Each of these folks carries some combination of despair and doggedness (and still a bit of legacy enjoyment of current creature comforts). Moods fluctuate: water is saved, birds are counted, even while eyes/ears glaze over at the news reports and webinars detailing the latest dire report or development. Amid this, I have noticed a streak of resignation in which the expectation of some kind of slow-motion-train-crash is relieved by a sense that we (of a certain age) will be “gone” by then and won’t see the worst parts of it. Even the well-off and (otherwise) pretty sophisticated blithely seem to assume that their progeny will be spared through some sort of “gated-community” salvation.
Of course, there’s no telling how far down the path of global distress our species will take us. Again, I won’t parse through the various dystopias and scenarios that have been sketched out. Suffice it to say that there is a significant chance that civilization will crumble and some successor will have to be rebuilt. (I will posit for this purpose that it will be by humans, not cockroaches or dolphins.) This scenario is a playground for utopians, with soaring opportunities for harmonious relationships between peoples, genders, and the rest of nature.
I won’t dive into that normative debate (i.e., what kind of world would we want?), nor the related predictive question of what kind of world is likely? There are plenty of current political views out there already which will serve (equally well) as the basis for projecting for both desiderata and prognostication. Instead, I’d like to pose some other questions: 1) Should we tell them how we got here and, if so, what should we say? and 2) How would we go about sending such a message into the future?
Regular readers of this blog have heard me warn of the perils of divining and applying the “lessons of history.” Nonetheless, the demand for such apparent comforts as a coherent human history with “actionable” lessons remains strong and whether future historians/anthropologists/archeologists will be curious or future politicians will be looking for someone to blame, there’s no reason to think that this won’t be a fortiori true for the post-enviro-calamity world.
Indeed, three renowned SciFi books each wrestle with how the past survives in a such a future. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (1950s) takes a “hard science” perspective on a galactic scale renaissance. Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz (1959) goes down a more religious path. More recently, Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (2015) includes a group who survive a (non-manmade) apocalypse by preserving the Encyclopedia Britannica in memorizable bites, one of whose members is named for her portion of scripture: “Sonar-TaxLaw.”
What should we leave behind? Should we start with the “Great Books” series from the mid 20C which sought to capture the finest thinking of human history (albeit with a strong White/European/Male bent)? Even a more diverse bibliography of ideas and literature might well be indigestible without some concordance/guidance/framework.
How might we account for the state of the planet and our civilization? Who will write the histories of how we got here? What of the stories of empires, genders, wars, ideas, demographics, technology, and everyday life would be worth preserving? The possibilities are endless and the arguments among historians would be too (as if no “hard stop” was imminent!) Will we (as we are doing in the more substantive vector of actual climate change prevention) talk and hypothesize; or will someone put pen to paper (to speak in 19C metaphors)?
But then, what use is philosophy and literature (or history for that matter) in a world that is rebuilding itself from remnants. The great Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert in the mid-18C addressed not only ideas but practicalities. It included hundreds of pictures of ordinary machinery because it sought to enable people to change how they lived, not just how they thought. Perhaps we should commission hundreds of “how-to” manuals, ranging from irrigation and simple pumps to solar panels (and also how to build the materials out of which all of this is made)? If so, how far down the technological road should we go before we are (implicitly) urging our successor societies to replicate our own (problematic) path? We might include all of it and let them decide. (But what critical histories of technology and society would we include in the package?)
Of course, it’s not at all clear who would make all decisions. UNESCO? A committee of Nobel Laureates? The Texas School Book Commission? I do know some historians, maybe I should ask them? More likely, it would be a small group of smart folks chosen by whoever raised the money to launch such an endeavor.
This brings us to the last stop on this hypothetical inquiry: Once you have the “stuff” chosen, how do you preserve it—for several hundred or a thousand years—until some group comes along who can handle this compendium of knowledge/wisdom? There are serious technical problems around data preservation and compression into a manageable size. What language (s) should be used? How do you design an educational path (including languages, math, sciences) so that people could (progressively) comprehend this material? Where do you store it so it’s both safe and discoverable?
I’ll stop with the questions now. It’s an interesting thought experiment. But I can’t help think that if we leave a mess, we should help clean it up—somehow (and apologize, too!).