Troubled Water

<strong>BRIDGE INTO DARKNESS</strong>

We can appreciate the irony of the novelist who said, on his deathbed, “everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.” As Steven Levine wrote in A Year to Live, there are benefits in facing the end of life deliberately. Nobody knows whether he or she has even a year, but Levine suggests that we act as if we have at least long enough to complete his excellent exercises.

I’ve heard many of my fellow elders say, “it’s a good time to be old.” Meaning that the future does not look bright to them. Are they mixing up our personal futures with that of humanity? It’s part of a pair of mistakes that old people can make: (a) not recognizing that they will die soon, and (b) if they do know consciously, projecting their own fate onto the rest of the world. (Actually, the world can happily go on without any particular being.)

The second potential mistake, of projecting the prospect of personal death onto humanity or civilization is hard to sort out, because, to borrow the title of a book, bad things do happen to good people. Some folks may have a taste for dystopia. One can mention George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-four), Cormac McCarthy (The Road), and recently the author of Splinterlands. Others imagine a paradise.

Predicting is a temptation , unless you know a little about the complexity of systems, the surprise of technical innovation, the twists of history. One can project apparent trends but anything more is speculative, and the trends may fade away or morph. It can be useful to articulate various scenarios: if this, then probably that.

Even when a trend is studied by scientists, who tend to be cautious and skeptical, their conclusion may be met with denial, an agreement not to talk about it, to act as if the conclusions don’t exist. This reception appeals to many, for example, in the case of climate science. The predicted outcome is so drastic, it’s as serious as a nuclear war, but in very slow motion. They say the rockets have never flown, climate change is a natural fluctuation, or in the case of trends in automation, we will never lose half of all jobs: what would people do? How would they get income?

In “A Gift from the Collapseniks,” I praise people who compile signs of catastrophe, not because I’m sure we can predict accurately, but because they do the huge service of depicting how things will be if certain trends continue, a fate we try to avoid, and may be able to change or at least change our response to.

We tend to laugh off “doomsters,” whatever evidence they bring, because the conclusions are so disheartening. What can one do if the end is near? We resent their perspicacity because they may be right and their certainty because they may turn out to be wrong.

The best response to the possibility that they may be right is to live intensely, maturely, helpfully, bravely, to show courage in the face of an impending end. That will be the case for each person, if not necessarily for civilization or our species.

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