There is a very different story [than that in Jared Diamond’s Collapse] that can be told about human history, one that embraces our agency, and that is the story of constant human overcoming. Whereas the tragic story imagines that humans have fallen, the narrative of overcoming imagines that we have risen.
Consider how much our ancestors – human and nonhuman – overcame for us to become what we are today. For beginners, they were prey. Given how quickly and efficiently humans are driving the extinction of nonhuman animal species, the notion that our ancestors were food seems preposterous. And yet, understanding that we evolved from being prey goes a long way toward understanding some of the feelings and motivations that drive us into suicidal wars and equally suicidal ecological collapses.
Against the happy accounts of harmonious premodern human societies at one with Nature, there is the reality that life was exceedingly short and difficult. Of course, life could also be wonderful and joyous. But it was hunger not obesity, oppression not depression, and violence not loneliness that were primary concerns.
Just as the past offers plenty of stories of humankind’s failure, it also offers plenty of stories of human overcoming. Indeed, we can only speak of past collapses because we have survived them. There are billions more people on earth than there were when the tiny societies of the Anasazi in the American Southwest and the Norse in Greenland collapsed in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, respectively. That there are nearly seven billion of us alive today is a sign of our success, not failure.
Perhaps the most powerful indictment of environmentalism is that environmentalists so often consider our long life spans and large numbers terrible tragedies rather than extraordinary achievements. The narrative of overpopulation voiced almost entirely by some of the richest humans ever to roam the earth is utterly lacking in gratitude for the astonishing labors of our ancestors.
Of course, none of this is to say that human civilizations won’t collapse again in the future. They almost certainly will. Indeed, some already are collapsing. But to focus on these collapses is to miss the larger picture of rising prosperity and longer life spans. Not only have we survived, we’ve thrived. Today more and more of us are “free at last” – free to say what we want to say, love whom we want to love, and live within a far larger universe of possibilities than any other generation of humans on earth.
At the very moment that we humans are close to overcoming hunger and ancient diseases like polio and malaria, we face ecological crises of our own making, ones that could trigger drought, hunger, and the resurgence of ancient diseases.
The narrative of overcoming helps us to imagine and thus create a brighter future. Human societies will continue to stumble. Many will fall. But we have overcome starvation, disease, deprivation, oppression, and war. We can overcome ecological crises.
Daily Archives: 7 April 2008
Talking could be dangerous at the best of Soviet times, but during the Great Terror a few careless words were all it took for somebody to vanish for ever. Informers were everywhere. ‘Today a man talks freely only with his wife – at night, with the blankets pulled over his head,’ the writer Isaak Babel once remarked. [Mikhail] Prishvin wrote in his diary that among his friends there were ‘only two or three old men’ to whom he could talk freely, without fear of giving rise to malicious rumours or denunciations.
The Great Terror effectively silenced the Soviet People….
In his diary of 1937 Prishvin wrote that people were becoming so adept at concealing meaning in their speech that they were in danger of losing the capacity to speak the truth altogether.
Behaviour in Moscow: one cannot speak of anything or with anyone. The whole secret of behaviour is to sense what something means, and who means it, without saying anything. You have to eliminate completely in yourself any remnant of the need to ‘speak from the heart’.
Arkadii Mankov noted a similar phenomenon in his diary:
It is pointless to talk about the public mood. There is silence, as if nothing has happened. People talk only in secret, behind the scenes and privately. The only people who express their views in public are the drunks.
As people drew into themselves, the social realm inevitably diminished. ‘People have completely ceased to confide in each other,’ Prishvin wrote in his diary on 9 October. It was becoming a society of whisperers:
The huge mass of the lower class simply goes about its work and whispers quietly. Some have nothing to whisper about: for them ‘everything is as it ought to be’. Others whisper to themselves in solitude, retreating quietly into their work. Many have learned to keep completely silent … – as if lying in a grave.
With the end of genuine communication, mistrust spread throughout society. People concealed their true selves behind public masks. Outwardly they conformed to the public modes of correct Soviet behaviour; inwardly they lived in a realm of private thought, inscrutable to public view. In this atmosphere fear and terror grew. Since no one knew what was concealed behind the mask, it was assumed that people who seemed to be normal Soviet citizens could in fact be spies or enemies. On the basis of this assumption denunciations and reports of ‘hidden enemies’ became credible, not just to the general public but to colleagues, neighbours and friends.
People sought refuge in a private world of truth. Some people took to diary-writing during the Great Terror. In spite of all the risks, keeping a diary was a way to carve out a private realm free of dissembling, to voice one’s doubts and fears at a time when it was dangerous to speak. The writer Prishvin confessed his greatest fears to his diary. In 1936, he had been attacked by literary bureaucrats in the Writers’ Union for a bitter comment he had made at a New Year’s party, a comment he now feared would cost him his freedom. ‘I am very frightened,’ he wrote, ‘that these words will drop into the file of an informer reporting on the characteristics of Prishvin the writer.’ Prishvin withdrew from the public sphere and retreated to his diary. He filled its pages with a microscopic scrawl, barely legible with a magnifying glass, to conceal his thoughts from the police in the event of his arrest and the seizure of the diary. For Prishvin, his diary was an ‘affirmation of individuality’ – a place to exercise his inner freedom and speak in his own true voice. ‘One either writes a diary for oneself,’ Prishvin mused, ‘to dig down to one’s inner self and converse with oneself, or one writes to become involved in society and secretly express one’s views on it.’ For Prishvin, it was both. He filled his diaries with dissident reflections on Stalin, on the destructive influence of Soviet mass culture, and on the indestructibility of the individual human spirit.
It’s not that different if you’re running for office in the U.S. these days—as if trying to please a million Stalins.
Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg tells the story of a young woman named Zina, a mathematics teacher from Gorkii, whom she met in the Lubianka jail. Zina had been arrested for failing to denounce one of her teachers, a lecturer in dialectical materialism who came to Gorkii from Moscow once a week. In conversations with Zina the lecturer had openly expressed his criticisms of the Stalinist regime. Because he stayed in Gorkii in a dormitory, he had used Zina’s apartment to entertain his friends and had kept a trunk of his books there. When the NKVD carried out their search, it turned out the books were Trotskyist. Zina acknowledged her guilt. She decided to expiate her sin and ‘clean all the stains from [her] conscience’ by informing on other ‘enemies’ to the NKVD. She told her interrogators about a certain professor who had given lectures at her institute. One day there had been a power cut while the professor was performing an experiment. There were no candles, so, as she explained, Zina
split a ruler and lit a splinter from it, as the peasants do, to provide light. The professor finished his experiment by the light of the splinter and at the end remarked [poking fun at Stalin’s famous phrase], ‘Life has become better, life has become more joyous. God be praised, we have reached the age of the splinter!’
The professor was arrested. Zina did not feel that she had acted wrongly in denouncing him – just a little awkward when she had to confront him during his interrogation. Asked by Olga what she thought about having ‘ruined someone’s life’ for such a petty thing, Zina replied: ‘There are no petty things in politics. Like you, I failed to understand at first the criminal significance of his remark, but later I realized.’
Political sensitivities in modern American political campaigns seem to bear an uncanny resemblance to those in Stalin’s Russia.
Henry Kissinger outlines Three Revolutions that present new challenges to the old model of state-based power politics.
These transformations take place against the backdrop of a third trend, a shift in the center of gravity of international affairs from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Paradoxically, this redistribution of power is to a part of the world where nations still possess the characteristics of traditional European states. The major states of Asia — China, Japan, India and, in time, possibly Indonesia — view each other the way participants in the European balance of power did, as inherent competitors even when they occasionally participate in cooperative ventures.
In the past, such shifts in the structure of power generally led to war, as happened with the emergence of Germany in the late 19th century. Today the rise of China is assigned such a role in much alarmist commentary. True, the Sino-American relationship will inevitably contain classical geopolitical and competitive elements. These must not be neglected. But there are countervailing elements. Economic and financial globalization, environmental and energy imperatives, and the destructive power of modern weapons all impose a major effort at global cooperation, especially between the United States and China. An adversarial relationship would leave both countries in the position of Europe after the two world wars, when other societies achieved the preeminence the nations of Europe sought through self-destructive conflict with each other.
No previous generation has had to deal with different revolutions occurring simultaneously in separate parts of the world. The quest for a single, all-inclusive remedy is chimerical. In a world in which the sole superpower is a proponent of the prerogatives of the traditional nation-state, where Europe is stuck in halfway status, where the Middle East does not fit the nation-state model and faces a religiously motivated revolution, and where the nations of South and East Asia still practice the balance of power, what is the nature of the international order that can accommodate these different perspectives?