How the Modern Fantasy of an Eternal Civilization Distorts Our Views on Technology

What historians call the Golden Age of Greece—from 500 B.C. to about 300 B.C.—produced the founding works of Western philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Mathematicians like Euclid, whose geometry is still taught in schools today; ancient Greek playwrights, such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, whose plays are still staged today; Architecture so grand that it has been imitated in our time, especially in government buildings; and the practice of democracy, a form of governance that would be eclipsed over 2,000 years, until the American and French Revolutions.

What most people don’t know is that the ancient Greeks who lived through that era didn’t consider themselves to be in a golden age.Instead, they saw their society as a degraded version of a previous heroic age, described in works such as Homer Iliad and Odyssey and Hesiod’s work and life. It is difficult for most people living today to imagine a society whose members believe the future will only bring further degradation and decline until civilization itself disappears. For them, history is a cycle of dark ages and golden ages—a golden age that begins with great vigor and hope and then gradually descends into a dark age that destroys past progress.

Today, most modern people think of time as linear and that history is simply the story of the gradual and now rapid rise of technological, social, political and cultural progress. Since time is linear, the trajectory is always forward and expected to be upward. We humans will never again fall prey to the mistakes of the past that destroyed civilization. Our technology is unparalleled. Humans have freed themselves from the natural limitations previously imposed on them. They may even be living and reproducing on other planets soon. And, when limitations or difficulties seem insurmountable, human ingenuity creates new techniques to overcome those perceived limitations or difficulties.

Whether or not you agree with today’s linear view of permanent progress, this view allows us to create technologies that will impact people thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of years into the future.

Perhaps most important is nuclear technology for military and industrial purposes. If our civilization were to disappear today, who would take care of the nuclear power plants, fuel processing facilities, nuclear waste dumps, cores for warheads, and the myriad facilities that handle nuclear material? Even if said facilities are closed and locked, after a century or two of neglect they will almost certainly degrade to the point of leaking into the environment and polluting the land, water and air.

Alan Weisman’s world without us. Weisman imagines humans suddenly disappearing everywhere to keep everything going. I’m imagining a civilization in decline, with its infrastructure degraded over time due to neglect due to lack of resources and/or people capable of repairing it. This leads to neglected chemical plants and refineries and chemical waste dumps. It leads to poorly maintained biological research facilities that may contain novel viruses that are inert when properly stored (e.g., in cryogenic chambers), but can devastate human and animal populations when released.

With tons of chemical waste being released into the environment every day, we humans have a tough enough time managing said facilities today. Nor has the record of 59 so-called “Level 4” biological research facilities to date boosted confidence. Nuclear power is now touted as the best way to fight climate change and the depletion of fossil fuels. However, any usefulness that rapid construction of nuclear power plants may have for us today could end up being disastrous for generations in the distant future, who must live with the results of this experiment as many of its facilities deteriorate and leak into the environment.

To the many people alive today who have access to the latest technology, this seems like a distant and silly worry. First, if it did happen, it wouldn’t affect the people we live with today. Second, our ever-advancing technology will allow us to deal with any problems before they become big problems. Third — and most important — our technologically advanced civilization will persist for hundreds or even thousands of years into the future. This last statement has to be proven true in order to morally justify the use of these technologies today that would be extremely harmful to humanity without complex energy intensive societies with properly trained specialists to maintain these technologies.

The decline of past civilizations is a regional thing. The world simply wasn’t as connected as it is now. Also, those dying civilizations did not leave behind vast amounts of chemical, biological and nuclear waste and pollutants. As our civilization declines, as Joseph Tainter The breakdown of complex societies, wrote that it will affect the entire planet. That’s because we are now a civilization unified by worldwide communication, transportation, logistics and trade, and increasingly a world culture communicated through film, television, and especially the Internet.

This culture spends a lot of effort convincing us that our way of life will last forever.This often takes the form of science fiction, such as many Star Trek Related films and TV shows portray a button-down future of a space society in which poverty and war have been eradicated — at least within the confines of the fictional Federation of Planets.

When our civilization will decline and what will happen after that are incalculable questions. But regardless, the people of the next era will be severely hampered by all the nuclear, chemical and biological hazards we leave them to deal with because we think our civilization will last forever.

Image: Idealized view of the Temple of Zeus and the Ilyssos River in 1833 after the Liberation of the Acropolis (1833). Drawing by Johann Michael Wittmer via Wikimedia Commons

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