Never before has humanity seen laid before it such an endless field strewn with earthly wealth at the very moment of realization that the treasure has become devoid of meaning.
Humanity at the peak of its prosperity is always reminded of the transience of its fortune—and then humiliated by the realization that wisdom evaporates from societies too long favored by wealth, leaving them unprepared to face the hardships that follow hubris.
Omar Khayyám’s “Rubáiyát” sets out our fate:
“The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
“Turns Ashes — or it prospers; and anon,
“Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face
“Lighting a little Hour or two — is gone.”
So here we are, suddenly serious, ready to ask what is to become of us as we face a global decline from what had seemed limitless continued wealth. A precipice looms, and beyond it a wasteland of possible war, famine, and decline.
Nowhere is a leader visible. Nowhere is there evidence that if wisdom could be called forth to devise options for the future that there would be an audience to heed it. Uncertainty and anxiety don’t easily create clear visions of future paths. And all the while, the fatalists say that the gods of climate are angry and are about to deliver their final judgment on humanity.
Certainly, many aspects of recent history have run their course: economic patterns; the evolution of “democracy;” the constancy of the energy needed to propel us through the future. And the viability or primacy of huge population concentrations may, too, be due to fracture if energy sources can’t be sustained because of breakdowns in “supply chains” or, more importantly, “value chains.”
Large-scale population decline has been on the horizon for the past two decades and is now starting its uneven impact on the world. This almost certainly will be exacerbated by economic decline and communications disruptions, let alone by war.
So we ponder the challenges confronting the civilizations that have nurtured us for millennia. Will our civilization survive? We can look to history for some answers, noting the elimination of many societies, languages, belief systems, and the like from the great collapse of Eastern Mediterranean and Levantine societies around the 12th century BCE (and what endured beyond that collapse), or the collapse of Greek or Roman civilizations.
It’s probable that none of those ancient societies—and the countless more whose identities were lost to the winds—understood that they, at some stage, reached the turning point in their fortunes. Many left runic hints at their greatness; many, thinking their mark on the earth was permanent, left nothing.
And in only one century, this past century, modern humanity has attempted to record all its achievements in the most fragile and transitory formats, all less stable than the papyrus that helped preserve Egypt’s history. And as electrical supply becomes uncertain, as it will in some areas, we have to ask, then, what our times will endure. Already we have forgotten the realities of the 20th century, which foretells what more we will lose in the coming century.
Most of us at work in the engine-rooms of our ships of state toil daily to keep the machinery going, and to meet the imminent threats identified by our governments. So our able practitioners have little time to contemplate the indefinite future. Yet it has to be done: not only to contemplate long-term national or societal goals into the mid-term (i.e., beyond, say, a half-century), but to determine how the intervening crisis period can be managed.
Before that, we need to ask ourselves what are the tenets of “civilization” that need to be considered: Relationships with geography? Language? Religion? Culture? Structures, architecture, institutions? All contribute to our core identity, and a break in any one spells a break with historical values. What have we already lost in “civilizational terms” during the transition over recent decades?
Wealth, and therefore strength in a society, can be said to be a byproduct of those tenets of civilization. They create the hierarchy, structures, and disciplines that enable productivity and the attainment of security.
Some things that have been tools in the evolution of our civilizations have been transitory. Modern iterations—changing literally daily—of “democracy” have facilitated interpretations of the “social contracts” that define how societies interact with their hierarchies. Equally, these devices of society, as they become more complex and arcane, tend to provide social binding so that faith in one’s own society can’t easily be destroyed by a strong wind.
How, then, do we understand at its core who we are?
In 2007, I spearheaded a study called “Australia 2050, An Examination of Australia’s Condition, Outlook, and Options for the First Half of the 21st Century.” What became apparent from that was that many educated people think little about their “civilization,” or even their values. As in all things, most of society depends on the inspiration of intellectual and physical leaders—leaders in the true sense. And civilizations survive on the strength of wisdom appreciated by leaders.
There’s no mechanism and no will to plan beyond the coming crises.
But someone should be making notes.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.