Tag Archives: Dark Ages

We Can’t Unscramble This Egg

The COVID vaccine–actually, now two of them–is on the way. Granted, the way is filled with potholes, thanks to the incompetence of an administration lacking any ability to govern effectively, but reliable sources estimate that vaccines will be broadly available by late spring. Thanks to a new administration that actually knows what it is doing, we can anticipate a return to something approximating normalcy by late in 2021.

Historians, sociologists, political scientists and assorted pundits will spend the next few decades trying to explain how we got here. By “we” I don’t just mean the United States, and by “here” I don’t just mean the pandemic and its mismanagement, or the incomprehensible fact that in November some 70+ million voters agreed to buy whatever excrement Trump and the GOP cult insist on selling.

Eventually, we will see the reasons for–and consequences of– disastrous governing decisions made by the U.S. and Great Britain, and the growth of right-wing terror and autocracy elsewhere. One of the few things that seems fairly clear now is that substantial numbers of people around the world are reacting against the realities of modernity and globalization and fearing the loss of familiar cultures and comfortable certainties.

A lot of those people are saying, essentially, “stop the world, I want to get off.” That, of course, is like trying to unscramble eggs.

There was a particularly perceptive essay by someone named William Falk in The Week, in which he suggested that we have a choice:  we can accept the reality of our interrelationships, and appreciate and embrace the insights and values of the Enlightenment, or we can retreat into superstition and suspicion.

The vaccines are a triumph of the Enlightenment values of science, reason, and evidence—all now under assault in a new Dark Ages in which demagogues and conspiracy theorists spread disinformation and distrust. Despite various attempts to claim credit, the vaccines would not exist without international cooperation. Moderna’s vaccine employs technology created by Hungarian-born scientist Katalin Kariko, and the company is run by a team of researchers and entrepreneurs from around the world. The Pfizer vaccine was created by second-generation Turkish immigrants to Germany, Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, and has been pushed past the finish line by company CEO Albert Bourla, an immigrant from Greece. The pandemic of 2020 will not be the last crisis endangering humanity. What we’ve relearned in this traumatic year is that all we hold dear is fragile, and that science, community, and empathy light the road forward.

It isn’t just the vaccines, of course. The global economy is inextricably interdependent. The threat of climate change doesn’t respect national borders–it requires a co-ordinated international response. Terrorism is a far different threat than conventional warfare, and requires international co-operation to root it out. There are multiple other examples, including most obviously COVID-19.

When the current pandemic is finally contained, the “normal” to which we return is unlikely to look like the “normal” we left. How it differs will depend upon the ability of humans to emerge from our tribal affiliations and work together. That, in turn, will depend mightily upon our ability to get a handle on the disinformation and hysteria promoted by our existing media landscape, especially the social media algorithms that incentivize its spread.

We really are at one of those tipping points that occur during human history.

We can accept the reality that we share an endangered planet inhabited by inevitably interrelated and interdependent populations, and that we need to create institutions that will allow us to save it and inhabit it peacefully, or we can give in to the forces trying to take humanity into a new Dark Ages and possible extinction. 

What we can’t do is evade the challenge and unscramble the global egg.

Uncomfortable Parallels

I realize that this blog has become something of a “downer,” and I apologize in advance for this particular post.

The other day, I was trying to cheer myself up by thinking of times in U.S. and world history when the prospects seemed bleak but the challenges were ultimately surmounted–the civil war, the 60s, etc. Then I thought about the Dark Ages, so I did a bit of googling. It appears that there is a fair amount of scholarly bickering about how long and how “dark” the Dark Ages actually were, but what made me sit up and take notice was an article on a history site titled “The Five Major Causes of the Dark Ages.”

According to the article, those five causes were 1) the fall of the Roman Empire; 2) the little Ice Age; 3)Famine; 4) the Black Plague; and 5) a lack of good roads.

If you think of the last century or so as an “American Age” during which the U.S. has dominated the world in much the same way that Rome dominated its time,  America’s current retreat from international leadership becomes especially ominous. It was concerning when George W. Bush’s cowboy demeanor and war in Iraq incurred the strong disapproval of many of our allies, but that faded with the international popularity of Obama .

Trump’s ignorance and bellicosity–not to mention the embarrassing buffoonery that has generated barely veiled personal disdain from world leaders–has diminished America’s stature, undermined important alliances and generated pushback from longtime allies. Books and articles comparing the current status of the U.S. to Rome are proliferating.

We are unlikely to see an Ice Age, but we are increasingly likely to see dramatic environmental degradation, thanks to the current administration’s anti-science unwillingness to confront climate change. (Gotta keep those fossil fuel donors happy!) Current predictions include warnings that areas of the globe where millions of people now live will become uninhabitable–or “best case” (!)– that huge portions of the earth that are currently being cultivated will become unsuitable for farming and food production. Famine, anyone?

I don’t know enough about medical science or the likelihood of pandemics to form an opinion, so let’s assume that isn’t a major threat (although millions of migrants and not enough food sounds like a breeding ground for epidemics).

But a lack of good roads?

We’re there. For years, America has allowed its infrastructure to decay–we wouldn’t want to pay taxes to fix those crumbling roads and bridges. We especially wouldn’t want to tax those “makers” whose corporations have profited from an infrastructure that has allowed them to receive raw materials and ship finished goods….

You’d think that intelligent self-interest would cause us to modify behaviors that are so obviously destructive. Take climate change: if we act to protect the environment, and the scientists are all wrong, we’ll just end up with clean air and drinkable water. Bummer. If we don’t act, and the scientists are right, welcome to the Dark Ages. Much bigger bummer.

Or take infrastructure. When those profitable companies that are fat and happy using their tax breaks to buy back their stock suddenly face major expenses or even a complete inability to do business due to failing roads and bridges or the degradation of the electrical grid, who are they going to blame? (We know the answer to that one….)

Wasn’t it Santayana who said “Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it?”