One of the things we haven’t quite understood yet is just what a time of dramatic transformation the 21st century is going to be. For us. And I don’t just mean climate change — but in an even wider frame still.
The 21st century is going to the end of one chapter of humanity’s story — and the beginning, maybe, of another. It is going to be the end of the first chapter of humanity’s story — it’s roiling, joyous, painful birth and adolescence — and, if we are wise, its transition to becoming a mature species. Let me explain what I mean by that.
The 21st century is going to be the first time — ever — that the human species stops increasing, expanding, and growing. The human population is — for the first time in history — projected to finally peak around 2050, for the first time ever, in a hundred thousand years. Let me put all that in perspective, if your response is — “so what?” — I think it is one of the most significant events of all time, and I don’t say that for hyperbole’s sake. So powerful and meaningful that we haven’t even begun to think about it. I think it explains everything from today’s wave of fascism, to climate change — to tomorrow’s urgent, desperate need for better paradigms of everything, from economics to politics to society.
What does the end of the first chapter of human history really mean, say, tell us? It tells us that everything is going to change, and it is going to change radically, my friends.
About 70,000 years ago, a small number of humans — a few clans, a tribe, maybe just a family — left Africa. They expanded across Asia, and upwards through Europe. They walked across Siberia, and reached the Americas. They traveled down the coast, until, at last, they found themselves at the tip of Patagonia. That brings us to about 15,000 years ago.
After that, human beings expanded themselves into “civilizations”, and those civilizations began warring for land, power, for silver and gold, for slaves and servants — for resources, essentially. The winning “civilization” was the West, in the end. The West “explored” the “world”, and “discovered” the “new world” — so the story goes (it’s wrong, as you can see.) Then it proceeded to colonize it, which is to say, enslave it, control it, and dominate it — all in the name of control over its resources, whether Virginian tobacco, Indian cotton, or Jamaican sugar and rum. And that brings us to now.
Up until now — this very moment in history — the human race has been characterized by one single act. The act above. The act of expansion — for more resources, since numbers were always growing, growing, growing. With expansion, came war, slavery, tyranny, hatred. With expansion came violence of every kind. As the Biblical story eerily alludes to: in the exile from the garden is born sin. Whether or not we take it seriously, the story of the human race thus far has been one of a triumphant species, ever expanding, thanks to the easy bounty, the plenitude before it. If my goal is to expand, which is to control more resources, so my people can grow — why shouldn’t I consider you a “resource”, too?
So the human race came to be dominated by a certain attitude, a certain mindset, a certain way. The predatory-exploitative mindset. The idea, which was later formalized in the “racial” theories of Western supremacists, went like this: human beings are the apex predators, sitting atop the globe’s food chains and natural resources. As its apex predators, they had every right to simply plunder, pillage, and loot — to exploit. Without thinking twice — without thinking even once.
The predatory-exploitative mindset, if we’re honest, has been with us for millennia now. Rome lionized it — and practiced it. The Western age of Empires was essentially one great contest for it — to rule the waves and the world, which meant having the most colonies to exploit, the most people and land to prey upon. America came to exemplify it — seizing land, exploiting natives, enslaving Africans, greedily, hungrily. The Nazis, admiring America, took it to grotesque and horrific extremes.
But now this age is finally coming to an end. A bitter, difficult, inevitable end. The human race is at the end of this chapter in its history. The cycle of predatory expansion and exploitation has come to an end. There is nowhere left to colonize, and nothing left to exploit. Hence, the human population is going to peak, for the first time ever, in a hundred thousand years — in just a few decades.
Now do you see how momentous the times are that we are living through? Let me try to explain now why they’re so turbulent. If you understand by now that the first chapter of humanity’s story was about expansion, violence, over the resources an expanding species needs to grow — then it should be easy to understand why this age is so difficult and troubled.
This age is the climax of humanity’s first chapter. We often imagine growth as an “S” shaped curve, a sigmoid curve. But that isn’t true for human beings. Growth is something more like an exponential curve, a curve forever rising into infinity, until it goes parallel to the ground. Now imagine two such curves meeting — forming not an arch, but the shape of a minaret. That’s now. What does that curve say? It says that more people are competing for dwindling resources — than ever before, by a very, very long way. A thousand years ago, maybe it was seven million people competing for the plentiful resources of seven continents. Today, it’s seven billion, competing for the burned-out husks of the very same. Do you see the problem now?
Because this century is the culmination of the expansionist chapter of human history, it’s exploding into fascism. Into violence. Into stagnation, into poverty amidst plenty, into rage and despair. That’s a natural consequence of the central paradigm — the predatory-exploitative mindset. This mindset was always going to reach its limits — and when it did, the only thing human beings would have left to prey on would be themselves — their very own societies, democracies, cities, towns, rivers, lakes, children, lives.
That, my friends, is where we are now. At the end of the first chapter of human history. And we are bewildered, baffled, paralyzed — or lashing out in rage and fear — because while our paradigm has hit its limits, we know no other way. Because while we’ve reached the end of the first chapter — we don’t know how to write the second. We don’t even know how to pick up the pen. Turn the page. I’d feel afraid, anxious, and angry, too.
When a species stops expanding, we can say that it has matured. It has reached its limits. That is what the 21st century is to humanity. It is the time that maturity is upon us. The question is whether we are gong to understand this. If we don’t, we keep on trying to employ a predatory-exploitative mindset, in a world, a time, a place, a stage in our own evolution, when we should be transcending it. The result? Our very own demise. Not absolute, as in the end of the human race — but a plunge back into Dark Ages, where fractured tribes war each other, and slowly, slowly, the population, civilization, and modernity all decay and atrophy and rot away. That’s a kind of death, too, isn’t it? It’s the death of a species which never matured. Which remained in a larval stage, so to speak.
(Now let me address the idea — “but we’ll go to Mars!!” Sure, we will. We should. It will be a noble and wonderful day when we tiny things finally break our earthly bonds. But we can’t go to Mars and use the predatory-exploitative mindset. It would be futile. What would be the point? There’s no low-hanging fruit there to pick off. We can exploit the resources of other places, like whole planets, to make billionaires kings, sure — but that’s not progress. It’s not even stasis. It’s regress. So this isn’t writing the next chapter in human history — unless when we go to Mars, we do so in new forms of political economy and society which are radically more just, positive, fair, and beneficial to all — it’s just reading the first chapter, backwards.)
We have two choices at this juncture in human history, my friends. We understand our own story, for the first time, at last — so that we can write its next chapter. So that we can pick up the pen. Turn the page. And we begin to evolve — to mature. A mature species does not collapse its own societies and burn down its own home. A mature species does not eat its own young, or sacrifice them to imaginary gods, whether those on Olympus or those of the “markets”. A mature species is a wise, courageous, and gentle thing, with dignity, justice, truth, and plenitude for all.
If we make this choice, we begin to write the next chapter of human history. We transform, from the larva of a predatory-exploitative species, to the butterfly of a beneficent-constructive one. A species that is something more like the guardian and protector of all things noble, good, and beautiful — whether democracy, dignity, truth, justice, or life itself.
Or we read the first chapter of human history, backwards. We repeat the story of being an exploitative-predatory species — just in reverse. We begin with fascism and genocide — and we end up right back living in caves, hunting with spears, and chanting frightened prayers by firelight to vengeful gods. I’d say that so far, we’re on this path, wouldn’t you?
It’s going to take us a time to understand the message of this century — its power, its might, its meaning. That we have to turn the page now. In the most dramatic and fundamental ways imaginable. We literally have to chart a new path for our species — one that’s never been walked before, because we’ve never had to chart the frontiers of maturity.
It’s not going to happen overnight. The above was pretty challenging to read, to take in, to really grapple with, I’d bet. I’d say it’s about time we begin then, wouldn’t you? Because the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher.
See that picture above? That’s Homo Erectus. He didn’t make it. Will we?