Tuesday, October 9, 2012

From the Edge

Reading the papers this morning, I have the feeling of looking at the world from the edge of eternity. Observable is the age-old tug and pull of conflict. If I were transported in time to any earlier period, I would soon see it again if only I had the same lens modernity’s media have fashioned in our times. And it is certain that transported into a very far future, my report would not change, not in essence.

People who unrealistically long for the return of some Golden Age have essentially the same stance as those who believe in Progress. They’re living in the now and project some hoped-for resolution on the horizontal plane of time: the past shall return; the breakthrough is in the future. Our lives, however, are always in the Age of Iron—no matter what the cultural stage: growing, declining, transitional, or static.

One of the curious aspects of change over long periods of time is the contrast between culture and technology. By technology here I simply mean “tooling.” Cultures cycle. Technology cumulates. The discovery of steam-power and fossil fuels gave the last two centuries a sudden and enormous increase in tooling—but the improvements have been there, at the level of tooling—not at the level of core human behavior. That genuine improvement has produced the illusion of some kind of radical change in humanity. To be sure fossil fuels will be exhausted, but using energy in new ways will remain a permanent acquisition. The next Dark Age will have quite different features than the last; we’ll have plenty of solar panels, windmills, fancy explosives to help us get to geothermal sources, and so on. To be sure, also, the loss of wealth from heaven (or from the deep) that coal, oil, and gas represent will produce significant disorder; during such times innovation grows dormant, except in the military sphere, but knowledge is never entirely lost. Technology, therefore, will continue to cumulate.

Hard-nosed realism, curiously, requires a transcendental view. It rests on the fusion of comprehensive observations both of what lies within us, not least our hopes for a “millennium,” and what we see around us. This suggests a “fallen world” and also a “world beyond.”

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