While The Waters Will Come is a mind-blowing and necessary read on many levels, one of the key insights for me was only tangentially related to the author’s key point. It was about the time spans humanity has experienced and the implications of shortening cycles of change.
First, some context. Jeff Goodell makes the case that climate change is a fact, and the waters will rise. It’s not a matter of if they’ll rise, but rather how much and how fast they’ll rise. To make the case, Goodell does a nice job of describing the geologic cycles that have driven sea levels throughout earth’s history. Specifically:
One hundred and twenty thousand years ago, during the last interglacial period, when the temperature of the Earth was very much like it is today, sea levels were twenty to thirty feet higher. Then, twenty thousand years ago, during the peak of the last ice age, sea levels were four hundred feet lower.
One of the mind blowing stories Goodell shares is about the Yidinji, one of the aboriginal people of northern Australia. Goodell describes how a linguist, Nicholas Reid, was fascinated by something he had read about Yidinji myths in a book: “It is, however, worth noting that a theme running through all the coastal Yidinji myths is that the coastline was once where the barrier reef now stands, but the sea then rose and the shore retreated to its current position.”
Aboriginal tribes have existed in the area for around 65,000 years, and, in fact, about 10,000 years ago, the sea levels were just about where the myths indicate. Reid teamed up with a marine geologist, Patrick Nunn, to systematically document the myths and attempt to tie them to actual geological data. Their goal was to validate the myths, which they did—an amazing accomplishment.
As Reid described to Goodell:
If you are talking about ten thousand years, you are really talking about three hundred to four hundred generations. The idea that you can transmit anything over four hundred generations is extraordinary.
Also interesting is how the Yidinji ensured the stories remained accurate:
…Reid believes a key feature of Australian Aboriginal storytelling culture—a “cross-generational cross-checking” process—could explain the stories’ endurance through the millennia. In this process, a father will pass down the story to his sons—and the son’s nephews and nieces will be responsible for ensuring that their uncle knows those stories correctly.
I found myself thinking about this a lot—a group of people telling stories for three hundred to four hundred generations. Think about it: three hundred to four hundred cycles of parent-child living their lives in largely similar environments, doing largely the same things their ancestors had done, and telling stories that remained largely the same.
I contrast this with the environment we live in today. The world I live in is so dramatically different than the one my parents lived in when they were teens in Pakistan in the 1960s and even when they were in their twenties as young immigrants to the US in the 1970s. And both of those environments were quite different than those their parents and grandparents experienced in the early 1900s and late 1800s of India.
I once read that the high rate of teen death due to automobile accidents was due to the fact that teenagers have the physical ability to drive but not the necessary judgment. The teenage brain is literally not developed enough to assess risk properly. Humanity as a whole seems to be behaving like an adolescent. Our capabilities have exceeded our ability to develop the necessary judgment and wisdom to handle those capabilities properly. We tend to think of things in one generation because that’s what any one of us experience. But what if we, in fact, need many generations to develop the wisdom and judgment necessary to handle our advancements?
While it may seem like the question is largely focused on technology change, it’s not. Consider that we live in ways that are dramatically different than we’ve lived in the past. Our social structures are relatively new. We live in much smaller family units and operate much more as individuals than we ever have in the past, certainly in the modern western world. From the perspective of the time frames above—10,000 years, 300 to 400 generations—we’ve only just started this new mode of living.
As I considered this dynamic, I recalled this chart I had seen once in passing and yet found myself thinking about a lot:
The chart has a long title but can be summarized as “Deaths of Despair by Birth Cohort,” and it’s taken from a Brooking Institution paper, “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century” by Anne Case and Angus Deaton. In short, what it’s saying is that Americans are killing themselves with drugs, alcohol, and suicide at dramatically higher rates and at younger ages than they have in the past.
Andrew Sullivan reflected on this in his poignant article about the opioid crisis, “The Poison We Pick” (emphasis mine):
More than 2 million Americans are now hooked on some kind of opioid, and drug overdoses — from heroin and fentanyl in particular — claimed more American lives last year than were lost in the entire Vietnam War. Overdose deaths are higher than in the peak year of AIDS and far higher than fatalities from car crashes. The poppy, through its many offshoots, has now been responsible for a decline in life spans in America for two years in a row, a decline that isn’t happening in any other developed nation. According to the best estimates, opioids will kill another 52,000 Americans this year alone — and up to half a million in the next decade.
We look at this number and have become almost numb to it. But of all the many social indicators flashing red in contemporary America, this is surely the brightest. Most of the ways we come to terms with this wave of mass death — by casting the pharmaceutical companies as the villains, or doctors as enablers, or blaming the Obama or Trump administrations or our policies of drug prohibition or our own collapse in morality and self-control or the economic stress the country is enduring — miss a deeper American story. It is a story of pain and the search for an end to it. It is a story of how the most ancient painkiller known to humanity has emerged to numb the agonies of the world’s most highly evolved liberal democracy. Just as LSD helps explain the 1960s, cocaine the 1980s, and crack the 1990s, so opium defines this new era. I say era, because this trend will, in all probability, last a very long time. The scale and darkness of this phenomenon is a sign of a civilization in a more acute crisis than we knew, a nation overwhelmed by a warp-speed, postindustrial world, a culture yearning to give up, indifferent to life and death, enraptured by withdrawal and nothingness. America, having pioneered the modern way of life, is now in the midst of trying to escape it.
Our society has changed a lot in the past couple generations, and clearly something isn’t working.