The several ends of the world

Hieronymus Bosch, Temptation of St Anthony

Hieronymus Bosch, Temptation of St Anthony

Wonderful creations laboriously sculptured by our civilization – Democracy, Sciences, Human Rights, the European Union – are delicate and fragile pieces of art. We can try to take care of them; work for their survival; teach our children how to properly manage them. But we must admit that they are fated to get broken.

There is no time or place in history without someone proclaiming the imminent end of the world, the dilution of civilization into chaos, the extinction of mankind or some equivalent tragedy.

Sometimes, the end of the world is announced by the prophetic voices of religious minds telling about vengeful gods thinking of going back to the square one. However, it is not uncommon to hear from secular voices that the end of the world is coming. They see the signs on crime, technology, new cultural manifestations, wars, terrorism, fundamentalism. Everything adds to support to the idea that the end is near.

Prophets of the end of the world are short-sighted, almost blinds. Those from the past, we know were wrong by the simple fact that we are alive. And what about those from the present time, what are the chances of being right?

I believe their predictions have a component of cognitive illusion, which puts all the focus on the present. We see the present with a richness of details that is missing in the past and completely absent in the future. This produces the feeling that we live a key moment in history. But, of course, the present is special only for who lives in it.

It helps to put things in perspective to think that people living ten, or twenty, or thirty years ago shared the same feeling. It is easy to verify: just visit the opinion pages of old newspapers. It will probably be shared by people living one hundred years ahead, when our time will only be a black-and-white shadow in history.

“I see the future to repeat the past, I see a museum of the newest innovations” sang a Brazilian poet. In every age, the feeling of imminent change haunts the time riders, especially those that project their own finitude on the analysis of their world.

It is not that there are no changes going on under the Sun. But, apart of war or tsunamis, they come slow and gradual. My generation was possibly the last urban generation that grew seeing stars in the sky. This changed and we did not even note. Maybe, in three decades, when I, as annoying grampa, tell the children that “in my time” we could afford taking shower every day, they will laugh and doubt. And that change will also come and we will not see.

For centuries, predictions about the end of the world were only neurotic nightmares of individuals afraid of their own death. Several times, however, the world really ended. It did for the inhabitants of Rapa Nui, when they exhausted their natural resources. It happened to pre-colombian civilizations when they first met the Spaniards. It could happen to us in case of a nuclear war or an environmental collapse.

Even if humans survive to their own capacity of self-destruction, the end-of-the-word, understood as a radical change in the life style of a society, will be always resting above our chamber door. This is just a thermodynamic truism, as there are always many more ways of being dead than alive.

Wonderful creations laboriously sculptured by our civilization – Democracy, Sciences, Human Rights, the European Union – are delicate and fragile pieces of art. We can try to take care of them; work for their survival; teach our children how to properly manage them. But we must admit that they are fated to get broken.

MB



Categories: Culture, History, Science, Scientific Culture

Tags: , , , ,

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