I think we like to live in a linear world. It has the neat advantage of allowing us to believe that, as the latest in line of our species, we are the most advanced version. That’s a fragile comfort as we head toward the sixth mass extinction, and our part in it. Travelling from one place to another, or one time to another, or one idea to another is only really useful if we remain in touch with where we started – otherwise we’re just in a temporary, directionless, cult.
Most of us live our lives in the comfortable mediocrity that sits between our available extremes, and dimiss the extremes as “outliers” of only academic interest. Here in the UK, we don’t really do extremes. Politically, our right-wing isn’t really right-wing, just a version of the liberal democrats with a superiority complex warmed by the dying embers of empire and privilege. Our left-wing isn’t really left-wing, just an angry version of the liberal democrats without any embers to stay warm by. The journey from one end to the other of our political spectrum is only a short walk in a temperate climate. Other nation states face the same challenges; its just the climates that are different. They are an object lesson in hubris.
Economically, we seem to think the world before the industrial revolution was just a dress rehearsal and doesn’t count. That the future has to be some impossible exponential version of a very short 250 year blip in a four billion year history. Regression to the mean is not a hot topic in business, and the vast majority of expert literature reflects this inconvenient truth. Our current times are an outlier more than a trend.
Almost all, but not all. In a new book, “The Dawn of Everything” the late David Graeber cast his wonderfully provocative eye on our linear assumptions, and found them wanting. Winners tend define history for a while, but that doesn’t make them right. (There is an excellent summary of the book in The Atlantic.) Maybe history is not as neat as our approved text books suggest.
Because it does feel as though we are reaching an end of an era, rather than a bump in the road. The pandemic feels more like a harbinger than an episode, and as our politicians, in the West at least, seem to run out of ideas and credibility it is going to be down to us to stand back and consider just where we are, what we want, and what we are prepared to do about it. CoP26 will be another straw in a strengthening wind.
The history written by the winners of the industrial revolution, together with their fortresses, economic and military is being washed away by the incoming tide of events as we watch, and a new era is emerging as the planet that has supported us for the last two hundred thousand years passes comment on our stewardship.
We need to leave our recent history to one side, and look at a longer game in order to see what we take for granted with new eyes and extra colours.
While we have time before the system we are part of expels us.