By Roy Scranton.
You can walk to the beach from where we are staying. It’s a long peel of dun-coloured sand bordered by tidy rainbow summer houses, monotonous black and white condos, and monstrous blue McMansions that blister the length of the Delmarva Peninsula. On the other side of the sand lies the heaving, implacable mass of unfathomable grey-green water that covers nearly three-quarters of the globe, once a boundary between the known and unknown, a limit-space of mystery and terror, now tamed, or so we think, to a vacation fun zone. There are life guards, though, lean summer kids with lazy tans, and to the north, rising from the low trees, towers built to defend the American coastline from Nazi subs.
Ten minutes away, the highway connects you to an outlet mall, a supermarket, and a cinema showing the latest superhero movie. We walk back and forth from the beach to the house, brave the cold Atlantic rush and the biting flies, make dinner, put the baby to bed, play a board game, and sink at last into our screens, each of us burrowed into a different dark corner of the living room. Tablet light, phone light, laptop light flicker on our slack, rapt gazes.
Five hundred years ago, the people who lived here did not believe in progress. They did not believe in individual liberty, the autonomous self, the freedom of markets, human rights, the state or the concept of nature as something distinct from culture. They lived for generations without electricity, refrigeration, automobiles, Wi-Fi, on-demand streaming, police, homogenised milk, antibiotics, or The New York Times, and they were almost entirely wiped out in the centuries-long campaign of displacement and genocide that forms the through-line of North American history from 1492 to the end of the Apache Wars in the 1920s.
The paucity of historical evidence and the eradication of native peoples’ culture by European colonisers make it difficult to reconstruct precontact indigenous life in all its detail. What evidence there is, combined with anthropological insights into similarly premodern cultures, strongly suggests that despite having to persevere without the miraculous comforts, devices, and potions upon which we thoughtlessly depend, they almost certainly lived lives at least as meaningful, complex, rich, and joyful as our own.
Indeed, some historians and anthropologists – such as James C. Scott, in his book Against the Grain – argue that life before modernity was better than our own, with more leisure time, fewer diseases and afflictions, and a more robust phenomenological and spiritual engagement with the world around us. True or not, the argument feels right, especially any time I find myself sitting by a campfire after hiking through the woods all day, or hanging out at the beach watching the waves crash.
Then I go back to my habits: the computer at which I write; the gas range, with its reliable, smokeless flame on which I heat my coffee; the flush toilet – indoors! – that carries away all bodily waste; the electric lamp I turn on to read by; the heating and air-conditioning that regulate our house’s microclimate. And I cannot help but feel an abiding sense of relief. I am adapted, whether I like it or not, to a certain built environment, a certain sense of space, a certain social order.
We humans of the Anthropocene Era, inhabitants of a global capitalist civilisation built on fossil fuels, slavery, and genocide, are used to living with the fruits of that civilisation. We are accustomed to walking on concrete in mass-produced shoes. When it rains we go inside or open an umbrella made of nylon, a synthetic polymer first designed in 1930. When we have to travel, we take a train, bus, car, or plane, journeying hundreds of miles in a few hours, at speeds that would have been unimaginable 250 years ago. When it gets hot, we turn on the air-conditioning or go to the beach.
The extended coastal urban areas where about 40 per cent of all humans now live, so blessedly near the sea, including this very beach town from which I write, would have been incomprehensibly strange, even grotesque, to the people who used to live here. Yet we are no different from them in any essential way, only accustomed to a different way of life, a different built environment, a different set of narratives and concepts that shape our sense of reality.
The thing we humans of the Anthropocene share with the Nanticoke and the Unami-speaking Lenape who used to live on the Delmarva Peninsula, and with the !Kung of the Kalahari, the Yukaghir of Siberia, the medieval Persians, the ancient Mayans, the blue-painted Picts, the Neolithic proto-Chinese Peiligang peoples, and the Paleolithic nomads of the Pleistocene Era is precisely our ability to adapt to changing conditions, primarily through the collective use of symbolic reasoning and narrative. Homo sapiens can live almost anywhere on Earth, under almost any conditions; all we need is a story telling us why our lives matter.
In the transition from the Mesozoic to the Cenozoic eras, around 65 million years ago, when the North American continent began to take shape, much of what we call the Eastern Seaboard was under water. No human beings existed then; it would be millions of years before any hominids evolved.
Today, Delmarva’s highest point is barely above sea level, a low hill on the peninsula’s west coast where you can sit and watch Chesapeake Bay slowly rise as Antarctica and Greenland melt, as the planet warms one-tenth of a degree by one-tenth of a degree, and the world to which we have adapted changes into something else. The beach will disappear, the McMansions will fill with water, the lifeguards will age and die and even the towers built to watch for Nazis will crumble and fall.
In some unknown future, on some strange and novel shore, human beings just like us will adapt to a whole new world. You can see them sitting circled around a fire on the beach, the light flickering on their rapt faces, one telling a story about a mighty civilisation doomed by its hubris, an age of wonders long past.
From the 'Being Human' edition of New Philosopher, produced with The New York Times. To join the discussion from February 4-8 about this article on The New York Times Australia Facebook group, click here.