Go West, Old Man

Do we want decline?
Subscriber Only
Sign in or Subscribe Now for audio version

“May you live in interesting times” may be a fake Chinese proverb, but, like many fakes, it has acquired a kind of reality over time, and its meaning is instantly grasped by most people who hear it. As much as the soul reaches out for the new, the dangerous, and the unknown, it hankers after the old, the safe, and the repetitive. And why wouldn’t it? The interesting is often painful and sometimes fatal. The Italian Renaissance was interesting. It was also, notes Harry Lime, the charming rogue and purveyor of adulterated medicines played by Orson Welles in the 1949 film of Graham Greene’s The Third Man, a time of “warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed” — a time, we get the sense, that to Lime seemed fun.

Reviewed in this article
Avid Reader Press ~ 2020
428 pp. ~ $27 (cloth)

My impression is that Ross Douthat, a conservative op-ed columnist for the New York Times, is — despite what posters to the comments section on his columns might say — no Harry Lime. His latest book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success is, however, somewhat Limean in its application of the Frontier thesis to humanity at large, and in its insistence on the connection between struggle, expansion, and progress.

A substantial book by one of the more serious people in American public life today, The Decadent Society deserves a wide readership. As its subtitle, if not its title, suggests, it is far from a reactionary diatribe. Modern civilization has been spectacularly successful in many ways, Douthat affirms, and this is to the good. It’s just that nothing fails like success, and we are now confronted by problems that are not amenable to the ideas and methods that produced them. Above all, we are confronted by the problem of decadence: the failure to meaningfully progress after reaching a peak of achievement in many domains in the late twentieth century.

In fact, Douthat’s main purpose is not even the small-c conservative one of preserving our gains, though he has interesting things to say about the relationship between technical and social dynamism and successful efforts at conservation. Rather, his purpose is the same as the radicals’: to break us out of our rut.

Relatively conventionally, he claims this rut is political. Relatively unconventionally, he claims it is also cultural and technological. And provokingly, he suggests it is fundamentally spiritual and biological, and that unless we start having a lot more children — which seems very unlikely in the conditions of the modern world — the only way out of our rut is to colonize space.

To put it mildly, not everyone would agree with all or even any of this. Progressives may bristle at the suggestion that we should go to Mars while there is still suffering and inequality on Earth, and will more than bristle at the suggestion that there is something bad about people, in particular women, choosing to have few or no children. Conservatives may be confused by the apparent lack of conservatism.

Philosophers may deny that the (relative, as events like the coronavirus remind us) mastery humans have achieved over nature really represents progress. Or they may deny that the meaning of human existence lies in any kind of action, or even that it has any special meaning at all.

Contrarily, many people will doubt whether technological progress has really stagnated. Or they will take the view that “virtual reality” is a kind of reality and therefore an alternative frontier to space. Some perversely Panglossian souls may even insist that the progression from Presidents Washington to Trump is really progress, or that the new Star Wars movies really are objectively better than the originals.

But whatever objections may be made, no open-minded reader could deny that in the genre of journalistic synthesis, this book is an advance in seriousness and subtlety over some other bestselling and highly acclaimed recent books addressed to this moment in civilization, in particular Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. How many such readers it will get in a polarized and, if Douthat is right, decadent age is another question.

It is important to note that, following the French-American historian Jacques Barzun, Douthat uses the term “decadent” in a rather unusual way. The word need not be “a slur,” Barzun claimed, but can be “a technical label.” People who live in a decadent time do not necessarily lack “energy or talent or moral sense.” On the contrary, decadent ages tend to be “full of deep concerns,” and marked not only by boredom and frustration but a kind of hyperactivity, spinning one’s wheels, since within a decadent age there are “no clear lines of advance.” Above all, decadent cultures are not necessarily on the brink of collapse. Indeed, they are probably very far from it.

The argument that our society is decadent in this technical sense is concentrated in Part 1 of the book, “The Four Horsemen.” Parts 2 and 3, “Sustainable Decadence” and “The Deaths of Decadence,” are devoted to explaining why we are unlikely to escape from decadence of our own volition (there are many good things about it, to begin with), and to considering the ways decadence might ultimately come to an end.

The four horsemen of decadence are stagnation, sterility, sclerosis, and repetition. According to Douthat, the economy and technological innovation have stagnated; demographic trends mean we are sterile; our institutions are sclerotic; and our culture, with some notable exceptions, is repetitive.

The claim about institutions, “bipartisan” as Douthat says it is, is unlikely to meet much resistance. The case seems much clearer for political institutions than for other kinds, though people do not agree about exactly what the problem with political institutions is, unless it be the existence of their political opponents.

The claim about culture will inevitably be more controversial. Douthat provides some striking examples of repetition or re-enactment in the cultural sphere, from rebooted superhero movies to seemingly eternal battles over gender and race. But the relation between repetition and genuine creativity, between fallow and fruitful periods in a culture, is genuinely complex, as a conservative should appreciate. And many would say that if we are still fighting the battles of the 1960s, that’s because we haven’t “got there” yet. (What could possibly lie beyond “there” other than decadence is another question.)

Perhaps no less controversial but more convincing, if only because of the more tangible nature of the subjects, are the chapters on stagnation and sterility.

The end of substantial economic growth — growth that involves not merely the nominal inflation of GDP but substantial improvement in productivity and quality of life — is a theme of the writings of Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, and of Robert Gordon, a professor of economics at Northwestern. Douthat acknowledges his debt to both men for their arguments that the “low-hanging fruit” of earlier gains has pretty much been picked.

The name Peter Thiel immediately comes to mind whenever the problem of technological stagnation is raised. As with Cowen, Douthat acknowledges a debt to Thiel — who over the last decade or so has established himself as one of our leading thinkers about stagnation — while departing from him on some crucial points.

Thiel has argued that technological stagnation is largely, if not entirely, the product of over-regulation, especially bad regulation, that has accumulated since the middle of the twentieth century and stifled innovation. Douthat believes the real problem is that not only all the low-hanging fruit but also much of the high-hanging fruit has already been picked. Thus the “back to the future” character of our society today, a society that talks about innovation ad infinitum and, indeed, ad nauseam, but which is more like the society of thirty-odd years ago than was 1985 like 1955, or 1955 like 1925.

But wait — there is surely at least one big, obvious difference between 1985 and today: the Internet and everything that goes with it. And what about major advances, either already achieved or on the brink, in such fields as medicine, biotechnology, transportation, and artificial intelligence?

This brings us to the most difficult part of Douthat’s argument, because it is difficult to assess a claim as broad as the one that technological innovation has stagnated in general. One would need to know a lot, about a lot, to really do it. And if Douthat acknowledges that the Internet is the great exception, “the one area of clear technological progress in our era,” his argument that it is an exception that proves the rule is essentially philosophical or metaphysical. The world of the Internet itself is not really real, Douthat suggests, even if it impinges on “the real world” in all sorts of ways:

The online age speeds up communication in ways that make events seem to happen faster than in the past, make social changes seem to be constantly cascading, and make the whole world seem like it exists next door to you — so that current history feels like a multicar pileup every time you check your Facebook feed or fire up Twitter. That pileup encourages a mood of constant anxiety about terrorism, ecocatastrophe and war, but it’s also a perfect stage for all manner of techno-boosterism….

Douthat raises without much confidence the possibility that, absent other forms of progress, the development of virtual reality could bring about some sort of internal renaissance. The idea that the world of the mind is ultimately larger as well as more real than the world “out there” is, after all, very traditional, if it has obvious dangers. (And as six months and counting of Zoom fatigue have shown, virtual substitutes for real presence are deeply unsatisfactory in ways that technology may not be prepared to address.) But like the question of whether technological progress has really stagnated across the board, the difficult question of whether “virtual reality” is “really real” cannot be settled here, and readers will have to make up their own minds.

Nonetheless, a comparison between The Decadent Society and a book that apparently makes the opposite argument suggests that, as Douthat defines it, decadence is indeed a reality.

Published in 2016, Robert Colvile’s The Great Acceleration argues that we are in fact living through a period of unprecedented change, as urbanization and the continual increase in computing power affect everything from supply chains to our brain chemistry and even the speed at which we walk.

Like Douthat’s book, Colvile’s is a serious and substantial work of synthesis, though the gee-whiz style in which it is written means that this is not always obvious. No Panglossian hymn to progress, it notes that our world is becoming more fragile as well as faster and more efficient; that spending hours a day hunched in front of flashing screens is damaging our mental as well as physical health; that general acceleration has paradoxical effects including, in domains like politics, actually slowing things down; and that if some of the grander dreams for the future of biotechnology and AI came true, they would be nightmares.

Still, Colvile thinks the downsides of acceleration are currently outweighed by the benefits, and that in any case there is no slowing down, let alone going back. Even the problems caused by acceleration can only be solved by more acceleration.

But surely this contradicts the claim that we are living in an age of stagnation, sterility, sclerosis, and repetition? Not necessarily. The arguments of Colvile and Douthat are largely compatible, because what Douthat calls decadence is pretty much what Colvile calls acceleration.

Recall that for Douthat a decadent age is not inactive but, on the contrary, marked by a kind of hyperactivity, spinning one’s wheels. And since almost all of the acceleration discussed by Colvile is in the realm of information technology or the consumer economy, it is not incompatible with Douthat’s account of general decadence.

The point on which Douthat and Colvile differ is the meaning of recent technological development. Colvile thinks it represents tangible progress, and that we might be on the brink of what Nick Bostrom has called an “intelligence explosion,” as biotechnology advances and AI becomes more powerful than human cognition in more and more domains. Douthat, on the other hand, denies that recent technological development is as significant as commonly supposed. And he doubts that we will ever have to face a true “superintelligence,” its delights or its dangers — dangers that would be potentially decadence-busting in an all too “interesting” way. “A society being fundamentally transformed by automation would have sharp productivity growth,” unlike the stagnation we’re seeing now, he writes, and “the harder limits on machine intelligence have not yet been overcome.”

Again, a great deal hinges here on underlying philosophical assumptions as well as the practical obstacles preventing radical advances in these fields. If, for instance, one thinks that AI is a misnomer, because machines cannot really be intelligent in the same way as human beings, then an intelligence explosion of the kind envisaged by futurists like Ray Kurzweil is not so much unlikely for technical reasons as in principle impossible. On the other hand, given that even Douthat concedes that computing is a dynamic and far from exhausted field, attracting the kind of intellectual energy, devotion, and, yes, lunacy that were once channeled into other endeavors, whatever advances are possible are also likely.

Certainly, many would not agree with Douthat’s pessimistic/optimistic view of AI, and while I’m inclined to agree that AI will be “disruptive” rather than genuinely transformative in the future, this is another question that would require a rare combination of technical knowledge and philosophical acuity to fully assess. (In passing, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2018 novel Red Moon contains a relatively plausible attempt to envision not only a human future in space but also forms of AI that are both much more powerful than today and yet not superintelligent, or even intelligent in the conventional sense.)

The part of Douthat’s argument that is relatively easy to assess, and which, if accepted, renders debate about his other claims largely academic, is the part about demography. What Douthat calls “sterility” is the failure of a population to reproduce above replacement value, and everything that follows.

It is not, of course, the case that, as in dystopian novels like The Children of Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, human beings in general now find it physically difficult or even impossible to reproduce (though the apparent decline in male fertility in many parts of the world is curious). Rather, through some combination of social and personal reasons, they are choosing not to.

Though we are more used to hearing about overpopulation as an existential problem, the imminent entry of most of the world into what some demographers call Stage 5 is arguably the cardinal fact of modern life and the greatest challenge facing humanity, greater even than climate change.

Stage 5 is whatever comes after Stage 4, the final stage of the classical Demographic Transition Model. Stage 4 is when the fertility rate and the death rate are both low, as improvements in food production, sanitation, and medicine have increased life expectancy, while urbanization and contraception have made having children a choice, and an expensive one at that. (It is worth noting that even these voluntarily low fertility rates do not match up to the number of children people still say they wish to have; various factors, financial or otherwise, seem to stand in their way.) In Stage 4, the total population is relatively stable, neither growing nor declining rapidly. Currently, many countries — including China, most of Europe, and the United States — are either in or on the brink of Stage 4. India, Kenya, and Mexico are in Stage 3.

Stage 4 in its theoretical form is often seen by demographers as the “Goldilocks stage.” Life expectancy is high, the standard of living high or improving, and the fertility rate around the replacement level of 2.1 babies per woman. But for many of the countries supposedly in Stage 4, including the U.S., the fertility rate is actually below replacement level (around 1.7), while for some of them, including Italy and Japan, it is well below. Arguably, some of these countries are already in Stage 5, when life expectancy is high and the fertility rate low, leading to an aging and eventually declining population, without sufficient immigration to offset it.

Contrary to the popular impression that the global population is still exploding, its growth has dramatically slowed, and it will start to contract after peaking sometime in the next few decades if current trends continue. Moreover, countries are moving through the stages much faster than in the past; transformations that took centuries in Europe and North America have taken only decades in Asia and South America. China’s population is projected to collapse to less than half its current size by the end of the century.

The speeding up of demographic transitions is another example of how acceleration in one sense is not incompatible with slowing down in another sense, and is even a main driver of it. For as noted here by Douthat, as well as in such books as Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson (2019), the shrinkage of the human population for reasons not to do with war, famine, or disease is unprecedented in human history — and the implications, for a world used to continuous economic growth and the social dynamism that comes from having a large and constantly renewed pool of young people, are staggering.

This is all well and good, some would say. There are too many people as it is. And contrary to the sensationalist title, Empty Planet, the Earth is in no danger, if that is the word, of becoming empty any time soon. But if people with as little in common as Douthat and the authors — two Canadian journalists whose contempt for all forms of social conservatism is palpable — agree about something, it is worth considering why.

The economic consequences of sterility are the most obvious, and likely to be most quickly felt. Whatever difference right-wing schemes of deregulation or left-wing schemes of redistribution might make, an aging, shrinking world will be one in which low or no growth is the rule, not the exception. But the more subtle consequences will also be the most profound.

In the words of Bricker and Ibbitson, who on this particular point are even more eloquent than Douthat: “The song not written, the cure not discovered, the technology not perfected because there are fewer alive this year than the year before — how do you quantify that? How do you measure the loss of creative energy that comes with having fewer young?” All this suggests a truly technical and non-partisan, as well as biological, definition of decadence: failure to reproduce at or above replacement level.

And yet I suspect that it is the argument about demography that will provoke the strongest resistance in many readers of The Decadent Society, and even more so in those who have not read it. For in quasi-Newtonian fashion, strong arguments tend to provoke stronger counterreaction than weaker ones, and one of the implications of this argument is that social dynamism and social conservatism go together in ways uncomfortable to contemplate for progressives and conservatives alike.

Moreover, it is unpleasant for anyone to hear about problems about which little can be done. And while governments around the world are going to try to do something about aging and declining populations in the next hundred years, urbanization and other forces driving demographic decadence seem likely to continue.

Douthat’s observation that “spiritual progress” is much more dependent on material progress — including the creation of new human bodies — than either spiritualists or materialists are inclined to admit is well taken. Yet the apparent end of progress is surely an occasion to thoroughly reconsider its meaning. Douthat and the authors of Empty Planet acknowledge that demographic decadence has some upsides, in particular environmental. But from an anti-decadent point of view, is there any way out?

First, there is the question: what could count as the end of decadence? The real answer to this question, Douthat writes, is not single but compound:

The political rise of China and the cultural rise of Africa also changing the shape of global religion. A technological breakthrough leading to a reinvigoration of capitalist growth — which then also creates the material foundation for a new birth of socialism. A genetic-engineering or AI breakthrough leading to a new culture war that also reinvigorates existing religions or forges a new faith. A leap into space that also inspires poets, philosophers, religious visionaries, and statesmen back on earth. A period of migration that involves war and instability and cruelty but ultimately invigorates decadent societies rather than undoing them, leading to cultural transformation and demographic revival and new technological innovation and faster economic growth and new forms of political order….

The underlying theme of all these is a new and richer human experience. And in the absence of a high fertility rate, this would have to be brought about by innovation, exploration, or disruption comparable to that seen in “non-decadent” periods in the past — when the fertility rate was high.

We have to do what our ancestors did, then, which is do something that has never been done before, but we have to do it in a way they never did! Or, and this seems more likely, something has to happen to our way of life to bring it to an end, to force us to do something different. In this light — the necessarily dim light of futurology — Douthat considers and dismisses ways out of decadence ranging from climate catastrophe to extraterrestrial contact.

As with AI and virtual reality, readers will have to make up their own minds about much of this, but nothing Douthat says here seems implausible, in part because he so clearly doesn’t want it to be true. Douthat acknowledges that climate change will pose major problems but suggests these are manageable for rich countries and will not force the kind of radical political or social changes that might count as decadence-busting. Contact with an alien civilization, however, might do it, as our whole conception of the universe and our place in it might be upended, if we are not simply exterminated. But there are good reasons for thinking that intelligent aliens, even if they exist, will never contact us, and even scientists bullish about the possibility suggest it will take thousands of years for signals we have already sent out to be received and returned.

The idea of a Christian Africa reconverting the West and leading a global spiritual renaissance naturally appeals to the Catholic Douthat. He also convincingly argues that people who think Brexit or Trump represent a genuine political revolution have forgotten, or never knew, what a real political revolution looks like.

And what of the coronavirus and the civil unrest that has followed? Don’t they represent a real challenge to his thesis?

In fact, in an already famous aside on page 130, one that his publishers no doubt wish they had used in promoting the book, Douthat considers the possibility that if Trump “mismanages a pandemic,” there will be “nothing decadent about the aftermath.” Decadence: you’ll miss it when it’s gone.

As Douthat has argued since then, in a June interview with British journalist Oliver Wiseman, the events of the pandemic represent the bill come due for American decadence in particular: “The non-decadent society is the one that comes together to suppress and conquer the virus. The decadent society is the one that tries to do that for a couple of months, then quickly reverts back to a culture war and its competing camps and just accepts that another 100,000 or 200,000 people are just going to die.”

Like Francis Fukuyama’s End of History thesis, which has been endlessly misunderstood, Douthat’s thesis is not incompatible with “stuff happening.” Serious as they are, these events do not appear even close to threatening the sort of structural decadence that Douthat describes. As Michel Houellebecq, whose desiccated, smoke-wreathed figure haunts The Decadent Society like Hamlet’s father haunts the play — appearing only a few times but always present — has said, “We will not wake up after the lockdown in a new world. It will be the same, just a bit worse.”

In the interview, Douthat leaves open the possibility that “this experience does jolt people into action,” especially in relation to the energy of the protests. But he cautions that “people have this kind of sweeping, catastrophic or utopian rhetoric around politics and then in the real world nothing seems to change.”

No, not what is happening but what could happen represents the real dark threat to decadence. If the coronavirus does not bring our way of life to an end, another, much deadlier pathogen might. Nuclear war is an enduring possibility. There are the asteroids, silently making their way through space on paths that might one day bring them into collision with the Earth, and against which we still have no realistic means of defense, though NASA plans to slam a spacecraft into one in 2022 to see what happens.

Moreover, and above all, there is — the unknown. It may be that nothing we can presently imagine could break us out of our decadence, but then, it’s the punch you don’t see coming that knocks you out, as the people of previous civilizations could tell us if they were around to talk about it.

But if we don’t feel like waiting for events, how might we be able to get ourselves out of our rut, without destroying all the gains made over the past few centuries? Barring the intervention of Providence, which Douthat nods to but is also outside human control, there seems to be only one option: space colonization.

Manned space exploration, climaxing with the Moon landing in 1969, was perhaps the greatest single feat of humankind. But we have not returned to the Moon since 1972. Of course, a great deal has been done since with telescopes and robots, and the successful SpaceX mission, launched this year on May 30 — the first time since 2011 that Americans have been launched into space from American soil — is a promising sign.

But certainly nothing comparable to the Apollo program has taken place since, and even the heyday of the space program coincided with the beginnings of decadence. In any case, just going back to the Moon would not be enough. Nor would merely exploring Mars, when that can be done by robots.

The Red Planet must be colonized. This is the extraordinary, inexorable conclusion of Douthat’s book. Only settlement on another planet, the creation of another world, would bring a truly new frontier into being. And only a new frontier can satisfy the “something else, something extra, that really can come only from outside our present frame of reference.”

To truly transcend our plateau of decadence, Douthat goes on, “we need to find a way to climb, to make a ladder to the stars, and to offer future generations of humanity a new reality to explore that’s more expansive than our beleaguered planet, more extraordinary than anything that we can conjure inside our machines of simulation.”

Can we do it? Is the Red Planet really our last, best, hope?” A Mars mission would face many of the same technical considerations and problems as the Moon missions did, but on a much larger scale, and settling a place is very different from visiting.

In particular, we have little idea about what long-term problems humans living on another planet would face. As Douthat of all people can attest, real societies require the creation of new life. Would the human reproductive system even function in a radically different environment? If it did, what would be the results?

Any kind of experiment poses obvious ethical as well as technical problems — though the former are unlikely to deter, say, scientists working for the Chinese government. But as Robert Zubrin has persuasively argued, the technical obstacles to some form of settlement are not insurmountable. Moreover, the unintended upshots of the effort for various fields are likely to be considerable.

Even more than a “Mars shot” itself, it is these upshots that offer hope for renewal. As Zubrin has observed, the first space program inspired the generation of scientists and engineers behind the genuine advances of the second half of the twentieth century. It seems reasonable to expect that “if we go to Mars, we’ll someday get the payoff that comes from challenging people in a serious way, and by being a society that values great scientific and human achievements.”

More fundamentally, the colonization of Mars would resemble the human colonization of Earth, perhaps the original expression of the human desire to “leave the known in order to explore and master the unknown,” and might lead to the creation of a new, Martian civilization, as different from any civilization of Earth as the two planets are from each other.

This may seem like the last thing that we need, when we are struggling to move forward with life on Earth. It is not obvious settling Mars would solve our problems, as opposed to just transferring them; Douthat admits that “space travel without other forms of renewal might be less an escape from dystopia than an expansion of its scope.” A cynic might observe that the Apollo program was not motivated so much for some cosmic destiny as against the Soviet Union.

And Douthat notes the danger that a new space age could be no more than just another worn-out recapitulation, with “a brief flurry of interest followed by the realization that there’s nothing for human beings on the red planet either, the costs of terraforming are far too high to bear, and every other star and planet is simply too far away to reach.” And it may be — a very grim possibility, this — that “that kind of depressing experience has been rehearsed a thousand thousand times by a thousand thousand civilizations before us” in other parts of the universe.

But even if it has, this is our story, the only one we have. How do we recover the sense that it truly matters? In the chaotic response to our great new enemy — not an external empire, but a little virus — there can still be found signs of hope. If our leadership has been an abject failure, they are not the only characters in the drama. There are the scientists, not shooting skyward but burrowing into cells, racing against the clock to make sense of this most mysterious of novel pathogens and come up with a way to stop it. There are the frontline workers, risking everything to do what’s necessary. There are the ordinary people making extraordinary sacrifices, a long siege with no end clearly in sight. What is the point of all of this? The recognition that life is worth the living, and worth fighting for.

That is not to say that this catastrophe has brought with it an immediate revival. To the contrary, the markers are currently going in the opposite direction: deaths of despair are shooting up, fertility is dropping even further amid panic and economic ruin, callous indifference and perverse irrationality are everywhere to be seen. But deep down within the existential threat, there are the seeds of insight: There is an essential goodness in a human life, and this is not the final chapter in our story.

The sense of purpose that a plague provides is a step back rather than up and out; it won’t take us to Mars, or even back to March where we began. But to save a life, to have a baby, to go on against great difficulty is a vote of confidence in the future — a future we may realize that we miss more than we knew. Is there still any way to save it?

One of the many ways in which The Decadent Society rises above the reactionary diatribe too many will mistake it for is the stress it puts on the unwilled character of our decadence. Any technologically advanced, highly urbanized civilization — even a non-human one — would resemble ours, Douthat suggests. Individual choices, “poor values,” or one’s political opponents thus cannot be blamed for the state of things (if, naturally, they are not simply blameless).

But as well as raising the question of how it might be possible to escape from a situation so deeply rooted in the nature of civilization itself, this focus on the inhuman forces driving decadence risks obscuring an even more troubling question: What if we really want to be decadent? What if our deepest, if not our highest, aspiration is to be relieved of the burden of our humanity, to be bots in peace rather than men in anarchy, when to be human is to live in anarchy in some sense? Or, several hundred thousand years into the human story, have we simply exhausted our possibilities as a species, and so there is nothing left for us but to spin our wheels while “waiting to either destroy ourselves accidentally or to have nature hit reboot, via comet or a plague, on our entire up-from-hunter-gathering, east-of-Eden project”?

No, I do not believe it. I cannot believe it. The story is not over yet. If neither space colonization nor a new baby boom nor a cultural or spiritual renaissance come to the rescue, then an unforeseeable disaster or simply the duality of man, including his dark side, will. For as much as the soul hankers after the old, the safe, and the repetitive, it reaches out for the new, the dangerous, and the unknown. The future will always be more terrible and wonderful than we can possibly imagine, and it’s just as well; human flourishing requires it.

And so while plague stalks the land and there is civil unrest, I reach out to the reader — virtually, of course — to deliver, not a curse, but a blessing: May you live in interesting times. Just not too interesting.

John Sexton, “Go West, Old Man,” The New Atlantis, Fall 2020, pp. 128-140.
Header image by Howie Muzika via Flickr

Exhausted by “science says”?

During Covid, The New Atlantis has offered an independent alternative. In this unsettled moment, we need your help to continue.