The archeological record is reassuring. We build things that last thousands of years. The Parthenon and the Coliseum provide consolation for our mortality and give us reason to hope.
But malice and indifference could destroy much of what we take for granted. The rising seas of a warmer world could inundate major cities, leaving them lost, like Atlantis beneath the waves. And human destructiveness has already been unleashed against the monuments of ancient civilization themselves, as we’ve seen in Syria.
The climate news is ominous. NASA reports that Greenland and Antarctica are losing billions of tons of ice per year. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is at 403 ppm and rising. That level of CO2 last appeared 2.5 million years ago, when Earth was warmer by 3 degrees Celsius and sea level was 5 meters higher.
Climate scientist James Hansen warns that climate change may be faster and more severe than previously predicted. Rapidly melting ice could raise the sea level by several meters within 50 to 150 years. Superstorms may be generated by permanent changes in ocean currents.
In a recent paper, Hansen and co-authors warn, “It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.” In a video explaining his conclusions, Hansen warns that his predictions may mean “the loss of all coastal cities, most of the world’s largest cities, and all of their history.”
The human toll of superstorms and flooding coasts is difficult to imagine. The loss in terms of human history when coastal cities are inundated will be incalculable. Cities like New Orleans may be forever lost beneath the tides.
The human dislocations of a warmer, wetter world will be significant. Poor people in developing countries will have difficulty adapting. Environmental refugees will flood our borders, looking for sanctuary. Some argue that Middle Eastern refugees inundating Europe are fleeing drought, as well as political persecution.
Even if we overcome apathy about climate change and avoid the deluge, malice remains a threat. The fragility of civilization was exposed recently when Syrian forces recaptured the ancient town of Palmyra. Hundreds of thousands have been killed in the Syrian war. In Palmyra, ISIS’ sinister ideology turned against the archaeological record.
Statues and reliefs were smashed. Monuments were toppled. The Roman Arch of Triumph was blown up. Torturing and beheading human beings is evil. Iconoclastic attacks on historical artifacts expose a sinister strand of nihilistic extremism.
Somehow all of this is interconnected. The oil economy is part of the history of colonialism and militarism. This has created backlash and religious extremism. Globalization gives us global capitalism, global terrorism and global warming.
Some wise pundits may connect these dots in more detail. But beneath all of this is a flaw in human nature. We are not rational. Nor are we good. We fail to plan for the long term. We succumb to stupid ideologies and get-rich-quick schemes. We singlemindedly pursue our agendas, indifferent to the consequences. Power, profit and political inertia prevent us from doing what is right for each other and for Earth.
The solution is as obvious as our fatal flaw. Education is the cure for the twin diseases of indifference and wickedness. Indeed, education is an act of preservation and conservation. We need to learn more about science, history, politics, religion, art and ethics. We need to criticize greed, hatred and indifference. And we need to understand the fragility of civilization.
It is difficult to imagine civilization crumbling. Our achievements seem permanent. But historical and geological education reminds us that none of this will last forever. Civilizations rise and fall.
If we don’t take care to preserve the accomplishments of civilization, they will fall faster, brought down by stupidity, arrogance and selfishness. Of course, human beings will adapt. Life will go on – albeit in a different form – once ISIS is destroyed and the oceans rise. Our grandchildren will remember New Orleans and Palmyra as lost gems. But they will rightly blame us for failing to protect and preserve what our own ancestors so painstakingly created.