Saturday, June 28, 2014

What will our descendants think of us?

At the BBC Tom Chatfield wonders "What our descendants will deplore about us? His musings are pure "Spirit of the Age" stuff (they'll be vegan, etc) and not very reflective. He asks other people for input.

Lovelock worries about food and energy shortages. Raworth thinks they'll deplore our linear thinking about climate change, economies, education, etc. He seems to mean that we shouldn't be measuring things in terms of cost and benefit, or have border controls. Seeger believes they'll think poverty and animal abuse are evil. Krznaric thinks they'll bemoan the loss of social cohesion due to urbanization and that they'll develop training in empathy. Bostrom worries that we'll overlook some major disaster and get wiped out. Pinker seems to think we'll nuke ourselves. Armstrong wonders how we can rebuild after a disaster (like the Manual for Civilization?).

I wonder what the future generations would admire.

Take the Roman empire. For centuries after the Western part collapsed, people looked back on it as the golden age for law and legitimacy and trade. I don't know how much they blamed the Romans for their civil wars and horrific economic and political screw-ups, and how much they blamed the "barbarians" who "overran" them. If the generations after Western Rome fell were like a lot of the people I know, they'd tend to think that the way things are now, however bad, is more or less normal, and dream of times it was better--but not assign a lot of blame.

The modern West would look like a Golden Age to most people: almost everybody has food, water, leisure, and (outside of a few centers) some security and the rule of law--and the means to support large populations.

Our more thoughtful near-term descendants might have some things to say about us, depending on who and where. Farmers on land that now gets water from elsewhere will complain about our lack of care of the land. People worried about bandits will wonder how we managed to squander our social capital so completely. Others will wonder why we let the "barbarians" in. The descendants of the "barbarians" will probably wonder why we let things go to pot. Historians may wonder why we went in for so many civil wars. (If you think of the West rather than the nations, we've had quite a few. Today's the anniversary of the trigger of one of the dumber ones.)

I say "barbarians" to emphasize the parallel with Rome. Civilized/barbarian is the sort of category division people tend to use--the modern West is unusual in officially deprecating it. There's also the distinction "our tribe/dubious tribe/enemy tribe." It takes a lot of faith to claim this will never come back, especially since it never entirely left.

And, Chatfield and the Spirit of the Age to the contrary, I don't think they'll admire our sexual mores. The future belongs to those who show up, the descendants of those who think barrenness is a bad thing.

1 comment:

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It's an irritating collection of thoughts, and your characterisation of it as "Spirit of the Age" is spot on. They are quite sure that standard, rather pedestrian liberalism is going to prove out to be 90% right, and our descendants will wonder why we hung on to an obviously foolish conservatism for so long, even when it clearly wasn't working. that's the subtext I kept hearing humming beneath, at any rate.

I'm going to have a hard time getting those out of my thoughts and attacking the subject objectively. Let's see if I can manage. It is the sort of thing I do tend to imagine. I did a time capsule on 1/1/2001, and could already see how it had gone wrong just a few years later. I don't remember much of what I said now.