‘But now it’s time to accept our impending demise. Those are profoundly difficult words to write, but they are necessary: Our times demand a new rhetorical honesty. It is deceitful and irrelevant to sustain the charade that things may improve. Instead, it’s time to start talking about how we will die.
“The progress narrative” that has undergirded Western culture for millennia was nice while it lasted, but it’s also responsible for getting us where we are today, as it stoked the fantasy that we were invincibly moving ever forward, and that our rampantly voracious overdevelopment (exploration, imperialism, conquest, growth, “civilizing” nature) had no costs, no limits, no consequences.
As an English professor, I find it exciting to consider the possibilities for a new voice, a new style, a new writerly consciousness that may accompany and chronicle the winding down of our sound and fury.
Other cultures at similar points in their trajectory — past the zenith, clearly waning yet close enough to the glories of the past — have often produced keenly insightful literature and art. Being on the cusp of decline provokes incisive self-reflection — as the Greeks called it, anagnorisis: recognition.
Cervantes achieved this in Don Quixote toward the end of Spain’s Golden Age, as did T. S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,” his report from the front lines of the cultural disintegration that accompanied the collapse of European imperialism and the War to End All Wars: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
On a personal level, we have lately begun to do a better job of dying, and of accepting death — writing “death plans,” forsaking heroic measures of resuscitation. So too as a species we may learn to accept the inescapability of our impending ecological fate. We can celebrate the bright spots from our past human heritage, acknowledge our follies, and finally, deal with it: It is what it is.
There will be a limited future audience for this brave new art, since we’re hovering on the verge of extinction, but it will leave an interesting time capsule for whoever might come to recolonize the planet after we’re gone.’