Queen Maud Land, Antarctica. Photo © Jon Krakauer

Embrace the Misery

The world is going to hell. But that’s no reason to get your panties in a wad.

You are by nature an optimist, a happy idiot. No personal disaster or run of bad luck has ever shaken your faith that the march of time brings progress. You believe the wicked eventually get their due. You’re confident that truth will come to light. You’ve never doubted that a hundred years hence, the world will be a better place.

Until lately. Lately you’ve found yourself wondering if the end of civilization might be at hand, and you are not alone in your apprehension. Pessimism drifts in the air like a virulent pathogen, infecting multitudes. The media deliver daily reports of contemptible politicians and enraged mobs, religious fanatics and failed states, widespread unemployment and ecological catastrophe. A friend has been goading you to buy a gun and plenty of ammunition “before it’s too late.” (He owns more than thirty weapons himself: shotguns, hunting rifles, semi-automatic assault rifles, and an astonishing variety of handguns.) However you parse it, the future looks increasingly grim and Malthusian.

What happened? How did this collective despair displace the easy confidence of recent memory?

The technological miracles of our enlightened age were supposed to banish ignorance and alleviate human suffering. It was only a few decades ago that the Berlin Wall came down, prompting Francis Fukuyama to announce the triumph of Western ideals over the forces of tyranny, and proclaim that war had become obsolete.

“What we may be witnessing,” Fukuyama famously gushed, “is not just the end of the Cold War… but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution.”

What happened, say Fukuyama’s detractors, is that his giddy post-historical prophecy failed to account for the second law of thermodynamics—the scientific principle that explains why an ice cube melts when placed in hot espresso, and why you can remember the past but can’t foresee the future. Reduced to its essence, the second law ordains that entropy increases over time. Or, to put it another way, deterioration, disarray, and disintegration are written into the cosmic bargain. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Progress inevitably leads to annihilation. It’s the supreme paradox.

In the Khumbu Icefall on Mt. Everest, 1996. Photo © Jon Krakauer

According to the second law of thermodynamics, the earth is destined to become a frozen wasteland, devoid of life—an outcome that’s beyond dispute.

The end of the world isn’t slated to occur any time soon, however. Although the entropy of the cosmos is irreversibly on the rise, the entropy of its constituent systems fluctuates up and down at varying rates. Incongruously, disorder retreats in some provinces of the firmament even as it relentlessly advances in aggregate.

Rain occasionally falls on the Sahara. Mothers give birth amid the devastation of earthquakes and war zones. Empires rise, fall, and are superseded by new empires. The second law of thermodynamics decrees that ice cubes will melt in your espresso, but the freezer in your kitchen will create new ice cubes as long as it’s drawing energy from an outside source (thereby boosting the entropy in some other corner of existence). The second law of thermodynamics, in other words, does not stipulate a nonstop slide into the abyss. The ride down is likely to be unhurried, and interrupted by any number of uplifting diversions. The final unsparing destination probably won’t be reached until long after your charmed life has run its course.

Which doesn’t mean your current angst should be dismissed as unwarranted paranoia.

Most people in your privileged Western milieu have spent their entire lives inside a bubble of peace and prosperity, but to believe “la dolce vita” will continue forever is delusional. Sooner or later the party always ends.

Every great civilization since antiquity has gone into decline, and you can’t really pin the blame on entropy. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the second law of thermodynamics, but in ourselves.

Mark Twight on the Eiger Nordwand, 1984. Photo © Jon Krakauer

Ordinary human behavior has proven to be more than sufficient impetus for war, economic collapse, and myriad other far-reaching calamities. Accordingly, nobody should be surprised if one of history’s recurring periods of adversity turns out to be coming in for a landing, and it would be naïve to presume that such a downturn, whenever it arrives, will be brief. The era christened the “Dark Age” by Francesco Petrarch afflicted Europe from the Fall of Rome until the Renaissance, a span of some nine hundred years. For all anyone knows, we might be witnessing the onset of a similarly protracted spell of gloom.

Predicting the future is a fool’s errand, of course. But whatever lies ahead, you can take some comfort in the weedy resilience of our species. If the world is in fact teetering on the brink of a new Dark Age, Homo sapiens will not lack strategies for coping. Many people, for instance, turn to religion during difficult times—although personally, you happen to find literature more effective than scripture. When prospects grow dire, you derive courage and reassurance from writers as disparate as Thucydides, Walter Bonatti, Annie Proulx, and Cormac McCarthy. If the going gets especially tough, you consult Albert Camus.

In his book-length essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus re-interprets the legend of the eponymous protagonist, for whom the gods concoct an infernal torture: Sisyphus must push an immense rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it tumble back to the depths of hell every time he approaches the summit, compelling him to return to the bottom and roll the rock uphill again. And again. And again. The gods, Camus explains, are convinced there is “no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” Each time Sisyphus trudges down to roll the rock back up the slope, his “boundless grief is too heavy to bear.”

The author near the summit of Denali in 2013. Photo © KT Miller

Be that as it may, when Sisyphus manages to wrap his mind around the inescapability of his predicament, and takes responsibility for it, he is liberated from his torment. He thereby subverts the twisted pleasure that the gods derive from inflicting “futile sufferings,” and makes himself master of his own destiny, even as he continues to push the boulder up the mountain for eternity.

Sisyphus determines that “all is well,” despite the ceaseless misery he must endure. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” Camus observes. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

As a gray-haired alpinista, you’ve spent more than half a century struggling on high escarpments, inventing purpose out of hardship, and conjuring meaning from otherwise senseless acts. For Sisyphus to be contented as he toils beneath his rock doesn’t strike you as far-fetched.

But when you contemplate the uncertain future, and the Sisyphean tribulations it’s apt to impose, actual joy seems a little too much to hope for.

All things considered, you’d settle for stoical resolve.

This essay, originally titled “The Sisyphean Paradox,” was presented at La Milanesiana, an Italian festival of culture and philosophy, in July 2010.