The Christian existentialist, Soren Kierkegaard, once said that “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” When I taught high-school history, I used to tell my students that “you can only understand the present from the vantage point of history.” There are so many cross-currents swirling around you right now, it’s impossible to see where they’re flowing.
The classic example is the Fall of Rome. It’s been blamed on barbarians, Christians, economic collapse, moral decay – even lead in the water pipes. Usually, the date of the Fall is pegged at 479 AD, when the first barbarian king became emperor, but some historians point as far back as the battle of Adrianople in 378 AD.
Only two things are certain – one: eventually, there was no more Roman Empire and Europe slipped into a darker age, and two: very few people at the time would have realized the empire was ending. If we – through the benefit of hindsight – have a hard time figuring out what happened, you can bet that folks at the time couldn’t figure it out either.
For armchair historians like me, it’s hard to resist thinking about our own time, and where certain trends may take us today. For example:
What if Climate refugees are already here? One of the predictions around rising global temperatures is that refugees will start to move north. The notion is that it will happen suddenly, but what if the massive migration of people all over the world is related – not to seeking economic opportunity, but fleeing climate instability like floods, famines and scarcity? That’s one theory behind the Syrian refugee crisis, for example.
What if we’re in the middle of a catastrophic extinction? Technically, we already are – it’s widely known that the number of vertebrates on the planet has fallen 58 percent in the last four decades. But what about the invertebrates? Humans are only 1/10,000th of the world’s total biomass. Insects make up most of that, but a recent report shows they’re in sudden decline. It’s not just honeybees, either. Remember a few decades back and how many bugs you had to clean off your windshield? How about now?
The wealthy few
What if nation-states are already dead? As we learned from the Panama Papers, the so-called one percent are skilled at moving money around where it can’t be traced or taxed. Those same powerful and wealthy people bankroll political leaders who, in turn, create favourable conditions for themselves – like the Trump tax cuts, for example. Wouldn’t that mean that the real global power structure is less like the UN and more like The Mob?
What if we’re already fascists? As the internet turns from free information to being controlled by a few powerful companies, as the free press is attacked, as scarcity increases, as violence against minorities grows, as white power groups are being courted by right-wing political parties, as rights are rolled back for LGBTQ people, as people begin to experience more outright racism – what if the fascists are already in charge, and we just don’t know it yet?
Spurred to action
All of this is a bit like trying to make sense of Picasso’s “Guernica” with your nose pressed right up against the canvass. In the end, all you can do is guess at the overall shape of the thing. In the end, the trends might not take us to any of these places. And speculation is only just that – speculation.
The real value of thinking of the world in these terms is that it should spur us to action. We’re not helpless actors in history because it isn’t written yet, and changing the future is still possible. As we think about the concept of “restoration” in this issue of CC let’s not just think of restoring the past, but what we can do to restore the future, too.
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