Last weekend I published a post titled, “The World is Getting Worse (And Other Lies)” in which I shared some inspiring data and anecdotes that have helped me to embrace what I consider to be “The Good News of Progress.” What does that mean? In short, the world is getting better—not worse, as many often suggest these days. . . especially as we near the dreaded apocalypse date of December 21st, 2012.
In response to the post, I received a wide range of very thoughtful and interesting comments. Many agreed with my perspective, others thought I was being too naively optimistic, and still others thought I wasn’t being optimistic enough. I find it very interesting how the topics of progress and the current state of the planet often bring out such polarized responses, which reflect very different outlooks on our world and our future.
The comments got me thinking about two individuals who have had a big influence on the way I view this subject. Both of them seem to have a unique ability to strike a middle ground—a higher synthesis, really—between two extremes. They do not see our future through the lens of doom and gloom, nor do they see it through the lens of a naively utopian optimism. So I wanted to share some of my favorite excerpts from their work to help move this conversation forward.
The first is a lecture from the brilliant Swedish doctor and statistician, Hans Rosling, entitled “The Joy of Stats.” I cited him in last week’s article for his amazing capacity to illuminate the the truly profound progress we have and continue to make as a species, while at the same time not avoiding of the immense problems we are facing:
The second piece is by Gary Lachman, an author, occult scholar, and former bassist for the band Blondie. He wrote an article entitled “2013, Or What to Do When the Apocalypse Doesn’t Arrive,” several years ago for my former publication EnlightenNext magazine. In it he identifies what he calls an “archetype of apocalypse” within the human psyche. This archetype shows up consistently throughout history and compels human beings to believe that a huge shift or monumental transition—for better or worse—is about to happen (whether it be the Second Coming or Y2K). He calls it an expression of “evolutionary impatience” and suggests that in reality, the grand utopian visions and doomsday scenarios that often get so much attention, so far at least, have never really come to pass. Here’s an excerpt:
In his Study of History, an account of the rise and fall of civilizations, the historian Arnold Toynbee argues that there are two stereotypical responses to what he calls a “time of troubles,” the crisis points that make or break a civilization. One is the “archaist,” a desire to return to some previous happy time or golden age. The other is the “futurist,” an urge to accelerate time and leap into a dazzling future. That both offerings are embraced today is, I think, clear.
The belief that a saving grace may come from indigenous non-Western people untouched by modernity’s sins is part of a very popular “archaic revival.” Likewise, the trans- or posthumanism that sees salvation in some form of technological marriage between man and computer is equally fashionable.
The 2012 scenario seems to partake of both camps: It proposes a return to the beliefs of an ancient civilization in order to make a leap into an unimaginable future. What both strategies share, however, is a desire to escape the present. Given our own “time of troubles,” this seems understandable enough.
Toynbee also believed in what I call the “Goldilocks theory of history,” and to me it makes a lot of sense. If a challenge facing it is too great, he argued, a civilization smashes. If it isn’t great enough, the civilization overcomes it too easily, becomes decadent, and decays. But if the challenge is “just right”—not too great and not too small—it forces the civilization to make sufficient effort to advance creatively.
Sadly, most of the civilizations Toynbee studied either cracked or went soft. The verdict has yet to come in on our own, and as everyone knows, there are no guarantees. But I’m willing to make a bet. There are still a few years left, and, of course, things can change. But I’m willing to wager that with any luck, 2013 will show that we got it just right. If nothing else, trying to meet our challenges successfully will give us all something to do when the apocalypse doesn’t arrive.
Join Andrew Cohen in a free live dialogue with integral philosopher Ken Wilber about the dangerous allure of apocalyptic thinking on December 21st, 2012. Click here to register.