The Road Not Taken

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
– Ozymandias by John Keats

I suppose that, like the Egyptian pharaoh Ozymandias, who is probably better known to most people as Ramesses II, the members of most civilizations have assumed, at the apogee of their power, that their particular civilization would last forever. There is a collective delusion that arises from living in a populous and powerful society, for this can give rise to the belief that, even though its individual members will all die eventually, the whole or society to which they belong will live on indefinitely, while growing in strength, numbers, knowledge, power, size, influence, or dominion. In this manner, the immortality that many human beings so earnestly seek for themselves and those they care about is projected onto the collective entity of which they form a tiny part.

However, the members of all civilizations seem incapable of learning from the mistakes of previous civilizations which grew mighty and then succumbed to their own arrogance, specifically the belief that their way of life was the best of all ways, and therefore could not disappear. Similarly, many young people fail to recognize their own mortality even though they are regularly confronted with the evidence of the mortality of other people and other organisms. We irrational human beings believe that somehow we, as well as the cherished society of which we form a part, will be exempted from the death, decay, and demise that await all living creatures and their creations. Because the future is not yet written and set in the immutable manner in which the events of the past are set, we can project whatever cherished beliefs, notions, hopes, visions, expectations, and fantasies we like onto this seemingly blank canvas.

But the canvas of the future is not as blank as many people believe it is, in particular those who believe devoutly in the unlimited powers of science, medicine, and technology. For those persons who are able to discern them, there are many traces, outlines, and figures which are visible in this canvas – dim figures that, if only all people could see them, would dismay, disconcert, alarm, and terrify many of them.

There are many people living today who believe that there exists a scientific or technological solution for every problem we face, and that, moreover, these hi-tech solutions will necessarily be better than a no-tech or low-tech solution. But what these credulous simpletons fail to realize is that it is this very same technology that has caused or created many of the most pressing problems, whose alarming effects are increasingly visible all over the world, and which we must resolve if our species is to survive.

The truth is that, collectively, humanity is still stuck in the stage of adolescence. Convinced of our collective immortality, while we delight in, and are made arrogant by, our growing strength, just like overconfident adolescents, we do whatever we feel like doing because we naively believe that there is nothing that can harm us and no problem that we cannot solve. We are a very long way from achieving the wisdom of maturity, a wisdom that is very different from – and in many ways is contrary to – the supercilious knowledge of science, the lying and flattering companion of the adolescent that we are presently behaving like, pretending that it knows all when in reality it knows little, and does not even know the extent of its great ignorance.

Whether we realize it or not, humanity is now faced with a critical choice, and how we collectively make this choice will determine, not just the fate of a great many other species on the Earth, whose magnificent variety and vitality we did not have any hand in creating, but which we are recklessly destroying by our wanton and extremely selfish actions, but our own survival. If we choose wrongly, which we will do by simply continuing on the path that began with the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, then we will consign our progeny to the eternal oblivion of extinction. And this, in verity, is the only just and logical outcome, for truly it would be the greatest of injustices and the height of perverseness – an outcome that would mock the very notion of justice – if, after having caused so much havoc and devastation to all the other living creatures on this planet, we, the destroyers and decimators, the bringers of the calamities of wanton death and destruction, and the greatest monsters of oppression which this planet has ever known, should be allowed to survive the many ravages that have been caused by our folly.

There are only two paths open to human beings: either we continue on the path of science, technology, and assumed superiority over Nature, which path will lead to our destruction, or we can be more humble and take the path of living in harmony with, and respect for, Nature. It is only the second of these two paths that will enable our descendants to survive in the long term, for hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of years, instead of for mere centuries. For this is the only way that we can avoid the ignominious fate that befell the once-mighty Ozymandias, as well as every other vainglorious ruler and civilization of the past, whose members mistakenly believed that their particular civilization was invincible, and therefore immortal.