Looking Back on Today
By Richard Wilk
How are we going to be remembered in a century, in two hundred or five hundred years? Not as individuals – even the most famous people will be long forgotten. But what about our civilization and our way of life? As a trained archaeologist, I ask whether our time will be called a golden age, an epoch of art, learning and enlightenment, or a dark and troubled era of wastefulness, decline and division.
Archaeologists have tried to purge the more obvious value judgments from their snapshots of past times. They no longer call epochs “decadent” or “formative” though terms like “classic” and “high civilization” are still used for the times when a culture hit its peak of power, built its most magnificent cities, made the most beautiful and elaborate arts and crafts, or conquered neighbors and welded them into a vast empire.
And they can also point to genuine examples of decline and failure. The Norse, for example, successfully colonized Greenland in 986 AD, and grew to 16 parishes led by a Catholic bishop in 1350. But when their trade with Europe was cut off by the Black Plague a hundred years later, and colder climate cut down on their pastures, the colonies failed and everyone sailed back to Iceland and Norway (see Stull 1990). The people of the American Southwest, in Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and a series of other cultural centers settled there for centuries, yet suffered a painful decline and dispersal between 1100 and the 1400 with continual raiding, warfare, migration and ultimately abandonment of sequential regional areas.
So what about our era, the rise of Western capitalism and its diffusion in the form of globalized trade and material aspirations? Pundits and preachers tell us we are at the edge of the cliff, about to fall into oblivion. Others claim just as certainly that we are entering a new period of growth and prosperity, as democracy and freedom spread and we transition into a sustainable economy based on green technology.
For a moment let’s just step back and look at one thing we have built our civilization upon – oil. The amount we use is so large that the numbers are meaningless to most of us. Artist Chris Jordan uses huge canvases to help us really feel what 28,000 42-gallon barrels–the amount consumed in the USA every two minutes– looks like. As he says, it is “equal to the flow of a medium sized river” running 24 hours a day.
Maybe in 50 years but certainly in a century, free oil from the ground is going to be very scarce and a lot more precious. There will be expensive substitutes from natural gas, algae, genetically modified palm trees and the like, but the idea that you could once pump oil and sell it for $100 a barrel is going to sound ridiculous. So looking back on today, from the distant future, the idea that people would burn the precious stuff just to drive around ‘sightseeing’ or on holiday, in a private vehicle, for fun, seems somewhat short-sighted. A lot of the time these cars are not even full.
And why were their towns and cities spread out across the land, so people had to burn oil just to go to work or buy groceries? I have tried to explain this to European visitors several times, with little success. I somehow doubt that people in 100 years are going to have more sympathy. They are just going to think we were crazed, insane, and unbelievably wasteful; and that we were unable to understand what our own scientists were telling us.
At least the ancient Romans had an excuse when they poisoned themselves with lead in their water, food and wine. They had no idea that lead was responsible for their declining intelligence, miscarriages, memory loss and bad digestion. But look at all the poisons we ingest every day in our air, water, food and drink, despite dire warnings. How can we explain that in rational terms?
I just hope that none of our distant descendants ever runs across a catalog from Skymall or Hammacher-Schlemmer. Like our giant yachts, trophy mansions and vanity museums, these catalogs demonstrate a rococo form of consumerism that has no pretense of being for or about anything, beyond the tiniest quantum of health or comfort. Are you ready to justify spending resources on an “indoor flameless marshmallow roaster” to your great-great grandchildren, who are living in a world where oceans have risen to inundate most coastal cities, because of the fossil fuels we burned?
If these things were exceptional, my argument would be trivial. But our entire consumer culture has spun into a kind of ‘babes in toyland’ phase, that feels like one last big blow-out party where we try to recapture the innocent joy of a time when we didn’t know that our fun was wrecking the place. The only difference is that in this case, it is the kids, not the parents, who are going to be asking, “What were you possibly thinking to leave us such a huge mess?”
Bloggers, political pundits, and social scientists have noted that the hallmark of the Anthropocene is that it is the only geological epoch where the active force in creating change (us, that is) consciously know that we are affecting the planet; the question is whether humans have the interest and political will to do anything about it (Palsson et al 2012). So far we have not heard any serious proposals to limit or control the wildest and most wasteful kinds of consumerism.
Palsson, G., et al., Reconceptualizing the ‘Anthropos’ in the Anthropocene: Integrating the social sciences and humanities in global environmental change research. Environ. Sci. Policy (2012), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2012.11.004 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2012.11.004
Stull, Scott 1990 Colonization in a Marginal Zone: The Norse in Greenland. Crosscurrents 4:1-15. http://www.academia.edu/637940/Colonization_in_a_Marginal_Zone_the_Norse_in_Greenland
Chris Jordan: http://www.chrisjordan.com/gallery/rtn/#oil-barrels