HERE’S THE THING—it’s a virtual certainty that in a hundred years no one will remember anything you ever did, any thoughts you ever had, or emotions you ever felt. All your ideas, insights, and acquired wisdom will be gone. Every moment of singular importance may as well never have existed. All your searing embarrassments, roaring triumphs, loves and lusts and furtive little secrets will be forgotten. Almost every possession you cherished will be relegated to the dirt.
And the statement of that fact is as meaningless now as it will be in the future.
Because we are disposable. Because there have been more than one hundred billion people who have lived on this planet since homo became erectus, an endless train of lives, souls, histories, ancestries, cultures, beliefs. And each one of them thought—in the naive but perhaps cognitively necessary way humans do—that their interiority was of manifest importance. That their success was shepherded and maybe even predetermined by a higher power. That their existence was eminently worth recording and memorializing and celebrating for its uniqueness and gravity.
All the way back to the end of the last ice age, fledgling human groupings were each sure that they alone lived at the height of civilization and accumulated human knowledge. They were certain their root pastes and cave drawings and flint arrowheads pushed the limits of medicine and art and warfare. They insisted their culture (with no conception that there were many cultures just like them around the world) was on the cusp of actualization and self-knowledge. Of the literally thousands of gods that have been prayed to since animists first worshiped stones and trees, each supplicant was sure that their belief system was superior. For millennia people lived and died and beseeched and sacrificed to Mithras, Tammuz, Orpheus, Isis, Dionysis, Julunggul and Zalmoxis. Those long-forgotten gods were just as real and fearsome and all-powerful to our ancestors as Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha are to us today. But our ancestors—caught in exactly the same solipsistic trough in which we are now paralyzed—thought they alone knew how to interpret and proselytize the dictates of whatever meatball of appropriated fables and convenient edicts posed as their creator.
Every single one of our ancestors were similarly deluded. Snake gods, sun gods, sea gods, Ishtar to Baal. A jungle full of Maya, a plains worth of Cherokee, a steppe teeming with Mongols, a Versailles full of French, a savannah elided by Masai, a inquisition clotted with Spanish. All positive. All wrong. Which means all of us have been wrong. A hundred million times over. Every plant, animal, insect, and humanoid that has ever lived or died has fallen back to the soil, inexorably crushed under the weight of geological history. The earliest of our ancestors, not to mention the animals they hunted and plants they ate and insects they were harassed by, comprise the subterranean biological tonnage that we now drill and use for fuel. And since almost all contemporary food is soaked with petroleum-based chemical fertilizers, it means we are literally eating the decomposed slurry of those who came before us.
But we’re playing with house money to begin with. If not for the utterly random collision of a monster asteroid with the Yucatan peninsula, the dinosaurs would never have died off, and there would have been no room for mammals to flourish, let alone evolve. It’s possible that we shouldn’t even be here. Who’s to say that dinosaurs weren’t the superior species, let alone the chosen people? We are, after all, grossly weak and fragile, with our plodding, unsteady legs and easily split skin, our soft teeth and poorly protected brains.
And then, of course, there is the combined evil of our collective behavior.
It is highly likely that the main reason homo sapiens as a species has risen to dominance on the planet is that we systematically killed off every possible competitor. See any Neanderthals hanging around your local J. Crew? Any Homo Habilus smoking Lucky no-filters by the pinball machine? It’s because our ancestors killed them all off sixty thousand years ago. A systematic genocide just like any other. It’s even possible that they hunted down and ate one another. Protein was a rare commodity back in cave painting days. Which is a fine thing to think about when you’re laying in bed late at night.
Here are eight fun facts for future archaeologists to discover about our culture that are not one iota more or less important than any other eight random facts:
Fun fact #1 The monastic hours are matins, lauds, prime, tierce, sext, nones, vespers, and compline.
Fun fact #2 John Maynard Keynes said “words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts upon the unthinking.”
Fun fact #3 The word posh means “Port Outbound Starboard Homebound”, which denotes the most luxurious ticket on trains through Suez and Asia since they are the furthest from the sun heading either toward or away from England.
Fun fact #4 Oliver Cromwell was hanged and then decapitated a full two years after his death.
Fun fact #5 An animal epidemic is called an epizooic.
Fun fact #6 “Queueing” is the only English word with five consecutive vowels.
Fun fact #7 Cleopatra’s last name was Ptolemy, and she was Greek, not Egyptian.
Fun fact #8 Swans are the only birds with penises.
But hey, forget facts. The biosphere is going to collapse soon. And we (all of us, even the rich) are going to collapse with it. There’s a reason we’ve suddenly had a huge increase in monsoons and tornadoes, and that the east coast is now sweltering hotbox from April to September. There’s also a reason the six most popular books for teenagers are about resourceful girls living in post-apocalyptic societies. Teenage girls are always the first to know everything. And if not know it, at least intuit it. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s been a massive uptick in private archery lessons and street combat fighting classes amongst the nation’s affluent 16-year-olds. Subconsciously, they can smell a massive species die-off. And we should listen to them.
But the fallacy of The Hunger Games, not to mention all its predecessors and imitators (Logan’s Run, The Most Dangerous Game, forty percent of all Star Trek episodes, sixty percent of all Twilight Zone episodes), is that there may be an apocalypse coming, but it’s a huge mistake to assume people will be left around to survive it. No matter what actually kicks off the “death event,” there’s very little likelihood that invites will be sent for the after party. It’s almost certain that we will all crouch and cuddle at the same moment, just like the ash-preserved hunkerers of Pompeii, who were convinced that Apollo had finally tired of their sins. The gun enthusiasts and bunker builders and pamphlet hoarders and conspiracy sandwich boarders are all going to expire in the same haze of sunless methane that will likewise claim the most criminally unprepared of Upper East Side socialites.
But why even bother bringing this up at all? We are unquestionably a foolish species, a planet full of lazy squirrels failing to stock away nuts for the coming winter. We never react to any danger until that danger is wholly upon us. Can one lonely essay manage to attach a rational larding of fear unto the collective abstract of species end? Perhaps not. It may be that we are in fact built to readily participate in our own self-destruction. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to support such a conclusion. In which case it’s likely that I was built to be the most useless of evolutionary redundancies–a bleater of warnings that will never be heeded, let alone read.
Meanwhile the sky continues to fall.
Personally, I would put my money on The Great Worldwide Catastrophe stemming from equal parts drought, food production collapse, class war, sheer greed, human nature, power grid seize, Mitt travesty, and environmental chain reaction. And that it will happen within the next forty years. Seventy, at the absolute outside. At that point, we will be eating flesh in the streets. Or at least some of us will. Those following a genetic dictate to seek the highest quality available protein—while also being spared certain ethical and socio-normative qualms—are very likely to be the same people who think they should only pay 6% taxes. In any case, that’s not a lot of time to get your alternative rations together. And if your alternative rations are stocked in anything besides a Mars bound re-entry vehicle, you should probably just spend your money collecting cat needlepoint on Etsy instead.
One thing that’s certain, it will happen a lot sooner if Mitt Romney is elected president. Not because he’s a fucking idiot—although he clearly is—but because even the sort of mild environmental regulation repeal he is running on, if enacted, will send the global collapse into overdrive. The time for regulation has long passed–even if it were deep, strict, enforceable, and worldwide. We’ve ignored every possible sign, since the first warnings in the mid-fifties, in the name of profit and the ability of a very small group of white people to continue to live in a welter of ludicrous ease.
The bottom line: there are simply too many people and not enough food. A hundred-year drought is coming. It’s already started in the mid and southwest. Oil will soon seem a luxury. It’s water that will drive dystopian markets. Forget driving your car. How much oil will it one day require to produce a barrel of clean drinking water?
When the great Oil Crash comes at the tail of the great Water Crash, we will return to a society that existed fifty years before the Industrial Revolution. Which would be fine if we’d been born and lived and become inured to the hardships of that time. But to the slovenly entitled that we are now—soft and fat and unwilling to part with the least largesse or convenience—it will be impossible to adjust. There is zero hope of a sudden movie montage flag-rallying where scientists and industrialists hunker down in some sort of Randian compound and find a solution. There is no solution.
Very soon the atmosphere is going to turn methane-green and then we will all (from hedge funder to dung beetle) expire. Another million years will go by, the sky will once again clear, and some sort of life will begin anew. In fact, this has probably been happening for billions of years. Reincarnation? That’s one word for it. But it’s more like carbon recycling. We’ve been rising from the primordial muck, building vast civilizations of courage and learning and architectural wonder, killing ourselves through hubris and plain stupidity, and then dying off for as long as matter has been susceptible to singularities. Banging big. Then going silent. Then rising from the muck. Again. And again. And again.
No one ever learns anything. And groups of people learn even less. There is a simple mathematical equation that proves, even with perfect environmental stewardship, exactly how many people an acre of land can feed, and how sustainable that acre can be over time. There are a limited amount of acres, but we blithely continue to pumping out humans. At the height of the Roman Empire there were 250 million people on the planet. We added 300 million in the last three years alone, and yet people continue to argue about whether contraception is moral. Or if His Bearded Omniscience is going to burn us for all eternity for committing the grievous sin of filling a lambskin receptacle tip with unconsummated seed.
But it’s not all that surprising. Every pre-Columbian society since the Sumerians have pushed their environmental usage and population levels to absolute maximum capacity, justified it with encomiums from the privileged combined with spews of religious doggerel, and then died mystified by a series of physical events they could have easily seen coming. Civilizations with advanced political, religious, and social dynamics over millennia have again and again failed to perceive—or at least acknowledge—that their greed was turning Eden into a desert. They farmed their land out. Cut down all the trees. Failed to rotate the crops or check their population. They let comfortable rulers collude with the merchant class to enact a pretense of equitable governance, and then fucked the lower classes blind with the notion that:
1. All kings and pigs are equal, and even though some kings are more pig than king, it’s their divine right to be so.
2. Tomorrow would never come.
But it came. And almost everything representative of each of their collapsed civilizations is lost to the indifference of history.
Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, our brain stems are trying to warn us of something. Right now. It’s a blaring siren, a flashing light, a neon billboard: we somehow managed to survive the last ice age, but we’re not likely to make it through another.
***Special thanks to Ronald Wright, Schopenhauer, The Misfits, Stanley Kubrick, Paul Ryan, and Herodotus for doom inspiration.
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I’ve been saying this forever. I won’t link to the TNB article, as it’s probably in poor taste, even if poor taste won’t stop me from saying “I told you so.”
People think they’re so precious with their “save the world” stuff. What they really mean is “save my ass.”
You know it, I know it, and, proof that we are both right: George Carlin knew it.
Further proof: Becky agrees.
Yes, yes, we are all fucked. ; )
And here it is:
Christianity is stupid. Communism is good.
The American Communist Party is endorsing Obama. Just FYI.
What about Negativland? Who are they endorsing?
I came here for kitties, Sean. Bait and switch, man. I may never trust you again.
There are kittens, Gloria. But they will die. ; )
I’m gonna live forever. You guys watch
If anyone will, my money’s on you, my friend.
I’ve been to Oliver Cromwell’s house.
After the decapitation his head was put on a pike. Then it went missing after it blew off in a storm. It went on many adventures that head of Cromwell. At one point it was in the possession of a drunken Cambridge student who had a loose family connection. He used to pass it around at parties… Eventually it was buried in the grounds of Sidney Sussex college.
Cromwell also coined the phrase ‘warts and all.’
I doubt somehow that any of our bodies will have quite so interesting an afterlife… alas, there shall be no wastel relatives to toss our body parts around for the amusement of wealthy chums 100 years from now…
There was a Roman Emperor, I believe it was the funnily named Gallianus, who was captured by the Persians, flayed alive, and stuffed. His taxiderm’d body was on the wall at the Persian palace for decades.
Very well written.
Buddhist cosmology already deals with it.
As does Zippy the Pinhead strip of 2/28/93
Well. It was nice sort of knowing you, Sean.
Smoke ’em if you got ’em.
Gee, I feel a lot better now.
Sing out, Jeremiah… The figure I’ve seen is closer to 80 billion, but in the spirit of the above, what’s 20 billion people more or less. Also, I’m not betting against the dung beatle…
Worth repeating and repeating;
“…They let comfortable rulers collude with the merchant class to enact a pretense of equitable governance, and then fucked the lower classes blind …”