Nothing Like Us Ever Was

Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) is one of the more neglected American poets these days. He drew much of his inspiration from the American experience, and that's very nearly a guarantee of obscurity at a time when conservatives try to force-fit our past onto the Procrustean bed of an imaginary fundamentalist Utopia, and liberals insist that America is somehow uniquely evil among the cultures of the world. Still, Sandburg has another strike against him. Like his contemporary Robinson Jeffers and a few others of their generation, Sandburg brought a powerful sense of historical irony to his poetic work. His 1920 poem Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind threw a challenge square in the face of the civil religion of the industrial age and its monomyth of perpetual progress:

The doors are twisted on broken hinges.
Sheets of rain swish through on the wind
where the golden girls ran and the panels read:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.

In Sandburg's time, just as in ours, "nothing like us ever was" summed up the American credo. From the first years of European settlement, the faith that the New World would avoid the mistakes and follies of the old helped drive a dizzying range of social and political experiments, including the one many of us will be celebrating on July 4. What Jacques Chirac mocked as America's "almost messianic sense of national mission" has deep roots in the national psyche, and one of the most crucial of those roots is the rarely expressed but powerful conviction that America is exempt from the historical process. The idea that America's gleaming cities might someday be abandoned ruins where "the doors are twisted on broken hinges," in Sandburg's words, is close to unthinkable -- close enough that people struggling to think it often end up thinking that only a vast global catastrophe could possibly be up to the job.

A glance at earlier civilizations on this same continent offers a useful corrective to this sort of simplistic thinking. Huge urban centers existed here long before the first European settlers arrived on the Atlantic coast -- and yes, I'm thinking of Leif Ericsson here, not just Columbus. From Copan in the Yucatan jungles to Cahokia on the plains of the Midwest, urban civilizations in America rose, flourished, and fell in the same slow rhythm that defines the history of the Old World. Archeologists still quarrel about the exact reasons why these cities and the civilizations that built them fell into ruin, but the usual culprits -- unresolved social discords, attempts to meet long-term problems with short-term fixes, and failures to recognize or abide by the reality of environmental limits -- show up again and again in the evidence, while the vast catastrophes beloved of today's alternative thinkers are notable by their absence.

The fact of the matter is that civilizations don't last forever; they have a life cycle like that of other living things, and when it's over, they die. That doesn't make the project of civilization pointless, as some of today's neoprimitivist thinkers suggest, any more than the fact that every one of us will die someday makes life not worth living. The latter fact does mean, of course, that someone who insists he's going to live forever, and makes plans for his future based on that premise, may not be quite as clever as he thinks he is. The same thing, of course, is true of civilizations -- including our own.

Of course it's this last point around which all the controversy gathers. Plenty of people are willing to concede that everyone else's civilizations follow a common path to a common destiny, but not ours.

This conviction has a long and murky history, reaching back to the last few centuries before the Common Era, when religious traditions across much of the Old World started offering believers the promise of a way out of the cycles of time into a timeless realm of perfection. For the most part, the escape hatch from time was sized only for individuals; the Buddhist pursuit of Nirvana and the Gnostic quest to return to the aeonic world of light are good examples of the theme. In a handful of traditions, though, this mutated into the idea that the whole world would enter eternity at a specific point in the future: ordinary history would stop, and be replaced by something wholly other. The Jewish vision of the coming Messianic age is among the oldest of these. Adapted by Christianity, it became the prophecy of the Second Coming, and in this latter form it remains a potent myth through much of the western world.

But the scientific revolution of the 17th century put a new wrinkle in the old myth. To the founders and ideologues of industrial society, human beings didn't need to wait on God to bring on the New Jerusalem; it could be built here and now by harnessing the power of human reason. As the mythology of progress redefined the past as a tale of the slow triumph of reason over nature, the western world embraced a paradoxical vision in which history itself brought about an end to history. Focused through thinkers as different as Hegel and Terence McKenna, this concept still remains part of the conventional wisdom. For people at all points on the cultural spectrum, as a result, the perfect society remains firmly parked in the near future, accessible once the right set of political, social, or spiritual policies are put into place.

This faith has provided motive power to many worthy causes, to be sure, though it can point in less positive directions as well; Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot both believed they were leading their respective societies through the door to Utopia. It can also provide such triumphs of unintentional comedy as Francis Fukuyama's premature announcement of "The End of History". Yet in many ways this belief is just as blinding as the notion that one will live forever, and it suffers from the same drawbacks as a basis for making sense of the future.

The conviction that history's cycles don't apply to us is especially counterproductive in our present circumstances. Someone confronted with a diagnosis of some life-threatening illness, who believed he would live forever, and for this reason refused either to treat the illness or make sure his family would have some means of support in the event of his death, would be considered completely irresponsible by most people -- and for good reason. Yet this is exactly the collective situation we're in right now. For more than fifty years we've known exactly what factors are pushing industrial society toward its own collapse, and it's no secret what has to be done to make the transition to sustainability, but the vast majority of people in the industrial world remain utterly unwilling to embrace the necessary changes -- and they're no more interested in thinking about the generations in the future who will grow up in the ruins of our society.

This has to change if anything is going to be salvaged from the present crisis. It's probably too late to manage a transition to sustainability on a global or national scale, even if the political will to attempt it existed -- which it clearly does not. It's not too late, though, for individuals, groups, and communities to make that transition themselves, and to do what they can to preserve essential cultural and practical knowledge for the future. Taking this step, however, will require us to abandon the fantasy that "nothing like us ever was" and the great cycles of history have been suspended for our benefit.

Our civilization is well along the same curve of decline and fall that so many others have followed before it, and the crises of the present -- peak oil, global warming, and the like -- are simply the current versions of patterns of ecological dysfunction that can be traced over and over again in the past. What's waiting for us in the near future, to judge by the experience of past civilizations, isn't the attainment of a more perfect society, much less business as usual; it's a long uneven decline into a new dark age from which, centuries from now, the new civilizations of the future will gradually emerge.

That realization leaves little room for the triumphalist mythology of progress or the insistence that our technological toys somehow exempt us from the common fate. What it provides instead is a perspective that makes sense of our situation, and opportunities for effective action. I plan on talking about these latter at some length over the next few weeks. For now, though, Sandburg deserves the final word:

And the wind shifts
and the dust on a door sill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints
tells us nothing, nothing at all
about the greatest city, the greatest nation
where the strong men listened
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.