The Story of Decline

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Below is a chapter from my upcoming book Humanity Is Beautiful: A New Story For A World On Fire. Paying members can follow along and watch the book emerge and evolve as I write it. View the Table of Contents of this “living draft” here.

The world is on fire. Humanity is a disease infecting the Earth and all its creatures. There is something fundamentally wrong with the world today. There is something fundamentally wrong with us.

For many of us, these statements appear to be self-evident facts. “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” we say. “We’re not pessimists; we’re realists,” we claim.

Whether right or wrong, pessimistic or realistic, these are not facts. They are memes we’ve developed to make sense of the world around us. Together, they form a story that we as a society tell ourselves about ourselves. It’s one of many stories humanity tells itself about itself. That doesn’t mean they are wrong. It just means they are necessary simplifications of the vast complexity all around us.

This story in particular, one that has become increasingly pervasive over the last several decades, tells us that things were once good, but now they are bad and getting worse.

We might call this common narrative about humanity The Story of Decline. It has many different permutations and variations. And it is told by a wide range of humans with wildly different values, worldviews, and objectives. One common version goes something like this:

For eons, the creatures of Earth existed in harmony. No creature took more than its share. The planet was a wondrous place teeming with life, each creature more fascinating and beautiful than the last.

One day, a new creature endowed with incredible intellectual capacities emerged. At first, these humans were part of the planet’s incredible circle of life. They were one with the planet. But their powerful minds corrupted them. They misinterpreted their superior mental capacities as wisdom, their intellectual superiority as moral superiority. They believed that Earth existed solely for their own benefit.

They began to pillage everything around them. Their appetites were insatiable. They continued on until they had dominated the entire planet. They grew less and less conscious, more and more separate and disconnected from the natural way of things, filling their time with material possessions, power games, and senseless distractions. They built ever more complex and ingenious contraptions, but inside they only grew more hollow, more inane, more corrupt.

Now, because of their greed and lack of wisdom, they are on the brink of destroying themselves and everything around them.

Another version swaps out overconsumption and ecological destruction with technological complexity. This version of the story sees us developing ever more complex technology until it either destroys us (e.g., nuclear weapons) or replaces us (e.g. artificial intelligence). Another iteration replaces us being fundamentally separate from other life on Earth with us being separate from past generations of humans. It would have us look at the America of yesteryear and find today’s generation lacking (“Make America Great Again”). Or it would look at modern society starting with the adventure of agriculture millennia ago and find us lacking in comparison to the early peoples who knew how to truly respect and live in harmony with the Earth.

These are all very different stories with different focuses. But they share the same core story arc: We are in decline. We are a fraction of our former selves. We are destroying ourselves. We are evermore disconnected from the true, natural way of being. The only way forward is to finally accept how truly ugly, reckless, and depraved we have become and to return to how we were before when we were wise, good, and whole.

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