation as more data comes in, but it was good enough to put human bootprints on the Moon, and it was gained by setting aside narratives that played on the preferences of the individual and collective ego, in order to listen to what Nature herself was saying.

Suggest that this attentiveness to what actually happens is a good idea when dealing with falling rocks, and you’ll get little debate. It’s when you suggest that the same approach might be usefully applied to falling civilizations that the arguments spring up, but the principle is the same in both cases. Over the last five thousand years or so, scores of societies have risen and fallen, and their trajectories through time, like those of falling rocks, have had important features in common.  It’s easy to insist that because contemporary industrial society differs from these other societies in various ways, those common features have nothing to say to our future, but what follows this claim? Inevitably, it’s yet another weary rehash of the familiar, failed narratives of perpetual progress and imminent apocalypse. If the present case really is unprecedented, wouldn’t it make more sense either to suggest some equally unprecedented model for the future, or simply to shrug and admit that nobody knows what will happen? Both these responses would make more sense than trotting out what amounts to scraps of medieval theology that have been dolled up repeatedly in pseudosecular drag since the market for religious prophecy turned south in the eighteenth century.

I’d like to suggest that it’s high time for both narratives to be put out to pasture. No, I’ll go further than that. I’d like to suggest that it’s high time for all our stories about the world and ourselves to be tested against the yardstick of what actually happens, and chucked if they can’t meet that test.

What I’m suggesting here needs to be understood with a certain amount of care. Knowledge about the world takes two broad forms, and the connection between them is rather like the connection between a pile of bricks and lumber, on the one hand, and the house that will be built out of the bricks and lumber, on the other.  The first form of knowledge is history in the broadest sense of the world—a sense that includes what used to be called "natural history," the careful collection of observed facts about the world of nature. Before Isaac Newton could sit down in his Cambridge study and work out the theory of gravitation, hundreds of other investigators had to note down their own observations about how things fall, and tens of thousands of astronomers down the centuries had to look up into the sky and notice where the little moving lights they called "wanderers"—planetoi in Greek—had turned up that night. That was the gathering of the bricks and the milling of the lumber that would eventually be used to build the elegant structure of Newton’s gravitational theory.

Long before Newton got to work, though, his brick-hauling and lumber-gathering predecessors had picked up quite a bit of relevant knowledge about how rocks fall, how planets move, and a range of similar things, and could explain in quite some detail what these things did and didn’t do. The theoretical models they used to explain these regularities of behavior weren’t always that useful—I’m thinking here especially of those medieval mystics who were convinced that rocks were head over heels in love with the Earth, and would fling themselves in the direction of their beloved whenever other forces didn’t prevent them from doing so—but the regularities themselves were well understood. That’s the kind of knowledge that comes from a close study of history. Once enough historical data has been gathered, that empirical knowledge can often be summarized and replaced by a coherent theory, but that’s not always possible; if the subject is complex enough, the number of examples is small enough, or both, a meaningful theory may remain out of reach. In that case, though, the empirical knowledge is well worth having, since it’s the only real knowledge you have to go on.

The trajectory of human civilizations over time is an immensely complex subject, and the scores of societies that have risen and fallen during recorded history still forms a small enough data set that strict theoretical models may be premature. That leaves the empirical knowledge gathered from history.  It’s impossible to prove from that knowledge that the same patterns will continue to happen, just as it was impossible for one of the medieval mystics I mentioned to disprove the claim that now and then a rock might have a lover’s quarrel with the Earth and fall straight up into the sky to get away from her. Still, when known patterns are already at work in a given society, it’s reasonable to accept that they’re likely to continue to their normal end, and when a given theory about the future has failed every time it’s been proposed, it’s just as reasonable to dismiss it from consideration and look for alternatives that work better in practice.

This is what I’d like to ask my readers to do. Each of us carries around an assortment of narratives about what the future might be like, most of them derived from one or another corner of popular culture or from various older traditions and writings. Each of us uses those narratives, consciously or otherwise, as templates into which scraps of information about the future are fitted, and very often this is done without paying attention to what history has to say about the narratives themselves.  Instead, I’d like to suggest that it’s worth taking a hard look at those narratives whenever they surface, and checking them against the evidence of history. Has anything like this happened before, and if so, what results followed? Has anyone ever believed something like this before, and if so, how did that belief work out in practice? These are the kinds of questions I encourage my readers to ask.

I’m aware that this is a heavy burden—much heavier than it may seem at first glance, because it involves discarding some of our most cherished cultural narratives, including those that have become central to a great many modern religious traditions. Those of my Christian readers who believe that their scriptures predict a total overturning of the order of history in the near future may feel that burden more sharply than most. To them, I would point out that the belief in an imminent and literal apocalypse is only one of several ways that devout Christians have interpreted the scriptures. A great many believers in Christ have seen his words on the Mount of Olives as a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, and the Book of Revelations as a prophecy—put in symbolic terms to get past Roman censors—of the impending decline and fall of the Roman Empire: both events, it bears noting, having far more immediate importance to their audiences than, say, a cataclysm in the distant twenty-first century.  My Jewish readers will have to fill me in about the range of accepted  interpretations of the prophecies concerning the Messianic kingdom—it’s not a subject I know much about—but I’d be very surprised, given the ebullient nature of rabbinic debate, if there weren’t plenty of options as well, including some that don’t require history to be stood on its head.

My atheist readers will have an easier time of it in one sense but, in at least some cases, as hard a time in others. To believe that the universe is mere matter and energy without purpose or consciousness, that humanity is simply one more biological species to which evolution has granted a few unusual gifts, and that nobody is peering anxiously down from the sky to observe our species’ foibles and bail it out from its mistakes, might seem to offer few obstacles to the sort of realism I’m proposing. Still, I’ve met an embarrassingly large number of atheists who accord humanity the same privileged status and glorious destiny that prophetic religions claim for their believers. It might seem odd to portray humanity as the Chosen Species while denying that there’s anybody to do the choosing, but such is the nature of the return of the repressed.  To those of my atheist readers who indulge in such imaginings, I would encourage attention to the presuppositions of their own beliefs, and a particularly close study of past claims of progress and apocalypse that didn’t happen to include a god as one of the stage properties.

To those of my readers who share my Druid faith, or any of the other movements in today’s inchoate but lively field of nature-centered spirituality, I hope I may speak even more frankly.  For those who recognize the ways of Nature as a revelation of the powers that create and sustain the cosmos, as Druidry does, the notion that the world will abandon her normal ways and jump through hoops like a trained seal to satisfy our sense of entitlement or our craving for revenge is really pretty absurd. To study nature from a Druid perspective is to learn that that limitation is the first law of existence, that what looks like a straight line to us is merely part of a circle too large to see at a single glance, that every movement generates and is balanced by a corresponding countermovement, that what systems theory calls negative feedback and an older way of thought calls the Royal Secret of equilibrium governs all things and all beings, with or without their conscious cooperation. In such a cosmos—and all things considered, a strong case can be made that this is the kind of cosmos we live in—there’s no room for the paired fantasies of perpetual progress and imminent apocalypse, except as exhibits in a display of the odd things human beings talk themselves into believing from time to time.

Other faiths face their own challenges in dealing with the task I’ve proposed. I hope that at least some of my readers will be willing to attempt that task, though, because it’s far less abstract than it might seem at first; it has practical applications that bear directly on the hard work of preparing for the difficult future ahead. We’ll discuss that next week.