“Lord, Let me know mine end and the number of my days.” — Psalm 39Around 2,000 years ago the Moche people built a society that incorporated the first real state structure in South America. It lasted more than 800 years - roughly from the time of the expansion of Rome (around 200 BCE) to the Islamic conquests (around 650 CE). Near what is today the Peruvian city of Trujillo, they built a city with streets, canals, plazas and industrial areas any contemporary Roman town would have been proud of.
They left no written record, so we can’t know why suddenly in the 7th century, after significant decline, they disappeared. Best bet is climate change.
The exquisite small ceramic sculpture of a warrior/god found among their ruins (pictured) suggests that, as resources became scarce, their previously productive world splintered in desperate competition for diminishing assets. (Source: “History of the World in 100 Objects.”)
Tony Judt, perhaps the keenest observer of our post-war world, was diagnosed with ALS in 2008 causing him to accelerate his work. He wrote three books before his death in 2010, the last – “Thinking The 20th Century” (with Timothy Snyder, after Judt was totally paralyzed and on a ventilator), is just now coming out.
Judt describes what he calls a very different agenda for our species than any we have ever taken on. Instead of bending our considerable intellect toward ever more dazzling technology to add luster to our lives, we will find our best efforts required to keep us from declining into the disaster and extinction that inevitably collapses every overloaded system.
Yesterday I listened to a TED talk, “The Earth Is Full,” by Paul Gilding (
that describes our world in terms eerily like those ascribed to the Moche people in their decline.
Neither Judt nor Gilding doubts that we will do what is required. The question is whether we will begin to wean ourselves from our self-defeating excesses before the collapse causes us to turn on each other like starving rats.
Through no virtue of my own, I have lived a paradoxically simple life the past 16 years. (Well, as simple as a bi-coastal existence can be). No TV in our Vermont farmhouse, on foot in southern California. Because I stumbled into ample resources that sustain me, I need neither iPhone, iPad, nor necktie. And I have never seen “Dancing With The Stars.”
I have no illusions that living a life of such simple elegance demands unsustainable resources.
Yet I have discovered — rather more happily at 71 than when I began, uneasily, at 56 — not merely the ability to forego wonders we so quickly come to consider necessities, but the unexpected delight in the space left vacant.
A common lament among my friends is that our children look unlikely to enjoy a more sumptuous life than we have.
I am not prophet enough to imagine how my grandchildren will live and work, but it may be that they will come to understand their need to curb the lust they saw driving us, not as curse, but blessing.