Only one of the many life support systems on which we depend – soils, aquifers, rainfall, ice, the pattern of winds and currents, pollinators, biological abundance and diversity – need fail for everything to slide. For example, when Arctic sea ice melts beyond a certain point, the positive feedbacks this triggers (such as darker water absorbing more heat, melting permafrost releasing methane, shifts in the polar vortex) could render runaway climate breakdown unstoppable. When the Younger Dryas period ended 11,600 years ago, temperatures rose 10C within a decade.
There are many trends and patterns to be found in the past, and the Durants do a commendable job of highlighting them. The essence of their view, however, can be summarized by the following sentence from their short book:
“The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual, and the only real revolutionists are philosophers and saints.”
In many ways, the Durants believed that despite all that has and continues to change in our external environment, the real battle is still internal, and real change isn’t produced until we face our minds and our thoughts.
Everything that has done so much to connect us has simultaneously isolated us. We are so busy being distracted that we are forgetting to tend to ourselves, which is consequently making us feel more and more alone.
Interestingly, the main culprit isn’t our obsession with any particular worldly stimulation. It’s the fear of nothingness — our addiction to a state of not-being-bored. We have an instinctive aversion to simply being.
Without realizing the value of solitude, we are overlooking the fact that, once the fear of boredom is faced, it can actually provide its own stimulation. And the only way to face it is to make time, whether every day or every week, to just sit — with our thoughts, our feelings, with a moment of stillness.
The oldest philosophical wisdom in the world has one piece of advice for us: know yourself. And there is a good reason why that is.
Without knowing ourselves, it’s almost impossible to find a healthy way to interact with the world around us. Without taking time to figure it out, we don’t have a foundation to built the rest of our lives on.
Writers have long faced the apocalypse. The Epic of Gilgamesh, written approximately four thousand years ago, imagines Earth flooded by angry gods. Flash forward a few centuries, and Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells bring us their own visions of the end of the world. In more recent years, novelists like Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and Octavia Butler have carried on the tradition. Each of these writers shares the idea that the end will come quickly, sparked by an event that tumbles the pillars of civilization like dominoes. It takes little to understand why visions of sudden apocalypse—as opposed to a long, drawn-out one—are popular: a quick and dirty end to everything absolves us from having had anything to do with it. If we never saw the apocalypse coming, how could it have been our fault?
T.S. Eliot offers a different outlook. In 1925, the poet wrote in “The Hollow Men” that the world will end “not with a bang but a whimper.” It’s this idea of a slow death in which everyone is culpable that captures most accurately Roy Scranton’s thoughts on the end of civilization as we know it. The author, an Army veteran who holds a PhD in English from Princeton University, has written much about two of humanity’s biggest existential threats: climate change and war. In 2015’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Scranton combined memoir and science writing to express what it was like to return home from war-torn Iraq only to watch the world succumb to hazards even larger than Al Qaeda: hurricanes imperiling coastal cities; economic and political conflicts giving way to riots; plagues, droughts, and famine causing suffering in every corner of the planet. Global warming, writes Scranton, is at the heart of all of this, and we have long passed the point of being able to stop it. Two years later, he authored his debut novel, War Porn, which is told through the different perspectives of American and Iraqi soldiers and civilians and throws into question what it means to be ally or enemy, victor or victim.