Sunday, June 14, 2020

The End is Always Near

Our society is seemingly on a path where continued improvements (at least in absolute terms, on average) are the norm. It can feel as though this process can go on forever, or at least as long as the span of our lifetimes. But such feelings have occurred before, in different societies, and been very wrong. In The End Is Always Near, Dan Carlin takes us through what went wrong (or almost did) in a number of societies that preceeded ours.

The Roman Empire is probably the most common society that comes to mind. But there were a number of others, which eventually fell to plagues, wars and combinations of the two, and Carlin goes into detail on a number of them. He then looks at some near misses within our own society, specifically when all-out nuclear war was very much on the table in the decades that followed World War II.

My only criticism is that he left a lot of societies out. All the examples he used were of European states or their ancestors, whereas I would have appreciated a look through a similar lens at groups like the Aztecs, Mongols, Chinese and Indian kingdoms to name a few. It's possible that there are just more records available about the 1500 BC era Assyrians than any of these societies, but I find that hard to believe!

As a result, it's not exactly a cross-sectional book about how societies met their ends (which is what I expected), but rather more a book about historical European transitions from empire to empire. Nevertheless, it gave me a real sense of the fragility of our society. One day it will end. Would we see it coming? Are there steps we should (not) take to avoid our demise? To be honest, I'm not sure the book helped me answer any of those questions. But to be fair, those are probably very difficult questions to answer.

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