How the modern fantasy of an eternal civilization warps our view of technology

January 29, 2023

What historians call the Golden Age of Greece—which ran from about 500 to 300 BC—spawned the foundational Western philosophers Plato and Aristotle; mathematicians such as Euclid whose geometry is still taught in schools today; classical Greek dramatists such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, whose plays are performed even now; an architecture so grand that it has been imitated in our own time, especially in government buildings; and the practice of democracy, a form of governance that would go into eclipse for over 2,000 years until the American and French revolutions.

What most people don’t know is that the ancient Greeks who lived through that era did not think of themselves as being in a golden age. Instead, they thought of their society as a much degraded version of the heroic age that preceded it, an age described in such works as Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey and Hesiod’s Works and Days. How utterly difficult it is for most people living today to imagine a society whose members believed that the future would only bring further degradation and decline perhaps until civilization itself disappeared. History was to them cyclical with dark and golden ages—golden ages that start out with great vigor and hope and then grind down to dark eras that destroy the progress of the past.

Today, most modern people think of time as linear and history as merely a story of the gradual and now rapid rise of technological, social, political and cultural progress. Since time is linear, the trajectory is always forward and expected to be up. We humans will never again fall prey to the civilization-ending mistakes of the past. Our technology has no equal. Humans have decoupled from the limits nature previously imposed on them. They may even soon live and thrive on other planets. And, when limits or difficulties seem insurmountable, human ingenuity creates new technologies to overcome those perceived limits or difficulties.

Whether our not you agree with today’s linear view of perpetual progress, that view gives us permission to create technologies that will have consequences for people living thousands, even tens or hundreds of thousands of years in the future.

Perhaps most consequential are nuclear technologies, both for military and industrial purposes. If our civilization were to disappear today, who would take care of the nuclear power plants, the fuel processing facilities, the nuclear waste dumps, the nuclear cores of warheads, and the myriad facilities that handle nuclear materials? Even if the facilities mentioned were shut down and locked up, after only one or two centuries of neglect they would almost certainly degrade to the pointing of leaking into the environment and contaminating land, water and air.

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A rough but not entirely parallel story of such a process was outlined in Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. Weisman imagines that humans disappear all at once everywhere and leave everything running. I’m imagining a gradually declining civilization, the infrastructure of which degrades over time from neglect resulting from the lack of resources and/or competent people to fix it. That leads to neglected chemical factories and oil refineries and chemical waste dumps. It leads to biological research facilities improperly cared for containing perhaps novel viruses that when stored properly, say, in cryogenic chambers are inert, but when released could ravage human and animal populations.

We humans are having a hard enough time today managing the facilities mentioned above as tons of chemical wastes are released into the environment every day. The record so far on the 59 so-called “level 4” biological research facilities does not foster confidence on that front either. Nuclear power is now being touted as the best way to address climate change and fossil fuel depletion. Any usefulness a rapid build-out of nuclear power plants might have for us today, however, could end up being catastrophic for generations far in the future who must live with the results of this experiment as its many facilities deteriorate and leak into the environment.

For many humans alive today who have access to the latest technology, this may seem like a distant and foolish worry. First, it if does happen, it won’t affect those of us living today. Second, our continually advancing technology will allow us to deal with any problems before they become big. Third—and most important—our technologically advanced civilization will persevere and continue for centuries and even millennia into the future. This last statement MUST turn out to be true in order to justify morally the use of technologies today that will become extremely hazardous to humans in the future if there is no complex, energy-intensive society with suitably trained experts to care for those technologies.

When civilizations in the past fell, they were regional affairs. The world was simply not connected as it is now. And, those dying civilizations weren’t leaving behind vast quantities of chemical, biological and nuclear wastes and contaminates. When our civilization falls, as Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, wrote, it will affect the entire globe. That’s because we are one civilization now unified by worldwide communications, transportation, logistics, and trade and increasingly a world culture propagated by film, television and especially the internet.

That culture spends a significant amount of effort convincing us that our way of life will last forever. Often this comes in the form of science fiction such as the many Star Trek related films and television shows that depict the push-button future of a space-faring society in which poverty and war have been eradicated—at least within the confines of the fictional United Federation of Planets.

When our civilization will fall and what comes after it are imponderable questions. But whatever it is, the people of that next age will be severely handicapped by all the nuclear, chemical and biological hazards we’ve left for them to deal with because we thought our civilization would last forever.

Image: Idealized view of the Temple of Zeus and Ilissos river in 1833, after the liberation of the Acropolis (1833). Painting by Johann Michael Wittmer via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wittmer_Athens_Temple_of_Zeus.jpg

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: nuclear energy