By Annalee Newitz author of Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age from The Washington Post:
The idea of civilizational collapse goes back thousands of years, but each era imagines it anew, always as a form of annihilation and erasure. In the 18th century, Edward Gibbon blamed the fall of the Roman Empire on “a deluge of Barbarians” and the erosion of civic virtue. Over a century and a half later, the influential anthropologist V. Gordon Childe coined the phrase “urban revolution” to explain the rapid rise of complex, economically stratified societies over the past several thousand years. Childe, an Australian who witnessed the Soviet revolutions from afar, believed hierarchical modern civilizations were internally unstable, doomed to be toppled by worker uprisings. These days, our collapse stories focus more often on total species extinction. Environmentalists predict ecosystem wipeouts that will plunge Homo sapiens into deadly peril, while popular philosopher Nick Bostrom coined the term “existential risk” to describe the grave threat artificial intelligence represents for humanity.
But the historical record shows that reports of the end times always turned out to be wrong. “Barbarians” didn’t extinguish Rome: It still stands today, a vital and beloved city, and the cultures of its ancient empire influence populations across Europe and the Americas. Children still study Latin in school, and Silicon Valley executives quote Stoic philosophy. Elsewhere in the world, European colonialism and the slave trade left behind cultural ruins that can’t be explained away as “collapses.” They are open wounds, still smarting in the present. Over time, civilizations eventually morph into something else entirely, but they infuse future societies with their lingering traumas — as well as their hopeful ideals.
Categories: World History