There is a very different story [than that in Jared Diamond's Collapse] that can be told about human history, one that embraces our agency, and that is the story of constant human overcoming. Whereas the tragic story imagines that humans have fallen, the narrative of overcoming imagines that we have risen.
Consider how much our ancestors – human and nonhuman – overcame for us to become what we are today. For beginners, they were prey. Given how quickly and efficiently humans are driving the extinction of nonhuman animal species, the notion that our ancestors were food seems preposterous. And yet, understanding that we evolved from being prey goes a long way toward understanding some of the feelings and motivations that drive us into suicidal wars and equally suicidal ecological collapses.
Against the happy accounts of harmonious premodern human societies at one with Nature, there is the reality that life was exceedingly short and difficult. Of course, life could also be wonderful and joyous. But it was hunger not obesity, oppression not depression, and violence not loneliness that were primary concerns.
Just as the past offers plenty of stories of humankind's failure, it also offers plenty of stories of human overcoming. Indeed, we can only speak of past collapses because we have survived them. There are billions more people on earth than there were when the tiny societies of the Anasazi in the American Southwest and the Norse in Greenland collapsed in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, respectively. That there are nearly seven billion of us alive today is a sign of our success, not failure.
Perhaps the most powerful indictment of environmentalism is that environmentalists so often consider our long life spans and large numbers terrible tragedies rather than extraordinary achievements. The narrative of overpopulation voiced almost entirely by some of the richest humans ever to roam the earth is utterly lacking in gratitude for the astonishing labors of our ancestors.
Of course, none of this is to say that human civilizations won't collapse again in the future. They almost certainly will. Indeed, some already are collapsing. But to focus on these collapses is to miss the larger picture of rising prosperity and longer life spans. Not only have we survived, we've thrived. Today more and more of us are "free at last" – free to say what we want to say, love whom we want to love, and live within a far larger universe of possibilities than any other generation of humans on earth.
At the very moment that we humans are close to overcoming hunger and ancient diseases like polio and malaria, we face ecological crises of our own making, ones that could trigger drought, hunger, and the resurgence of ancient diseases.
The narrative of overcoming helps us to imagine and thus create a brighter future. Human societies will continue to stumble. Many will fall. But we have overcome starvation, disease, deprivation, oppression, and war. We can overcome ecological crises.
07 April 2008
Narratives of the Rise vs. Narratives of the Fall
From: Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, by Ted Nordhaus & Michael Shellenberger (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), pp. 150-151: