History would be a very boring read indeed if nothing changed. Imagine reading about the Roman Empire if it had survived intact and more or less untouched from Augustus onward. All that might be said is that the Pax Romana has been good for business and that any one day in the life of the empire has pretty much looked like any other for the past 2,000 years.
But, of course, that is not how human history has unfolded. It is chock full of wars, the rise and fall of empires and of whole civilizations, ravaging plagues, breathtaking discoveries, vast migrations, world-changing inventions and cultural evolution. So, it is a puzzle why so much emphasis is now put on the supposed inevitable continuity of modern industrial life. The argument goes that humans are so very clever that they have brilliantly overcome every resource and ecological constraint on their way to becoming the dominant species. And, now with our powerful new technologies we are poised to dominate the globe forever while adding to it the conquest of outer space. Perhaps every empire including the empire of modern man thinks along similar lines.
But a cursory study of history should lead us to conclude no such thing. Humans have squandered opportunities, let their ambition lead them to destruction, run out of natural resources, and despoiled the landscape beyond repair again and again. Human societies do not always triumph. They tend to rise and fall as if they had a natural life cycle.
This may seem all too obvious once you think about it. And yet, at present our modern society seems captive to a cult of continuity even as it touts the great change wrought by technology and predicts great changes ahead from that technology. It never occurs to those caught up in the cult of continuity that great change almost always means great peril! There is barely any mention of the possible vulnerabilities or even fatal side effects resulting from such technology. The Luddites are laughed at today as is Thomas Malthus who predicted starvation for the masses since food supplies were not supposed to keep up with population growth. These men saw peril where their compatriots only saw progress.
But history is all about discontinuity. Who would even bother to write the dull history of the untouched Roman Empire imagined above? In fact, reality has spawned myriad volumes of history over the past 20 centuries reflecting in part the great volume of discontinuity experienced by human societies.
Perhaps because much of the discontinuity of our time is far away from modern eyes we are missing the peril part of change. The depletion of the world’s fisheries continues apace while few know that catches peaked in the late 1980s. The silent rape of the soil proceeds with barely a notice that billions of tons of topsoil slip away each year due to erosion. The world’s vast water treatment facilities should tell us something is happening to the world’s potable water; but such plants are rarely in the center of cities where everyone could see them and contemplate their meaning. Vast tracts of forest both in the tropics and in places such as Canada are being felled for fiber. But how many actually see it happening? And, if they did, would they understand its significance?
Those of us in wealthy countries often see only the “progress” end of such change. There are more and more goods available each year at generally lower prices. The trend has been going on for so long it hardly seems possible that it could slow down, much less come to a halt.
Here is why the cult of continuity must really be classified as a cult. The word “cult” in its simplest sense means a system of religious worship. In many cults nothing is more important than the acceptance of certain beliefs without the requirement of evidence. And, because cult members require no evidence (in the scientific meaning of the word) to confirm their beliefs, these members are remarkably immune to evidence that might also challenge their beliefs.
So there you have it. Anyone who has tried to argue a devout friend out of his or her religion knows that appeals to reason rarely succeed. So why should we be so surprised when those who are convinced that human progress always runs in the same direction as time cannot be persuaded by evidence to the contrary?
All of this has implications for how one argues the case for the unsustainability of modern civilization. It is true that people of faith, even devout faith, can lose that faith under extreme distress. The extreme distress is already here for many in poorer countries; and, it is bound to spread elsewhere over time without prompt action to change our course.
Therein lies the conundrum. How can one shake the faith of those devout acolytes of the cult of continuity before the hardships of their own day-to-day existence force them to adapt? Failure to shake that faith means we will be left with only palliatives after the crisis arrives.