Part 2: The Unprecedented Era
During the 16th century, and at an accelerating rate, people of the Western Cultural Sphere began to develop actual, accurate facts about the universe, in the face of the wisdom of antiquity. Copernicus challenged Ptolemy. Vesalius challenged Galen. Galileo challenged Aristotle. This was Science. As noted in Part 1, this had never happened before.
Why? Up until that point, the world’s Thinking Classes had been willing to overlook or explain away any discrepancies between those traditions and observed reality. Which only makes sense-the traditions served their social purposes, forming the warp & woof of their worlds. For some reason, people arose who were not willing to remain quiet. Why is an Open Question.
Is there a reason this occurred in the Western Cultural Sphere and not elsewhere? That’s another Open Question. The Western Sphere had made slightly stronger claims about nature than the other spheres, but only relatively. In any case, it only happened once. The other spheres never had time to undergo any similar changes independently.
Perhaps even these new claims, in the abstract, could have been maintained as developments in the Western cultural tradition except for one crucial difference, a difference that resulted in the world as we know it: accurate ideas about reality can be used as the basis for technology. This did not happen quickly. About three centuries passed before the new information being produced was put to work in any significant way. But when it happened, it supercharged everything else.
Let me give one example. In the 18th century, electricity was discovered. This new energy had been completely unsuspected by any of the Interpretive Traditions. In the early 19th century, a device, the telegraph, was invented which put this new information to practical use. Earlier ages could not have developed this technology; they had no idea the basis even existed. This was Unprecedented.
Our age is unprecedented.
It is unprecedented in Movement: Prior to the modern era, the fastest any human ever traveled was about 30 miles an hour, for short distances, aboard a galloping horse. We now routinely tool down the highway at over twice that. A clipper ship, the product of centuries of development of the sailing vessel, managed to travel between New York City and San Francisco in 89 days; airliners now traverse the distance in a little under seven hours.
In Power: Up until the Unprecedented Era, the vast majority of energy was provided by wood and mammalian muscle. Humans found some clever ways to harness wind and water power, there was marginal use of coal and peat. The total amount could not easily be increased.
In the Unprecedented Era, we have have harnessed the potential of the atom and the sun. Hundreds of millions of years worth of fossil fuels move, light, and heat us. The winds and tides fill in when they can. The total amount of energy available for human purposes has mushroomed, and increases steadily year by year.
In Creation: In the Unprecedented Era, we have a notion of ‘economic growth.’ We take it for granted that the amount of goods and services will tend to increase. This is a strange thing, one that implies change, takes change for granted as part of the landscape. The question we ask children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is bizarre. For the vast majority of human history, life was about what you had to do, and what came before you. Only now, with constant change, can we assume a child will be able to embrace and benefit from it.
In Destruction: In the Unprecedented Era, explosions have replaced warriors. The immense firepower of the modern battalion, backed by long-range air and sea support, has reduced war to arranging the enemy to be under your shells and bombs, preferably far from your own soldiers. Death comes from above, like thunder. Indeed, line warfare has grown so expensive and so destructive that it has almost been rendered obsolete, replaced by asymmetrical conflict between groups of lightly-armed insurgents. Every exchange of fire must take place in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. In the ultimate unprecedentedness, we can now destroy all humanity.
In Birth: Our ability to end Homo sapiens is even more flabbergasting in view of the vast increase in our numbers. In the forty-five years of my life, the population of the world has increased by three billion human beings—or as many as it took from the origin of our species through 1960 to accumulate. In that same time, the population of the United States has increased by one hundred and twenty-five million people, over a third.
Birth is now in our hands. For the vast majority of human history, the question “Should I have kids?” was nonsensical. Birth control was difficult and full of holes. We can now effectively control reproduction, the impetus behind evolution, one of the most basic forces of material reality.
In Death: In the Unprecedented Era, we rarely die from that which previous generations did. In fact, we rarely die—relatively speaking. In 1900 the world death rather was 17.2 deaths per 1000 population; it is now less than half that. Average global life expectancy was 34 a century ago; it is about 70 now. We take for granted such things as antibiotics, which freed us from ancient horrors. Doctors have access to diagnostic and therapeutic methods that were wishful thinking even fifty years ago. Modern health care is not distributed evenly, but even what there is in poorer nations, from international vaccine programs to insecticide-infused anti-malarial mosquito nets, has had immense effect—evidenced by massive increases in population.
In all these things and more, we are cut off from all previous humans who have ever lived. We cannot understand them. We have too much control, too much safety, too much knowledge, too much stuff. We can compare our situations with theirs all we want, but we’re fooling ourselves. Things have changed. At some point, a crisis point was reached. The gulf is unbridgeable.
But without any examples from the past, how can we have some idea of what to expect from the future? We can’t. No one has any idea what will happen. At no point in the last 200 years could any rational person have correctly surmised the course of oncoming events. There was no reason to see the mostly peaceful demise of the Soviet Union. There was no reason to see the redistribution of world manufacturing. There was no reason to see the decolonization of the Third World. There was no reason to see the revaluation of gender and sexual orientation. The shocks keep coming. It can be reasonably assumed they will continue to do—although if the constant flow of change stopped, that would also be unprecedented.
(There were those few who predicted what seemed impossible, but turned out to be correct. They were all crackpots. In the Unprecedented Era, the crackpots of one decade turns out to be the prophets of the next—but they exist alongside dozens of their fellow crackpots who were wrong.)
While we can’t know what the change will be, we can know the context in which that change will happen. Science and technology have made the stakes and our abilities higher than they ever have been. We have been placed at the wheel of a tractor-trailer truck, going 90 miles an hour, with no brakes. All we can do is hope no obstacle appears in front of us. So far, none has.
We want the past to have influence on the present, to be able to learn from the past. It seems wasteful to think there is no real connection between the two. But that’s an element of story, not reality. Sometimes things are indeed random and unconnected. Such is the case here.
My purpose here is not to recommend a course of action. The Unprecedented Era militates against the recommending of anything. I seek only to recognize what is happening around me, to understand and describe.