It's not that I like to worry. I'm just very good at it. It's genetic. I come from a long line of semi-professional worriers.
I realized that a few years ago while at a retrospective on my grandfather's artwork. Smack-dab in the middle of his usual heart-of-darkness African jungle scenes was a painting I'd never before seen.
I later described the work, depicting the advancement and application of technology to the battlefield, as kind of a poor-man's Guernica. But what caught my attention wasn't really the painting itself, it was the descriptive note attached to it by the show's curator.
In the note, the curator explained that my grandfather (who I knew only when I was quite young) had always viewed progress if not in a negative light then at least with a jaundiced eye. The double-edged sword of technologic progression: the fact that our industry and science had made it possible to kill more with less. Less effort, less attachment, and less money.
My grandfather was a veteran of the first World War. I'm guessing he took that painting right out of the trenches.
It was a revelation for me though because it allowed me to see my own pessimism as more than just crank, but something developed probably over generations. Something that had become a genetic survival trait. Or, as my father used to say, when asked what he wanted for an epitaph: "I told you I was sick."
I don't like to worry, but I can't help myself. On the other hand, I do like history. I think it's because I'm so worried about the future that I look to the past for solace. I like old things.
I like to think what it would mean if I could go back to the people who made the old things I like and say, "I'm from the future and from now until at least where I just came from, things are okay."
A window to the past
I live in an old house. As anyone who husbands something of age knows, it's essentially a daily tilt at the windmill of entropy. Things fall apart, the center does not hold. You're always cutting back some rot there, or replacing something here.
And, as you're cutting and replacing, you inevitably open up a lot of holes through which you can see the past. The way a wall is framed, the horsehair in the plaster, the workmanship on the nails used to fasten a soffit.
All of those things were done when this thing was made. What was it like back then?
In the case of my house, when they were making the nails and processing the horses, the world hadn't yet seen one world war, much less two. Our nation hadn't even had its own civil war. As my house was built, the machine gun was 40 years in the future and peak oil meant the ocean emptied of whales.
The house bridges the history of the people who built it to today. It remembers health without penicillin, where even the smallest infection was often fatal. It knew a place without railroads, much less cars and airplanes. It lived in a county so dry that the only way to drink was to capture the rain. It existed when the entire world had less people than China, alone, has now.
Yet all of that was only two human lifetimes ago. That's all it takes to get us back before the bomb, before the wars, before pavement, electricity and oil.
And to the future
If the past isn't that far away, then what of the future? Because it's just in my nature to do so, I've been thumbing my old copy of the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth — first published in 1973.
Limits' authors used a computer model to extrapolate into the future, to the beginning of the 22nd century, the trends in growth evident at the end of the 20th century.
That is, they looked about as far away into the future as one can look into the past with this house.
They extrapolated the exponential growth in resource consumption, demanded by the exponential growth of the human population and the exponential growth of capital that that population demanded as an entitlement.
They extrapolated the exponential growth in entropy as a result of that resource consumption and the form that entropy had to take: the filling of sinks — a fancy word ecologists use when they're talking about pollution.
They extrapolated to 10 billion people and a world that couldn't feed them, much less absorb their shit.
So far, the predictions of Limits, predictions that we can now test against the past 35 years, are holding remarkably well. One of Limits' original authors, Dennis Meadows, observed this summer that, from the collapse of the ocean's fisheries through water scarcity to climate warming, almost all of his predictions have so far come true.
And, he said, "Global society will most likely adjust to limits by overshoot and collapse, not by growth."
I sure wish someone would come from the 22nd century and say things are "okay."
Gregory Travis can be reached at email@example.com.