There was widespread devastation and death on a scale never experienced before. Major cities were destroyed, diplomatic and trade relations severed, whole civilizations fell…
The events narrate the near-sudden collapse of the world’s great civilizations of the Bronze Age (3000–1177 BCE) which plunged humanity into its first Dark Age.
A concatenation of events, both human and natural — including climate change and drought, seismic disasters known as earthquake storms, internal rebellions, and systems collapse — coalesced to create a perfect storm of calamities that brought this age to an end. — Eric H. Cline, ‘1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed’
The parallels between this historical event and the modern-day are striking. Now, as then, the world is intimately linked through global trade, travel and diplomacy, and the downfall of one nation affects the fortunes of every other. As Cline notes, “in a complex system such as our world today, [a tipping point] is all it might take for the overall system to become destabilized, leading to collapse”
We have now reached modern history’s first tipping point — a Black Swan event.
It is likely that once the worst of the pandemic is over, the world will gradually get back on its feet, bruised and battered, ready for the next round. But the blows will keep coming and growing ever more powerful. “The international COVID-19 pandemic is many things,” writes astrophysicist Adam Frank in the online journal ‘Think,’ “but its impact may be fostering a recognition that [the] machine of civilization is a lot more fragile than we thought. And that is why, in the long term, the coronavirus will one day be seen as a fire drill.”
The eerie similarity between the events which led to the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations and the state of our world today are worth repeating: climate change, natural catastrophes, growing social stratification and inequality, class warfare, over-dependence on global trade, and the migration of large populations displaced by poverty and conflict.
Ignorance is lack of knowledge. Failing to act on knowledge is lack of wisdom. And those who do not learn from history, warned philosopher George Santayana, are condemned to repeat it.
You don’t have to be a genius to realize that continuing with business as usual once the pandemic ends could well plunge the world into the next dark age. The only thing that might prevent it, I believe, is a substantive shift in human consciousness. Post Covid-19, our priorities, our values, the way we think, consume, invest, vote, educate our young, and interact with other groups and the natural world will determine our future.
Luckily, we don’t have to reinvent the entire wheel.
Amid humanity’s first dark age, a series of guiding lights began to flash. Around 800 BCE, with no obvious cultural contact with each other, the world witnessed the emergence of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and the rational philosophies of ancient Greece. Like navigational stars showing us the way out of darkness, these new stories spoke about balance and temperance, about compassion and nonviolence, about tolerance and acceptance, and reason over ignorance. In short, about living right. Known as the Axial Age, it was “one of the most seminal periods of intellectual, psychological, and philosophical change in recorded history,” notes scholar Karen Armstrong in ‘The Great Transformation.’
The transformation, in other words, begins from within. It starts with each one of us.
“The Axial sages,” says Armstrong, “were not interested in providing their disciples with a little edifying uplift after which they could return, with renewed vigor, to their ordinary self-centered lives. Their objective was to create an entirely different kind of human being.”
From the look of it, it is clear that the bulk of humanity chose to ignore their wisdom. The Black Swan event of 2020, much like the shock therapy used to treat manic disorders, might make us think twice about burying our heads in the sand once again.
A self-centered person is one who is willfully ignorant and callous about the consequences of his actions on the rest of the world. So long as his ego and status are propped up, his insecurities temporarily assuaged, and his addictions satisfied, the rest of the world and the planet can pretty much go fuck themselves.
My cell phone, for instance, contains about 62 different types of metals. But had I ever bothered to find out where these metals come from, how they’re mined, and the impact their extraction is having on the people who mine them and their environment? Not at all. Not until the Black Swan shocked me. I’ve since learned that the tin used as a solder in our phones’ circuit boards has all but destroyed the paradisiacal island of Bangka where excessive tin mining has dramatically changed the natural landscape, leaving acidic craters in place of lush forests, and making clean drinking water harder to come by.
A self-centered person is one who doesn’t think twice about drinking an elixir made from a tiger’s carcass left to rot for years in a vat of rice wine just to ease his sexual insecurities.
“The tiger wine is good for men,” says a Chinese businessman, grinning maniacally and flexing his arms like a bodybuilder. “It makes a man strong in the bedroom.” — Extract from Hereward Holland’s National Geographic report: ‘China’s Expanding Middle Class Fuels Poaching, Decadence in Myanmar’
Never mind the tiger and its almost certain extinction. The possibility of infecting the rest of the world with a deadly virus from the consumption of wild animals never occurs to a self-centered individual.
Today, an eight-year bottle of tiger wine will set you back $290. The Samsung Galaxy S20 5G: $1600. A pair of Buscemi Diamond Sneakers: $135,000.
A self-centered existence at any expense — human and ecological — was precisely what the sages of the Axial Age were trying to warn us about.
Perhaps the most obvious change during the Bronze Age was the rise of the privileged. It is hard to think of this process in terms other than those of aggrandizement of the few. — J. M. Coles & A. F. Harding : The Bronze Age in Europe
I can think of no better symbol for the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations than the vast deposits of crushed shells from the mollusk bolinus brandaris found on the coasts of Sidon and Tyre in Lebanon. Driven to near extinction in ancient Phoenicia, these medium sized sea snails were used to extract the purple dye used to color the garments of the elite. According to historian B. Caseau, 10,000 snails were needed to produce one gram of dyestuff worth more than its weight in gold. Tyrian purple became a status symbol representing power, prestige and wealth.
Yesterday’s sea snails are but today’s sea cucumbers, now being driven to extinction to boost the weak sexual libido and indulge the palate of the wealthy few.
Amid collapsing economies, mass layoffs and mass burials around the world, the insights of the sages of the Axial Age are more relevant than ever:
The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less. — Socrates
Suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire. — Buddha’s second truth
Desires unsettle the heart. — Chuang-Tzu
Nothing in excess — Confucius’ Golden Mean
Racing, chasing, hunting, drives people crazy. Trying to get rich ties people in knots. The wise soul watches with the inner eye not the outward. — Lao Tzu
Covid-19 has placed a deathly pause on humanity’s intemperate, unbalanced and frenzied existence. “We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles — but nobody knows where we are going,” says author Yuval Harari in ‘Sapiens.’
The collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations tells us exactly where we’re headed.
It seems wise, then, to use this period of isolation to detoxify ourselves from our addictions which are placing inordinate strains, not just on the environment and its life-sustaining systems, but on our physical and mental well-being.
This is not a fanciful call to asceticism. I’m not suggesting we all wear saffron robes and roam our neighborhoods carrying begging bowls once allowed back out. But neither do we need purple robes and diamond-studded sneakers. My call is for judicious consumption. For balance and temperance. To slow our pace, reorder our priorities, and, critically, to allow this shocking period of collective suffering to crack open our hearts, thereon extending our concern beyond the center of our own existence to encompass, both our planet, and the lives of the less fortunate whose future has been further blighted by the Black Swan of 2020.