If you want something to stick in my head, make it a story. Narratives and novels have always had a far greater impact on me. Characters and plotlines moor facts to the ridges of my brain better.
The Baroque Series by Neal Stephenson is prime in this regard. Never has a novel filled in the gaps of knowledge in my brain quite so well-- unconnected themes from high school history and math class married so fluently. This trilogy, which is about pirates, Puritans, watered steel swords, Whigs and Tories, slaves, Huguenots, and King Solomon’s gold, among other things, is a work of contagious inspiration.
While weaving through these items, Stephenson shows the precursive conditions and primordial rise of the global financial system and the Industrial Revolution, the transition of what we’d call an ancient society into modernity. By writing his characters first reaction to ideas we take as given, such as paper money or the separation of church and state, he illuminates the departure from norm these changes represented. And by making real the mistakes and trepidatious experimenting of the individuals who wrought these changes, he demonstrates how these transitions were far from foregone conclusions.
The trilogy ends in a world different in many significant ways from where it started, and on the brink of shifts even more profound.
As a student of the sustainability crisis, part of the book’s thrill was watching intelligent, courageous characters fight to bring about changes that will after hundreds of years, lead us into the world-threatening challenge we face now. The Apocalypse is taken very seriously by certain characters in the book, in a John’s Revelations sort of sense. There is a nail-biting, dread-summoning excitement to see them stress the End of Days, and work through how to build steam engines and exploit the burgeoning financial system at the same time. It’s like watching a horror movie and yelling “Don’t go in that room! What are you thinking?” at the screen.
What are they thinking? They think as we do. They act in response to individuals and institutions wielding inordinate power. Power arising from sources that are cruel, obsolete, invalid. They envision technology and new forms of economic exchange (finance) as means to redistribute the power held by kinds and entrenched nobility. And in a world where birthright is the main decider of freedom and quality of life, they aren’t wrong to act.
The modernity they bring about will have the intended effect—within 100 years of the books ending, slavery will be abolished in England, and both France and America will have Revolutions, forever diminishing the divine right of monarchs. Every advancement in human rights in the West is predicated by the increasingly liberal world that begins at the time of the book.
Of course, that’s a shortcoming of fiction- the elements of a good book don’t align exactly with the course of reality. There has to be a clear, tidy resolution to tie a book together at its end. Earth isn’t so clean. Many things before and after, many things unwritten entirely are to blame and praise for where we are. The intersection of individual will and environment makes things happen in a way that can’t be described. Which means as far as we can tell things just happen. With more information not available, it seems impossible to understand exactly how we got here, just as impossible as it is to do anything but trade old problems for new ones as we progress in this manner.
If humanity had a balance sheet you could lock on to any point in history, what would it show? Does any of our progress ever improve the cumulative well being of the world? Do we ever change the ratio, the trade off in our lives between beauty and encumbering pain? Or do the things that get better and the things that get worse still always equal the same? I submit this collective judgment is what we are now fighting to avoid. Only on the day where the last conscious organism fails from existence will anyone be sure what it all adds up to. Until that time we will just have to accept that all of our solutions will be imperfect and will never work for everyone always.
This simultaneously calms and enlivens me. The modernization of the world wasn’t a bid for utopia, just for something better. It was never meant to last longer than it was useful. We are not starting over, we are part of the same continuum of concerned but limited individuals working on the system of the world. Our solutions can never be perfect forever. But we are beholden to the Natural Philosophers of the past and those unborn to keep the problem-solving work going. This work in our communities is part of something, the same thread that has moved through our culture since we began planting full-time and domesticating animals. So don’t treat organizing as a departure, don’t feel isolated from history in this time of change. If you are trying to build a better way to live for yourself and others, you are approaching the same problem as the greatest thinkers throughout history. They have each handed someone a torch, doing the best they could in the most reasonable direction, with faith that there would be people like them who could carry the world’s work forward where they left off.
And at this point in our lives a torch may be handed to us. Don’t be confused or ashamed when called by a feeling to change the world. It is natural to our species. Take it and make the most of the light. So much has been built all ready, so much to do, no one to blame, yet everyone is responsible. Don’t shy away. The world has been created to help you see what needs to be done next, it is yours and you will change it whether you like it or not. Hopefully it works. But truthfully you will never know. And that’s okay.